Episode 4

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 4 of

It took a handful of episodes, but DARLING in the FRANXX seems to have found a solid balance between playing around with its campy thematic ambitions and actually telling a good story. The unsubtle metaphors and overwhelming horniness of the show's first episodes certainly made DARLING a topic of pointed discussion, but it also made the world building and plotting feel messy and half-baked. Sure, the obvious Evangelion biting and straightforward scripting have made DARLING less immediately controversial, but it's also starting to feel like a series with a vision that goes beyond just seeing just how explicit it can get with its innuendo. All of the fanservice and dirty jokes are still there, but the absurdity of that second episode gave viewers reason to worry that “Evangelion, but even hornier” would be the peak of DARLING in the FRANXX's aspirations.

While DARLING is definitely one of the more salacious EVA clones to grace our screens in a long time, this week continues the show's push to solidify DARLING's unique voice by fleshing out its world and characters, while delivering some satisfying robot action to boot. Expectations were particularly high for this outing, as “Flap Flap” is the first of DARLING's episodes to be primarily handled by TRIGGER personnel. This is immediately evident going into “Flap Flap”, which features a rougher edge to the linework and less concern for perfectly on-model character art than we've seen from previous DARLING episodes. This freeform aesthetic is very much a signature for TRIGGER, and the result is an episode that feels more kinetic and sacrifices a bit of visual sheen for some much-needed personality.

A lot of that comes later in the Klaxosaur battle that serves as the episode's climax though. For the first two-thirds of the story, we're dealing with the fallout of Mitsuru's failed partnering with Zero Two, which has everyone on edge. Pretty much everyone is convinced that Hiro is courting death by pursuing a role as Strelizia's Stamen, with Ichigo feeling doubly hurt by Hiro's clear preference of Zero Two's affections over her own. Zero Two's superiors are convinced she needs to be pulled out of the Plantation and back onto the frontlines, and Hiro feels more resigned to failure than ever, making things feel even more fraught when the other Parasites are sent out on yet another Klaxosaur mission. Given the fairly slow pacing of the plot so far, I was prepared for Hiro and Zero Two to need another episode or so to finally get the chance to ride together again, but thankfully Hiro is given the chance to prove his willingness to accept Zero Two, even if that affection is partially driven by his own desire to feel useful.

Of course, this brings us back to Evangelion, since Hiro's arc runs almost directly parallel to Shinji Ikari's own quest for validation-via-robot-fighting, save for one key exception; in Evangelion, Shinji's need to find validation from the women in his life was a secondary goal that existed alongside his desire to win his father's approval by piloting the Evangelion units. In FRANXX, Hiro's desire for self-actualization and the consummation of a physical relationship are tied into the same act of piloting a FRANXX. In short, every signifier of traditional masculine fulfillment is codified in the act of taking hold of Zero Two's butt-reigns and exploding some Klaxosaurs real good. He gets the girl, he gets to be a badass monster slayer, and perhaps most significantly, he finally gets back in the freaking robot.

These are all metatextual readings though, and at this point it's still too early to tell what exactly A-1 Pictures and Trigger are trying to say by adhering so faithfully to Evangelion's rulebook. As pure story and action beats, Hiro and Zero Two's triumphant arrival on the battlefield is a perfectly satisfying development in the chronicle of their burgeoning relationship. While the way she aggressively cornered Hiro in the men's bath felt a bit on the nose, this episode generally does the best work so far in making our horned heroine feel like an actual character, instead of the sexy and elusive trope she's been until now. Her attraction to Hiro is tied directly into her personal conflict, which is wanting to find a partner who doesn't see her as a monster. It's thin characterization admittedly, but it's enough to keep the episode moving forward. Plus, I would be lying if I didn't find Zero Two and Hiro's chemistry adorable; the little horn bump she gives Hiro before being carted off by her armed escorts is the kind of small personal moment that DARLING will need to make its central relationships feel truly organic and relatable.

Once the final act starts up and Strelizia is finally allowed to join the other FRANXX in their fight against the electric-razor-looking Klaxosaur-of-the-Week, the TRIGGER crew is finally allowed to let loose and provide the dynamically directed action that makes the studio such a beloved fixture these days. While some of the editing early in the Klaxosaur fight felt unintentionally chaotic and even a little sloppy, things smoothed out quickly enough. I'd say that this is probably the best action sequence we've gotten thus far, because even when it wasn't delivering the most technically impressive cuts of animation, it easily gave the most personality and pure thrills yet. The single best moment of the fight isn't even related to exploding evil dinosaur monsters; it's the smug sideways glance that Strelizia gives Delphinium as it tears the Klaxosaur in two. Even with Hiro in the cockpit with Zero Two, it's clear she and Ichigo's conflict has only gotten started.

Speaking of Ichigo, she's involved in another aspect of the episode that bears discussing, a moment that I initially missed on my first viewing. After hyping up the rest of the Parasites and ensuring her spot as the team's de facto leader, Ichigo places a reassuring hand on Ikuno's shoulder, since she still must work with Mitsuru in piloting Chlorophytum. He remains as much of a jerk as ever, but just as he and Ikuno connect and engage their FRANXX, Ikuno places a wistful hand on the spot where Ichigo touched her shoulder just before. While there are several ways to read this moment, I couldn't help but take it as Ikuno using thoughts of Ichigo to get her through an otherwise unpleasant “synchronizing” with Mitsuru.

I don't want to get my hopes up this early on, but this could be a sign that some of these characters may indeed land outside of a strictly heterosexual spectrum. Personally, I feel that the basic premise of DARLING in the FRANXX will feel woefully underexplored if it does not in some way address how queer characters might function in a world where heterosexual expression is the literal the key to saving the world. No matter where things go from here though, episode 4 has given me confidence that DARLING in the FRANXX will remain a consistently fun and compelling sci-fi action anime that will hopefully continue to satisfy viewers for the foreseeable future.

Rating: B+

DARLING in the FRANXX is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

James is an English teacher who has loved anime his entire life, and he spends way too much time on Twitter and his blog.

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