by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 19 of
Fire Force ?
If there's anything I've learned in this middle section of Fire Force's run, it is that the show is not all that great at telling its story with episodes that are focused purely on moving along the plot. The plot of Fire Force, as it turns out, is not all that interesting, consisting mostly of a tropey mishmash that fails to inspire much excitement on its own merits. There have been a few standout episodes when it comes to mood and tone, and a fair amount of genuinely funny and interesting character work has been sprinkled about here and there, but the story that Fire Force is using to pull all of these things together is a bit trifling even on its best days. That is why I love it when we get episodes like “Into the Nether” which place the focus squarely on flashy spectacle and likable character interactions – areas in which the show excels – and the story is simply allowed to unfold as a byproduct of these more interesting qualities getting time to do their thing. Normally, plot is the engine which propels the individual components of a story, but in Fire Force's case, episodes like this one prove that this story might be at its best when the plot takes the backseat.
Missing an opportunity for an undoubtedly lucrative tie-in, “Into the Nether” does not refer to the Company 8 gang getting into a bunch of Minecraft related shenanigans, but rather the real underground space that the followers of Sol refer to as “the Nether”. What is interesting is that this location serves two world building purposes: On one level, it further expands on the nebulous cataclysm that transformed our regular Earth into Fire Force's world, as the Nether is literally the network of ruined subway stations that lie sprawling underneath Tokyo. In addition to being a literal underground abyss, though, characters like Iris and even Shinra's mother, who we see in a couple of brief flashbacks, invoke the Nether as a cosmological gateway, a place that is, if not the Hell of this religion, its equally terrifying neighboring plane. It remains to be seen how much of the Infernals, Combustion, and the whole construct of the Church of Sol is actually supernatural in nature, or how much of it we're meant to take at face value; needless to say, I'm not convinced that we're supposed to believe in the literal existence of Hell as some of our heroes do. Who knows, though? Maybe, in a week or two, Shinra and Co. will be going toe-to-toe with the Great Satan himself – red scales, bifurcated tail, pitchfork, and all.
The more pressing matter is what Victor has discovered by way of suspiciously convenient research and timing: The White Clad have made their headquarters in the Nether, including Sho, which is all the reason Shinra and the rest of Company 8 need to go down there and execute a simultaneous assault and rescue mission one of the Evangelist's key bases. What follows is exactly the kind of action and comedy heavy episode you might expect: The gang gets split up when things get weird in the Nether, and each group has to make their way on their own, or else succumb to attacks from the White Clad from every side. The transition from last week's extended training montage to this sudden development on the White Clad Investigation front feels a bit abrupt, but I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of pacing if it means getting sequences as fun as the ones we get here.
The women of Company 8 are the stars of the show this time around, which mostly works to Fire Force's benefit, as it has been ages since either Maki, Tamaki, or Iris have gotten much to do lately other than chip in with some one-liners every now and again, funny though they might be. For Iris and Tamaki, the emphasis remains squarely on the silly, still, but it is entertaining and integrated into the action, which makes the dumb-in-a-bad-way bits go down smoother. What I did like was the exceptionally silly “Which Tamaki Clone Is The Real One” bit that Iris had to figure out, mostly because her inability to see through the shapeshifting White Clad's very obvious disguise was the kind of “Iris is a ditz!” gag that lands on the right side of being good-natured. Less successful was Tamaki's side of the fight, which tried to take her character arc seriously for once by revealing the insecurity she has been suffering from ever since her failures with Company 1, and how she is working to prove her worth on her new team without having to rely on Shinra to save her. It's a basic conflict, but a functional one, yet Fire Force once again decides to undercut the whole thing by pulling out the damned Lucky Lecher Lure again, and the joke lands with a horrendous thud. I can enjoy stupid humor, don't get me wrong, but Fire Force doesn't get to have its cheesecake and eat it too – if Tamaki is supposed to be a character we take seriously at all, the show can't have “She gets stripped and groped, and it's super embarrassing!” be the punchline of literally every single scene she is in.
Maki is separated from the rest of the company, and she too has to square off with a White Clad, an intimidating bloke named Flail who sics a group of cronies on her, thinking she's the weakest of the bunch. Thankfully, this is a sequence that doesn't rely on playing up lazy clichés in order to subvert them; there are no dumb jokes to speak of here, outside of one creaky callback to her “Did you just call me a gorilla cyclops!?” bit (which is, and I cannot stress this enough, not very funny at all). Instead, Maki gets to whoop some ass, no strings attached. It is the first time in I don't know how long where Maki isn't playing the support role, or the comedic relief, or the sidekick. She simply busts out the gauntlets Vulcan made for her last week and gets to work, and the crisp animation and fluid direction speaks for itself. It isn't the most groundbreaking set piece Fire Force has delivered, and Maki is still very underdeveloped compared to any of the men in the story, but it's one of the show's few female centric action sequences that I can get behind without any reservations. I don't know if we'll ever quite get to that level of unqualified enthusiasm with Fire Force as a whole, but episodes like “Into the Nether” are a step in the right direction. As far as I'm concerned, it is never too late to celebrate a righting of the course…even if it might only last a week.
Odds and Ends
• Lucky Lecher Lure Lookout: Since going more than a week without Tamaki being abused and embarrassed is apparently too much to ask, this segment needed a renaming. We get two L³ sightings this week. The first one is less egregious because it involves Iris only being able to tell which of two Tamaki's is real because only the real one could have something as stupid as having every layer of her clothing come off simply by standing still. The second L³ sees the White Clad being defeated because he gropes Tamaki's chest and gets knocked out by pure force of orgasm. This is not only stupid, but more than a little gross, as it caps off Tamaki's quest to be taken seriously as a Fire Force member by having the universe tell her that the only way she'll ever contribute to a fight is by getting sexually assaulted at convenient times. Blech.
• On the plus side, Iris and Tamaki straight-up beat the man to death with their fists and a rusty pipe afterwards, so the sequence isn't all bad.
• My favorite dumb running gag of late is Vulcan's low-key awkwardness when it comes to his animal obsession. For Captain Obi to know Vulcan isn't an illusion solely because of his dorky animal goggles is funny enough, but the joke is perfected when Vulcan takes just enough of an awkward pause to clarify “I'm supposed to be a sloth.”
• Arthur even commemorates his valiant steed Silver with his snoring now, which only further cements his place as Fire Force's Perfect Idiot, which is saying something, considering the company he keeps.
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