Another very strong episode of Arslan this week, as the series continues to establish itself as a marathoner in a genre increasingly dominated by sprinters. It could be taken as an insult to say Arslan is plot-driven, but it applies here in a wholly positive sense. A plot-driven show doesn’t have to have weak characters, and this one certainly doesn’t. It’s plot-forward in the way that A Song of Ice and Fire and Juuni Kokuki are – the story leads the characters and not the other way around. But it doesn’t matter which one leads, as long as you get there.
The experience of watching these early episodes is akin to seeing jigsaw pieces being slotted into place, one at a time. Each one gives you a slightly better idea of what the larger picture looks like, and of the shape of the missing pieces. But this is a very large puzzle, and without prior knowledge it’s still pretty tough to pin down what the end result is going to look like. In this episode we meet Innocentius VII (Sakurai Toshiharu), King of Lusitania, and his younger brother Giskarl (Koyasu Takehito) as they march into the conquered Ectabana. The former is a grotesquely fat and seemingly stupid man, the latter a put-upon fellow who seems to spend much of his time keeping his brother from doing something excessively stupid.
Equally important as the introduction of the brothers is the context they provide for Queen Tahamenay’s character. She seems something of a black widow – a woman who proves irresistible to men of great power, whose obsession over her destroys them. And she proves irresistible to Innocentius too, to the horror or pretty much everyone in his court. Is she intentionally using and discarding these men, or a passive participant to the devastation her beauty wreaks? I would be very surprised if the story of the chaos and death she caused among the various men who desired her, leading to her ending up in Andragoras’ clutches, is unrelated to either (or both of) Kharlan’s betrayal of Pars or Silver Mask’s vendetta against the country.
Silver Mask’s identity is another of those puzzle pieces that will seemingly clarify things greatly when it’s revealed. He pointedly refers to “Lusitanian savages” and in doing so makes it inescapably clear that he’s merely using them towards a greater end. He holds great sway in the army – even Kharlan defers to him – yet he (like Kharlan) is held in contempt by the rank-and-file officers. The Lustanian invasion was built around a traitor and a mercenary, it seems – neither of them Lusitanians, and one of them possibly a sorcerer (not even Kharlan knows for sure, but the evidence is strong). The Lusitanians don’t come off well here – they seem like garden-variety conquerers, bullying and raping the locals (in the city as well as the villages) and thus far reneging on their pledge to free the slaves in Ectabana.
Meanwhile, Narsus has sent Elam into Ectabana disguised as a machi musume (let the Yoon comparisons continue) in order to suss out the situation. It’s there that he runs into the young Lusitanian we met in the premiere, by now apparently a Lusitanian officer who introduces himself as a squire named Etoile (Uchiyama Yumi). Etoile is searching for clues as to the whereabouts of his fellow slaves (sadly, we know their fate) but takes time to save the town girl from a lustful foot soldier – which proves wholly unnecessary when Elam reveals his true identity. I can’t help but feel that Elam isn’t the only participant in the ensuing scuffle that’s springing a trap – pettanko or not, this Etoile seems much less boyish than Arslan’s foil from the first episode did.
Also making her formal introduction is Falangies (the always superb Sakamoto Maaya), who has her own random intersection, this time with Gieve on a mountain path. Between the two of them they decimate a Lusitanian patrol, as Falangies reveals herself as a superb archer and as an emissary from the Temple of Mithra (historically speaking, the Zoroastrian faith) on her way to meet with Arslan. There’s a lot of pretty hilarious vamping from Gieve here, but these two are obviously both going to play a major role in Arslan’s journey. At the moment both are wild cards, but each is clearly very smart and very formidable.
Again, Team Arslan plays a minor role here. Elam brings news that Kharlan is marching with 1000 men in search of Arslan – and that he did so in broad daylight. Narsus’ tells the young prince that if he were Kharlan, he’s try and call Arslan out by burning a village and threatening to burn another every day until Arslan showed himself. In truth, this is a test for Arslan – Narsus wants to see whether he’ll insist on emerging from their hidey-hole and attempting to stop Kharlan. Narsus wants to know whether this boy is worth staking his future and that of his country on, and just why Kharlan – who he clearly respects as a savvy opponent – did what he did. As such, the clear path for him is to take Kharlan’s bait and rise to meet him in the field. Arslan doesn’t disappoint him, or us – and it seems we’re very close to learning just why Kharlan chose to betray his king and country. And as puzzle pieces go, that’s one of the most important ones out there.