The Promised Neverland Season 2
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 6 of
The Promised Neverland (TV 2) ?
One of the more interesting – if not necessarily “fun” – aspects of reviewing an adaptation of source material you're familiar with is how some of the issues that come up are not so much the result of changes or omission, but in how a new medium can bring to light or even exacerbate problems that were already present in the original story. I reckon I've made my complaints about the way this second season of The Promised Neverland has handled skipping so much of the manga's content pretty clear by now, but “Episode 6” brings us into the territory of the manga that I already considered to be built on shaky ground. Needless to say, things feel even less solid for me now that the anime has brought Norman back into the fold; it hard for me to say for certain exactly how many of my misgivings are rooted in the big leap-frog over the Goldy Pond arc, but I sure don't think it helped much, in any case.
Take Norman's big info-dump at the top of the episode, which comes after many minutes of tearful reunions between him and his old Grace Field siblings. I don't know if it's because I knew Norman would be back before long, or if it's because the compressed timeline of the anime has meant that he's only been absent from the series for a handful of episodes, but I already wasn't having much of a response to what should be a hugely cathartic moment. Then, back at the hideout, Norman goes into all of the Big Plot Stuff™ he's gotten into since getting stolen away by Lambda, and boy, this is where TPN's commitment to minimalist, flashback-free exposition really comes back to bite it in the butt.
For the record, I maintain that Mamoru Kanbe's decision to excise all of the manga's internal monologue and flashbacks worked really well in Season One. That was a tight, claustrophobic story fueled by a lot of easily delineated external conflict: You've got a bunch of smart kids trapped in a slaughterhouse disguised as an orphanage, with demons outside the walls and a murderous mother on the inside. The whole setup left The Promised Neverland with plenty of room to communicate characterization and mood without relying on the more straightforward approach that comics tend to adopt. It's a lot harder to build pregnant pauses without the musical, cinematic, and performative tricks afforded to animation, after all. Plus, the amount of world-building going on was limited purely to the kids' perspective and means, which meant that dialogue-driven exposition dumps made sense. We only see what the kids see, know what they know, and hear what they hear.
I think this is why, regardless of the medium, The Promised Neverland stumbled once it brought its cast out into the open world. There is just so much more ground to cover, both literally and figuratively, that TPN could no longer play to its strengths. Whether it's Emma's wonderful strength as a heroine, the story's masterful control of mood and tension, or the pure excitement that comes from watching a well-hatched plan come together – none of what made that first arc/season of TPN so gosh-darned magical shines quite as brightly when the stakes aren't as clear, and the characters are left to wander and react to their situation, rather than be proactive.
Apologies for the incredibly long-winded preamble, there, but I think I needed to get all of that out of the way to explain why I think Norman's return plays so dull, here. We spend a solid five minutes with Norman while he breaks down the past two-ish years of his life with all the energy of someone reciting a Wikipedia plot summary, even though he's been through some shit. After getting whisked away by Isabella, he was sent to the Lambda Research Facility, which performed grotesque experiments on children in order to transform them into prime food-sources (real subtle with the GMO/animal cruelty commentary there, by the way). Not only did Norman engineer the destruction of the entire facility, but he also ended up recruiting a small army of orphaned refugees and got down to busting out all of the captive children he could find. He also managed to nab a drug that will force the demons to degenerate into an animalistic state, since it turns out the demons inherit the traits and features of their prey, and the longer they spend without eating people, the less good their thinky meat works. Is this literally the worst possible feature that any predatory species could possibly possess? Probably – imagine if lions became soft and squishy like a cow every time they chowed down on a steak! Does this also provide a convenient avenue for Norman to commit some mass demon genocide? Also yes.
I don't know about you, but this sounds like a whole two or three episode's worth of badass action-adventure storytelling at least, and instead we settle for watching all of the Grace Field kids stand around in a circle while Norman manages to somehow make his transformation into escaped convict/revolutionary leader/possible mad scientist sound boring. Again, to the show's credit, I recall that this also felt pretty rushed and glossed-over in the manga. There, though, it helped that we'd just gone through one hell of a harrowing experience with Emma and Co., so you at least got the feeling that Norman could have gone through some equally extraordinary shenanigans during his time off-screen.
That intangible feeling of adventure and growth is what is really lacking here, because when you take stock of what we've actually gotten to see in Season 2 of The Promised Neverland, though, you realize that only three things have really “happened” to the kids since their great escape: First, they spent a couple of weeks at How to Survive Demon Land Summer Camp with Mujika and Sonju, which went off without a hitch. Then, the kids spent…I don't know, a few days or so in the bunker? That was nice for them, but they almost immediately lost it in that armed invasion. Then, I suppose the show would have you believe that Emma and the others spent a full year doing…nothing? Hiding in the desert and scrounging for scraps, I guess? So, not only does Norman's big info-dump just feel off for purely logistical reasons, but as we learn all about his infinitely more interesting and memorable Demon Rumpsringa, it kind of makes the inert misadventures of Emma, Ray, and the others come across as a bit lame, in comparison.
I know I sound incredibly down on this episode, but that's mostly because it continues to take a story that I know could have been (at the very least) pretty damned good, and instead turned it into something that is well-made enough, but lacking in the spark of life that made The Promised Neverland such a hit in those early chapters, and in its first season on television. There's still some good stuff here: The heart-to-heart where Emma insists that she is decidedly against committing mass genocide, while Ray promises that he will support her no matter what, is sweet, and it retains the heart of Emma's eternal quest to be a Very Good Girl™ in a very scary world. I also dig how Norman's new crew of loyal soldiers look to be an interesting set of foils for the main cast, even if their whole “Killing Demons is Good, Actually” shtick is a bit on the nose. Norman has some kind of sketchy history with the pacifist demons, too, which is neat. I can't wait to find out if Mujika is the “Evil Blooded Girl” that makes Norman's blood run cold (though I hope we get a little bit more drama out of that story than a simple back-and-forth conversation).
What's more, we've officially reached the anime equivalent of where I stopped reading the manga, so I am now just as ignorant as to how all of this play out as all of the anime-only viewers have been since the very beginning. I have some vague inklings as to how the manga concluded, but who knows how much of that material – if any at all – will be preserved, and I'm honestly very excited to be in the dark again, with the rest of you. I think the whole experience of The Promised Neverland Season 2 will be improved with my being able to take whatever comes next on as much of its own merit as possible, for better or worse.
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