I seem to have reached some sort of nexus point with Sousou no Frieren. I don’t know whether the show itself has actually leveled up or I simply got to the buy-in stage for nebulous reasons – as sometimes happens with slice of life. But it’s clicking for me now in a way it (mostly) wasn’t before. I have an “OK, now I sort of get it” feeling watching these last couple of episodes. I’m appreciating what the series does well more than I ever have, and less focused on what it doesn’t. Having more characters has definitely helped (as they’re the right characters).
One of those things Sousou no Frieren is very good at is scoring points when no one is saying anything. Part of it is Evan Call’s (superb) BGM. It’s also the clever way it shows us the characters reacting to each other, revealing bits of themselves they’d never (well, apart from Heiter, who had no filter) say out loud. As an example, I don’t mean this in a remotely snarky way, but Fern is at her best when she’s not talking – because most of what she says is her defense mechanism to push people away and assert her perceived dominance. And Frieren betrays her love for others only with her eyes and smile – never with her words.
It’s hard to overstate how much Sein and especially Stark have improved the chemistry here. Because Frieren and Fern are indeed so prickly as individuals, Stark’s “stark” openness stands in opposition. He’s a complete teddy bear of a kid, vulnerable and incapable of deceit. He’s a sweet and kind soul and makes (maybe because he can’t) no effort to hide it. Stark makes Fern a lot more bearable, as mean as she is to him, because he brings out both good and bad things in her that make her more interesting.
Sein takes the spotlight in the first half of the episode, which finds the Frierengumi arriving at a village which finds everyone asleep. Frieren correctly assesses it to be a curse, which is a problem as mages are weak against curses. Only priests can fight them (that’s convenient), because only the magic of the Goddess can counteract them. The primer we get on this is a touch clumsy, but sort of makes sense in context as Stark might plausibly not know anything about this. He falls asleep first, then Fern, and finally Frieren herself. Given that Sein’s power is only enough to awaken someone for about five seconds, this is a problem – especially when the cause turns out to be a “chaos flower” which can deflect magical attacks.
This is an effective expansion of the series’ mythology, and it’s nice to see Sein have a chance to be the hero (though Frieren is the one who lands the kill shot). Trust established, Heiter-san. The main event, though, comes when the partt arrives in the major fortress town of Vorig – roughly the halfway point of their journey. And they’re immediately accosted by Lord Orden (Uchida Yuuya – one of many names I’d rather have seen cast in Rurouni Kenshin 2023 than the ones we got), who’s weirdly obsessed with Stark’s personal appearance.
This extended set piece is another of those low-key, slow-play scenarios that Frieren is able to draw emotional resonance out of very effectively. Orden is another prickly cuss for Stark to be a foil to, and while his practical reasons for asking Stark (bribing Frieren) to impersonate his son Wirt are valid, there’s obviously an emotional component to this as well. It strikes me that Stark really gets the raw end of the deal here – he’s the one who has to go to finishing school for three months while Frieren and Fern hit the dessert buffet and Sein goes cougar hunting. At least Fern gets drafted to clean up her act too, but only for the final month.
For Frieren this is like a dream come true – she gets to chill with sweets and books for three months when she literally has all the time in the world, and a grimoire at the end to boot. She also gets to see her babies grow ever closer, as their forced interaction for the upcoming soiree has them looking at each other (again literally) in a new light. The fact that the series doesn’t oversell this – just shows us these people looking at each and revealing their true feelings – is testament to its skill at this sort of material.
I also think Stark comes off really well here, though he’d already won me over. He immediately identifies with Orden’s younger son Mut, who struggles to live up to the Orden name – and his older brother – in their father’s eyes. Stark does his best to nudge Orden into being a better father to Mut (though one senses he’s not as bad as it first appeared), and suffers through the indignities of the training, and finally aces the performance on the big night. I look forward to the moment he gets the chance to make things right with Eisen, and a stark (sorry) difference with Orden and Frieren is that he can say what need be said to someone still in this world (if he hurries, anyway).