In a sense, I think this episode was a reward for 20 episodes of tremendous character build-up. The emotional intensity here was a direct result of all that heavy lifting, and as a result I thought this episode was tremendously moving. As much as a reward, though – and perhaps a bit of a breather – I think it was a necessary raising of the emotional stakes for the three episode final arc. An episode like this one will make you feel the urgency and tragedy of everything that happens over the final three episodes that much more deeply.
Really, this was an episode about how each of the three main characters, despite their closeness, are truly, existentially alone. As there wasn’t much action here, this was basically an actors’ episode – and that makes it a good time to reflect on what an incredible job this cast has done. Goto Saori’s fabulous work as Moeka in episode 19 was noted in this space, and Tamura Yukari was amazing during Suzuha’s arc. Miyano Mamoru has been fantastic all along (and again here, really bringing the depth of Okarin’s despair to life) but this was the moment for Imai Asami and Kana Hanazawa to really shine. KanaHana tends to be devalued a bit for her overuse and the fact that too many of her characters blend together, but when she finds a character in her range she’s spectacular. Her Kuroneko in Oreimo may have been the best performance of 2010, and Mayuri – to Hanazawa’s credit a radically different character – is one of this year’s best. She takes what could be a saccharine and cloying part in lesser hands and really makes us feel the purity and innocence of the girl. Mayushi is just good, plain and simple – she’s cute and funny, but her love for Okarin and her simple trust in him are incredibly heartbreaking in an episode like this one. As for Asami-san, it’s only when we stop and think that we realize how her portrayal of Kurisu has evolved subtly over the show’s run. She’s managed to wring incredible nuance out of this whip-smart, proud and ultimately noble young woman who has clearly fallen in love with Okarin.
While it can hardly be disputed that it was a terrible decision born of desperation, thanks to the writing and acting I could really believe that Okarin might try to defeat fate by killing himself. One of the possible outcomes for the Kobayashi Maru problem was for Okarin to save both girls by sacrificing himself, but I didn’t expect it to be attempted so soon and so literally. I don’t see any reason to think it would’ve worked and I suspect now that we’ve seen what we have, it’s off the table for the real finale, but as heartsick and defeated as the poor guy was, I can believe he’d resort to it. As much as anything, I don’t think he thought he’d be saving Mayuri as much as putting an end to the misery he’d been suffering. But interestingly, the last moments of the episode might subtly hint that Kurisu is considering an option along similar lines – and one that might be considerably more integral to the finale.
Of course, Mayuri has been suffering too, and not just in terms of her repeated deaths. She’s been dreaming each of those horrible moments in grisly detail, and refused to talk to Okarin about it even as he refuses to share what he knows with her. Her message to her Grandmother was as vulnerable as Mayuri gets, and as much as she likes the new lab members it’s clear she misses the days when she had Okarin to herself. But while she plays along with his games and fantasies, Kurisu is just the opposite – as she says she knew within five seconds that the entire Kyouma act was BS. That makes her his confidante in a way Mayuri can never be – but the implication here is that if ultimately forced to face the choice he dreads most of all, with all alternatives exhausted, Okarin would choose Mayuri. He’ll always protect his hostage, even from the truth – but he respects Kurisu’s intelligence and integrity too much to patronize her in the same way. He loves them both each in their own way, but in a sense Okarin is the father on the lifeboat with his wife and child, who can only save one of them. Everyone would answer that riddle differently, but I think I know how Okarin would answer it. He’d throw himself over the side if it was an option – but that trick won’t work with this dilemma.
For all the sci-fi and the otaku lingo and the meta-humor, Steins;Gate is a very elemental story. This is a classic moral dilemma dressed up in modern attire, but it’s a classic just the same. In terms of plot, S;G has followed the rules pretty much from the beginning, and whatever the ending is I expect it be something closer to a Greek tragedy or Shakespeare than some sort of wacky “third way” technobabble deux ex machina that hits the reset button. As surely as equivalent exchange had to be followed in FMA, I think certain guardrails are set up here. I’m preparing myself for something that will hit hard and take no prisoners, and I’ll be disappointed if I get anything less. I want poetry and elegance and astonishment – and as great as the writing for S;G has been, I’m pretty confident I’m going to get them.