“Sword Art Online” and “good” aren’t two things you’d expect to see in the same sentence from this site after a dozen episodes that run the gamut from decent to inexorable shit. While I’d hardly brand the show with something as positive as “good” after this episode, I will say that it’s a shaky, unsteady step in the right direction. Asuna is somehow not an annoying, overly-clingy fruit loop who only pulls out her sword to ward off such accusations, and Kirito finally no longer inspires hushed respect in the men and haremization in the women around him. All it’d need to do at this point is give Kirito the axe, make Fishing Guy the protagonist, and retroactively deny the existence of Yui, and I’d call it a definite contender for not-worst-show of the year.
In contrast to my usual habit of decrying everything that the show does wrong, I think this is such an exceptional situation that it’s best to praise what it did well, aside from looking nice. To start with, it did away with the focus on the rancid romance between Kirito and Asuna; while it unfortunately still has a presence, it’s less an omnipresent cloud of horrible writing than a shriveled houseplant left to wither in a corner. Usurping its position, in plain sight with little opposition and a gleeful smirk, is that ever-faithful storytelling gem of a catalyst. No longer are Kirito and Asuna playing house, they’re actually out doing stuff that will most likely lead to their eventual departure from the game! And by “doing stuff”, I mean stabbing giant skeletal centipede things, which is all the intellectual stimulation I ever asked for in this show.
Surprisingly enough, the best part of this episode isn’t the surprisingly well-directed fight toward the end, or the temporary neutering of the cheesy romance subplot, but the way that the two are reluctant to leave what they perceive to be their ideal world together. It’s the closest they’ve ever come to believably loving each other, and the only decent piece of world-building that SAO’s developed in the past several episodes. Yeah, the characters thinking that their bodies will eventually waste away to nothing is hardly the most valid reason to exit the game, especially given undoubted improvements in medical technology, but I’ll take any kind of decent motivation where I can get it.
I’ve been holding off on gushing about Fishing Guy, but I’m afraid I can’t any longer; he’s simply the greatest, deepest character that this show has ever had. Everything from his creepy grin, to his equally creepy face, to the fact that he wouldn’t be averse to spending the rest of his life fishing for virtual trout rather than resume his job in meatspace, makes him the most realistic person in the entirety of the Sword Art Online world. If I could rewrite the show from the very beginning, I would make Fishing Guy the protagonist, and Kirito one of the Red Shirts that gets sliced up by the boss toward the end of this episode. Either that or one of the two thousand that dies in the first month or so, whichever is less sympathetic toward him.
It’s hardly a series of great achievements here, but this is the closest that SAO’s felt to matching the promise set forth by the first episode. That’s a low bar to meet, but the important thing is that it did meet those expectations for the first time in I don’t know how long. Will Sword Art Online actually approach the realm of decency yet again? Probably not, but it’s worth hoping for.