by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 16 of
Steins;Gate 0 ?
I never thought I would say it, but boy was I glad to see Daru clock Okabe right in the jaw this week. For too long, both the characters of Steins;Gate 0 and the show itself have been tip-toeing around the larger issues surrounding Kurisu's death, Okabe's guilt, and the many complications that come along with the impending Third World War. Sure, we've brought Maho into the fold, and Kagari's sleeper-cell plotline is headed somewhere I hope, but outside of some fruitless debates between Okabe and Suzuha, S;G 0 has largely avoided the very necessary conversations that the members of Future Gadget Laboratory need to have with one another.
So I was downright surprised when it only took Okabe a few minutes to catch on to Operation: Rebuild the Phone Microwave, and I was even more shocked when Steins;Gate 0 cut to the chase and had Okabe and Daru hash out their frustrations and fears. Okabe remains terrified at the potential consequences of time travel, and he refuses to subject himself or others to the emotional trauma of it, especially since he would see it as an insult to Kurisu's sacrifice. This is an old and familiar argument, so much so that hearing it has become grating at this point. Okabe's fear and anger is understandable and even justified, but his character has been stuck in this rut for far longer than I initially expected, and his stubbornness has become one of the chief reasons that nothing is able to progress in this story, and why nobody can move forward and be proactive about preventing the oncoming apocalypse.
Thankfully, Daru realizes this too, and his sucker-punch is followed by an incredibly cathartic monologue, where he lays into Okabe for being so damned oblivious to the struggles of everyone around him. Okabe has essentially bought into his own hype as the long-suffering hero of his own story, and he's so hellbent on preventing any more conflict that he's forgotten about his friends' own emotional agency. Suzuha is risking everything on history's most dangerous technological gamble, and Daru and Maho are fighting to honor Kurisu's legacy; Daru even forces Okabe to recognize how hard Mayuri has had it, acting as Okabe's emotional airbag for years now, suffering in silence so she can be the smiling, naïve girl that Okabe needs her to be. This is the exchange that S;G0 should have gotten to weeks ago; it's blistering and pointed and absolutely necessary if this story has any intention on fulfilling the potential it's been laying down for months now.
Of course, the episode caps this well-written and directed scene with Maho coming out of the shower and dropping her towel, so Daru can make a “legal loli for the win!” joke. It's not a great moment, and the rest of Maho's involvement in this episode also suffers, though not because of any drastic tonal whiplash. Her confrontation with Okabe is essentially an extension of Daru's argument, where she asserts her own agency and argues that pursuing the “Steins;Gate” worldline is the only righteous act they can commit as scientists. The writing here is fine, but the direction of this scene is slipshod and stilted, opting for stale medium-shots and a static camera that ends the episode's central storyline on a muted note.
The rest of the episode focuses on Okabe catching up with Mayuri, who is reeling from having overheard the argument between him and Daru, especially the parts concerning how Kurisu died so that she could live. It's heavy stuff for the poor young woman to have to bear, and I'm glad the series is finally allowing her some time to process her role in this story and come to her own conclusions about it. She still hasn't been given enough time or material to rise above her role as Okabe's moe guilt-sponge, but every ounce of dimensionality the script affords her is a net positive.
The actual conversation hearkens back to an earlier scene that Mayuri shared with Ruka, where both of them lament Okabe's decision to study abroad and that neither of them are in a position to be Okabe's true love. Both scenes reference the mythical love story attributed to the star Vega, which is also known as Orihime. It's a sweet moment on its own, but it's also a reminder how little either Ruka or Mayuri have been able to do in this franchise beyond act as romantic satellites orbiting Okabe's ego. The original Steins;Gate struggled with this problem too, but the show had enough going for it in other plot and character departments that this shortcoming could be forgiven if not necessarily condoned. Here in S;G 0, there's so little going on with the plot and other cast members that it feels even more egregious than usual to see Mayuri and Ruka receive such short shrift.
Still, this episode was a drastic improvement over the past couple weeks, offering more solid drama and well-earned conflict than we've seen from Steins;Gate 0 since probably its eighth episode. S;G0 is still struggling to keep the fundamentals of its production consistent and engaging, but it's reassuring to know that the writing can still step up the quality from time to time. The series has been too uneven for me to see this success as the sign of a permanent improvement in its plotting and pacing, but it does give me hope for more bright spots to come in the future.
Steins;Gate 0 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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