The Ancient Magus' Bride
by Anne Lauenroth,
How would you rate episode 21 of
Ancient Magus' Bride ?
Humans are strange. It's like they put effort into making themselves suffer.
Meri is not wrong. With everyone struggling to understand their own emotions, insecure about their place and right to be in this world, humans are messy creatures. Our messiness brings us a lot of good fiction, but at least an equal amount of emotional pain and confusion, both of which feature heavily enough in episode 21 to make it equal parts strong and messy.
The character prompting Meri to his quotable realization is Adolf, former student of dragon master Lindel. Adolf doesn't need much background or character development at this point in the second cour, especially when we're racing through the episode's second half at a speed that takes away some of the emotional impact. But thanks to the more general wisdom we get out of the scene, it's not wasted either.
The same can't be said for Elias' visit to the sorcerers' library. The scene is a montage set to music, but it feels like a sequence was supposed to have dialogue that got cut at a point in production too late to animate something more suitable from scratch. What we end up with are shots and reverse shots of Elias and Tory talking without actually hearing what they're saying. Left wondering what might be happening, I'm guessing that Elias was seeking a how-to-sacrifice-your-bride's-best-friend-in-order-to-save-her manual and someone didn't want to give his intentions away too soon, but the result is mostly clumsy and irritating.
While rushed, the way we reach the point of no return isn't clumsy at all. The episode opens with great foreboding, as Elias reminisces about the encounters that shaped him – except that he denies his bonds to all the people who care about him, all the people except for Chise, that is. Where she gets words of wisdom from Nevin, he gets nothing, because he has never allowed anyone into his heart the way Chise connected with Nevin, he cannot guide himself like she can. After finding himself wanting something the same way a human would, Elias feels lost without any possibility of reflection.
Elias wanting to save Chise at all costs doesn't make him evil. Chise would probably even understand his desire to sacrifice someone else for her sake (without actually letting him do it, of course). Since he's at least part fairy, his actions don't necessarily follow the human code of conduct, and his emotional distress facing the loss of Chise only makes it more difficult to process the consequences of his actions. It's like we're seeing a sad echo of Matthew, while Chise's determined not to become Mina.
To make matters worse, Elias doesn't just pick any human or creature to sacrifice at random, but Chise's one non-magical human friend and connection to a normal human life. Deliberately choosing Stella out of jealousy and fear of losing Chise to something besides death is very nasty – and very human. We've seen Elias' inhuman jealousy in all its glory, but his calculatingly human side is much more frightening than those beastlike tentacles. He deserves all the punching he gets, even if physically hurting him hurts Chise even more.
All too often, these fictional falling-outs are the result of terrible misunderstandings, with evil forces pulling the strings to manipulate the protagonists into doing what they'd otherwise never be capable of. I'm glad that Joseph was as surprised (if slightly more delighted) about Elias' decision as Chise, and his possession of Stella didn't change anything up to the point of Chise leaving with him instead of on her own. As an uninvited surprise guest in other people's melodrama, he's merely enjoying the ride, ready to get himself a Sleigh Beggy out of the deal. It remains to be seen how this acquisition will benefit him, but Phyllis did leave Chise with the prospect of lifting someone else's curse. And as Phyllis also prevented the episode from falling back on the usual formula where Chise selflessly saves someone else at her own expense, her words definitely matter. It's a shame that, with all the past trauma and Cartaphilus business to attend to, the witches are unlikely to feature much in the remaining episodes.
While Elias and Joseph's parts in Chise's departure left little to be desired, Ruth's wasn't quite as satisfying. Of course he has to betray Chise's trust to push her to sever the bonds with her entire family. (Poor Silky...) But for a familiar who feels Chise's emotions before even she knows what she's feeling, how come he doesn't stop the second she wakes up, likely overflowing him with emotions? Sure, the stakes are as high for him as they are for her, but going against the wishes of the one he's bound to feels out of sync with what we've seen of him through this series. That's another problem, really; since there's so much messy baggage to go through between our two leads, Ruth hasn't gotten the focus needed for him to have more agency in this betrayal beyond the story's need to isolate Chise from the ones she trusted most. On top of that, did they really leave her outside, by herself, unconscious, in the snow? All the efforts of magically saving her would be in vain if she died from hypothermia. But it wouldn't be The Ancient Magus Bride if an episode didn't require Chise to endure some suffering and spill some precious Sleigh Beggy blood.
Since I'm unfamiliar with the manga beyond the first chapters, I'm thinking this could have been a powerful moment to end the second cour on. In order to keep the one who doesn't think of him as a monster, Elias has become the monster. Cue read the manga imperative.
But the pace we're going at makes it clear the show has places it wants to take us before the curtain call. And even if the result is slightly messy, the strong character build-up reaps a payoff that's still thrilling to watch.
The Ancient Magus' Bride is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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