There's a moment late in this episode of Deca-Dence where Minato and Kaburagi are revisiting the show's recurring thematic argument about the use of fighting against the system. They take the same positions they had previously: Minato insisting that struggling against the controlling influence of the Corporation's decisions is futile, while Kaburagi argues that trying simply to see if it's possible is the only worthwhile option they have in the face of that futility. This is of course a further remix of the debate between Kaburagi and Natsume way back in episode 4, which Kaburagi was on the other side of. At the time, Kaburagi's position was technically the correct one because of the sheer amount of control we understood Solid Quake to exercise over the system. But now we've seen how far Natsume's unyielding ambitions can actually take those willing to revolutionize their environment, and thus we and Kaburagi believe change can be brought about, here on the edge of collapse, simply by them working together hard enough. That we've ended up here from the previous well-earned cynicism, I think, speaks to how far Deca-Dence's narrative has come since those earlier episodes.
It is odd to think we may find that kind of renewed optimism in the face of annihilation, but perhaps that's the energy we need these days. Tonally distinct from the uncertain tension powering the previous episode, this entry in Deca-Dence continues its necessary escalation towards a climax with more a freewheeling spirit of entertainment. The dread of Natsume's confrontation with Hugin, cut short by the arrival of Kaburagi in his smurf account, switches instead to the gallows humor of her waking up in a room full of empty corpses and reflexively punching the alternate avatar. There's less time to reflect on the ominous, apocalyptic implications of the constantly-shifting situation due to the sheer quantity of things happening – the characters motoring through the plot at a ‘No time to explain’ clip as the different sides at play capitalize on new opportunities.
Take Solid Quake Corporation itself. Once totalitarian executors of this gamified economy, they've been reduced to being as reactionary as everyone else to this fresh Gadoll threat. The joke is pretty pure in that their solution to a disastrous bug arising is just to shut the whole game down for emergency maintenance. Deca-Dence already called on us to consider the endearment we felt towards NPCs in our games, and now we'll never look at downtime the same way again (I'd hope Solid Quake is at least planning to offer the Gears a free ten-roll for this). But as much of a meta-MMO gag as that whole setup is, it's also there to make clear to us how off-the-rails this systemic story has gone. The giant new Gadoll, designated ‘omega’ here, was already a symbol of an out-of-control economic system, and now it's forcing the people who ran the show to shut the whole thing down and salvage what they can. Solid Quake should have known that they too were players in their own game; as Jill says, “to think you can control everything is hubris.”
If that and the one-sided wrecking of the titular fortress itself are, as I said, overt symbology of Deca-Dence's escalation, then the other strength of this episode is that the folks at Studio NuT are still, against all odds, finding ways to have fun in the midst of all this metatextual railing. This episode's pace is pointedly peppered with moments keeping its edge constantly up, like Kaburagi's avatar ignobly toppling over as he logs out, or Kurenai's less-than-effective efforts to rush out to battle after one-too-many drinks at the previously-shown victory celebration. As serious as Deca-Dence's points were, it could risk getting too ponderous and heavy for too long if it focused entirely on its allegorical essays of economic theory and the notion of human nature. The fact is, as shown before, simple faith in our fellows to work together is what's necessary for constant survival, and these seemingly-insignificant silly moments reinforce that shared humanity we can all find amusement in. It's to that end that we are treated with one of the most rewarding moments of this episode, as Natsume comes across the encampment of escaped Gears and thus allowing us to see human and cyborg side-by-side on screen for the first time. It's built up beautifully: Natsume's moments of trepidation as we question how this might play out, recalling our own and others' visceral real-world reaction to the revelation of the Gears. But of course Natsume's optimism shines through, and her immediate acceptance of their cuteness marks the camaraderie that will lead to population persistence more than any cold-constructed brand loyalty.
I could once again take issue with Natsume's seeming lack of proactivity in the plotline as it is now – we see her catch a glimpse of Kaburagi heading off to function as the Deca-Dence-driving turning point of the final battle while she kicks around then trots off to make friends with his prison buddies. But aside from that, it's an example of the attitude Natsume espouses alongside Kaburagi's actions that have powered the show's evolution from systemic cynicism to revolutionary optimism. That, at least, has been a consistent mechanic of the series, and it keeps coming through. That bit I mentioned at the beginning: Minato and Kaburagi's debate on the principles of action in affecting change, seems to at first be headed to the same parting they had back in the prison visit, but there is instead a shift. Kaburagi actually convinces Minato to stay behind and help, not through any immediate ideological swaying, but through the exact same veiled threat that Natsume originally used to rope her boss into helping her. Natsume's effect on Kaburagi has always been an effective play on the point that their student/mentor relationship wasn't a one-way street, and now we see the ripple effect of her attitude creeping deeper into those who considered it key to the system of this world. More than any giant new Gadoll threats or the necessity of plot-twist fortress avatar options, the spread of Natsume's optimism and ideology stands as a symbol of the sense of escalation Deca-Dence has achieved at this point. Kaburagi, Minato, and us are all on her side with the point that the world can be changed now, and we're watching because we can't wait to see how they're going to do it.
Deca-Dence is currently streaming on FUNimation Entertainment.