No question about it, this was a significant change of pace from last week’s emotional sledgehammer of an episode. The last two weeks, really, and that’s in an arc that’s already over a year old and has only rarely been less than dark and difficult over that stretch. This week’s ep felt like the first time in a while I’ve actually been able to draw a breath during an episode of Hunter X Hunter, so the more modulated intensity level is probably a good thing. You just can’t sustain that level of non-stop tension forever, either as a writer or an audience.
The thing is, it’s only in context that this feels like a breather episode. It was actually quite fast-paced, tense and pretty darn grim in its own right. We really are down to the home stretch now and it’s going to be fascinating to see how Togashi writes himself out of the narrative corner he’s painted himself into. This Meruem has defeated the strongest human on offer, Netero (though after last week that title may now be debatable). He’s shrugged off what amounts to a nuclear weapon (though admittedly with the help of Shaiapouf and Menthruyoupi). And this episode was more than anything about showing us just how much stronger he is than anyone and anything else we’ve seen in this universe – including the old version of himself.
If a mere mortal were writing H x H, this is the sort of thing that would have me worried. But if history has taught us anything it’s that Togashi-sensei doesn’t go anywhere by accident. He plans these complex story arcs down to the minutest detail (indeed, this is a major reason for his frequent hiatuses in my view), and no detail is unimportant. We have the situation we have now because it’s exactly where Togashi wanted us to be with roughly 10 chapters left in “Chimera Ant”, because this scenario is what he needs to bring the story to it’s epic, Shakespearean conclusion.
And just what is that situation? Pouf is growing increasingly desperate in his flailing to keep Meruem from remembering Komugi, especially now that he’s seen The King’s memory be triggered by mere words. He has Youpi on his side (their agreement is unspoken but clear to both of them) but worries about Pitou’s agreement. Thanks to Palm’s Wink Blue we see that Killua is carrying an unconscious Gon we know not to where, but he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry (both of Gon’s encounters with Pitou ended that way, in fact), the latter of whom seems to have reverted to his normal size but retained his tower of hair. There are four members of the original party left at the palace – Knuckle and Meleoron hiding amongst the gathered zombiefied masses, Palm carrying the still-unconscious Komugi, and Ikalgo.
It surely can’t be a surprise to anyone that Meruem knew his underlings were hiding something from him, given the unique sort of connection they now seem to share. But I see this Meruem as someone who now sees no challenges remaining before him, and as we’ve seen already he’s intellectually curious and not lacking in self-awareness. What pleasure can world domination give him if it’s so easy – is such a world even worth dominating? His aura is so overpowering even compared to Pitou’s that when he projects it outwards, Knuckle immediately gives us up all hope of fighting him – he tells Meleoron they’re going to flee immediately back to Peijing, and leave the next step in the hands of the Hunters Association. As we’ve seen Knuckle isn’t constitutionally inclined towards caution, so this reaction is telling – and it sets up an interesting dynamic with Meleoron. His reasons for being here are far more personal than Knuckle’s, and he owes no allegiances to any group aside from personal loyalty to his friends. He more than Knuckle came on this mission expecting to die, and the notion of leaving now – especially with four of their friends unaccounted for – clearly doesn’t sit well, no matter how terrifying The King’s aura is.
Togashi is setting us up here, pretty much with everything that’s happened to this point in the episode. Meruem declares that he’s going to hunt down the remaining Hunters “for entertainment”, and when he turns on his En it’s literally a matter of a few seconds for him to find Knuckle and Meleoron and render them unconscious (Meleoron doesn’t even have time to use Perfect Plan). And when the now abjectly panicking Pouf tries to stall him from going after the other two Nen users he’s detected (one of whom, Pouf knows, is likely with Komugi) by suggesting a contest, Meruem reveals that of course he’s known all along Pouf and Youpi were deceiving him. Because he sensed that their loyalty was stronger than their urge to deceive he hasn’t annihilated them, but if he wins (finding Palm and Octobro before they find Pitou) they must tell him the truth. If they win, he’ll let them each make one wish.
Again, Meruem comes off here as someone desperate to be stimulated – a quality we were already seeing even before Zeno’s arrows rained down on the palace (and this makes Komugi’s psychological importance to him even more monumental, since she – and to a lesser extent Netero – have been the only beings that have managed to fully capture his interest). For this reason he’s willing to play along with Pouf’s machinations, even agreeing to a handicap – he’ll let Pouf spread his scales over the last of the arriving peasantry before he starts hunting, and he’ll only use En once more in his hunt. Meruem is going to be very, very angry when it all comes flooding back to him – and it surely will before we’re all said and done – but for now, his forbearance is the only thing keeping Palm and Ikalgo at-large.
For Palm, given the terrifying displays she’s just seen, there are no good choices. Flee out into the plains, knowing she’ll be a sitting duck whenever Meruem uses En again (and of course she knows nothing of the contest)? Or flee underground, trapping herself like a rat in a maze, hoping thousands of meters of earth and rock will shield her from Meruem’s sight? It’s towards Bizeff’s luxury nookie-bunker she initially flees, and Ikalgo has the same thought – and when they meet it’s clear he’s not hesitating in his decision to go underground. This seems like the lesser of two evils to me – both of them know that maze of tunnels well by now. And it strikes me that there might even be a potential ally waiting for them in Welfin, who when we last left him seemed to have awoken to his old self to the point where he no longer saw any reason to throw his lot in with The King.
The only other point in their favor is that Palm and Ikalgo hold a very valuable asset in Komugi, one that’s obviously precious to the King – and Palm surely knows this after everything she’s seen in the last hour or so. In fact she and Octobro have something Meruem wants, and because of her special sight she knows Meruem has something they want – Knuckle and Meleoron. That’s a fascinating dynamic – but none of it takes us any closer to understanding how Meruem might ultimately be stopped, or what role if any Killua and Gon might have in the resolution of this massive epic. Few writers would dare bring things to conclusion without involving them, but then there are few writers like Togashi Yoshihiro. I don’t know how the hell this thing is going to be settled, but I’m certainly anxious to find out.