The Villain in the Mirror: Subaru Natsuki and Betelgeuseby Nicholas Dupree,
Natsuki Subaru is an absolute train wreck of a human being. He is a Gordian knot of anxieties packed inside an ego as fragile as it is defensive, wrapped within the confines of a vicious inferiority complex, and all held within a brain self-aware enough to recognize these faults but rarely capable of constructively addressing them. Through the first season of Re:ZERO -Starting Life in Another World- he is routinely impulsive, presumptuous, clueless, insensitive, and selfish, either concurrent or consecutive. Though he is often well-meaning, his shortsighted perspective and habit to act first and ask questions never can make him a total chore of a person to deal with, especially for object of his affection, Emilia. He is a mess, and if you're in his proximity he will almost assuredly become your mess to clean up sooner rather than later.
I don't say all this to roast Subaru – though that is certainly a perk – but to establish just who he is as a character and protagonist within the world of Re:Zero. The defining feature that makes the series standout among its brethren is that, Subaru is very much the typical otaku lead, his character arc bears little resemblance to his isekai peers. He's given a special power, but he never gets the fantasy of being an over-leveled Otakubermensch like his contemporaries, nor is he transported to a fantasy world where he already knows all the rules and history because it just so happens to be exactly like his favorite video game. Subaru is very much adrift in a world that has existed outside of him for eons and will continue to long after he dies for good, whenever that may be. His story, at least so far, is not one of mastering the powers of this new world and becoming its greatest hero, but instead is about slowly picking away at his own flaws to become a version of himself at least slightly capable of embodying his fantasies of heroism.
That point is perhaps not readily apparent in the first half of the season 1. Subaru does learn some valuable lessons about asking for help, and how being friendly and inserting himself into others' lives isn't the same as earning trust. But it's when Subaru hits his lowest point that the real aim of Re:Zero becomes apparent. Our hero spends two episodes cramming himself into every moment of Emilia's royal selection, in spite of her constant requests that he not get involved because he has next to no understanding of the complex political forces at play. This leads to him trampling on the toes of every other person in the room, eliciting a knightly asskicking and subsequent hospital stay courtesy of Julius, the guy Subaru erroneously thinks is trying to steal his Not-Girlfriend. Finally fed up with seeing Subaru hurl himself into near-death for her sake regardless of her pleas not to, Emilia decides to break off their nebulous companionship before he gets himself killed “for her sake” or otherwise.
And then the other shoe drops.
Of Subaru's many spiky personality points, he's rarely ever malicious. He can be petty, rude, and deliberately insulting when he feels threatened, but this is one of the few moments where a truly ugly side of him comes to the surface. Somewhere along the way of imprinting on Emilia like a baby duckling, he internalized the idea that all this would be worth it once he threw himself into enough danger to win Emilia's heart. So when she rejects that logic as the codependency it is, he snaps, and from there spirals for episodes on end. What follows is a good 100-odd minutes of Subaru doubling down on his worst impulses, taking the slightest rejections as personal betrayals, and running headlong into his own destruction exactly how Emilia feared he would. And it's in the midst of this chaos that Subaru meets his match.
Betelgeuse, Archbishop of Sin, representing Sloth, is a walking nightmare. A gleeful sadist who can only recognize his violence as the natural will of the universe, because the pain he inflicts is merely the inherent consequence of anyone getting between him and the woman he's dedicated himself to serving. He's pernicious and cruel, but in the way that a child might be toward an insect, incapable of recognizing the humanity of anyone he's deemed an enemy – or even an ally in the case of his “Fingers.” Despite all this he's rarely angry, often delivering vicious injury with a smile on his face, admiring the diligence of those who would stand and crumble before him. The only time he truly gets furious is when someone presumes to be more worthy of the attention he seeks from Satella, the Witch of Envy whom he has claimed as his, and his alone.
In other words he's Subaru in about 5 years.
I see no difference.
