by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 875 of
One Piece ?
Well, she's finally done it, folks. Big Mom got to have her cake and eat it too.
The big question looming over our heads for months now has been “What happens when Big Mom eats that cake?”, because no narratively traditional outcome ever really made sense. This week we get to find out, when it's revealed that she loves it and Totto Land can survive another day! However, this is a situation where what literally happens and what subtextually happens are two very different animals. We've restored the status quo, and that's a bad thing.
Ninety-plus episodes isn't a very economic way to present your thesis of “The ending to The Empire Strikes Back would have been better as a musical,” but we don't come to One Piece for economic storytelling. We come for size and spectacle! As Big Mom is scarfing down the wedding cake with tears of happiness running down her face, her crew is slowly returning to power as well. The cavalry that came to the Straw Hats' aid in the form of Germa 66 and the Sun pirates are now getting brutally destroyed in battle, and our crew comes face to face with Big Mom's personal ship, which arrives just in time to completely blow them out of the water. The final few minutes of this episode are some of the most gleefully morbid images I've ever seen in this show, all intercut to a hallucinogenic reprisal of Big Mom's opening musical number, which is now somehow way darker than it was the first time around. For real, they didn't have to animate rotting dead dogs coming back to life and dancing for joy in the name of good cake, BUT THEY SURE DID IT.
To say there's a lot to unpack with our dear Charlotte Linlin would be an understatement. One Piece has never had a villain this bizarre and twisted, and yet her characterization remains fully-realized. You could try to untangle the labyrinth of culpability between the adults who manipulated her while growing up—Big Mom's imaginary friend version of Mother Carmel is frighteningly present in her hallucinations—and her own naturally destructive instincts, but it kind of doesn't matter. The end result is a woman with the strength to just take whatever she wants, the physical resilience to withstand any attack, and the cognitive dissonance needed to always feel good about her actions. She might have humanity somewhere deep down, but there's no speaking to it. She's truly unstoppable.
And our heroes are just as important to making this finale thematically poignant as Big Mom herself. Their efforts have enabled her, allowing her to return to power and continue terrorizing the world as she always has. The description of the cake that Big Mom keeps coming back to in her song is "risky." The cake actively tastes better because it was imbued with the sense of adventure and challenge that inspires the Straw Hats to sail the Grand Line in the first place. This episode opens with Chiffon, determined to see this wedding cake delivered with her own two eyes, remembering a moment during the baking process where Sanji would smile like an idiot at the thought of making Mom happy with the cake. He'd even selfishly add extra steps to the recipe just to make it taste even better, despite the race against time. His inner artisan just couldn't help but go all the way with it.
Does that sound like a certain rubbery captain of ours who keeps picking fights he couldn't possibly win? Or perhaps a famous manga author whose arcs have all become a thousand chapters long because he feels compelled to use every single idea that pops into his head, even when it's far beyond tenable? Textually speaking, this arc is about the healing power of kindness and self-sacrifice. Subtextually, it's about art and masochism. This whole adventure of thrill-seeking and big gambles is slowly killing our heroes—maybe not today, but eventually—and they will never stop because they enjoy it too much. Big Mom and the Straw Hats are birds of a feather; their co-existence is a poetic tragedy. They're all fortunate people in the sense that they're hyper-attuned to their hearts' desires, with the strength and gumption to try and have it all, but there's a dark side to a life of endless pursuit. Sometimes you have to stop and wonder if it's all just endorphins.
This musical number, referred to as the 'Bad End Musical' in the manga, is the punchline to the entire arc. The final shot of the episode is the iconic Straw Hat jolly roger torn to shreds in the water after the crew just got blown to kingdom come, all while Big Mom comes down from her euphoric high and smacks her lips over how delicious the cake was. Obviously, the show isn't actually going to kill off its heroes, and we'll learn about their surprising method of escape soon enough, but there's something so ugly and guttural here that it feels distinct from your usual plot armor shenanigans. It evokes the feeling of having picked a bad route in a choose-your-own-adventure story, or like we hit the wrong input at the last second in a game of Dragon's Lair and everything that comes after this is just picking up from a recent save state.
Personally, I was hoping the Bad End Musical would be an entirely new melody and not something so close to what we've heard before, but they've certainly made the most of it regardless. I've been waiting for one of these Whole Cake Island musical numbers to match the importance and impact of Binks' Sake, an earlier example of Eiichiro Oda writing songs into his manga, and I don't think this is quite at that level. Otherwise, this is a nasty and unforgettable episode about futility and the cycles of misery that we're inclined to perpetuate. It's the kind of episode that makes you wonder what free will even is—like maybe we're all just a bunch of sugar-addicted meat sacks being led aimlessly around by the ghosts of dead people we cannibalized and then projected moral compasses on.
This is a children's pirate cartoon.
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