DARLING in the FRANXX
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 18 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
There's a lot to cover in this week's DARLING in the FRANXX, but I would like to start with Ikuno; most of “When the Sakura Blooms” is concerned with an impromptu wedding for Mitsuru and Kokoro, but I think the brief detour with Ikuno and Ichigo is the key to understanding what makes this episode such a frustrating and disappointing experience. After 18 weeks of serving as little more than a background character, the textbook Token Lesbian who suffers in silence while the object of her affections wrestles with an Anime Love Triangle, Ikuno finally gets the chance to express her long-repressed feelings for Ichigo. It's an emotional scene that shows off the confident cinematography and lush lighting that has given DARLING in the FRANXX such a cinematic feel. To the show's credit, Ikuno is absolutely framed as sympathetic, a frustrated outsider in a system that alienates people like her, whose feelings are absolutely divorced from the heterosexually driven system that powers the machines they operate.
When taken as a single snippet of animation, divorced from the burden of the series' greater context, this scene represents DARLING's best aesthetic instincts, and I could even appreciate the honesty with which it approaches Ikuno's raw grief at the way the system has told her that her feelings aren't valid. However, as the climax to nearly five months of buildup, Ikuno's Big Scene falls apart on a number of levels, starting with its utter failure to depict Ikuno's entire identity as anything more than a schoolgirl crush that she will have to grow out of, with Ichigo's blessing. Even as Ikuno is breaking down in tears over how much pain it causes her to be in love with another girl, all Ichigo can think is “Oh, she's just like how I used to be.” (In other words: “Her intense anger and self-loathing over the world's total disregard for her sexual identity is exactly like that time I crushed on a dude who wasn't into me!”).
I can't help but take this false equivocation as a distressing sign of how little interest or understanding FRANXX's writers seem to have for the lives or experiences of queer people. Ichigo definitely doesn't reciprocate Ikuno's feelings, but instead of honestly communicating this to her distressed friend, Ichigo just pats Ikuno's head and tells her that everyone has their weird quirk to bear, so they can relate on that level, and everything will be okay somehow because of that. After months of stringing the audience along with not-so-subtle indications that Ikuno's sexuality was going to provide complications for the FRANXX system's libido-powered system, all we get is the usual Class-S cliché of the lesbian girl being told that she will eventually get over her “abnormal” feelings. No amount of performative empathy for Ikuno's plight can make this development feel any less tired and underwhelming.
The real issue isn't even the show's predictably crummy treatment of its one confirmed queer character (we'll get to Mitsuru in a bit); rather, DARLING in the FRANXX has again proven its remarkable talent for devoting an enormous amount of time and energy to saying very little of substance or meaning. What was the point of building up Ikuno's same-sex attraction for over three-quarters of the series' runtime if all DARLING was going to do was rip off the most standard third-wheel-girl-crush-deferred from any given romance anime? Why would a series whose central themes revolve around gender, sexuality, and the power of adolescent relationships pretend to give a damn about the plight of queer characters living in a heteronormative system if its only response was going to be a halfhearted shrug?
That same willful disinterest brings us to Mitsuru and Kokoro's big wedding, which is such a tone-deaf way to cap off both of these characters' arcs that I couldn't help but laugh at it. There's a real tragedy at play seeing these doomed kids imitate a ritual of romance and societal commitment that they just barely comprehend, but DARLING can only grasp the surface-level tension of the situation. I honestly care less about Mitsuru's rushed and sloppy character development than I do about how much of this episode is swallowed by unbearable levels of saccharinity. For just a taste of how much Hiro and Zero Two's relationship has devolved into intolerably twee pablum, at one-point DARLING has them literally grab hands and laugh like maniacs while spinning in a circle, while superimposed text echoes Hiro's cloying inner monologue. This is the kind of silly visual shorthand that spoofs of romance stories would consider embarrassingly obvious, but DARLING plays it absolutely straight. It also has the gall to have Futoshi volunteer to officiate the ceremony, which might work fine in a better series, but here it just feels like a needlessly cruel joke played on a boy whose sole character trait has been "He's fat, so nobody wants to ‘pilot’ with him."
It's all so aggravatingly earnest that I actually found myself sighing in relief when Nine Alpha and APE's goons finally came kicking down the door to arrest everyone for having the audacity to...feel things, I guess? The exact reason for APE and the Nines' consternation is still unclear, since even in its final quarter, the show hasn't actually bothered to provide motivations for either of its ostensible antagonist groups. Outside of some meaningless mumbo jumbo about “wanting to live forever”, both APE and the Klaxosaurs remain as mysterious as they were when the series began. Even the episode's Big Twist, where Kokoro and Mitsuru get their memories of each other erased, doesn't resonate properly because it mostly just reminds me of how much the plot has fallen apart over the last few weeks. If APE can just reprogram the Parasites' memories at any time, then why wouldn't they do that for all of the Parasites, to keep their dangerous ideas from spreading? Dr. Franxx's schemes are apparently the source of Squad 13's deviation from APE's accepted parameters, but we still have no clue what his plans are or why we should care.
Right now, I don't know what's bringing DARLING in the FRANXX down more: that its themes have become so trite and shallow, or that the story still hasn't cleared up its plot or antagonist after 18 episodes. I've been doing my best to give DARLING the benefit of the doubt, praising its achievements while holding its failures at arm's length, all in the desperate hope that it might end up having something, anything, worthwhile to say. After “When the Sakura Blooms” though, I don't know how many more chances I can give. More than anything, I'm sad to see a gorgeously produced series squander so much of its potential on lame plotting, shallow characterization, and a story that feels bogged down by truly ignorant and closed-minded ideas. I would love nothing more than for DARLING to prove me wrong in the coming weeks and become the thoughtful and creative sci-fi romp that people had hoped for. If it does, then I'll be the first one to swallow my words in these reviews, but at this point I've finally ceased holding my breath.
DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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