Okay, not exactly. Subaru fortunately proves capable of overcoming his darkest point, but the parallels are certainly there for anyone looking. One can easily imagine a timeline where, given the time to fester, his faults could turn supremely toxic and twist themselves into the cultish obsession of Betelgeuse. Subaru's most profound flaw is a self-centered moral compass, where he views everyone around him in terms of what they can or will do for him. He originally fell in love with Emilia because she was the first person to treat him kindly in this new world, and he routinely interprets rejection as a personal slight against him, like when Crusch initially refuses to assist him in fighting the Witch Cult. There are plenty of understandable reasons for why she declines – it's a dangerous mission to help a political rival, she has no reason to believe it's not a trap from Subaru, and she's also busy with her own quest to destroy the White Whale – but all that registers with Subaru is that she's being mean and not helping him with something important, thus she becomes an enemy and he storms out of negotiations. That same resentment rears its head towards Emilia once she rejects him; despite her doing it for his own good, Subaru can't process it as anything besides betrayal. She's supposed to be his heroine, the woman he serves by being her hero, and her refusing to play that role means there's something wrong with her.
That same possessiveness is what drives Betelgeuse. We're not yet privy (in the anime, at least) to just why he's so madly devoted to Satella or why he thinks murdering Emilia is what she wants, but in the end that doesn't really matter, because in truth none of this is actually for Satella. It's for Betelgeuse, and Betelgeuse alone. He wants her love, whatever that entails, and every body-swapping, every gruesome murder, every bit of self-mutilation is just a stepping stone to get what he is owed, what he deserves. Subaru eventually realizes this, and figures out the only way to stop Betelgeuse is to deliver him to his destined heroine, and hit him where it hurts. Thus the story arc's villain ends up right where our hero was at its start: despondent, resentful, and viciously lashing out at whoever he decides is responsible for it.
The lingering question is just how Subaru might avoid becoming the twisted specter of entitled, possessive “love” he narrowly manages to exorcise. That's where perhaps the most talked about scene in the entire anime comes into play. After his 3rd failed attempt to stop the Witch Cult ends with Subaru indirectly killing Emilia, our hero hits absolute rock bottom and tries to just book it out of the narrative entirely, taking his Emotional Support Maid with him.
There's plenty to be mined from this scene in regards to themes of self-awareness, actualization, and codependency, but the pivotal moment comes as Subaru lays bare all of the things he hates about himself, only to be rebuffed by Rem listing off the facets that made her fall in love with him. It's a heavy, layered scene that's been turned into a meme about Rem getting rejected, but what's key here is that it's the first time Subaru is able to recognize and internalize someone else's perspective. He (and the audience) may be hyper-aware of all his myriad failings, but that doesn't mean he is doomed to be defined by them, or that he's incapable of growing. There are positive, worthwhile, endearing parts of him that have nothing to do with his failings. What he has to do, what he must continue doing, is to acknowledge, address, and tackle those faults head-on.
In the remainder of season one he does a pretty good job of it, all told. He's not perfect– still holds a grudge against Julius despite bringing that whooping entirely on himself – but the Subaru we see in these closing episodes is a far cry from the needy ball of bitterness and raw nerves he started the arc as. Not only does he negotiate an alliance with two of Emilia's royal rivals, but he begins to finally act the hero he's wanted to be from the start, taking calculated risks in pivotal points in the fight against the White Whale. He even manages to make peace with Julius eventually, trusting him in a partnership that allows them to take out Betelgeuse once and for all.
Paramount to all of that, he finally reunites with Emilia, as safe and sound as either of them can ever really get, and that's when Subaru takes his first, biggest step across the threshold.
For the first time in 25 episodes, Subaru sincerely owns up to his own mistakes. He doesn't do it out of self-flagellation or a play for sympathy or even as a request for forgiveness, but as an honest acknowledgment of his faults and a promise to do better. It's a pretty stunning sequence, all told, and perhaps the first genuinely romantic moment of either character's journey. Rem and Subaru claim his epiphany is him starting again from zero, but in a sense this is the real moment of his new start. The path ahead of them is perilous and assuredly painful, but from here Subaru and Emilia can finally start moving forward together and face those dangers as equal companions, be it as romantic partners or stalwart friends.
...okay it's a bit of a work in progress.
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