The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 12 of
The Price of Smiles ?
I like to think I've given The Price of Smiles a lot of credit so far. The first few episodes with their various twists and expected yet credible thesis on the idea of war as an institution earned it some good will in my eyes. While it didn't always follow through on its ideas strongly and dragged its feet often, especially in the latter half, the show's heart always seemed to be in the right place. The story at least seemed to be building to some sort of thoughtful conclusion, even if it wasn't always following the setup I expected. I was here to give this show the benefit of the doubt, so surely I could at least trust it to stick the landing with its message? Unfortunately, The Price of Smiles tripped over all its worst habits to completely faceplant at the finish line.
I almost feel bad for the series at this point. The Price of Smiles clearly wanted to be something big, and I wanted to believe in it as a scrappy dark horse at first. But the show has always lacked that something special to push it into exceptional territory, and it was all too happy to ride the rails to typicality by the end. Remember this show shocking us at first with dramatic revelations and character deaths, driving home the price of war (and smiles)? There's none of that bravery left now, only a plodding march to a blandly inevitable wrap-up.
It says a lot about how Tatsunoko has paced the show up until now that characters were literally rushing to the ending. Events pile onto each other simply to wrap up the plot in the home stretch, such as Chief of Staff Fleet immediately knowing the context for Yuki's plans and giving the information to Stella's squad as they sit around looking at their cell phones. Stella gets her characteristic fish-bulb back, courtesy of Huey to show how that he's apparently grown, then immediately drops it in the ocean because abandoning it remains a symbol of her character growth, I guess? And we finally get the long-teased reunion between Stella and her lost mother Layla, setting up what could be an intense scene that promptly gets shot in the foot by the rushed pacing.
The Price of Smiles has moved at a breakneck clip before, but it's completely counter-intuitive to its presentation at this point. There's barely any time to reflect on what the lost relationship means to Layla before she's crushed by debris to provide one more moment of pathos for the long-suffering Stella. She doesn't even get to realize that Layla's her mom before climbing to the top of the tower for the big finish! This should have been the final straw for this character coming around on the real cost of the war she participates in, but it rings hollow because they couldn't find space to squeeze in the meaningful connection between these two characters, instead saddling the audience with it in a generically tragic scene before we jump to the resolution.
Yuki's development has been the biggest dangling element of the show's promise. I thought that she would learn lessons about warfare and leadership by the end of all this and come out stronger for it, demonstrating the strength of the show's story evolution. But her reaction to the news of Layla's death is no more profound than anything she's shown for all the others that sacrificed themselves at the altar of her succession. Instead, it's like the story just feels obligated to stop here, as Stella's goals align with Yuki's just enough for them to come together and press a literal war "off" switch. The opening theme is then deployed at the end to remind us how Yuki and Stella might have come together more gradually and naturally to find a meaningful end to their conflict. Instead, they just coincidentally bumped into each other so they could push that stupid button to turn the show off together.
That's my biggest issue with this finale; everything about it feels so perfunctory. The two sides of the war simply collided with each other for a while until they wound up in the same place for a convenient solution to be enacted. The show can't even pace its resolution right, with the grand scene of the chrars being shut off just about selling the emotional climax before being abruptly cut off by an anticlimactic fade-out. After that, we just get a post-credits armistice agreement where everyone's getting along and working together, utterly undercutting any build-up between the various concerns of the two sides. Overall, I felt cheated by this series. It wound up feeling like a diet Gundam show at the best of times, and ending on such a lame note only cements it as a waste of time.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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