Sword Art Online II Episode 20
by Nick Creamer,
Asuna's solo adventure kicked into gear this week, as she was introduced to the mysterious duelist Yuuki's guild and learned of their plan to defeat a raid boss with just one party. After agreeing to join their quest, Asuna had one more tense conversation with her mother before the boss training began. One failed attempt later, the team realizes they're actually racing against one of the top raiding guilds, and the episode ended with a stalemate between our brave heroes and their forty-some human opponents.
There frankly isn't that much to say about this episode - it proceeded at a reasonable clip, introduced a fairly low-stakes but nonetheless entertaining conflict, and progressed the narrative without any real highlights or stumbles. Episodes like this make me think mild, nonthreatening vignettes were actually what Sword Art Online always should have been. The show tends to stumble when it tries to reach for high drama, and its control of tone isn't the best, but when it's just chronicling fun adventures with nice people, it works perfectly well almost as an MMO slice of life. And this has been true even since season one, where moments like the random fishing competition were actually some of the best scenes the series put together.
The central conflict of this arc is about as light as they come - though various bits of ominous framing in the introductory scene made it clear that this boss fight means a great deal to Yuuki, there aren't any lives hanging in the balance or anything this time. Because of that, this arc actually gets to show the characters having fun, including showing Asuna adjusting to planning for fights where she doesn't have to make sure nobody dies. It was nice to see Asuna reflecting on her time as the second-in-command of her old guild - we rarely get to see her act as more than Kirito's cheerleader, but clearly she must have been a talented tactician, and it's good that the show is actually acknowledging and taking advantage of that. We even got a moment of legitimate MMO strategy this time, when Asuna directed her teammates to avoid using expensive consumables and to stick around to watch boss patterns even after they died. Sword Art Online rarely feels particularly real as a videogame (even within this episode, the idea that Yuuki's players would be used as scouts by raiding guilds is a pretty ridiculous twist), so any realistic details like this are a welcome change.
The real-world material this week was a bit weaker than last week's, both because the direction wasn't as impressive and because it was largely a retread of last episode's material. From how this episode developed, it seems likely that Asuna is simply going to bring the proactive spirit she embraces in Alfheim to her disagreement with her mother, and so while it's important to keep the mother issue somewhat in focus, when it's not actually developing, it's not the most exciting conflict to watch. And having a snowflake form a tear on her cheek was one of those on-the-nose dramatic touches that just make me wince.
Fortunately, the last act here was fairly engaging from start to finish. It wasn't any one thing that made their failed attempt at the boss particularly interesting - it was mainly just that all the details added up to a consistently entertaining sequence. Stuff like Asuna's invisibility-detecting fish, or the way the group's other mage got giddy at the prospect of PVP, or even just Yuuki's general enthusiasm, made this whole sequence a pretty charming ride. Yuuki in particular is doing some nice work to keep the energy high here - she kind of reminds me of Koto from Kyousogiga (easily one of the best shows from last year, if you haven't seen it), and her enthusiasm is pretty infectious. Independent, small-stakes arcs like this one live and die by whatever each individual episode brings to the table, and though this episode wasn't a standout by any means, it was still a consistent and reasonably entertaining ride.
Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.
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