Sword Art Online II
Episode 23

by Nick Creamer,

Sword Art Online whiplash struck once again this week, as out from the ashes of last week's overselling emerged one of the most thoughtful and well-articulated episodes of the season. We started off with Asuna employing Kirito's robotics research to let Yuuki enjoy a day at school, followed that up with a visit to Yuuki's old house, and finally brought everything home with the big confrontation between Asuna and her mother. Mother's Rosario has certainly had ups and downs, but it looks to be ending in fine form.

The first section of this episode was the most predictable, as all the pieces have been very deliberately laid for Asuna to be able to grant Yuuki's wish of going to school. I liked how having Asuna give Yuuki a tour of her school doubled as Asuna giving us a tour, since what Asuna gets out of this school is a key plot point with her mother, and I also liked how the strong lighting work here created a very distinct atmosphere. Sword Art Online very deliberately simplifies and brightens the lighting of its virtual segments, meaning that when we get an extended real-world segment like this, the depth of the world really stands out. The shadows here created a sense of nostalgia and calm that was appropriate both for how Asuna perceives this place and the overall kind of slow-tragedy story we're dealing with here, and really helped sell the mood of the sequence.

The aesthetic beauty of the real world was important to the episode's next act, as Asuna took Yuuki to her old, abandoned home. Though Yuuki's story has been too brief and extreme to really generate much emotional resonance, I like the fundamental idea of Yuuki acting as a sort of mirror of the other characters. While they find connection and truth in the virtual world, Yuuki, who is trapped in that world, longs for the simple pleasures of traditional reality. This scene also slotted the last pieces of the arc's dramatic resolution into place, as Yuuki reflected on her relationship with her own mother and gave Asuna advice on being honest with her family. Their conversation here was essentially the kind of thing I'd been hoping for three episodes ago - it was exactly the type of understated bonding moment that would have made all of this arc's emotional beats go down much more smoothly.

All of this episode's aesthetic subtlety and quiet effectiveness came to a head in the last act, as Asuna finally got her mother to engage with her on her own terms. Though the story of Asuna's affection for her grandparents' house wasn't really foreshadowed, it played naturally off the variables of Yuuki's story, and was simply told well enough to sell her feelings as emotionally genuine. The aesthetics really, really helped here - the lighting, shot framing, and especially the careful use of sound all helped make this moment come across as legitimately intimate. Shows that know how to use silence effectively are a rare and valuable thing, and this scene nailed it on that front - Asuna's conflict with her mom hasn't really developed much shading over time, but this individual scene was excellent.

All of this understated drama and thoughtful execution kind of puts me in an awkward spot, frankly. This episode was building off inconsistent pieces, but it nailed the dismount, using the pieces the narrative had legitimately earned and selling what it had to on the strengths of its own execution. It wasn't perfect, but it was far better than I was expecting, and provided a surprisingly touching final act of Mother's Rosario. After last week I didn't expect to be on board with this at all, but Sword Art Online apparently still holds a few surprises.

Rating: A-

Sword Art Online II is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.

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