Sword Art Online II
by Nick Creamer,
This week marked the end of Mother's Rosario and Sword Art Online II altogether, so it was an appropriately goodbye-centric episode. The vast majority of the episode was taken up by Yuuki's long goodbye, which spanned both the real and virtual worlds, and pulled in all the ideas this arc has been stirring regarding immortality, how we spend our lives, and the value of the digital world. It was a sad sequence, but the episode ended on a hopeful note, with a pair of epilogue scenes catching up with friends. It was a strong episode, and a solid end to what has turned out to be SAO's finest arc.
We opened this week with another party at Asuna's lake house, this time including both the Sleeping Knights and almost all of SAO's various side characters. This led into a big “fun with friends” montage set to a dramatic, melancholy insert song, which offered one more chance to create a bit of connection with these tragic characters. The arc is in a far better point now than it was two episodes ago to be trying to wring emotional resonance out of Yuuki's journey - not only have all the initial tragic exposition hurdles been cleared, but last week's episode was also by far the best set of interactions between her and the rest of the cast. And it's no longer just tragedy for narrative's sake, either - thanks to the final scene between Asuna and her mother last week, Yuuki's passing now actually reflects on the struggles Asuna has independently been dealing with.
The connection between Asuna and Yuuki came to a head in the episode's middle segment, as Yuuki's condition deteriorated and the cast prepared to say goodbye. I've said before that Yuuki's situation offers an interesting counterpoint to the characters who wish to escape the real world, and a number of lines in these scenes fitted nicely into that point. I liked Asuna's firm “You won't lose. Because you're Zekken. The strongest swordsman!”, which pointed to the fact that sometimes, no amount of power in the virtual world can actually help you in the real one - a strong contrast from the themes of Sinon's arc. A great deal of GGO was spent reflecting on the fact that escape into a virtual world can disconnect you from reality in dangerous ways, but here, Asuna's heartfelt “everyone is praying that your next journey is to somewhere as wonderful as this” was a total embrace of the promise of virtual reality. Yuuki's final “I did my best to live. I lived here” comes out almost as a challenge, a dare for anyone to deny that her life in the virtual world was of real value.
And beyond SAO's overarching themes, the specific concerns of Mother's Rosario were given voice in this sequence as well. The overt narrative quest of getting that world-first boss kill was all about seeking a kind of immortality in the virtual, and that thread is continued as Yuuki passes her sword skill on to Asuna, who promises to pass it on in turn. And that question of immortality is given a more emotional tenor as it bleeds into Asuna's desire to live for others - Yuuki has done for Asuna and the other Knights what she herself wants to do in the future. It's sappy, obviously, but this arc has always been swinging for the emotional fences, and outside of a couple specific missteps (like having a thousand people show up for Yuuki's virtual goodbye), I'd say this episode nailed its emotional moments far more gracefully and consistently than previous episodes.
The execution was also spot-on for this week's episode, from the randomly beautiful fight animation in that opening montage onward. The color work and lighting in Yuuki's virtual goodbye was absolutely gorgeous, the music was used to great effect, and the specificity and expressiveness of Asuna's expressions was something to behold. SAO is almost always a pretty show, and this week's episode used that strength to powerful effect.
The episode's last couple scenes weren't quite as strong as the centerpiece, but they offered a fine look forward for the show. Sword Art Online has sometimes struggled and sometimes flat-out failed, but it's always wanted to be a show that's actually about something, and I respect that. In light of that, it's nice to see the second season conclude with an arc that actually nails its themes and ends with some real grace. Nice job, SAO. You pulled it off.
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