Sword Art Online: Alicization - 2.04 Dark Territory
Up until now, it felt like the new season of Sword Art Online: Alicization was progressing well. The new story had been fairly well established, the stakes were made clear, and just last week the stage had been set for the next phase of the story to begin. Then came the next episode Dark Territory, and for the first time this season it felt like the story took a step backwards.
While previous episodes had battles or followed several different plot threads, Dark Territory, except for a post-credits epilogue, strictly follows events taking place in the Dark Territory as Gabriel and his cohort log into the Underworld to assume their identities as Emperor Vecta and his Dark Knight respectively. Having an episode that focuses on one plot thread isn't a bad thing necessarily. In fact, one thing this episode did well is introduce the various races inhabiting the Dark Territory and their leaders, knowledge that will likely be necessary as the story continues.
The big problem with this episode is how the story handles two characters introduced in the previous episode: Lipia and Vixur Ul Shasta, both Dark Knights. As Vixur desires peace with the Human Empire and Gabriel (acting as the Emperor) desires war, it is implied that there will be an ongoing conflict between these characters as the war begins. But instead, the issue is over almost before it begins, with both characters eliminated in brutal fashion. Their actions don't cause so much as a stutter in Gabriel's plans to attack, which is frustrating because I have to wonder why the story is hinting at a possible conflict if nothing will come of it?
Another issue with this episode comes with what we learn of Gabriel's backstory. Sword Art Online has had some weird story elements in the past, but most of those can be explained away because they're taking place inside a digital environment. In this case though, we learn that Gabriel can apparently see human souls with his own eyes, in the real world. On the one hand, this does go a long way to explaining why Gabriel is acting like a sociopath (he is one); but on the other hand, how is it even possible for the human soul to appear as visible? There's currently no explanation for why Gabriel is able to do this, and it's not clear if one will be forthcoming. The strange revelation does make clear that Gabriel has his own plans for Alice, plans that run counter to what he's been ordered to do. That has the potential to make things interesting later in the story, especially if Gabriel's cohorts learn of what he really wants to do with Alice's Fluctlight.
It's implied that the next episode will see the start of battle between the Human Empire and the Dark Territory, so hopefully this episode will prove to be an aberration and the story will pick up once more with the next installment. Dark Territory isn't the worst episode of Sword Art Online: Alicization, but it definitely wasn't one of their best.