It’s kind of crazy to me whenever I realize how little Deku and Shigaraki have actually spoken to each other. That’s not just because shonen action shows usually cannot wait to have their long-term villain step in and monologue to the hero – typically before killing their families or mentors or beloved pets. But because despite this being the second actual conversation the two have shared, the story itself has spent so much time building deliberate parallels between them that they feel a lot more thematically intertwined than their on-the-ground interactions would suggest.
It’s not just that both are the young disciples of their respective masters, inheriting a generation-spanning blood feud, or that both are now swiftly becoming Quirk chimeras who drastically outpace basically any other fighter in the show’s universe. It’s in how their earliest days mirror each other, both kids who longed to be heroes, who each had that dream swatted down by the adults in their lives before someone stepped in to offer them salvation. Their exact circumstances were certainly different, but you can easily imagine a young Deku standing up for Tenko Shimura like he did that random kid in the very first scene of the show. Obviously neither of them know that about the other, and I doubt it would mean much to Shigaraki now even if he did, but all that thematic weight is meant to be on the viewer’s mind as they finally clash.
The difference, of course, is that where All Might actively entrusted his power to Deku, AFO isn’t quite so generous, and some vestige of his consciousness has been sticking around inside Shigaraki ever since they made the transfer. That’s the real key to this week’s standoff inside the shared All/One for One/All abstract mindscape tug-of-war the two find themselves in. When NANA and Yoichi’s spirits show up, it’s alongside Deku, offering support to keep their under-prepared disciple from being overtaken. AFO is here as a tumorous growth, leeching off Shigaraki’s body so he can personally carry on his legacy and claim victory for himself. It’s obvious that for all the talk about preparing a successor, of creating a new symbol of fear, what the big bad really wanted was a suitably nihilistic vessel to pour himself into.
Granted, all that dramatic energy is dragged back a bit by AFO’s lecture on how all of this generational mind-melding is possible. Personally, I thought the concept of both powers passing on the nebulous spirit of previous users worked well enough dramatically that I didn’t really bother to question the “how” too much. But I guess some people would be upset if we didn’t have a fake biology lesson to vaguely explain it away. At least we didn’t learn about Quirks being caused by midichlorians? Ultimately though, it’s what isn’t said that makes this climax work.
With both sides’ remnants of the past grasping for supremacy, Deku finally manages to move on his own, but it isn’t so he can cling to his power or even to attack AFO. Rather, it’s implied that what spurs him to action is the same thing it always was – seeing somebody in danger, and leaping forward to help them. At least, that’s what I read from him zeroing in on Shigaraki’s distraught face as AFO took over, and I can’t think of a more quintessentially Deku moment than instinctively reaching out to help even his worst enemy in a moment of vulnerability. Deku may have inherited a war, and he may be all but destined to be the superhuman champion every Shonen Jump lead ultimately becomes, but what makes him a hero will always be his desire to help others – even his literal worst enemy.
In all, it makes for a meaningful payoff to so much of the build-up around these characters, bringing them together in a showdown that is less about flashy superpowers and all about the people behind them. It’s a suitable way to cap off such a big story arc and what do you mean the episode’s not over?
Seriously, you’d expect the big explosion that sees both our hero and villain falling out of the sky unconscious would conclude this story arc, or at least be a good send-off for the episode, but nope! As the disparate parts of this arc all come crashing together, there’s still a little more juicy drama to be squeezed out. And while the back half of the episode isn’t as immediately arresting as the first, it’s just as important to the larger themes and ideas MHA has been fiddling with these past few seasons.
Toga’s long been my favorite member of the League, originally just for her design and personality, but learning her story last season actually got me pretty attached to her, just for how complicated everything about her is. She’s a seemingly remorseless killer, willing to take what she needs from those around her in order to get what she wants. At the same time, she’s not a simple or crazed murderer, but as much a product of the world around her as any of us. And I think anyone who’s had to close off or hide a part of themselves to seem presentable to the world can sympathize a little bit with her desire to live as her authentic self, consequences be damned. Tie in everything with Twice, and she makes for a surprisingly sentimental core to what’s left of the league – and it’s genuinely sweet to see Mr. Compress and Spinner so concerned over her well-being.
So it’s both tense and kind of exciting to see her finally confront one of her heroic crushes. We know that for as out of nowhere as her attachment to Uraraka and Deku is, Toga’s entirely authentic about it. With their opposing sides now fully at war, you get the sense she’s trying to figure out where she sits in all of this – she has no real loyalty to AFO or the Liberation Front, but the League’s remnants are her closest friends – and is looking to the few heroes she actually likes for a sign about what to do. We don’t get a resolution this episode, but you can almost certainly expect Uraraka’s inadvertent answer won’t offer her much solace.
So yeah, as you can tell by the word count there’s a lot to chew on this episode, and it makes for a welcome return to the meatier thematic aspects that have made MHA meaningful. There’s still (still!) more fighting to be had, but this episode does a lot to refresh things and combat the fatigue that so often comes with these long arcs.
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