DARLING in the FRANXX
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 17 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
In a way, I feel responsible for all of this. Last week, I was very critical of DARLING in the FRANXX for spinning its wheels and failing to do anything meaningful with all the narrative and thematic breadcrumbs that the show has been patiently doling out for seventeen weeks now. I asked DARLING in the FRANXX to get a move on and finally start telling us what this story is all about, and boy did I ever get my wish. “Eden” is a Monkey's Paw scenario if ever there was one: An episode that finally had something to say, though nearly everything it said was bad news. Yet somehow still “Eden” also manages to come across as frustratingly reserved and noncommittal, a perfect example of how DARLING in the FRANXX is all too willing to string its audience along with mystery-box style teases and dramatic bombshells without ever having the wherewithal to actually do anything with them.
The biggest and most fully addressed thread of “Eden” sees DARLING finally paying off Kokoro's baby-fever; after failing to seduce Mitsuru in the greenhouse where she's always toying with his hair, Kokoro's baby book finds its way into the hands of Nine Alpha and his crew, who decide to confront her over her taboo self-education in front of everyone in the squad. This confrontation is the central cog around which every other major development of the week revolves, so I'll break them down individually:
1. Nine Alpha and Kokoro engage in a heated debate about the necessity of gender, procreation, and the gratification of emotional desire in human beings. Kokoro is obviously in favor of these constructs and functions, while Nines expresses his firm belief that gender and everything involved with sex and reproduction are simply outmoded remnants of an inferior humankind.2. Later, Hachi and Nana confront Kokoro and essentially reinforce Alpha's statements – While Kokoro believes that her sexuality and emotions are proof that her desire to have a child is essential to her being human, the others insist that the kids retain those organs and instincts simply because they are necessary for piloting FRANXX.
3. Before and after this confrontation, Mitsuru is trying to deal with Kokoro's desire to get down and dirty with him, which is an understandably confusing and upsetting development for the boy who has only recently gotten over his years-old hate-crush for Hiro. Hiro is actually the one to convince Mitsuru that the recent developments in his relationship with Kokoro could only mean that he loves her, and Mitsuru seemingly confirms this when he sleeps with Kokoro at the end of the episode. Regardless of whether Mitsuru truly is closeted gay, or if he would identify more as being closer to bisexual or pan, his tryst with Kokoro seems to be DARLING's way of showing that all of its characters' emotional turmoil can be quieted by committing to some good old-fashioned monogamous baby making.
This is where it would seem that DARLING in the FRANXX has laid all of its cards on the table, and if I'm being honest, I have a lot of problems with the hand the series is playing. Even if I were to avoid the major reservations I have over the over-simplified and reductionist take on gender and sexuality going on here, I wouldn't necessarily fault the show for wanting to tell a story about the joy and value that comes with engaging in healthy heterosexual romance. This would, after all, be one of the central tenets of thousands of works of fiction, stretching back across the whole of human history, across most every culture.
No, the core flaw of this approach is not that DARLING's staunch devotion to lionizing heteronormativity feels misguided and fatally lacking in self-awareness; it's that this devotion is apparently in service of a larger allegory that still isn't coherent seventeen episodes into the story. In order for DARLING in the FRANXX to be a deep and incisive commentary on gender relations, it would need to function as a reaction to something actually happening in the real world, be it a global cultural movement or something that specifically resonates with a Japanese audience. The most obvious reading of DARLING's intent would be as a kind of pro-procreation piece in reaction to issues such as Japan's dangerously low rate of birthrate and dwindling marriage numbers. However, the society of DARLING in the FRANXX isn't just representative of what might happen to a society that stops having children. This is a world that has completely disavowed the trappings of gender constructs and cast off the emotional and biological need for sex entirely, with only the monstrous Klaxosaurs around to represent the biological necessity of getting busy and making babies.
This leads me to ask: Is DARLING in the FRANXX concerned about whether or not people are getting married and having children, or is it instead focused on whether or not women are behaving and presenting as Ideal, Childbearing Women™, and that men are serving as the equivalent "ideal" for their gender? Those are two very different ideas, and if DARLING in the FRANXX is truly saying that the former concept is dependent on the latter, for me this series will have finally crumbled under the weight of muddied ideas at best, and at worst disproportionately paranoid themes that react to a perceived threat against a patriarchal status quo that doesn't exist in the same way DARLING in the FRANXX is presenting it.
For a show to root itself in potentially disagreeable politics is not detrimental to the quality of the work in many other regards, but the problem is that DARLING has been so vague and noncommittal in its writing even now that any of this could change at any moment. The villainous gender-deconstructionist Nine Alpha could be revealed to be a secret ally of humanity by the end of things; Mitsuru could still end up acting on his feelings for Hiro; Ikuno's clear homosexuality could even become the key to representing a more nuanced understanding of human sexuality. Usually, serialized science-fiction benefits from a judicious delivery of key plot points and the tactical use of cliffhangers and misdirection, but in a show like DARLING in the FRANXX, where thematic consistency and clarity feels paramount, relying so much on surprise and ambiguity hurts the series more than it helps.
There's even more that I could get into, from Hiro's growing horns to the confrontation between APE and the Princess Klaxosaur midway through the episode, but these are just more teases for story threads that might take until the end of the series to pay off (if then). For better or worse, “Eden” was all about taking time to clarify the underlying message of DARLING in the FRANXX and set up for the show's ideological endgame. At the same time, the series' nebulous approach to plotting and world-building have left all of these ideas adrift in a moor of uncertainty, and this lack of narrative context raises some questions about what is coming next, especially as the Princess of the Klaxosaurs is poised to provide a voice for the series' most enigmatic figures.
DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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