Episode 5 – “Your Thorn My Badge”
The fifth episode roles in, and with it, arrives a brand new show. The nauseating metaphors have vanished with the winds of change. Like a peeled off veneer. Not only does the plot feel less contrived, the art has taken yet another leap forward. The animation crew leads us to new heights, retaining the Gurren Lagann bent, but layering a dark and sinister atmosphere over top.
The symbolism remains, but not as overt, and not hyper-focused on sex. The innuendo hasn’t left, but the schoolyard immaturity has. Well, except for the description of the “kissing” ritual between Plantation 13 and 26: “It’s a transfer of magma fuel reserves from one Plantation to another through that big pipe.” Be still my beating heart! Of course, that little factoid has nothing to do with penises, semen, and procreation. Move along, folks!
Character development has exploded compared to previous episodes. Suddenly, the audience has a reason to care for almost every minor Parasites (except for Zorome—may he meet a slow and painful death inside a klaxosaur’s digestive tract). Goro establishes himself as the voice of reason. Mitsuru creeps closer to self-destruction, gobbling down pills and alienating Kokoro. Meanwhile, Ichigo noses ahead of the pack in terms of relevance, threatening Zero Two’s control over her Darling. The group has a newfound respect for Hiro–even Ichigo, who apparently doesn’t harbor any resentment towards him for their rocky ride in Episode 3. In fact, Ichigo and Hiro enjoy a suggestive “collar fix” moment along with a furious bout of verbal copulation, but Zero Two cuts it short, dragging him off to the cafeteria so she can binge eat and drool sauce on him again.
The show adds an interesting bit of world building by introducing a cult of personality around Papa. Per his orders, the group must complete specific tasks at designated times all while eating the food and wearing the clothes laid out for them. The group prays to Papa, “May Papa never thirst. May Papa’s heart be filled with peace for eternity.” The show’s integration of religion might possibly answer questions regarding the origin of the Parasite Experiments and klaxosaurs. Maybe the Papa worship will even explain why adults feel justified in imprisoning children, stunting their growth at an artificially young age, and using their virility and hormones to fuel robotic sex warriors?
But the biggest shift in the show’s direction comes from Zero Two. All her actions the audience has come to accept and like—the eroticism, lack of manners, inappropriate flirtations—now seem twisted. In fact, her obsession with Hiro steps into “creepy” territory as she practically force-feeds him bite after bite of sloppy honey-loaf. Their paradisiacal love affair has taken a foreboding turn.
With the shift in the Zero Two/Hiro dynamic comes a new facet of the horned heroine’s personality. She oscillates between threatening scowls and childlike jubilation. At points, she appears deranged, giggling as she talks about how she possesses her Darling—a property for her to manipulate as she wills.
Just in case some of us didn’t detect the ominous turn in their relationship, the show offers us some next-level metaphors—this time with spiders and butterflies.
And, just in case we forgot, the next Strelizia outing marks the THIRD rendezvous between Hiro and Zero Two. Can someone remind me, does any Stamen survive the third ride in Strelizia? No? Okay. Still don’t sense the danger? Well, how about that veiny blue jellyfish crusticle growing over Hiro’s chest?
As the Plantation 26 Parasites enter the scene, the anticipation for the impending FranXX/klaxosaur war billows. The 26ers appear battle-hardened in comparison to the Plantation 13 Parasites. They have a less rosy view of their adult overlords than the 13s. And the group leader’s indignance over the inclusion of Strelizia in the upcoming mission reveals another disturbing peek into Zero Two’s backstory. Her penchant for ditching allies during fights caused the death of the 26 leader’s partner. Zero Two’s response, “Weaklings die. Big deal,” goes beyond chilling and towards inhuman. Hiro’s promise to “control” his Pistil only manages to highlight his delusion. Even if Hiro believes he has control, Zero Two pulls the strings.
Now the gathered raindrops, collecting with each subliminal break, spill over as Ichigo and Zero Two’s first scuffle materializes. Ichigo cannot realize her desire to defend Hiro and legitimize her feelings–possibly due to APE’s brainwashing or psycho-tampering. Whatever the case, Ichigo cannot overcome Zero Two’s matter-of-fact declarations. She owns her Darling. Ichigo had her chance and failed. Zero Two reveals her true feelings about Hiro—if he dies, he’s worthless. As she glowers down at Ichigo, eyes blood red in the haunted night, she tempts the audience to think she is a monster after all.
As the episode closes out, Zero Two asks her Darling if he still wants to ride with her. The same exchange from the previous episode, now under the shadow of Zero Two’s demonic nature. Her cute side gives way to the demented. The childish gestures no longer endear us but disturb as she twirls and cackles. Still, Hiro would rather literally get the life sucked out of him by a satanic beast-woman then slog on without a girlfriend.
Wow. This episode felt less like a continuation and more like a complete reboot. Atsushi Nishigori and his team made a smart decision by scaling back the action to focus on exposition and character development. Yet the stark change in style worries me that an even starker turn (for the worse) could take place at any moment. Regardless, DarliFra‘s current trajectory leaves me more excited about the show than ever before. The wings of stellar production values still carry the day, but the narrative now teeters on the brink of unexpected and compelling new territory.
And, please remember:
~ Don’t Shoot the Messenger