by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 20 of
Steins;Gate 0 ?
It may have taken over five months of episodes, but Steins;Gate 0 has finally taken us into the war-torn apocalyptic future it's been teasing since the original series in 2011. The time leap from the end of episode 19 was somehow botched, and a dazed and confused Okabe wakes to find himself wandering the crumbling ruins of Akihabara circa 2036, with a haggard body to match. It isn't long before he meets up with Suzuha, who brings him to a much slimmer and suaver Daru to run down the major points that Okabe has missed over the intervening two decades. After the Phone Microwave crapped the bed, the Future Gadget Laboratory put all their efforts into building the time machine and setting up a resistance against the nefarious Stratfor forces that are trailing their every move. Unfortunately, Okabe was captured years ago, and Stratfor's torture and experimentation reduced him to a catatonic husk of his former self, forcing Daru to dig up Okabe's preserved memories from that long-ago time leap to resurrect his old friend.
That's a lot of information for both Okabe and the audience to take in, and unfortunately that recap I just gave you is basically how S;G presents it all. Fully half of “Rinascimento of the Unwavering Promise” is devoted to Daru and Suzuha reviewing what the 2011 version of Okabe has missed, point by point. This is an earth-shattering shift in Steins;Gate's usual status quo, so I understand the need to get us all up to speed, but the episode's art and direction does a poor job of embellishing the infodump. The brief action scene that introduces Suzuha isn't very exciting, and many of the following scenes (both present day and flashback) are barely animated and take place in dark hallways or shadowy corridors.
I've long since given up on expecting Steins;Gate 0's production values to flatter the show in any way, but it's still disappointing that such a dramatically critical piece of series lore makes such a shoddy first impression. Sure, the franchise has always had a penchant for long-winded exposition, but that approach makes more sense when the action of the story is confined to the same streets of Akihabara over just a handful of days. If they're going to transform the setting and the stakes of the story so much, then such a shift needs to be given the proper amount of gravitas, and this episode fails to deliver the goods.
Things pick up a little bit when the gang rushes to meet up with Faris and Ruka, who have both become active combatants in the war against Stratfor. Ruka's transformation is especially noticeable, what with his new luxurious ponytail and skill at slicing up bad guys with a katana. Faris doesn't fare quite as well; I have plenty of nostalgic affection for the girl, but her cutesy cat-maid shtick feels woefully out of place in the war-torn wasteland of Future Akihabara. That choice just comes across as corny and misguided to me. Still, I liked seeing the ancillary members of the gang get a chance to take on the bad guys themselves.
Of course, Steins;Gate 0 just can't let itself commit to a good thing, so the episode goes down the most predictable and lame route possible. After fending off a mob of soldiers on his own, Ruka dies in Okabe's arms with a smile on his face, happy to have finally proven useful to the group.
Look, Steins;Gate's piss-poor treatment of Ruka has always been a glaring problem, even back in its heyday. In fact, the story already covered this same story beat in the first season, when Ruka gives up on living life as a biological woman, sacrificing his own psychological and physical well-being so Okabe can undo the world line changes and save Mayuri. That was still lame back then, but at least it could be argued that the story still sympathized with Ruka's plight, even if it didn't devote the time and energy to properly deal with the consequences of such a sacrifice. This twist is much worse, turning Ruka into the Sacrificial Gay Character who gets killed off after pining for the hero from a distance, just so Okabe can somehow be even more motivated to use his time-travel powers to undo World War III. Not only is this a horrendous conclusion to Ruka's character arc, it's just insultingly lazy writing in general.
Of course, this is still a time travel story, as well as a prequel to an ending we've already seen. Okabe ends the episode by demanding use of the time-leap machine, so he can finally take an active role in undoing this doomed future. We know that Ruka will survive in the main world line, along with most every other main character, but in a way this just makes the whole thing even worse. Steins;Gate could have literally done anything with this new uncharted future, but instead it gave us a couple of hallways and a busted-up street, then a handful of boring conversations that bookend a literally pointless character death. If this is all Steins;Gate 0 has to give us after building up this arc for months, I won't be surprised at this point, just very disappointed.
Steins;Gate 0 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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