Sword Art Online: Alicization - 2.11 Heartless Choice
Heartless Choice, the penultimate episode of the current season of Sword Art Online: Alicization, proved to be a very important episode, not least because it answers a question I've had since Asuna finally arrived in the Underworld; how will her presence change the balance of power in the ongoing battle between the Human Empire and the Dark Territory army? The answer was far simpler than I realized: Gabriel/Vecta promptly changes the balance back in his favor and in a huge way.
The biggest revelation of this episode is that ever since Gabriel and his cohort logged in to the Underworld, his tech expert in the real world has been working to slow the flow of time in the virtual reality (remember that normally time in the Underworld flows 1000 times faster). That being done, an invitation is sent out to thousands of gamers across the United States (where it's currently daytime) to 'beta test' a new "game."
It's an unexpected plot twist, but one that completely makes sense if you think about it. Gabriel/Vecta knows that the battle will be nearly impossible to win with the forces he currently has. To ensure victory, and to make sure he can grab Alice, Gabriel has arranged for a massive army to be transferred to the Underworld, one that will essentially never run out because new players will constantly be logging in. Gabriel's plan is to essentially overwhelm the heroes by sheer force of numbers, never mind who gets killed in the process. Unless a counterattack can be mounted, there's no way the heroes can win.
And that's what the other half of the episode is devoted to: finding a solution to counteract what Gabriel is doing. For the first time in a long time, we're brought back to see Yui, Leafa, Lisbeth, all of Kirito and Asuna's friends from season one. Yui, being an AI herself, brings the imminent crisis to everyone's attention and the race to build their own army is on. This episode makes it very clear where things are going in terms of plot: at some point Gabriel's "army" of gamers will face off against whatever gamers are willing to fight on behalf of Kirito and Asuna.
Aside from the plot twist of admitting legions of gamers to the Underworld, the other part of this episode I like the best comes at the end, when Lisbeth makes her case for why the other gamers should help. She makes the argument, one many gamers should be familiar with, that for many the virtual reality is their reality, and it should be defended just as much as the real world. It's a powerful argument and one that ties back to the very beginning of Sword Art Online.
And speaking of the beginning, it was really compelling to hear Yui lay out her belief that everything that's happened from season one to now has led up to the creation of Alice. Assuming that's true, that makes the upcoming confrontation feel more than ever like a grand finale for the entire Sword Art Online story. This is literally something that's been building for years, and it will be epic to watch when it finally unfolds.