by Nicholas Dupree,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Since I first saw the initial trailer for Listeners, there's been one burning, aching question taking up a stressful amount of space in my brain: “Wait, was that Prince? Like, just straight up actual Prince?” The answer is no, that's not Prince, that's the totally different and legally distinct Denka, so don't worry Echo and Mu, you should be safe from the real-life artist's famously protective estate. It's also why this episode is titled “In The Embrace of the Beat” and certainly not some other title referring to symbolically charged columbidae or any crying they may or may not do.
Copyright skirting aside, episode 5 sees our two heroes delve into the indulgent, sex-soaked streets of Paisley Park, the city ruled over by the ostentatious and mysterious Denka who might just hold the answers to Mu's past and the true history of Jimi Stonefree. And it's through the various sensual streets and establishments that we learn a lot about Denka's personality before he ever shows up (in disguise, naturally) to secretly test and interrogate our young heroes as they go through this thing called life. While the idea of sex is always ever-apparent in this episode, it never delves into the kind of fanservice you'd expect from a red- er, Purple Light district in anime. Denka may lounge around wearing a silver codpiece and his assistants Wendy and Lisa are not at all subtle about being an item, but Paisley Park itself is a parade of indulgence designed around the intimacy and energizing aspects sex rather than aimless debauchery.
Unlike last week, the overall theme of the episode ends up playing nicely with the character writing at play. After splitting up over a petty spat, Mu and Echo spend much of the episode having to learn to work together in harmony despite their differences. They learned from the Valentines that being honest and trusting is necessary for a partnership, but it's through the flamboyant musings of Denka that they figure out how to act more intuitively as a pair. It's overall a small step in the show's effort to have our leads take lessons from the Players they meet, but it gives them enough to do that they don't feel ancillary like they did in Nir's story. Plus I have to commend the cheek of Denka dubbing them “Girl 6” and “Boy 9” to hammer home the theme of a give-and-take relationship. The man knows what he's about.
It also helps that Denka has an arc of his own to work in tandem with the kids. Not only was he the mastermind behind the failed attempt to wipe out the Earless that left Liverchester a junkyard, he also tricked a group of self-described “mystics” who sought to commune with the mysterious monsters, and used them and Jimi Stonefree to implement his plan. We're given only glimpses of his romantically short time with Jimi, but it's clear that the young man sparked something in his heart that has remained restless in the years since. The failure of his own deception and the ensuing stagnancy of the world at large has left the princely Player a shell of himself, going about business as usual but forever searching for what to do next – and the answer arrives for him with Echo and Mu. Seeing the spark of youth and honesty in them, he decides to push them forward in their quest in hopes of reigniting the revolution he failed to achieve. The climactic moment, where he finally activates his city-sized Equipment, is a brief but wonderful cap to the character. Denka is a man who lives and breathes love, and even catastrophic tragedy cannot snuff that flame forever.
That said, it's becoming apparent that Listeners is perhaps biting off more than it can chew with its episodes. While the script is efficient and fast-paced enough to get across the ideas it's playing with, it also leaves nearly no time for those ideas to breathe. Echo and Mu's resolution to work together comes so quickly and easily you could be forgiven for missing that it happened at all, and in general the adventure feels just a little too overstuffed with pointless side-plots that only steal precious seconds that could be spent better fleshing out character interactions or just giving some time to pause between scenes. The character writing and more focused theme keeps this episode more satisfying than Nir's, but if the show wants to keep delivering episodic character pieces along with its worldbuilding, it seriously needs to streamline its delivery to keep those moments impactful.
For now though, the series has done a solid enough job recovering from its early stumble, and the unique aesthetic of this week's setting does a lot to carry forward its good will (the fluorescent bisexual lighting of the streets and clubs was particularly on point). I also can't help but be charmed by the ornate and indulgent atmosphere of it all, a perfectly fitting tribute to the a unique and groundbreaking artist. The true test may come next week – with the heavily evident Pink Floyd influence being the first time Listeners will tip its cap to an artist I'm not all that fond of, it may come time to tell if the series can sink or swim on its own merits.
Listeners is currently streaming on Funimation.
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