Episode 5

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 5 of

DARLING in the FRANXX slows things down this week, taking a breather from the action to explore its setting and characters more. We're still only five episodes into a 24-episode series, so all the character development and worldbuilding is in its early stages, but it's definitely appreciated nonetheless. If the first four episodes were a series of loud impassioned exclamations that valued feeling over clarity, then this fifth episode of DARLING is all about taking a moment to let us all stop and ask some important questions. Not only do these mysteries make for a compelling and unexpectedly moody episode, they begin to sow the seeds for the themes that will undoubtedly take center stage in the show's coming weeks.

The first question on Zorome's mind is “What is kissing?”. By this he means not the physical act, since none of the kids save for Zero Two, Hiro, and Ichigo know what kissing is yet, but rather the joining of Plantation 13 and Plantation 26. Not only does this allow the two stations to share their precious magma fuel resources, but it also brings our team of Parasites into contact with the pilots from the other Plantation, and the differences between these two sets of kids reveal that our hero's situation is more peculiar than we initially thought. It turns out that the Plantation 13 FRANXX's colorful and unique designs stand-out even in-universe, as do our pilots' use of personalized names over code numbers. Apparently, Hiro has earned a reputation among other Parasites because he humanizes his fellow pilots more than society at large seems to be comfortable with.

These facts combined with the sullen demeanor we see from the Plantation 23 pilots do well to hint at the darker futures that await our less-experienced crew of Pistils and Stamens. When Zorome eagerly asks if any of the other pilots have ever “become adults”, one of the pilots looks shocked, and another whispers gravely that the Plantation pilots must not know the truth of their situation. There's a short scene that involves measuring “yellow blood cells”. This stands out starkly because as far as I'm aware, yellow blood cells are not a real thing that occurs in human biology. Taken with the fact that the parasites live in such a controlled and cloistered environment makes it seem like there might be just as much biological engineering working to control the Parasites as social engineering. Either way, the implication is clear: Parasites don't live long.

This is an abstract idea for most of the Parasites, but Hiro is standing much closer to death's door this week. Despite wanting to shrug off the rumors surrounding Zero Two's previous partners, Hiro spends most of this episode feverish, clearly suffering in the aftermath of last week's successful mission. It isn't until Goro discovers the throbbing blue growth on Hiro's chest that we see just how dire his state has become. His relationship with Zero Two has always been framed as somewhat dangerous, but this is the first time we've gotten a look at its literal toxicity. Sure, Hiro is finally tasting the validation and acceptance that comes with being able to pilot Strelizia, but the cost may be not just unbearable but painfully fatal. Mitsuru has been reduced to a bitter pill-popping mess after just one mission with Zero Two; no matter how special Hiro might be, it's clear that continuing to partner up with the mysterious horned girl threatens to permanently scar him. The two have plenty of cute and endearing scenes together, but the threat of decay and destruction lies underneath everything they share.

That dark underlying tone is key to what makes this episode so successful. I could easily imagine a version of this episode that's executed as a boring infodump, but what we get is so atmospheric and well-directed that it makes the whole affair feel genuinely creepy. The pilots' morning prayer to their Papa is unsettling in a way that I find difficult to pin down, and even something as simple as the Parasite's nighttime walk is lit and shot in such a way that feels more foreboding than romantic or relaxing. Ichigo and Zero Two's end-of-episode confrontation is a particular highlight, as it highlights Zero Two's inhumanity and her callous disregard for the life of even her "Darling". In this sequence, we see Zero Two through Ichigo's eyes not as a rival or an interloper, but as something that isn't even human, a skinwalker whose possessiveness over Hiro isn't some sexy personality quirk; it's downright terrifying.

I'm still not entirely sold on how Zero Two has been characterized so far; even this episode's cute interludes between her and Hiro make her feel less like a character and more like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a quirky and strange woman who is meant to be reacted to more than understood. Her faceoff with Ichigo at least gives the audience more than one perspective on Zero Two's character, which makes her effect on the different cast members more dynamic to see unfold. I would still like to see her given more interiority, but there are still nineteen episodes left to go for DARLING in the FRANXX, so I won't lose hope that more character development is coming for everyone's favorite demon girl.

Given how prone to bombast and absurdity DARLING in the FRANXX has been, it's ironic that its most low-key episode is its best one yet. We didn't get much in the way of fireworks, but there's a confidence and clarity to the writing that gives me hope for DARLING's long-term prospects. Anime fans can only make jokes about “that one show where the robots are piloted with butt handles” for so long. Now that we're being invited into the show's larger mysteries, DARLING in the FRANXX is starting to come into its own, with a world that's engrossing and characters we can give a damn about. As a hyperactive and excessively horny pastiche of mecha series, DARLING is perfectly fine so far, but I'm glad to see that it's also capable of being compelling on its own terms.

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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