by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 9 of
For all of Babylon's very questionable storytelling decisions, its saunter across the sea to America may be the moment it has jumped the shark one too many times for its own good. I don't know why this development more than any other has caused me to come down do hard on the show – after all, it isn't like Babylon wasn't already dipping its toes into the territory of schlock pulp with its treatment of Ai Magase, or the over-the-top way in which it murdered 80% of its entire cast. Maybe it is because that kind of weirdness isn't too far afield from what I've come to expect from my anime, so it was easier to focus on what the show was doing well in spite of its own foibles.
For the past two episodes, though, I've found it increasingly difficult to take Babylon's pretensions seriously, and I think a lot of it has to do with the story bringing its particular brand of ridiculousness to my home turf. It's a bias that I can't really ignore or escape, since the nuances of the Japanese political and cultural conversation have doubtless been mangled by plenty of anime that have come before this one, but as an American, it is much more difficult for me to overlook the story's flimsy setup in the context of a setting I'm more personally familiar with. Last week, we learned that America's nerdy gamer president, Arthur Wood, is dealing with the spread of Kaika Itsuki's intellectual contagion to American shores. Benicio Flores, the mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, has enacted his own version of the suicide law, and Wood has to figure out the correct path to deal with it. I already noted my issues with the show's understanding of the American political system: Such a law would be something handled by Connecticut's state legislature, and even if we were to believe that Flores pushed through the local legislation as more of a political statement than anything else, I'm fairly certain that the matter would be handled by the State government before the President had any right or reason to step in. If Wood's cabinet were trying to quell a more national movement, or even debating the merits of making some kind of public statement, I would buy this conflict a lot more, but nope. Wood, ever the cautious and cerebral problem solver, basically gives Flores the go ahead to continue his experiment, but also warns that he can just use Executive Privilege to straight up send the U.S. military to Connecticut to…well, I'm not exactly sure. Enact martial law, depose Flores, and illegally install a new Mayor?
The stakes upon which this episode is founded don't hold water is what I'm getting at, and it only gets worse when Zen arrives with his FBI escort to fill the President in on Ai Magase's nefarious scheming. Never mind that the FBI and the Cabinet seemingly buy into Zen's claims about the evil shape-shifting seductress who is trying to get the whole world to kill itself or whatever – the most ridiculous thing that happens here is that Wood gets convinced to use his Executive Powers to just install Zen as an active FBI agent, completely overruling the background checks and hundreds of hours of field experience Zen would need to join traditionally, not to mention the fact that he's a non-citizen with a career history that must look just a little bit bizarre to any outside observers.
Babylon just hand-waves this completely unnecessary development, along with any of the logistical or ethical problems Wood managed to smash into over the course of just a few minutes, and moves on to more procedural investigations of Flores' possible connections to Ai. Now, I may be completely ignorant to the workings of my own governmental systems, and this is a story that is meant for a Japanese audience that likely gets most of its understanding of how American politics works from Hollywood movies and brief international news clips, but I just can't buy any of this. Why Babylon ever felt the need to leave the confines of Shiniki I will likely never know, because whatever benefits come from making Kaika and Ai's suicide debate into an international conversation are outweighed by the show's inability to handle such an expansion in scope.
Also, the Flores stuff is fairly limp, so it isn't like the show's usual skill at making procedural investigations so compelling is here to lift up all of the weak material. Zen and Sam Hardy make their way to a hospice that Flores was visiting earlier and conveniently, enough it turns out the building has digital records of every call that comes through the building as a matter of policy. Why? Who knows, but it gets the men to the final scene of the episode, where we hear Ai impersonating one of the women Flores visited for a photo op, and she gives her usual hypnotic diatribe about life being meaningless, God not existing, and the afterlife being a total fantasy. There's a kind of neat trick here where Ai's voice talks to Flores and Zen at the same time, but I'm honestly kind of tired of Ai's shtick. Babylon is in desperate need of direction, because it can't coast on Ai's Lady Joker routine for much longer without decontextualizing it into something more interesting than a cheap ploy to get the characters and the audience to distrust literally every woman that comes into frame. Ever since Ai's backstory got revealed, I've been worried that Babylon would trip over its own ideas in an attempt to seem smarter than it actually is, and the red flags just keep piling up. At this point, I'm just hoping the conclusion keeps the embarrassment and missed opportunities to an absolute minimum.
Odds and Ends
• Amazon's subtitling was especially wonky this week, since none of the on-screen text got translated at all. There's one beat in particular where Zen gets a text message that I had to scour Twitter and Reddit forums to find an answer to. The good (or may it's bad) news is that the conversation isn't all that important: According to multiple folks who claim more proficiency in Japanese than I can muster, it's another one of Ai's silly ethical riddles. “What makes killing children inherently good or bad?” is what it apparently boils down to, which can only mean that the death flags on Zen's family are getting bigger and brighter by the day.
• I can't stop laughing at how Wood's go-to routine to escape the stress of being the President of the United States is to go grind in a PC MMO that, based on its graphics, has apparently maintained its popularity and user base for a solid couple of decades.
• The phone call Ai makes is filled with these very conspicuous static bursts. Are these the secret to her hypnotic powers? Why would that even be a thing when the show has made it clear that her physical presence alone is all that is needed to drive men insane? What does any of this have to do with her ability to change her physical form to such a degree that even cameras and video recordings capture it? Everything about Ai is giving me a migraine, and it only seems to be getting sillier by the week.
Babylon is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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