by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 21 of
Steins;Gate 0 ?
When I review a series, I try to avoid comparing the product at hand to whatever innumerable versions of it could have been, but I almost couldn't help myself with episode 21 of Steins;Gate 0. The plot primarily focuses on Okabe making a series of arduous time leaps to get back from 2036 to 2011, and though Maho's improvements to the Time Leap Machine allow for two-week leaps up to a point, eventually Okabe will have to revert back to the old two-day jumps. This means that it will take hundreds, if not thousands of leaps for Okabe to get where he needs to be, and all the while he has to deal with the physical pain of reawakening from his coma over and over, not to mention the work of re-explaining his situation. While Okabe has been in a dire cycle of time-leaps before, this kind of bleak, Sisyphean struggle feels like an honest attempt at engaging with Steins;Gate 0's untapped dramatic potential.
So it's a shame that the story has to rush through it all in a single episode. Obviously, extending this particular vision of Okabe's repetitive and draining quest for more than just an episode or two wouldn't make for good TV; it would be as miserable to watch as it must have been for Okabe to experience. But with a few tweaks and some spiced-up drama to fill in the gaps between time-leaps, I could see this premise serving as a much more interesting and propulsive hook for Steins;Gate 0 than what we've gotten for the past twenty weeks, a version of the show that allows us more time to fully reckon with this ruined future while also giving our hero a more engaging narrative focus. I'm not arguing that all of Steins;Gate should have been about Okabe's right to salvage Operation Arclight, but consider how much time this show has frittered away on stuff like Daru's Date Night and the Kagari plot (which still has yet to go anywhere). If this storyline had been given even just a half-dozen more episodes to breathe and get creative with how it handled the usual Steins;Gate formula, the series as a whole would feel much more satisfying as a companion piece to the original series.
That isn't what we got though, so we'll just have to make do with an episode that does a decent job with the material it was given. The direction and writing is slightly improved in the episode's first two-thirds – the narrative stakes and Okabe's own anguished resolve feel earned, unlike last week's inert and manipulative outing. Future Daru and Future Maho still don't get much to do beyond offer exposition, and even a reunion with Faris and Rukako blows by with little fanfare.
Amadeus is treated a bit better, serving as Okabe's guide and anchor as he travels further and further back in time, but the attempts at wringing some pathos out of her relationship with Okabe don't work for me. The AI has more or less wasted her potential as a tragic echo of the real Makise Kurisu, and she hasn't been given nearly enough screen-time to work as a character in her own right. This late in the game, Amadeus mostly feels like an excuse for Asami Imai and Mamoru Miyano to keep performing with one another. The scene where Amadeus and the rest of the Future Gadget Lab work to fend off the Strafor Forces so Okabe can avoid being captured and killed is fine, I guess, but it doesn't provide the warm-fuzzy feelings of camaraderie and hopefulness that I think it's going for. It's just another dot for the plot to connect before sending Okabe back to where we last left him, bursting into the lab to warn Present Day Daru and Maho about the imminent attack coming from Leskinen and his goons.
What happens next does manage to deliver those warm-fuzzies, as Daru gives Okabe a compliant right-hook to the face, and Hououin Kyouma emerges from the crumpled heap on the floor. Yeah, the animation and cinematography of this long-awaited return was wonky, but I don't think that could ruin the scene for even jaded fans. Seeing Okabe cackle maniacally and don his signature lab coat once more was a treat, made all the funnier by Maho's bewildered reaction at all of this, because of course she'd be freaked out. The stoic super scientist she's been crushing on all series is now rambling like a bug-eyed madman.
Kyouma's return is appropriately punctuated by a lab-coat swoosh and a dramatic declaration of “El-Psy-Congroo”, and even the incredibly stupid Leskinen scene from a few weeks back gets a nice payoff when Hououin Kyouma manages to out mad-scientist the mad scientist, with a little help from a battle-clad Moeka, who has gone far too long with nothing useful to do. I'm not at all crazy about the ending though, which sees the time machine possibly getting blown up again. To pull out that cliffhanger now after spending weeks trying to come back from the last time Suzuha and Mayuri exploded just feels lazy and anticlimactic. Steins;Gate 0 may have managed to put together at least one more decent episode before the season wraps up for good, but that final shot is just another reminder that this show has been a bumpy ride indeed, and I don't expect that to change in the season's final weeks.
Steins;Gate 0 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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