I never expected Free! Eternal Summer of all shows would make me eat my words, but that’s exactly what happened this week and I’m not too proud to admit it. This episode (at least the back half of it) was the best everything I’ve seen from this show: the best writing, the best drama, the best character work, the best thematic engagement…maybe not the best animation, but the animation is stellar no matter what anyways.
Future Fish, this week I salute you.
So, in my weekly highlights post about last week’s Free! Eternal Summer (which was actually published today), I ranted about the what the preview had made obvious—this episode was going to be about Haruka and something of an identity crisis for him over swimming. “Bullcrap!” I said.
I do not believe that the guy who just swims all the time suddenly is going to start asking himself such useless questions as “why do I swim?” Why is Haru suddenly become self-aware and self-critical?
Well, you know what? Free! Eternal Summer, from I know not where, actually pulled Haru’s struggle off with style, sensitivity, and some actual subtlety.
Expectations can both push people to achieve and drive them into a hole so deep that they’ll never come out again. For someone like Haru, who as been almost insular in his unwillingness to emotionally commit to anything beyond his friends (and what a freaking struggle that was), having people, especially people you don’t know, begin to ask you for pieces of yourself is a terrifying prospect. Haru’s a hugely selfish person who doesn’t really live anywhere at all—not in the past, not in the present, not in the future. He just kind of is.
And this is, of course, intentional on Haru’s part. He wants to be (duh) free from all that, free from expectations, restrictions—in other words, inescapable realities. The crap hit the fan for Haru this episode, because he’s finding out that no, you can’t just swim. Life’s not that easy. And in detaching himself from those realities, he’s also detached from himself in all things but the desire to take the path of least resistance. As he says himself, “Don’t resist the water.” Yes, but what happens when the water gets rough? You have to swim at some point.
But, you know, Haru isn’t totally unjustified in his reactions to the expectations that just get heaped on him this episode. Some of the things that people say to him (especially the college scout’s line: “We can’t allow that talent to go to waste“) are actually kind of dehumanizing—reducing Haru to his swimming ability and overlooking him as a person. And then, there are people like Rin, incredibly well-intentioned, but again reducing Haru to less than a purpose.
Rin serves a unique role right now. He’s easily the most fully actualized character at this point in the show; he’s confident, growing as a leader, genuinely cares about the people around him, knows what he wants to do and how he can achieve his goals. But Rin has always been a goal-oriented person, and that is a fundamental difference between the way he and Haru think. So, at the end of the episode, when Rin and Haru rant at each other, it works. Because Free! Eternal Summer has been showing us the differences in their philosophies since the very beginning and this is the logical (YES LOGIC FROM FREE!) outcome when two incongruous worldviews clash.
Functionally, pretty much everything worked this episode. I don’t think it is a coincidence that KyoAni abandoning their full on commitment to verisimilitude and actually using the medium’s versatility resulted in the show’s best episode in almost two full seasons. From Haru’s really, really, really creepy dream sequence to the tentacles in the pool, we departed from the prettiness that has been Free!‘s calling card since the beginning and got visuals that enhanced the narrative.
Throw that in with well-done pacing and structure of the episode (the timing and sequencing of the drama was excellent), and some quality directorial choices—showing the scouts immediately before Haru starts swimming was a beautiful illustration of where his focus was—and you’ve got an episode that holds up as an actually compelling narrative. This was, again, the best episode of both season of the franchise, and I’m glad I stuck around this long to see it.
Here’re some of those great visuals I was talking about:
So, I don’t know if Free! Eternal Summer will continue to give us quality like this through the end of the season. Given the show’s past history, I’m not betting on it—but none of that should take away from the fact that this was a really good episode that successfully crystallized a lot of the thematic and character threads that have been laid down from the very first season. Being able to talk a lot about a show isn’t always a sign of quality, but in this case, it was.