Well, I guess we’re doing this, huh? After storming through 86’s ninth and tenth episodes in a flash, I’ve been putting off the season’s final episode for a solid month now. The reason for that is simple: this episode looks like an absolute horror show, and I’m not exactly eager to see Spearhead’s remaining members get torn to pieces. The team has suffered enough, the unconscionable inhumanity of war has been made undeniably clear, and I’d be perfectly happy to let our heroes just ride off into the sunset.
I kid, but only to a certain extent. 86 is not a story that should conclude with a pat, happy resolution, because the conflicts it has articulated are too imposing and too substantive to be conveniently resolved. By positioning itself in the grand tradition of stories like All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Catch-22, 86 has essentially guaranteed its conclusion will either be suitably tragic, or else embrace enough feel-good escapism to risk undercutting its core themes.
And that, more than anything else, is what I’m afraid of. Can you actually tell a substantive war story in a light novel context, where stories are designed for infinite sequential replication, and main characters are often treated more like brand ambassadors than human beings? The narrative variables 86 began with have largely been resolved, but this is only the show’s first of an unknown number of seasons, which to some extent gives me my answer. I’m thusly steeling myself for some awkward sequel hooks, but if this episode can tie a neat bow on the season’s drama, linking Lena and Shin’s experience one final time, I’ll be plenty satisfied. Let’s dive into the last episode of 86!
We open on October 30th, the implied date of Fido’s death
Kurena and the others are in a desperate state, all of them actually shooting with their rifles outside of their incapacitated mechs. In spite of the dire situation, this cold open immediately reassures me, its structural intent quietly indicating that the team is going to make it through okay. First off, if this episode was going to be filled with tragic deaths, it wouldn’t need to sell that with a cold open like this – generally, you open on a situation that “looks” this bad because you intend “how will our heroes get out of this one” to be the episode’s hook. If the answer to that question is “they don’t,” the audience will essentially feel they’ve been lied to, because our collective assumed cinematic knowledge has given scenes like this such a specific resonance
And beyond that, the fact that our team is actually out of their mechs shooting further assures me they’re not actually going to die. When these mechs go down, they’ve generally taken their pilots with them – to have the whole team outside of their mechs yet still fighting says to me that this scene is intended to show our allies “against the ropes” in a clear visual sense, without actually harming any of them. The mechs are a useful dramatic device in that regard – it’s clear that things are in a desperate state if the mechs are disabled, but you don’t actually have to hurt any of the humans to provoke that tension. In all regards, the very tonal desperation of this scene assures me that our cast will make it through okay
Now, if the scene were being played as sorrowful instead of franticthat’d be a very different story. If we opened on a character quietly confessing their feelings to another – oh yeah, they’re done for. Tonal contrast is such a key element of drama that you can actually predict stories pretty well based on the tone established in the first scene
Welp, I certainly won’t be missing this opening song
Speaking of tonal contrast, the episode proper opens on total stillness, the cold open’s battle now behind our heroes. A subtle illustration of one of this show’s many smaller points, how the line between carnage and peace is so thin for these soldiers. Peaceful scenery is no assurance that battle is far away
Shin’s mech was the only one to survive the battle, so they’re now piloting it in shifts
They’ve done some laudable work creating an uneven texture for this mech to lessen the discordance of its CG against the scenery, but it’s unfortunately still pretty messy. Very few CG-integrated anime are going to age well
They arrive at another town. The terrain and architecture seem to indicate we’re somewhere in western Europe, though the text is largely Japanese
They stop in at a run-down school, presenting a clear contrast of the lives these children should have led against the soldiers they’ve been forced to become
Kurena’s personality at times feels like a concession to convention; she doesn’t feel like a convincing teenager, she feels like a child-minded anime heroine, and that contrasts pretty abrasively with this show’s generally more realistic tone
“Books we can’t read are worthless.” A really keen note of tragedy in this whole sequence, as the small victories and ambitions of a lost generation are burnt to keep these few survivors alive
On the 31st, the team dads confer over their last day’s worth of fuel
The scenery is beautiful and the forest is peaceful, and at last I’m actually nervous. These are the moments that get disrupted with senseless violence
Yeeep. Shin asks to switch with the current pilot, claiming that he’s just bored, and then immediately rushes off to protect them from the Legion
Appropriately for the final episode, we got lots of generous character acting as the whole team demand Shin come back to them. Gotta leave the audience with a good last impression!
Also a characteristically 86-style scene transition, as a rock is kicked at the camera and rebounds in the form of an artillery shell. The show hasn’t been pulling off as many of these ostentatious match cuts lately, so I’m happy to see them return. A loud directorial personality is certainly preferable to no personality at all!
Shin’s taking fire from the ultra-range cannon again
“I’ll kill everyone who threatens the princess!” At the end of Shin’s brother’s speech, we get a new character introduced, pictured in a rare unobscured shot. Presumably this is one of the sequel hooks, and it feels as clumsily “but wait, there’s more!” as you’d expect. It’s a rare sequel hook that doesn’t instantly reframe an ostensibly cohesive artistic statement as a replicable commercial product; for that to work, your story has to feel episodic or ongoing in the first place
We at last see some bipedal Legion units, and oh my god they look goofy as hell. Look at their weird little waddle as they run across the battlefield
With the team apparently defeated, we cut back to Lena on October 13th, presumably to receive the context for how she’s about to save their asses
Currently on house arrest, she’s come to visit Spearhead’s base. I suppose the fact that she’s near enough to Republic royalty kept her from avoiding major consequences for that last dash of insubordination
Their mechanic Albrecht reveals he’s actually an Alba, but died his hair and volunteered after his wife and daughter were drafted
“Once I’m on the other side, I’ll see them.” A line contrasted against the charged shot of that overgrown railway extending into the distance. Given the state of the world, it’s no wonder that 86 is preoccupied with the concept of a “proper death,” and has constructed a sort of mythology about “getting to the other side.” The Legion’s strategy of stealing brains makes the threat of an “improper death” meaningful in a very literal sense, while Spearhead’s migration is framed as a “journey to the other side” in a more hopeful way
Her visit to the lodge is a parade of absences; worn desks with no papers left on them, plants that have withered from neglect, pieces of tape marking where posters once lined the walls
Hah, Shin was actually reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Good book – quick read, and likely the definitive version of this “innocence lost by war” narrative
The team actually left a note for her in the book. At last, she can put faces to the voices she’s known
Whew, we did it! That was actually far less brutal than I’d expected, with most of the episode maintaining the soft, elegiac tenor of its predecessor. That’s all to the good in my opinion; 86 is at its best when it’s embracing more subtle illustrations of war’s tragedy, and this episode’s quiet drama served as an effective final condemnation of what has been done to Spearhead, as well as a celebration of the people they’ve become in spite of that. With only that one inexplicable line from Shin’s brother pointing to any drama beyond this season, this episode was also capable of serving as a satisfyingly conclusive bookend to the narrative overall. 86’s first season stands all by itself, as a poignant war drama with an engaging cast, ambitious directorial style, and laudable disinterest in glamorizing combat. This is righteous anger done right!
This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.