DARLING in the FRANXX
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 15 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
When it's operating at peak performance, DARLING in the FRANXX can be a superbly directed and loving pastiche of classic mecha tropes, succeeding despite its many questionable storytelling decisions. I'm happy to report that “Jiang” is DARLING in the FRANXX at its best, offering a significant step up from last week's messy events to deliver an incredibly satisfying combination of popcorn spectacle and entertaining sci-fi romance. The only major issue with this otherwise stellar episode is the baggage that comes from this darned show being such a thematic mess.
For example, in the battle to retake the Gran Crevasse from the Klaxosaurs, the Nines are revealed to have upended the Pistil-Stamen dynamic, with the female pilots asserting the “dominant” position over the male ones. This changeup in the Parasite relationship dynamic is one that fans have been questioning for months, but quickly implying that the Nines are the only ones to have done it leaves more questions hanging in the air than answers. The primary concern is that the Nines have been framed as alien to Squad 13 from the get-go, with Nine Alpha's behavior coming across as nearly antagonistic. This episode also sees the male Parasites sprouting small horns as they assume the more submissive permission, which only further draws the comparison between them and Zero Two's more Klaxosaur-derived characteristics, so I'm not sure if we're supposed to see the Nines' inversion of the status quo as something intriguing or admirable, or if it's meant to come off as perverse and off-putting.
Speaking of the pilots' relationships to their inhuman enemies, this episode also confirms that the cores powering the Klaxosaurs are of human origin, and the “Saurification” dialogue from last week would seem to confirm the theory that the humans in question were Parasites. The post-credits scene also has a human-seeming Klaxosaur hand emerging from the Earth to claim the remaining Klaxosaur eggs, and this is where things get tricky. Kokoro's arc has already been used to broach the subject of motherhood, and the Klaxosaurs have been framed multiple times as creatures heavily concerned with their offspring. This episode also does other things to reinforce the notion that a woman being put in a position of power and dominance over her male partner is somehow alien or dangerous; in the Nines's case, it comes as a subtextual to their untrustworthy characters, but Zero Two's situation is much more explicit. Her self-centered approach to “piloting” with random men has left her unable to suppress her inhuman qualities, and only when she finally affirms her love for her true “darling” can she regain her human faculties and help pilot the Strelizia to victory.
So is the big reveal really going to be that Klaxosaurs are somehow the evolution or even offspring of female Parasites that have completely lost control of their FRANXX? It's hard to say at this point, though I really hope that isn't the case. Given that Hiro was last week's candidate for Saurification, I'm at least thinking that women aren't the only ones at risk for turning into rampaging, baby-crazy, destructive monsters, but the way the show is handling its take on gender relations and relationships continues to be disconcerting. And with the way that plot crumbs are being conservatively delivered in this show, it's still impossible to get a bead on where this series is headed for sure. At this point, DARLING in the FRANXX could still be about anything or nothing at all.
The most frustrating thing about all of this is that, when you stop trying to think about all that stuff, this episode is absurdly entertaining. Squad Thirteen's fight to retake the Gran Crevasse is an epic battle, featuring the slick animation, dynamic camera angles, and generally snappy directing that DARLING tends to pull out whenever the Klaxosaurs come around. Most effective is the episode's brooding color palette and use of sharp contrasts and strong lighting. Watching episodes like “Jiang”, I'm always reminded of how much work the crews of A-1 Pictures and Studio Trigger put into the little details that help the whole production feel cinematic.
The episode climaxes with Hiro and Zero Two coming back together in the final act, in a sublime example of storytelling and direction coming together beautifully, so long as you ignore the questionable ideas surrounding their reunion. For one thing, Ichigo got a surprisingly quick turnaround on her redemption arc, as she finally let go of her love for Hiro and helped him fight to reach Zero Two. While both Ichigo's change of heart and Hiro's sudden ability to synchronize with her feel like undercooked payoffs, I'll be glad to see the fandom hopefully cool their jets on all the Ichigo criticism after this.
It's all worth it to get Hiro back in Strelizia's pilot seat, and I will admit that I never expected to be so engaged with this reunion. This is largely due to how episode 13 raised the emotional stakes for their relationship in general, helping both Hiro and Zero Two rise above the familiar tropes that have defined their characters for so long. It also helps that the sequence was fantastically produced, with the use of the “Kiss of Death” theme being particularly effective. I couldn't help but grin as the two flew triumphantly toward the stars and tearfully announced their love for one another, fully buying into the moment while still acknowledging how silly it was when you stopped to think about it.
This is part of what makes this show such a strangely divisive viewing experience. DARLING in the FRANXX remains a uniquely frustrating experience when it comes to addressing whatever themes and ideas underlie all of its spectacle and romantic bombast, but it's so ridiculously earnest and entertaining that it bypasses the logic and reason centers of my brain in the moment. It strikes directly at my inner anime-obsessed teenager, back to a time when a series' quality was measured directly in proportion to how many cool explosions and melodramatically romantic moments it could pack into a single episode. Someday, DARLING in the FRANXX might be able to justify Adult James' reservations and misgivings, but for now I'm willing to put a pin in the series' many questionable elements and enjoy the spectacle on its own merits.
DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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