DARLING in the FRANXX
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 20 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
“A New World” sees DARLING in the FRANXX hurtling madly and defiantly into its endgame, setting up the true final battle that will certainly see our Parasites pushed beyond their breaking points. This is also one of DARLING's last chances to pick up the pieces following the sloppy and disheartening mess of an infodump that “Inhumanity” delivered in the previous episode. So with half a year's worth of buildup propelling it forward, what is the next big play that DARLING in the FRANXX will hedge its bets on before the final climax?
Well, as it turns out, the big twist is “It was aliens the whole time!” The Klaxosaur Princess and her army of robo-dinosaur things are actually the last remnants of a species that ruled the Earth long before humans came around, until an evil race of extraterrestrials known as the VIRM waged a war against them that was devastating enough to drive them underground. One faction of these “Klaxo Sapiens” evolved into the monstrous entities that the Parasites have been fighting for so long, the Klaxosaurs. According to Dr. FRANXX, the other subset of Klaxo Sapiens somehow “returned to the Earth and became energy”, meaning that the “magma” at the source of this entire conflict would probably be more accurately described as Klaxosaur Juice. APE was fully aware of this because they were secretly VIRM agents all along, and when they discard their masks to assume their true alien form, they also initiate a self-destruct sequence within Dr. FRANXX's aptly named magnum opus, Star Entity, which will be powerful enough to destroy the entire planet.
Overall, this ludicrous development can be most easily summed up as DARLING in the FRANXX's riff on the big Anti-Spiral reveal from Gurren Lagann, though the show also manages to sneak in yet another heavy-handed homage to Evangelion when the Parasites learn that the FRANXX have been built from Klaxosaur components this entire time. This particular aspect of the reveal is one of the least surprising turns in the story, and while it could be argued that it makes the Doctor's lack of knowledge for how to operate the FRANXX from last week slightly less stupid in hindsight, it's yet another too-direct allusion that backfires by giving us a direct comparison to much better execution of similar ideas. Setting aside that DARLING has been aping Evangelion at every turn since it started, this “twist” holds none of the emotional or thematic impact that its inspiration commanded over twenty years ago; it just feels like another item in a long checklist of hollow shout-outs, making DARLING in the FRANXX feel even more like a groupie to its inspiration than it did before.
The introduction of the VIRM is admittedly less predictable, but that's mostly because the show has done a terrible job of telegraphing this shift in its plot focus. I've seen some more favorable comparisons between this episode and the equally late-game turns of many Gainax and TRIGGER series, specifically Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill, but I take umbrage with these comparisons because those series' absurd climaxes took advantage of their show's infinitely more whimsical and chaotic tones. DARLING in the FRANXX is so self-serious about almost everything that it makes TRIGGER's usual structure of extreme late-game escalation feel completely out of place. If the show had more properly seeded the elements of this conflict earlier on, and if the VIRM had arrived earlier than the final act of the show's run, then this might be an easier pill to swallow. As it stands, I have a hard time believing that DARLING will be able to make this dramatic shift in focus feel earned.
So there are still major issues with DARLING's big-picture writing, but the episodic storytelling and character writing fare a little better this week. Outside of Hiro and Zero Two, the other Parasites have little to do but act bewildered; they don't know how to deal with Kokoro's sudden bout of morning sickness, and they're quickly hamstrung into fighting the Klaxosaurs and defending Star Entity. The group does get a token moment of defiance when they stand up to the Nines and voice their dissent against APE's machinations, but the VIRM reveal makes it all feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. At the very least, this episode offers the first FRANXX/Klaxosaur fight we've seen in ages, and it's certainly entertaining enough. Even though DARLING in the FRANXX's writing has gone bananas over the past month, it still looks good and provides satisfying spectacle when necessary.
Hiro and Zero Two's arc this week also offers its own brand of superficially entertaining melodrama, with the Klaxosaur Princess invading the base, kidnapping Hiro, and tossing Zero Two aside so she can wage war against VIRM with Strelizia. It's all well animated and directed, and I can even appreciate Klaxie's role as a monstrous antihero. It's just a shame that her character design makes her feel more like an object to be ogled than anything else, and beyond her intriguing role on paper, her actual character has just been handled poorly in the few appearances she's made before this point. I'm also not a big fan of how bluntly DARLING is foreshadowing Zero Two's future, going so far as to have Zero Two explicitly call back to the final page of her picture book, where the Princess disappears and the Prince is left alone. Now, DARLING could be attempting to pull a bait and switch where our heroes ultimately get a less tragic ending, but the show has done little to reassure me that the most obvious answer foreshadowed by the OP sequence won't end up being the correct one (sudden alien invasion notwithstanding).
Despite being more entertaining and better directed than “Inhumanity”, “A New World” isn't any less of a mess than its predecessor in a macro sense. The VIRM reveal and APE's subsequent betrayal don't just come across as hackneyed and ridiculous, they also call into question the importance of every other aspect of the story that had come before. It's the kind of logic-defying leap into absurdity that might work for more thematically and tonally confident series, but it just doesn't feel right in DARLING's hands. As always, I try to maintain as much hope as I can that the series might be able to wring something positive out of the narrative mess it has made for itself, but it's looking more and more like DARLING in the FRANXX is going to stumble hard across its finish line, if it even makes it there in one piece.
DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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