It was an interesting call for Astral Ocean to go with a character-driven episode with a very narrow focus this close to the end. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, given that those were the signals the series was sending with episode 17 – that the big questions had been laid out, and the pieces were being moved into place for the final push. Still, after the grand scope of the last five or six eps it was interesting to see the narrative focus almost entirely on the three Pied Piper Pilots, with a solid side of Gazelle and global politics – no Secrets or Scub, or Truth – really, a return to much earlier in the series in many ways.
Since in many ways this show has been from the beginning largely about Ao trying to find someone to trust, it probably is fitting that this was a major theme of the episode. I think it’s probably fair to say that Ao has pretty much ruled adults out as trustworthy options, with the exception of his Mom and possibly Ivica. That leaves us returning back to the generational divide, a commonality with the original E7. Ao may have “defected” to the allied forces, but it’s not as though he did it because he has any special trust or affection for them – he did it because the people he cares most about are Pied Piper, and he figured that since he was committed to using the quartz gun for what he sees as selfish reasons, he’d be more of a burden to them than anything. Better to be a burden to people he doesn’t care about than people he does.
This is a pretty universal dilemma – an orphan boy feeling as if he has no place in the world, and that he carries misfortune with him wherever he goes. With that said, though, I think Ao certainly hoped all along at some level that Elena and Fleur would come after him. If he can’t trust adults, he might at least be able to trust them – if not his own age, they’re not adults either and just as important, they’re being used and exploited (note the article Pippo is reading on his tablet, an exposé of child labor abuse at Generation Bleu – right next to the “You can’t stop aging – but you can stop your smell!” ad) almost as much as he is. Late in the episode Blanc makes reference to a comment Ivica had made, that it wasn’t they that were blowing the pipe and leading the way, but the children – an interesting statement in many ways, but especially now that the generational divide that’s always been an undercurrent in AO is coming to the surface.
As Ao is being courted by his new “friend”, Tanaka – with big bowls of candy and sweet drinks, the symbolism could hardly be more broad if Tanaka actually had a van – Elena and Fleur are dishing out screencaps and giving us their most intense interaction of the entire series. I’m not sure we really learn anything more about just who (or what) Elena is – she says openly that she killed Miller and took over her life, but I suspect we knew that – but I think we do learn that her desire for friendship with Fleur and Ao is genuine. She continues to cast herself as an outsider (probably accurately) and use her otaku humor as a shield. Fleur continues to tread too carefully in personal matters, not realizing that Elena is practically begging her to violate her space for once and call her out for the bullshit games she plays to isolate herself (“Otaku knowledge is a circle-jerk” indeed), and refusing to acknowledge her feelings for Ao (who may be too young for her, but not outrageously so).
Elena, in her usual flip manner, jokes about “the power of love” being what finally gets the third engine in Fleur’s IFO (and her own) to engage, but she’s actually almost certainly spot-on. What she feels for Ao is probably closer to fraternal love (and perhaps literally so) but it’s love nonetheless, and that unites the two girls in purpose. Presented with a choice when they confront him on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan (where Maggie Kwan is apparently a fighter pilot in this no-Goldilocks timeline), Ao is forced to admit the truth – in the end, he wants to be with them, quartz gun or no. Col. Tanaka does earn a few points here, as he certainly could have gone ahead and shot Ao rather than let GenBleu have him back – but there was probably as much strategy as compassion in that decision, as he doesn’t know enough about the quartz weapon he covets to risk killing Ao when he might be the only one capable of using it. Even in enemy hands, if Ao is alive he can always be recaptured later, and the quartz gun along with him.
As always, we’re left wondering not just who’s in the right, but who actually believes they are – and who’s simply acting out of naked self-interest. It’s now clear than Christophe is the big picture man, while Stanley represents the money people – Big Blue World is his priority, not GenBleu – and that Rebecka is going to be forced to choose between them, probably soon. And Elena and Fleur’s actions may have been driven by love, but they’ve effectively isolated GenBleu from the rest of the world – the US is demanding that the UN label them as terrorists, and as Gazelle says, “everyone is our enemy now”. We know what Ao wants – his Mom back – but everyone from Christophe to Ivica to Team Gazelle is going to have to make a declaration of purpose soon, as the time for straddling the fence is coming to an end.
There’s a troubling note to add regarding the broadcast of AO, and it’s this: with the Olympic delay, there now isn’t enough time to air all 24 episodes of AO before Zetsuen no Tempest takes over the slot in October. Episode 22 is currently listed as the final regularly scheduled airing. What does this mean for the final two episodes? At this point we just don’t know. MBX could air double-episodes of AO for the last two weeks – but that presumes BONES will have them ready, and there’s no sign of a double-broadcast yet. We could end up having to wait for a delayed broadcast, or have them exclusively streamed online – they might even end up as BD-only episodes. I’ll keep you posted as information becomes available, but for now all we can do is wait and hope the delay isn’t a long one.