by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 837 of
One Piece ?
To cut to the chase: It turns out Big Mom's flashback is the story of how Mother Carmel was secretly a child slave trafficker and her disappearance was the result of Big Mom blacking out as a child and cannibalizing her entire orphanage.
To break that down in a little more detail, we resume where we left off last week with little Charlotte Linlin destroying the giants' village and killing one of their two chiefs. We learn that Mother Carmel was in fact the original user of the Soul-Soul Fruit, which she uses to perform a "miracle" that clears the fire in a bid to save Linlin's life from the angry giants. Linlin is passed out sleeping, and we all know she's capable of worse if she's spared. Carmel's intense pleas for forgiveness and compromise succeed, and the remaining giant chief tearfully exiles Carmel and her orphanage to another island where we find out Carmel is really collecting these powerful children so she can raise and sell them to the World Government. Linlin could grow up to be a powerful marine if the price is right.
The cannibalism comes with Linlin's sixth birthday. After the exile, Mother Carmel's been putting on a much warmer smile (something that becomes sinister after we learn the truth about her), and eventually the kids are celebrating Linlin with some birthday croquembouche—a nod to the food Big Mom was craving towards the beginning of the arc. Linlin is so happy that she cries, and she scarfs her way into a blissful daze, only to wake up to see everybody gone. The story is tactful not to show too much detail, and Linlin never seems to put two and two together, but the reality is pretty obvious.
Sitting on it some more, this episode is a stellar representation of how this flashback is supposed to make the audience feel; it's a perversion of what you expect from a tragic supportive role model in One Piece and the narrative function that flashbacks normally provide. We've seen One Piece get perilously dark in the past (your backstory isn't sad anymore unless you've survived at least two genocides) but they normally serve as an emotional low to contrast with a character's eventual happy ending. Villains don't normally receive flashbacks, but Eiichiro Oda's been dipping his toe in that pond over the past few years. Doflamingo got his past explained, but his story was tied directly into Trafalgar Law's and ultimately doesn't enrich the arc much. Big Mom on the other hand, is cemented as a destructive force of nature. The more you come to understand her feelings and damages, the more you realize she's a child in arrested development; an emotional fireball that's been expanding for years with no opportunity for introspection.
This week is rife with flourishes that make the final product feel so much more engaged than usual. Filmically, the cannibalism scene is ambiguous, as it was in the manga, which means the possibilities are endless when it comes to adapting it to screen. The episode leans hard on really classic OST tracks, the kind of stuff I've been missing terribly. It's the most upbeat and truly One Piece the anime has felt in a good while, and it's all in favor of that ironic detachment I was seeking last week. Mother Carmel's reveal even coincides with the children singing 'Bink's Sake' of all things, and the atmosphere is laid on incredibly thick.
This is about as morbid as this show gets without becoming explicitly violent, made all the more eerie by the arc's eventual not-quite-happy ending. This is an examination of One Piece's themes of forgiveness and compassion pushed to their breaking point, where the forgiving mother is a manipulative liar who created the even worse mother who will never truly understand or care about the meaning of her actions. The episode ends with us back in the present, and Big Mom is wailing about the broken picture—some of Mami Koyama's best guttural screaming yet—and you'd be tempted to feel bad about her if her outburst wasn't so frickin' scary.
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