DARLING in the FRANXX
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 21 of
DARLING in the FRANXX ?
For a good portion of its two cours, I could compare DARLING in the FRANXX to a "good" Roland Emmerich movie. These are films like Independence Day or White House Down, which might not necessarily be critical darlings, but they work well as cheesy popcorn fare that allows Emmerich to rise above his own limitations as a storyteller and deliver top-tier bombast with an emotional core that ends up working in the story's favor, even if that core is incredibly silly. However, this last quarter of DARLING episodes has fallen dangerously far into the territory of the bad Roland Emmerich movie; projects like 2012 or Independence Day: Resurgence lack that certain cohesive spark, resulting in soupy messes of meaningless spectacle, inert characters, and borderline nonsensical stories that play to cookie-cutter approximations of human emotion.
Episode 21 of DARLING is by no means irredeemable; it lacks most of the previous episodes' noxious attempts at philosophizing, and now that we've already crossed the dubious line of the “It Was Aliens All Along!” twist, the show has room to roll up its sleeves and commit to the silliness more. Also, many of the cast members are given their moments to be selfless heroes and save the day with the power of love, accompanying more action than we've gotten in weeks. Yet despite all the course correcting going on in “For You, My Darling”, it can't help but be tainted by that sense of cloying treacle that left me feeling hollow by the time the episode was finished.
The episode begins with Hiro desperately trying to bond with the Klaxosaur Princess in the same way he did with Zero Two when she went berserk, but he only ends up delaying the self-destruction of Star Entity (aka Strelizia Apath) for a short while. Hiro has visions of Klaxie's millennia-spanning life, but the dialogue they share doesn't explain much that we haven't already learned, reiterating the history of the Klaxo Sapiens without making them any more interesting as a people. Klaxie herself never grows into anything more than a stylish exposition vendor that gives Zero Two a power-up before dying. Her last words are a lame paean to the power of human relationships, delivered with all the energy of a child being forced to recite a novel's theme from a hastily written book report.
Zero Two and Dr. FRANXX's story this week is equally flaccid. She learns from Dr. FRANXX that she is a clone of the Klaxosaur Princess, and thankfully the episode doesn't try to play up the surprise too much, since that twist has been telegraphed for months now. The real problem is that this segment feels like DARLING running on autopilot, wrapping up character arcs and hitting emotional beats with all the skill and care of checking off a grocery list. When DR. FRANXX sacrifices his arm and expresses his guilt to Zero Two for all the years of torture and experimentation, she smiles and says she's happy with her life, because all of it lead to her being reunited with her “darling”. Dr. FRANXX has been a waste of a character overall, so his last-minute shot at redemption falls flat, and Zero Two's chipper dismissal of his apology only reminds the audience how dull she's become since she and Hiro got together. The episode even tries to cram in some pathos by killing off Klaxie's Snake-o-saur in one of the episode's many acts of self-sacrifice, which is such a blatantly low-effort plea for emotion that I almost had to laugh when it happened.
When it comes to the main Parasites' heroics, the episode thankfully steps up its game. With the human members of APE and the other denizens of the Earth whisked away into space by one of VIRM's magical alien beams, the rest of the Squad has to buckle down and take on the earthbound VIRM squadrons, acting independently for the first time. These battle sequences are decently directed and entertaining enough, and they give the Parasites more impact on the battlefield than they've ever had. When these kids are trying to figure out how to act on their own and survive the VIRM onslaught, DARLING in the FRANXX resembles the best version of itself, from before the writing went out the window and character development got sublimated by hackneyed twists and exposition dumps.
To be fair, a lot of the investment in these moments comes from spending half a year with these characters, so seeing them deal with such a drastic turn of events is bound to elicit some manner of reaction. It's the same reason the gruesome death of the Nines fails to muster any sentiment whatsoever; they're non-characters, castoff remnants of Zero Two's DNA that have never been given personalities or motivations beyond being The Jerk Pilots. That DARLING thinks it can make their deaths seem meaningful by making them as unpleasant and violent as possible speaks to how poorly the show's character threads have panned out thus far.
Even when the show is trying to wring emotional payoff out of its main characters, the results are iffy at best. Late in the episode, Ichigo and the other Parasites reunite with Zero Two and help her fight her way to Strelizia Alpha, with each of them falling behind to face down the VIRM horde so that Zero Two can go on; Delphinium even takes a nasty fall getting Zero Two to safety, though without visual proof I'm firmly doubting that any of the kids died in the struggle. While I would be lying if I didn't say I found this stereotypical suicide-run sequence to be at least a little effective, it also served as yet another instance where I could predict every move the show made in its attempt to push my emotional buttons.
And what did all of this strife and struggle lead to? A sappy reunion between Zero Two and Hiro, where Klaxie grants our heroine the power to blast a giant laser into space and drive off the VIRM (for now). It's almost tidy enough to feel like a full-blown series finale, except for two things. First, the VIRM escape with a dastardly secret weapon that will no doubt come back to haunt the Parasites, and secondly, Zero Two isn't looking so hot by the end of the episode; her cracked horns and lifeless expression seem to indicate that our heroes' tragic ending may come sooner than we expected.
I think it speaks to both this episode's success and its failure that I can spend so much time complaining about what didn't work and still maintain some interest in how things are going to shake out in these final weeks. It's another quality that DARLING in the FRANXX shares with those Roland Emmerich movies. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad, but mostly they are a compulsively watchable mix of both. No matter how much DARLING may grind my gears, I'm prepared to see this series out to the end.
DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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