This is one of those episodes where Boku no Hero Academia flips the river card – a payoff ep in the truest sense of the word. All the heavy lifting the series does in terms of character development and making an elaborate lanyard from plot threads allows it to deliver a conclusion that doesn’t require a lot of interpretation. It all fits, it all makes sense – all you have to do as an audience member is sit back and revel in it.
Many manga fans have dubbed this part of the story the “Stain Arc”, and it’s easy to see why. For me, the Hero Killer Stain is the most fascinating and unsettling part of this arc – yeah, Iida’s crisis is compelling and a true litmus test for his relationship with Deku and Todoroki, and it’s important for everyone’s character development. But as his own brother says, Tenya is a very literal person. He’s straightforward, and his motivations are straightforward. There’s nothing straightforward about Stain – he’s a dark and disturbing puzzle that asks a lot of uncomfortable questions no one else in this story asks.
First things first, though. And the first thing that has to happen in this denouement is that Iida Tenya has to overcome his self-pity and despair and move his ass to save his friends – who’re putting theirs on the line to save him from himself. Make no mistake, Iida should feel terrible – indisputably, it’s his selfishness that put Izuku and Shouto in deadly danger. If he hadn’t launched this vendetta against Stain, the Doumu crisis would still have been bad, but Izuku and Shouto would have been fighting under the leadership of pro heroes, adults. Stain certainly wouldn’t have helped Shigaraki – in fact, I’ve always believed that if Iida hadn’t interfered Stain would have “heroically” hunted down noumu himself to the best of his ability, since their presence is an affront to him.
But Iida did what he did, and he got himself (and Native – who I should note is played by the very likeable Kenn) into deadly danger as a result. So Tenya’s test is to swallow his self-loathing and suck it up to fight for his friends’ lives. And so he does, just in the nick to save Shouto from a rather nasty (perhaps arm-removing) cut. Three-on-one, the boys have the measure of Stain – just. But it’s a war of attrition, filled with danger, and it still might have turned out for the worst if Gran Torino hadn’t been sent to help by Endeavor (who was given the address by his son).
Stain is a murderer, a “fundamentalist” as Shouto calls him – a terrorist. He practices social engineering of the worst kind, destroying those who don’t meet his standard of what the world should look like. But he’s also a man of towering will and seemingly limitless resolve. As (again) Shouto notes, Stain’s quirk is actually rather limited – yet he’s able to take down pro heroes at will, and he’s more than a match for three of the strongest Yuuei students and their more powerful quirks. He makes up for what he lacks in quirk with astonishing physical prowess (he’s certainly better with blades than anyone in BnHA) and even more astonishing martial spirit. And if all that weren’t enough, there’s so much damn truth to the criticisms he levies against hero culture (and some specific counterfeit heroes – like this moment’s Iida Tenya).
The most dangerous madmen (and fascinating villains) are not the moustache-twirling sociopaths, but the ones whose madness is rooted in a truth and justice that’s warped into something terrible (see: Shishio, Makoto). When a noumu snatches the severely wounded Deku, it’s Stain who thinks quickly and saves him (despite being even more critically wounded) because that’s what his code dictates – he’s acknowledged Deku as a true hero in nature. And what Endeavor arrives on the scene, despite his terrible injuries and not being able to use his quirk, Stain raises himself up to confront the man he considers the embodiment of hero culture gone wrong (the implications of that are fascinating). And he’s ready to take him on until he’s literally out on his feet – unconscious due to internal bleeding. As these two stand facing each other, knowing what we do of Endeavor and Stain forces us to ask which is the real villain, if not which a true hero – and that’s what makes Stain such a fascinating and dangerous terrorist.