END OF THE YEAR, END OF GOBLIN SLAYER

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At the end of the year, so we end a great series this winter, Goblin Slayer. Obviously this was never going to be the end for Goblin Slayer (the story or the character). It’s clear that he still has plenty of adventure ahead of him, and the end-card straight-up tells us that the series will return. However, this is the finish for this first season, so we get a big blowout for a finale. The Slayer’s taking on a whole new level of goblin, who raises the stakes from the outset by revealing that he can actually talk, giving him clear sentience and agency! It makes him a more satisfying final foe for the Slayer instead of being another big snarling monster. It also means that it might have been more interesting to explore this Goblin Lord’s motivations in more detail, but I’ll touch on that bigger issue in a moment. Everything else is dedicated to the final battle, finishing out the series on an epic scene.

Much as I enjoyed the series delivering this big punch-up for the finale, it was somewhat funny to see the continued commitment to a grim and cynical worldview that’s honestly been absent from the show for some time now. The Elf muses that “this isn’t how adventures are supposed to be”, her familiar refrain from previous quests, but then everything about this battle is high-octane action scenes and bold plans working out for the heroes again. There’s an amusing dissonance to being told how serious and unfun this situation is supposed to be, then immediately cutting to Lancer effortlessly dodging a chain to run up it and deliver a killing blow while Guts cuts a guy in half.

I guess it’s finally time to talk about the chaotic-evil portrayal of the goblins. It’s an element that this anime had been downplaying for most of its run, but it comes back in a big way for this last episode. The Goblin Lord begs Priestess to spare his life, claiming he’ll never bother people again, and she finds herself visualizing goblin babies like the ones she thought should be spared back in the first episode. But now, all her experiences have apparently made her realize that any little goblets you show mercy to will immediately use the opportunity to attack you, bringing her a new vision of all the horrors goblins who are allowed to live will enact on the world (which gives us more of the show’s trademark explicit content in the final lap). Now, it is hilariously obvious that the Goblin Lord is being disingenuous in his pleas, but the point that all goblins, even the seemingly innocent babies from the beginning of the series, are evil dangerous monsters that can’t be spared runs into some storytelling pratfalls.

The idea of chaotic-evil monsters has been around forever, of course; Tolkien’s infamous orcs inspired so much of what we know as modern tabletop fantasy. But it feeds into a dangerous concept that stories told too simply will propagate, intentionally or unintentionally, by ascribing the agency of monstrous acts not to individuals, but to species-wide instincts that certain races can’t help but follow. Even putting aside the potential social impact of these choices, it makes for a cheap storytelling choice in a series that would be served better with less black-and-white material. The Goblin Slayer at the beginning of the series was characterized as an individual broken by his experiences with goblins, slaying them all indiscriminately through acts that pointedly refused to classify him as a ‘hero’. But with the confirmation that all goblins are irredeemable monsters without exception, Slayer’s acts are consequently sanitized, making him simply a proper hero who killed a bunch of objectively bad guys and was left underappreciated for it.

This season finale largely codifies the broader conceptual issues with this story. At the outset of Goblin Slayer, the goal seemed to be exploring a ‘grounded’ fantasy world, where we would actually see the horrible things that would happen regularly in such a gritty manner, portrayed with frankness untethered by more heroic or epic storytelling. (This was directly riffed with the bard back in episode two.) But by this finale, that aspect has all but been jettisoned. The other adventurers in the Guild are all positively portrayed with their helpful spirits, and the goblin menace is confirmed as a universal threat that’s been quelled for the time being; all the good guys are good and all the bad guys were bad. The most interesting aspect of Goblin Slayer’s premise was its potential to deconstruct some of the more typical aspects of its genre, and instead it ended up reinforcing or upholding most of those tabletop tropes. So we ultimately wound up with a standard fantasy adventure that carried only smatterings of extra-graphic content to set it apart. This last episode was a tidy reflection of the entire series; it was certainly entertaining in its most thrilling moments, but it never reached for anything more thoughtful.

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