How to start the end of your series

This week’s Gintama was, in every way, maybe its best episode yet.

I’ve already mouthed off to the only people who care (message boards, people in my life who know what the hell this show is/what it means to me, etc), but I still don’t feel like I’ve quite articulated why this pivotal episode was so well executed. In an attempt to remedy that, I’ve formulated a sampling of what this episode did so right.

It is well-paced. It proceeds slowly but none of it feels padded out because there is always something happening emotionally. No frame lingers needlessly; there is no extraneous dialogue. Every scene is carefully curated to point toward the climax of the episode. Admittedly, that’s storytelling 101. But more than that, nothing feels forced or shoehorned or like a last-second throw to tie up a last-minute plot point. The episode is well-paced because the whole series has been leading up to it.

It has pitch-perfect tension. It shifts between present action and flashbacks, and while the flashbacks do not mirror the present action, they illuminate what is happening. They deepen an already oceanic conflict. The combatants are two people with such fierce love—for their own ideals, for their friends, for each other—that all they can do is tear each other apart with their bare hands. This is essentially all that is happening. But it is so much more than a physical fight. It is revenge, redemption, hatred, passion, punishment, self-flagellation, righteousness, relief, adoration, desperation. It’s not about the fight, the here and now; it is about all of our memories—as an audience, as friends of these characters—lingering beneath the surface of a savage showdown. Together, they are airing a lifetime of grievances over an era of grief. That is good storytelling.

It is visually arresting. The setting is powerful and vast, but spare. Low angles make the scene feel cramped and intimate; wide and flat angles make it stark and immediate. We sense the struggle every time these beaten characters stand up again, trembling and wheezing. There is downtime between each major blow, so the strikes hit so much harder. A fist to a gut. A knee to a face. A swordpoint stuck in a chest moving in time to labored breathing. Blood dripping slowly off the tip of a nose, or trickling from a mouth as if welling up from the stomach. This is knock-down-drag-out single combat. They just plain fight.

It understands the use of music. There are both new tracks that are chilling and dread-inducing, and long-familiar ones that provoke a painful nostalgia. And remember what I said in Amnesia, about how scenes have to be strong already to stand on their own without music? There is a lot of that. Here we stand at the culmination of hundreds of episodes of enmity, watching two broken people just wailing on each other with equally broken bits of weapons, and it is naked of all sound but for the impacts of their blows and their lung-rending, animalistic cries.

It has phenomenal voice acting. It truly feels like these people let loose years of pent-up anger and sorrow. The nature of their scenes means they are doing little more than screaming and grunting. But without music to add artificial tension, this battle relies half on its narrative buildup, half on the actors’ performances. It could easily have fallen flat, but even without lines to perform, you can hear the complexity of their emotions. What few lines they have are between ragged breaths, gasped, whispered—and performed with such exquisite exhaustion that we weaken alongside them.

It closes a series-long character arc. One small scene is played twice consecutively, with only a shift in perspective. And they are completely different scenes for it. This single moment is both the summation of a series’ worth of establishing character moments for one person, and the catalyst for another’s long-misunderstood motives. We always knew what he wanted; now we understand how he felt.

It has a killer twist. We now have answers to questions we’ve had since the earliest inklings of a dramatic throughline—and unlike other long-run series in their death throes (andnowIamcryinginside), it feels like the author has had the answers all along. It never felt like he was holding them hostage; things just hadn’t yet come to a head. Now that they have, we do not feel shortchanged. We are just changed. We have answers, and yet another long-awaited confrontation rises to fill its place. We have been sated—but it hurts.

And it is only the beginning.

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