Thunderbolt Fantasy Sword Seekers 2
by Gabriella Ekens,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers 2 (puppet TV) ?
So Xie has hooked up with the evil mind control sword and now everything is going to hell. Blinded and injured, Shang looks done for a hot second, but then the sword decides that it wouldn't be evil enough to kill him yet and makes Xie run away. At this point, Lin shows up to deal with Xiao, who is still going berserk. Shang has to stop Lang from trying to kill Lin again, which leads to the musician storming off in a jealous huff. In the end, the boyfriends run off in three different directions to have important (and possibly erotic?) encounters with each of the show's three villains.
The expected Lin/Xiao reversal occurs when the bureaucrat reveals that he was faking injury and thus overheard our heroes' parting conversation. Xiao proceeds to turn the tables on the Vapewiz, pinning him in a hot yaoi pose to subject him to questioning. Of course, Lin lies his beautiful butt off about his intentions and capabilities, and Xiao foolishly seems to buy it. Unwilling to give up his quarry, Lin feigns submission to the cop and begins acting as his agent in the hunt for the Shang's head.
Meanwhile at Shang's end of the plot, he's run into the donut-headed devil's advocate doing his usual thing in the middle of the woods. Our hero has the good sense to call him a moping idiot this time, while Diddy Kong responds with some pointed barbs to this ethical judgment. The monk's latest sophistic trap is actually pretty clever – you see, if Shang chastises him for saving Xie, then he's also implicating himself, since he also stopped Lang from killing Di Kong. Both of them had a decisive role in the chain of causes that led to her killing all those people and are thus, according to Kong's logic, equally guilty. The solution to this puzzle is that Di Kong is still playing a zero sum game where anything short of perfect purity is worthless. Under this framework, Shang's constant striving to do the right thing would be seen as identical to Di Kong's indifferent nihilism. However, our own intuitive judgments would tell us that they aren't doing the same thing, so the framework itself must be wrong. (I won't go on too long elaborating my preference for Shang's worldview over Di Kong's, but it boils down to their behaviors having different consequences when examined along a wider range of circumstances than just this particular instance with Xie.)
In sparing Di Kong, Shang was trying to be optimistic about his potential as a person. It just didn't work out in this case. Ultimately, every choice like this is a gamble since you can never be 100% certain about the consequences of anything that you do. It's your ability to evaluate a situation and act on an assessment of risk vs. reward that determines your ultimate responsibility for an event. Even then, sometimes things boil down to your own preferred degree of caution. Do you prefer losses like the Di Kong situation, where Shang bet on him being a good person only to be let down? Or do you prefer what happened with Sha Wu Sheng, who wanted to redeem himself but got shut down because everybody judged him to not be worth the risk of a second chance? I think that Thunderbolt Fantasy has its own preference, but I'll need to see how the Di Kong situation shakes out in full before I can comment further on the show's themes.
Also, sure those old people only lived for a few extra days, but do those days mean nothing? If death invalidates meaning, then how is it possible for meaning to exist at all? If Diddy Kong is looking for something that's exempt from ever ending, then it's no wonder he's such a drag.
At the end, Lang runs into a sword-addicted Xie and nearly takes her down with his magical sound powers. His Niàn Bái poem finally gets read, and it's all about how he's a badass musician with a righteous instinct for sniffing out bad guys. Right when Xie is about to go down, however, Xiao arrives wielding the Night of Mourning and his newly acquired manservant. Officer Bigteeth McNasty then orders Lin to do his dirty work, which probably means killing Lang. For his part, Lang has proven totally willing to take out the competition for Shang, meaning that next episode will likely kick off with a boyfriend death match. My bet right now is that Lang will end up injured before Shang arrives to break things up. That would provide the show with the tension necessary to carry it into its final third.
Otherwise, these are my predictions for how this all might end: Di Kong is going to end up with the Seven Blasphemous Deaths, Xiao is going to be humiliated or killed in some deliciously ironic fashion, but Xie's fate is where my crystal ball turns cloudy. This season has put her through a lot of anguish already, to the point where it would feel excessively cruel to put her through even more. One part of me feels that she's due for a break, while another resists such a clean conclusion. Basically, the problem is that this character doesn't have much in the way of positive traits to fall back on. Like yeah, life has been throwing Cruelty-hime through the wood chipper, but she's also an unrepentant murderess who opened the season by killing an entire fortress full of dudes. Her passions are poison, backstabbing, and raising deadly scorpions. The most potentially redemptive thing about her is that she seems to be rather childish and insecure deep down. However, if her maturation is set to turn her into a more confident agent of chaos, then that isn't good for the world either. Despite how much I pity her in the moment, I just can't see any good consequences coming out of Xie's continued existence in the story.
But maybe that's the point? This season has developed a conflict between Shang and Lang over whether you should just kill an obvious villain the minute that you see them. And while our bard BFF fully supports that sort of impulsive stabbing, Shang – the show's consistent moral center – doesn't seem so sure. This makes me think back to the Sword of Life and Death and its treatment of Sha Wu Sheng. Nobody in that film took the man's sincere attempt to redeem himself seriously, and as a result they created an even worse menace out of what could have been a powerful ally. The message seems to be that you can't make assumptions about a person's capability for change, especially when they may have been pushed into bad behavior due to a position of marginalization. The Screaming Phoenix Killer's adoptive parents acted like he was evil from birth. Correspondingly, Cruelty-hime's gang seems to be driven by ideological opposition to Xi You's government. I can see their hatred stemming from some prior injustice (although it's hard to say anything definitive about the show's backstory at this point). If you treat someone like a monster from an early age, who's to blame when they grow into that role?
The show's sympathy for people forced into these positions through ostracism becomes evident when you compare them to the characters it doesn't give a single shit about humanizing: the cops. Seriously, the show relishes in Xiao's scummy-ness more than anyone else's, while also framing him as the relatively petty threat. This plays into Urobuchi's routinely demonstrated contempt for the banality of evil. In his stories, the basic greedy establishment assholes are never the ones who try to destroy the world, but they are the ones who cultivated a society that turned a person of deep sentiment – who could have been a great boon to their fellow man in a better world – into the one seeking to cause the apocalypse. The latter are tragic villains, while the former is the profoundly boring type of powerful monster that you hear about on the news all the time. At least it'll be fun watching the sexy glasses-wearing version of this archetype get wedgied up to his nostrils by a perpetually stoned trickster deity.
This has all been a long way of saying that I'm not sure whether Xie's story can end satisfactorily within a single season. It feels like there's something sympathetic about her that we haven't been told yet. Otherwise, an ending that punishes her would seem excessively cruel and one that exonerates her excessively kind. On a final note, thanks to the forum posters for reminding me of something I'd neglected to mention during previous weeks – the Seven Blasphemous Deaths is actually a recurring Urobuchi character, typically wielded by a rather gloomy Chinese Buddhist monk. My first encounter with this trope was in the show Chaos Dragon, which is based on a DnD campaign that Urobuchi participated in as this character. Now to my knowledge, this degree of self-ripoff is unprecedented for the Butcher, so maybe he decided that the concept had been wasted on a tabletop campaign that he'd spent the entire time griefing anyway. (Given how that anime adaptation turned out, I don't blame him.)
All in all, this was another excellent entry in Gen Urobuchi's Puppet Quest for Evil Swords. As usual, the boyfriends were hot and sexy, the swords were also hot and sexy, and everyone was charmingly mad at each other.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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