Berserk (2016): “A Nighttime Feast: Burning at the Stake”

Countless roads to opportunity, none interesting

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Season 1, Episode 6
Grade: C

“An event similar to the eclipse is about to occur.”

What the hell happened here? What am I watching?

For an episode with a title like “Burning at the Stake,” you wouldn’t be crazy for imagining such an event might actually occur*. No, not crazy at all. And yet, Berserk (2016) simply looks back at you, with its bleach-blonde hair and colored sunglasses, cocks its head and says, “What’s wrong with YOU, bro?”

From what I understand of Berserk, Casca is labeled a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake, when Guts finally arrives on scene. That ‘finally’ is weighty, for although in retrospect these episodes can be watched in direct sequence, the week-by-week pace does not accommodate this show. We come back every Friday, wince at the animation, are re-introduced to characters once more – most of whom we haven’t been given a reason to like – and the suggestion of some far off, more interesting thing is teased before the episode ends. There may be some freaky sex stuff before that happens, there may not be.

In this, “A Nighttime Feast: Burning at the Stake,” is the most formulaic episode of the show thus far. It’s got all the classic Berserk (2016) elements. Something old: the Skull Knight reappears, something new: Luca and her heart o gold dramas, something borrowed: Farnese and her Knights a dim reflection of the Golden Age armies, and something blue: your face.

The happy marriage in question is the distant payoff to all this garbage, when Guts meets up with the rest of the cast and we can get on with it.

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It may just be an issue of my misunderstanding the creative approach. The Berserk manga is told extraordinarily strangely, which is why each subsequent adaptation has been a structural departure from the last. It moves in arcs, which start out jumbled. The Golden Age Arc is an extended flashback, not the starting point, and so its constant sense of direction contrasted mightily with the other arcs’ vague journey of revenge.

We toddle along this journey, meeting new and strange faces, and that can be okay. It hasn’t yet, but the potential is there, which is probably the worst part. I can’t stop watching this show, despite it giving me so little.

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In the video-game StarCraft, there’s a term called “Actions Per Minute.” In that game of lnd, competitive players mash as many actions per minute they can. For Berserk (2016), the Actions Per Episode taken by each character are roughly… one. Farnese has a conversation with Mozgus. Guts continues walking. Isidore sits up.

The most eventful area of the show is with a relative newcomer, one of Luca’s ladies, Nina. While watching over Casca from the last episode, where they were threatened by the night’s demons, which didn’t come to anything, Nina is accosted by a confused lover named Joachim. She tells him to find her in a secret spot at midnight.

Naturally, a cult is gathered there in the purple, demon light of the Eclipse, and they have an orgy. There’s some truly bizarre animation – though it is strange that Luca will be hand-drawn in one shot, at least it’s the character in repose. In this hallucinatorgy, boobs are grabbed and scrunched in flashes, which seems to fundamentally alter their physical attributes. In these flashes, a dirty signature we’d probably associate more with Ralph Bakshi, Nina is shriveled, but laughing with pleasure regardless.

After Joachim is pushed off a cliff by naked men, Nina sheds her lines of tears, and then Luca confronts her. “I’ve always hated you!” Nina screams, rebounding through the ears of viewers who barely understand who either character is. Luca then grabs the – mind you – naked Nina, flattens the girl over her knee and spanks her into submission.

Into submission. Nina goes from threats to pleas for forgiveness under Luca’s assault. I’d say it’s a bridge too far, but we’re so past the bridge we’re floating over the ocean. I mean, this bizarre anime “you’re a naughty girl” scene is the response to something we’re purposely not made to fully understand. So the bewilderment is just a constant throughout. It’s actually almost fascinating, these images we’re meant to process. What are we supposed to be seeing, or thinking? Is this Berserk some kind of military experiment, sending us coded signals and turning us into Manchurian Candidates?

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Casca appears, because she’s ubiquitous, and is threatened by this naked cult, who hold her down and tear at her clothes. This is, what? The third time this has happened to her? Although, the prior two instances of sexual assault against her felt like beats of a story, where this is just something that happens – not to give sexual assault a reason for being in narratives. Simply to contrast, that the earlier anime was, again, given a sense of direction and weight. Every moment mattered, even the ones we didn’t want to see. Now, they don’t matter, and we still don’t want to see them.

Interestingly, Casca actually has a flashback to the Eclipse, though it’s easier to trace this scene back to Skull Knight’s mention of the Eclipse happening again than to Farnese’s own traumas, which are becoming too numerous to parse in realtime.

Demons possess the cult members, who begin to eat each other, and then the demon baby shoos them away before disappearing once more. Word.

The most engaging development, already hinted at, is Guts’s chat with Skull Knight, whose mythic presence belongs in a more appropriate context, when things have stakes. Makes sense, then, that he’s only here for a cameo. With Puck watching on and attempting to figure out what we already know, Skull Knight explains that the white hawk will return. Guts’s attitude in this scene is interesting, where he can be told all these troubling things and he simply brushes it off: chill out, dickwad.

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This was the best part of the episode, and consistent with all the previous best parts (excluding Rickert, which was more about the past), it’s ‘best’ because it hints at something better on the horizon.

I like the theme song more and more, maybe because it’s there when we cut away from the actual episode, which I increasingly don’t want to watch. It’s not a terrible show, but there’s something additionally sad about material you care about being handled this poorly. And then something even more additionally sad about the nagging suspicion that this new and terrible Berserk is actually faithful to the source material you didn’t read because there’s a million billion volumes.

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To harp on the direction of the series once more, the execrable episode “Night of Miracles” hints more and more that the departure from the Conviction Arc in the manga is purposeful. In “Burning at the Stake,” Guts asks Skull Knight if there’s an Apostle nearby, and Mr. Knight says that ‘no, but the God Hand might be hanging out.’ This Berserk is not Apostle-of-the-week, which suggests to me that there’s something more deliberative at play. “Night of Miracles” was our one fight with the Apostle, just to establish that it happens. But we’ve got bigger fish…?

All the important stuff in Berserk has happened, and is soon to happen. But the further we go along toward that important stuff, the less important it feels. If we’re there already, may God help us – as that caricature Mozgus might say.

*Note: So there is burning at the stake, but it happens after the credits. Once the credits roll, I’m free of my obligations to watch your garbage. Maybe I’ll look at it next week. If you don’t like it, pace your fucking episodes more sensibly!

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Previous Episode: “Tower of Conviction” | Next Episode: “The Black Witch

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