The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 7 of
The Price of Smiles ?
I'm definitely starting to get into the unique rhythm of The Price of Smiles's structure. We just watched Princess Yuki forced to abandon her home, letting it fall to the enemy Empire. It's a loss in the name of preserving her as a figurehead and saving as many civilian lives as command thinks is possible, a grim demonstration of the deep compromises that war demands. So of course, immediately following that, we swivel back around to our focal Grandiga characters as they lounge in the now-occupied castle, enjoying some well-earned downtime as a reward for the victory they feel they've achieved. As with the espionage team's cameo last episode, the script doesn't make much hay of this flip, it's just presented matter-of-factly that the chaos of war doesn't take sides the way those participating in it do. That will be important later.
I hesitate to use descriptors like ‘banal’ or ‘flat’ to describe the storytelling here, because those have a negative connotation that undersells what the show is currently doing so well. The scenes with Stella and the Buerger Squad are as affable and grounded as we've come to expect from them, making their contrast with the life-or-death decisions made on the other side stand out even further. There are many facets to any conflict, as exemplified by scenes of the Chief of Staff discussing the broader implications of continuing war-technology research, for the purpose of mobilizing national pride to keep further war efforts up. It's barely fronted as flavor text while all the Buerger Squad's slice-of-life antics play out in the foreground to steal the show. These are the little guys with no say in the negotiations of the war effort; they're just trying to scrounge up food and drink to throw a going-away party for one of their squadmates!
The acquisition of food for Pierce's send-off banquet does tie into the overall world-building of the show, of course. The lack of resources the Kingdom of Soleil was struggling to work with got remarked on several times in their half of the show, and now we get to see how the Grandiga gang handles a similar issue. There's plenty of character asides like finding out how much Huey knows his way around a kitchen, but the broader point is showing how resourceful this team can be with what they're given. That scrappy every-man element is further serviced by their round-table sampling of ‘local delicacies’ and discussion of potential future plans. I dig how this expands on the trick from the last episode; those ‘random’ soldiers that were just a life-lesson for Yuki are now being fleshed out through their connections, their backstories, and their dreams.
The Price of Smiles actually has a fairly concentrated cast for a two-sided war story, but segments like this work to sell the idea of this plot taking place across a complex world where everyone is the star of their own story. On top of that, it's simply pleasant and uplifting to spend time with these characters hanging out after a couple of dreary episodes. I can see some argument that all this time on the makeshift banquet is ‘filler’, killing time that could be better spent on more concrete plot developments, but I'd say that this level of humanization is important for fleshing out the series' themes.
However, those themes still aren't presented perfectly, and The Price of Smiles can't resist getting heavy-handed in the later moments of this episode. While it was nice to get more details on Stella's upbringing post backstory-bombing, what we saw of her adoptive family situation veered so hard into hilariously melodramatic tragedy that it became difficult to take seriously. There is something darkly realistic about her smiling compulsion being the product of a thoughtless upbringing rather than some single codifying event, but the depiction of the parental methods that led to this were less than effective or thoughtful. Stella's hard life lets us feel for her already; we don't need it spelled out for us by the characters spouting flowery metaphors while they're standing right in front of the actual flowers.
Similarly, the cruel ironic apathy of war has to get hammered in again, in case the casual tone of this episode got us too comfortable. Of course Pierce's transport got annihilated by stray enemy troops en route, just as he was heading off to take care of some orphans! It's so over-the-top in its pathos that it unfortunately prompted laughter in me for its sheer bald-faced blatancy. The series' sharper moments of direction come through right after Pierce's too-ironic demise, with the aftermath between Huey and Stella being far more evocative than any number of lonely orphans. Like most of this episode, it's proof that The Price of Smiles works great when it's confident in its goals, but chafes a bit when it tries too hard for tragedy.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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