With episode 21 having provided the action climax and episode 22 providing the dramatic climax, all that’s left for episode 23 to do is provide the epilogue. But as with any grand story, a proper epilogue is an absolutely essential element. It may not have the drama or intensity of earlier content, but it must bring together and finalize the story threads to that point. Episode 23 isn’t completely perfect on that front, but it comes so tantalizingly close, and has so many wonderful little touches, that it makes for quite the satisfying finish nonetheless. I am left with no regrets about naming this my #1 series of 2021.
None of that quality comes from any big surprises for the viewer, because there aren’t any. Even if a meta take on the series did not dictate it, that Lena would comes to the Giad Federacy and be reunited with Spearhead Squadron was all but outright said from the early stages of the episode. However, the way that gets handled matters, which is why “Handler One” is the perfect title for the episode. (In fact, it is the only reasonable choice for the title.) On the surface, that title refers to Lena actively returning to the picture, but it means so much more in execution. Despite Shin’s talents, the surviving Spearhead Squadron members would not have gotten out of the Republic alive without her as their Handler, and the fact that they do not hesitate to agree to work under her again is a tacit acknowledgement of their respect for both what she did then and how she survived since then. Her title as Handler One also becomes irrefutable proof of their identities when they finally meet face-to-face.
If the structure of the episode seems a little odd – with essentially two separate end credits scenes – that’s because the production team opted to adapt both the novel 1 and novel 3 epilogues mostly independently rather than fully merging them. The first part is a fleshed-out adaptation of the novel 3 epilogue, which was originally done from the viewpoint of the 86s. The Christmas scene, those of the other 86s doing various normal things, and the scene about Shin retaining his mark are anime-original, but the scene in Ernst’s office and the graveyard scene are straight from the novel; it carries decidedly more weight in this version, though.
As well-handled as the 86 side was, the part I was more waiting for was Lena’s side of the same time frame, which adapts the novel 1 epilogue. In showing the state of the Republic in the wake of the Federacy’s rescue operation, it carries a lot more impact. It reveals that the Republic got crushed in just a week’s time, and only barely hung on thanks to the efforts of Lena rallying the 86s and like-minded Alba officers. The strong implication pitched by the visuals is that it took devastation on a massive scale to break the genocidal ways of San Magnolia, but as the soup kitchen scene shows, even that is not going to bury deeply-ingrained racist tendencies; one needs look no farther than the U.S.’s messy (and some would argue ongoing) history with racism to see how painfully realistic that is. The imagery used to show this – from the ruined monuments to the altered slogans and graffiti to very-ironic wreckage of Juggernauts on the damaged war memorial way, to even the open presence of 86s everywhere in District 1 – is beautifully-chosen, though the wreckage of Lena’s bedroom had the most impact for me. It symbolizes what she is leaving behind, with her carrying forward the one thing which is truly important to her. The pictures of her superior posing with uncomfortable-looking 86s, and the way they are blatantly placed to convince any visitors that he’s changed his thinking, also was a biting touch; even the cat seemed to recognize how disingenuous he was.
What struck me most while watching the scenes leading up to the climactic reunion was the sense of parallelism the story displays. Each side has a scene of characters coming home, having lighter and more casual moments with friends, and a more serious office scene about what’s to come in the future concerning the planned independent mobile force. Each has the featured co-protagonist visiting a grave in a graveyard, then later visiting the memorial for Spearhead Squadron’s Juggernauts, and in the latter case, each scene showed the featured character stepping away – and thus stepping forward – from the same floor-level angle. Each also very deliberately shows how the protagonists have changed. Despite her soft look, Lena has a hardened and more determined core, while Shin can actually smile and enjoy things for a change; that he can now cook was a neat symbol of that, even if it was played more for humor.
All of that beautifully sets up the epilogue of the epilogue, where the 86s and Lena finally meet face-to-face. That they are able to meet like this is the full culmination of the story to this point, and it was every bit as satisfying in execution as I had hoped. My one slight complaint might be that they gave the scene a little too much play, but again, the details more than make up for that: the signs on both Lena and Kurena’s faces that they had been crying, for instance, or the way that Fido’s recording called back to a similar sequence back in episode 10. The way the video did the montage of Shin running forward at three distinct ages, or how the very brief upside-down shot of Lena walking towards Shin’s damaged Reginleif in episode 22 is transposed with her walking to meet them in the final scene. The way the other 86s giggle when Lena clearly doesn’t recognize them, and the way the expressions of both Lena and Shin change.
The details and symbolism shown in other ways as well. Railways have been used throughout the series as symbolism for what direction the characters are going, and now the railway leads directly to the six standing together. Even the shots of the birds flying away carry extra meaning; the end of episode 11 showed five flying together, but now there are six. Lighting tricks are also use quite effectively throughout, and Willem beeping back at Fido while the other two Federacy officers give him funny looks makes for a neat humor touch. The only other complaint about this episode is that the artistry is a little shaky in certain scenes (especially early on), but again, the does so well on so many other fronts that that can be overlooked.
This episode concludes the adaptation of what I consider the strongest part of the franchise, so where will the story go next? Various scenes here give at least some indication on that. Lena, now reunited with Spearhead Squadron, is going to work with them as a special unit to deal with special threats posed by the Legion, who have taken substantial losses but are hardly defeated. Currently six more novels are available in English, with two more available in Japanese. At the slow adaptation paces used so far, that means several more seasons could be done. No break point as significant as the end of novel 3 exists past this, though (at least not through novel 8 – I’m reading 9 now), so any future seasonal conclusion won’t be as satisfying. Still, this series already stands as a model for how a light novel adaptation can do its series justice, so I will eagerly welcome any future continuation.