That was definitely a “path of least resistance episode”. Pleasant and straightforward, well within the SAO formula. I enjoyed it, and I would say the best thing about it was the pacing – the 22 minutes flew by, which can only reflect positively on the writing. But really, in retrospect I felt like I’d just eaten an above-average fast-food meal – it was tasty, but not very filling. It’s tempting to apply that criticism to SAO as a whole, but I think it would be too harsh to tar the entire series with that brush.
I’d say the best parts of the episode were at either end, with the filling in the sandwich not nearly so interesting as the bun. I liked the introductory sequence with Kirito and Asuna, whose relationship still seems to be moving at light speed (married with children already). Asuna’s speculation that Kirito might be younger than she is seems spot-on – but would it really make that much difference to her? And Kirito asked what I think was exactly the right question – does this marriage exist in real life? Despite Asuna’s righteous indignation I don’t think the answer is so easy, and it ties into what’s one of the most interesting elements of SAO – the impact on the players when life inside might be better than outside. We already see the two young marrieds indulging their passions and setting aside the cause of escaping – though to be fair Kirito already seems to be itching to go back to work after a few days, and I certainly don’t begrudge the pair of them a honeymoon in their luxury cabin on Floor 22.
I’m setting myself up for isolation on this I’d guess, but the entire second act of the episode was largely a miss. The whole Yui sequence is just too easy – for me it borders on self-indulgence and pandering. SAO has a habit of introducing moe girls for effect far too often anyway, but Yui (Itou Kanae) is really over the top – put her out there, listen to the audience squee and prepare for big sales. I’d rather see Kawahara do the heavy lifting of trying to tell the story without using hyper-kawaii little girls as crutches, but to thine own self be true – and even I’ll admit that the concept of Yui is interesting, even as the execution leaves me cold.
People often compare SAO to .hack – which beyond the superficial isn’t an especially close match IMO – but I’m much more often reminded of Tad Williams’ “Otherland” trilogy as I watch (and boy, would those books make a fantastic anime). In both cases the most interesting element is the psychological connect/disconnect between life on the inside and the outside, and the shenanigans of crazy megalomaniacal billionaire are the heart of the matter. In concept if not form Yui feels very much like something that came out of that series – a sort of “ghost in the machine” (I think Kirito’s initial story might be more apt than he thinks) that doesn’t fit any existing model of existence. She doesn’t seem to be a player, or NPC, but something in between – for Kirito and Asuna anyway a new reality. I don’t know what Yui is (besides moe) but my strong sense is that she’s not, in fact, a player but rather some kind of A.I. – possibly she’s a part of the game itself but not a conventional NPC or “Quest Bringer”, and certainly not a monster. A maintenance sprite, or a spy for Akihiko who’s gone rogue – or at least, defective?
Things pick up again once Kirito and Asuna take Yui to the Town of Beginnings to see if they might find her parents there. The subject of children in SAO (and I mean young children, not the teens that make up a large percentage of any MMORPG players) hasn’t really been addressed, but it’s an interesting one. Out of the 10,000 who started the game I would expect at least a healthy smattering of bright pre-teens, and most of them probably logged on without their parents – which effectively makes them orphans once the game begins. It appears that in addition to the other structures they created, someone had enough responsibility to create a day care for these ragamuffins – but alas, where there are children there are also bullies, in this case the army. The Aincrad army seems to serve no positive function at all as far as I can tell, but merely acts as a self-serving gang of bullies and extortionists that doesn’t serve the community positively in any way (unlike some guilds). Their abuse of the local orphans seems made-for-TV cruel – how much value do the kids really have to them, anyway? But it does illustrate the point that in SAO as in RL, society has its most vulnerable citizens, and it’s up to that society to determine the lengths they’re willing to go to in protecting them.
At this point, by Kirito’s reckoning, there are 6,000 players left alive (a shocking mortality rate) about 30% of which are still mewling about the Town of Beginnings. Having seen what they’ve seen, I don’t see how Kirito and Asuna can abandon the First Floor as they had been doing, leaving it in the clutches of what’s effectively an organized crime family while they interface till they’re exhausted and then go back to clearing floors with the Knights of the Blood Oath. That moral dilemma, along with the nature of Yui’s existence (and her heart), seems likely to drive the narrative for the rest of this cour. Hopefully as we explore those threads, we’ll get some directorial restraint when it comes to Yui mugging for the camera.