by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 23 of
Steins;Gate 0 ?
Despite all the times it's let me down over the past six months, I went into Steins;Gate 0's last episode (not counting the upcoming OVA) in the hopes that it would make the most of this final opportunity to turn things around. Even though far too much of S;G 0's story has felt meandering and unnecessary, there's the kernel of a genuinely fun Steins;Gate 0 spinoff buried underneath all the detritus. The core concept of ‘Operation: Arclight’ is actually quite good – give Mayuri the agency and depth of character she's desperately needed from the very beginning and find a creative way to connect this timeline to the main story of the original Steins;Gate. But in execution, this final storyline was as much a mixed bag as anything this series has produced, and unfortunately this finale stays the course in that regard.
I don't want to spend this entire review covering what I didn't like, so let me get the positives out of the way up front. Simply by virtue of playing off fan nostalgia, episode 23 of S;G 0 earns some brownie points by paying off some of the plot points it's been sitting on for months, albeit in a sloppy manner. It was nice to see Mayuri finally get her moment to take a leap back in time herself. It was entertaining to see Okabe get in the last word during his battle with Leskinen, and no matter how many times the show milks the return of Hououin Kyouma, I can't help but smile every time Okabe busts out his doofy mad scientist laugh. Say whatever you like about Steins;Gate 0 (and I'm definitely gonna), but you can't deny that this story tried its damnedest to provide the thrills, charm, and fanservice that it knew Steins;Gate fans were craving.
It's just a shame that the show's reach almost always exceeded its grasp.
Take Mayuri's big moment. She finally manages to avoid an explosive death and journey back with Suzuha into the past so she can set Okabe straight. I'll admit that I'm still fuzzy on exactly why this instance of the time-machine escape worked out differently than all the rest, but I honestly don't care much at this point. At least this plotline was finally allowed to move forward. So Mayuri goes back in time, calls her past-self to pass along her message to her beloved mad scientist, and then disappears with Suzuha into an unknown time so the Prime Mayuri can help save the universe by slapping Okabe in the face.
To be fair to the show, I'm pretty sure I understand the intended effect of this narrative fakeout. Originally, I saw Steins;Gate 0 as the story that would contextualize the war-torn apocalypse we caught a glimpse of at the end of Steins;Gate Prime – or at least, that's what we thought we saw. However, Mayuri's big moment functions as sort of an emotional twist, a reveal that the core of Steins;Gate 0 was never about the terrible future that Okabe has been dreading for the entire series, but rather the emotional journey that he is forced to take in order to realize the Steins Gate timeline once and for all, a journey that culminates not in a grand gesture of cross-timeline communication between the two Okabes, but rather a moment of agency and intimacy between Okabe and Mayuri. We even discover that the portentous and eerie nature of the original Future Okabe Video was all a ruse, sent from a peaceful timeline by the happy Future Gadget Laboratory, not because WWIII is on its way, but because Okabe still needed to find a way to save both Mayuri and Makise.
The slap is meant to be a metaphor, you see, like the entire emotional foundation of Steins;Gate 0 condensed into a single moment that only looks suspiciously like an easy cliché. Purely in the abstract, it's a fairly creative resolution to this story. The problem is that when this thesis is made manifest across twenty-three maddeningly inconsistent episodes of television, almost all of its cathartic power becomes lost in translation. If S;G 0 were a twelve-episode series told from Mayuri's perspective that cut out all the fat and honed in on the truly meaningful things it had to say about its protagonists' relationships, this anime could have been a knockout. It could have stood as a vital companion piece to the original series.
Instead, we got this lumbering aimless mess. We got Leskinen, a complete misfire of a Big Bad Villain whose entire shtick makes the story of Steins;Gate 0 worse. We got Kagari, a brainwashed, time travelling, future-daughter to Mayuri, who is also obviously a clone of Makise Kurisu, and yet Steins;Gate 0 manages to make such a ludicrous character feel meaningless and uninteresting instead. We got hacky sitcom filler episodes and confusing detours into the past or the future that never ended up going anywhere meaningful, because the very premise of Steins;Gate 0 made it impossible for the show to do anything too surprising with these leaps.
Even the reveal of the true nature of Okabe's message from the future lacks the punch it should, mostly because it makes a greater mess of the series' own rules of time-travel. The flash-forward to Future Okabe's time is shown to us after Past Okabe has already watched the video, meaning that he's already on his way to negating this entire reality to create the new Steins Gate universe, but the show doesn't neatly close the gap. When Future Okabe finishes the video, Suzuha is still a child, meaning that the actual mission to send Suzuha back into the past to deliver the video message is years off – Okabe himself is set to test the very first iteration of the time machine, so he can travel to some far-off year to rescue Mayuri and Suzuha from their exile. The show doesn't actually communicate this gap in the two narrative chronologies though, which initially made me confused as to why and how Okabe was embarking on a time travel mission when the whole timeline should be fixed. I had to scour some message boards just to check and see if I was on the right track with my interpretation of events, so it's possible I might be missing something, but the fact that I spent the show's final minutes feeling more confused than anything else speaks to how much this series struggles with communicating its overly ambitious ideas, something the original Steins;Gate never had a problem doing.
At the end of the day, this last episode of Steins;Gate 0 was a perfect microcosm of everything that I disliked about the show as a whole. It has some solid character beats and a couple of truly effective emotional moments, but they're all wrapped up in an ugly mess of weak art and bad writing. This is simply a story that didn't need to be told; even if you like the basic idea of the show's emotional arc, it's one the original show already covered. Okabe already got beaten down by time, only to rediscover his inner mad scientist and march boldly on towards Steins Gate. Steins;Gate 0 just gave us that same emotional journey all over again in an uglier and less interesting fashion. Perhaps the game is a more satisfying experience, but I can't imagine recommending Steins;Gate 0 to anyone save for the most die-hard fans, and even then, it would probably just be easier to watch the first series again instead.
Steins;Gate 0 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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