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Black Butler: Book of Circus
Episode 9

by Rose Bridges,

Black Butler is, at heart, a Faust story. It's about a boy who sells his soul to a demon in order to achieve his own Earthly goal, his eternal fate be (literally) damned. One of the elements that ties all good Faust stories together, and makes them such epic tragedies, is the element of deception. Although the Faust story's demon Mephistopheles traditionally goes after the already-damned, not those who could be saved, there is still some trickery involved—of preying on his Fausts' selfishness, ambition or lusts and hoping they won't look too closely at the fine print. (Even if it's only lying by omission, as with Kyubey in Madoka Magica.) As these lost souls plunge inevitably toward their fates, they rage or go mad when they realize the truth of what they're in for. Their stories usually conclude with their demon dragging them kicking and screaming down to hell, literally or figuratively.

Ciel Phantomhive is the exception to all this. He knows exactly what he signed up for when he agreed to his pact with Sebastian, who even laid it all out for him when Sebastian asked. Ciel knows exactly how his story will end and he accepts this with an eerie serenity. He is okay with this, because he subscribes to the sort of uncompromisingly brutal moral code where this is a fair deal. He has nothing else to live for but his revenge, so why shouldn't he stake all his pawns on this endgame? It's Ciel's drive and his certainty that makes Black Butler such an interesting variation on the Faust story, and it comes across clearly in these last episodes of Black Butler: Book of Circus. "There are only two kinds of people in this world," he tells Joker after Sebastian stabs him. "Those who steal, and those who are stolen from. That's all this is." This is why Ciel is okay with Sebastian stealing his soul in the end, as long as he gets to do some stealing from those who deserve it along the way. It can be a very cynical show, but Black Butler's cynicism is the honest kind where it's a reflection of the lot its characters were unfortunately dealt in life. And in its strange way, it shows how they make meaning out of this: Ciel with his drive for revenge; or the Noah's Ark Circus through their relationships with each other and their Father, and their…well, circus-ing.

But Black Butler is the type of show that will only dwell on the sublime for so long before launching back into the ridiculous. (Often in the same scene, such as when Grell sums up the record of Beast's sad life right before crying over how lucky and undeserving she was to be able to sleep with "Sebas-chan.") It earned its fans through camp and action, and this episode provides plenty of both interspersed with the backstories and tragedy. It begins with more of last episode's fight in the Phantomhive estate, as Ciel's ever-capable servants add Beast and Dagger to the pile of bodies. The use of lighting is strong here, reflecting the darkness of the mansion at night without making it hard for viewers to see what's going on. These scenes are contrasted with the bright lights of the hall where Sebastian and Ciel show down against the dying Lord Kelvin and Joker. Ironically, the mood is often the opposite: madcap fights vs. dramatic soliloquizing. The music helps there, used far better this week, especially in Sebastian and Ciel's scenes. The creators conserved all their energy for this installment, and it shows.

The story employs similar tricks of hand, as it slowly reveals that the seemingly "uninvolved" doctor – who isn't a disabled circus actor, and isn't involved with the group's kidnapping – is the one behind the Book of Circus's most horrifying secret: the children's bones are used to make the prosthetics that he gives to Joker and friends. He's the most Faustian character here, as he coldly dispenses with morality in the name of knowledge and of scientific advancement, and it's the Joker left mad with the revelation of what he's made of—right before Sebastian destroys them both. Ciel is horribly triggered from watching the doctor dismember a child to his own mysterious past, and he crumples against Sebastian and coldly asks him—in one of the most homoerotic, shipper-pandering scenes this season—to kill them all, contrary to the Queen's wishes. Like everyone, she is just a pawn to Ciel, and his own goals are most important. If even the Noah's Ark Circus's innocent child victims must die to preserve what Ciel is after, so be it.

The result of all this is an episode jam-packed with everything that makes this show work—drama and comedy, light and darkness, the camp and the macabre—shoved up against each other as the camera flits between all the scenes of this final chapter of the Book of Circus. And yet, in spite of Sebastian and Ciel literally burning it all down, it isn't the finale. There's still one episode remaining. One loose thread still hangs—that of Doll, Ciel's friend from the Circus who was mysteriously absent from most of the fighting—but it's hard to see how that will be enough to fill the last 20-odd minutes. Though this week's episode mostly succeeded at its multiple contrasting moods without too much tonal whiplash, it feels a bit overstuffed, like it could've been spread out between the last two episodes. That's the worst that can be said, though, of this otherwise satisfying almost-conclusion.

Rating: B+

Black Butler: Book of Circus is currently streaming on Funimation.

Rose is a graduate student in musicology, who has written about anime and many other topics for LGBT site Autostraddle.com and her own blog. She tweets at @composerose.

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