The Price of Smiles
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 8 of
The Price of Smiles ?
I know I've been overly hard on The Price of Smiles for how it tackles the heavier elements of its plot. I get the anti-war points it's trying to make, but the ideas should be salient enough that it doesn't have to be so heavy-handed in delivering them. It tends to get in the way of the story this show is delivering in addition to its ideas, so things get crowded out. This seems to have especially been the case in the episodes focused on the Kingdom of Soleil, with the lessons Princess Yuki learns getting hammered home in such a way that it undermines the growth she's supposed to be undergoing at the same time.
But sometimes, with enough practice and persistence, a story working hard at an idea like this can pay dividends, and this week that's finally what we get. It's another Soleil-focused episode about Yuki having the horrors of war carved into her with all the subtlety of a runaway bulldozer, but it actually works this time because the intensity of what's being sold remains engaging. It finally feels like a genuine turning point in the war.
I think the pacing of this episode really works in its favor. Most of the major movements that occur are pretty well telegraphed: We're told up-front that Langford is scheduled to be killed soon, and even if we can guess that he'll escape the formal sentence he's been given, all the warm shots of his wife and daughter and repeated assurances that he'll come home and everything will be okay make it clear that that's not the case. The Price of Smiles has always tread a well-worn storytelling path, but in this case that matters less. Langford's ticking clock is used for suspense, leading us to wonder what he's going to accomplish before he's killed. Instead of longing shots of flowers or captured territories or pontificating on the resource situations of the sides involved, the info-dumping dialogue is used to dispense informative backstory that actually helps the story advance.
All the backstory that gets dropped this week does feel sudden in that respect. If this forerunning Empire of Verde was mentioned before, it was so offhand that I missed it, so bringing them and their previously-unknown research on the new chrars does feel like the show scrambling to set up a path to a solution as it comes up on its last act. It creates a neutral point for the two opposing powers in the show to address in collaboration, which has been foreshadowed as the endgame since we first saw the opening theme. If that's where we were always headed, it feels like it should have been hinted at more before now.
But as I said, I'm less concerned with all this because the end result is a show that I was quite interested in following. It creates an interesting wrinkle that isn't an element of the war being spoon-fed to the audience. Why are some opposed to the new chrars? That's a long-term question this episode just barely starts answering, showing how some of the characters we've followed so far actually have their own nuances to dealing with the use of technology. Given the show's subject matter, I like to think it's some sort of allegory for nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, but I can't be entirely sure, which makes it a stronger choice. As with Langford's fate, the story is now keeping me guessing instead of just checking my watch until the next inevitable tragedy.
Mind you, there's still plenty of The Price of Smiles's trademark heavy-handed pathos by the time this is all over; Langford goes out in an information-passing sacrifice that would make the cast of Rogue One proud, and given his wife's established pregnant status, the show can't resist ending on an obvious death/birth juxtaposition. But it works anyway because the pacing and plotting that led up to the climactic moment was engrossing. The show has always leaned heavily on Yuki's desire to protect people above all else, and the pitfalls that come with prioritizing that kind of empathy. This gets reinforced particularly strong throughout this episode, but by rounding back to Langford's actions and showing how much just one person can do before they make their sacrifice, the series sells that point better than it ever has so far. It all makes for an intense and entertaining episode, at least the best Soleil-focused one of the show so far.
The Price of Smiles is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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