In spite of the impression that previous entries in the roughly stitched together behemoth of Sword Art Online have left of not being able to settle down enough to build a proper story, the show’s proven that it’s all about appreciating the little things in life, betwixt instances of exposing the horrors and clichés of being trapped in a fantasy-themed murder machine designed by a scientist adhering to the “just because I’m evil” school of super villainy. Yes, there’s more to Sword Art Online than getting mauled by kobolds and releasing two years-worth of pent up sexual frustration. Feeling a warm breeze caress your cheek as you nap in a sunbathed meadow, or hearing the panicked shrieks of a man impaled with a spear and hanging out a window by a noose are what really make life in a virtual world worth living.
It looks like we’ve finally stumbled on the first real “arc” of Sword Art Online, which pits the combined mental acuity of Kirito and Asuna against a deranged killer killing his/her former guildmates over a piece of jewelry. The execution is mostly competent, proving that the show can actually have a decent narrative when the pacing doesn’t skip around at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, an outburst by their main lead toward the end of the episode predictably seals her fate as the second murder victim, but it’s hardly a deal breaker when the rest is actually decent.
If there’s any problem that I have with the episode, it’s that it proves the series lacking in ways to utilize Asuna. Her relationship with Kirito, while appropriately rocky, doesn’t feel like it sprung out of anything remotely resembling human emotion. In other, less stupid words, they’re only adventuring together because the plot demands it, and needs a second mouthpiece for exposition in order to take some of that burden off of Kirito. It doesn’t care if they have chemistry or not, just that they work to fit whatever plot device it sets forth week to week.
Another noticeable, if less important issue is that Kirito’s problem with Asuna using NPCs as monster fodder isn’t really built on, and is dropped almost immediately in favor of the two making awkward banter as a cover for the “as you know” flavor of expository dialogue. While I’m sure it wasn’t exactly primed to become the next ‘I, Robot’ with NPCs acting as stand-ins for the androids, it still would have been nice to have the two engage in actual discourse over the matter, not just have it dismissed by the opening credits and have the characters laze about in a meadow. Though at least it’s still a better mystery than Hyouka.
Even though it tries to cram too many concepts in a 22 minute timeframe, SAO at least managed to bring its mad pacing into line without coming out the worse for wear. It definitely could have been handled with more grace, but it could have also been so much worse. And “it could be so much worse” is the best compliment I can ever give this show.