by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 18 of
Steins;Gate 0 ?
There's one element of writing weekly reviews that never fails to provide a significant challenge; it's incredibly difficult to judge the success or failure of a discrete chunk of story when you don't have the complete series to give it context. In that regard, it's possible that some of the flaws in Steins;Gate 0's 18th chapter could end up being ironed out in the coming weeks. Since I haven't played the visual novel, I don't know how these final six entries are going to play out. Sadly, even if I were to factor in that benefit of the doubt, “Altair of Translational Symmetry” would still be incredibly bad.
Let's start with my main gripe for this episode, which revolves around a choice that hurts the whole of Steins;Gate 0's story. As I've been predicting for almost the entirety of the show's run, we begin this week with Professor Leskinen creeping up on Okabe from the shadows, revealing that he's been the mastermind behind everything, including the attacks on the lab, Kagari's kidnapping and brainwashing, and the most recent raid on the time machine that ended with Mayuri's fake-out death cliffhanger from last week. It's a twist as clumsy and underwhelming as anything the franchise has given us so far, but the true fatal flaw of this turn is how it reveals Leskinen to be such a boring megalomaniac of a villain.
S;G0 seems to think it's clever to present us with a truly evil mad scientist to reflect Okabe's heroic alter ego, but the reveal reads more as smug and self-congratulatory than anything. A significant portion of this episode's time is devoted to Leskinen giving a literal Evil Mad Scientist Monologue, but it's just so tone-deaf and hacky. His ultimate goal boils down to using his communication with his future self and knowledge of the timeline to game the system and shape history to his own whims, ostensibly so he can live up to the ideal of the One True Scientist™, but it's just the same vague “world domination” shtick that Saturday-morning-cartoon villains have been dishing out for decades. The original series has its own shadowy sect of villains in SERN, but it made a point of presenting its human representatives as complex and engaging characters. Yuugo and Moeka did terrible things in serving as antagonists for the Future Gadget Lab, but they were never reduced to the role of the Cackling Mastermind like Leskinen – the true enemy of Steins;Gate Prime was the inhuman whim of time itself, and a cheesy pulp-fiction mad scientist simply can't compete with that threat.
This episode also drastically mishandles the few character beats it affords the other cast members, particularly Kagari. Her sudden turn against her captors in defense of Mayuri was too telegraphed to be exciting or interesting, and her battle against Leskinen operatives is perhaps the worst cut of animation and direction to come out of the season so far, which is saying something when every action sequence we've seen from Steins;Gate 0 has been bad to some degree. Kagari even manages to literally behead a man with a karate chop - I know that a story about nerdy college students getting wrapped up in a time travel conspiracy wasn't going to be realistic, but I never thought we'd see this franchise earnestly committing to visual gags that would feel more at home in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
It's not even the terrible action that bothers me so much; it's the fact that the show honestly tries to play off her death as tragic. Kagari has barely been developed as a character; she's essentially a little Mayuri in a big-boobed version of Makise's body, only without all of the relationships and general screen-time that Mayuri got. That lack of investment only leads into a protracted death scene that plays out like a parody of these kinds of scenes. Kagari is shot down in a bloody fashion by Leskinen and his goons, gives a sad speech about how “the voice of God” compelled her to betray everyone, and then she's shot again by Leskinen, only to be given even more time for a final monologue before finally dying. It's absurd, but not in a fun way. The first Steins;Gate mined a lot of power from having its cast of (relatively) normal people become trapped in a truly abnormal situation – this chapter of Steins;Gate 0 has none of that pathos.
”Altair of Translational Symmetry” even has the nerve to end on yet another “Did Mayuri die?” cliffhanger, despite using that trick just last week. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love that Mayuri is going on her own time travel mission with Suzuha; it's a long-overdue moment of growth and agency for an under-served character, and the continuation of this plot is perhaps the only thing S;G 0 gets right this week. I just can't get behind that final sequence, where a helicopter's missile strikes the time machine at the exact moment it's slipping out of the timeline, and Okabe and the others are stuck wondering if Mayuri and Suzuha survived. It's cheap, poorly paced, and a lousy way to transition to S;G 0's final narrative stretch.
I've heard that the Operation Arclight portion of Steins;Gate 0's narrative is well-regarded by fans, and I really hope it picks up from here, because this was a massive disappointment. Even if later developments flesh out Leskinen and Kagari to be more than flat plot devices, “Altair of Translational Symmetry” does a terrible job of convincing me that such a future is likely. I've never been so frustrated and disappointed by an episode of Steins;Gate. If I had a Phone Microwave of my own, I'd be sending as many D-mails as I could to make sure we reach a world-line where the show never fumbles so badly.
Steins;Gate 0 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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