This final arc made me think that there really should be a caper flick version of Ronald Knox’ 10 Commandments (of detective fiction). I won’t say the kind of ass-pulling we saw here was unique to Great Pretender – in fact, it’s probably the norm in these sorts of stories. But the best ones avoid it – they don’t play tricks with the audience. They don’t manufacture results based on elements the viewer couldn’t possibly be aware of. That, in the end, is a big reason I consider Great Pretender a very good series rather than a great one.
Let’s start by stipulating to a few things. The first should be obvious, which is that this post is going to be full of spoilers so if you haven’t watched the ending and care about what happens, you shouldn’t read it until you’ve seen it. The second is that this ending was absolutely ludicrous, even by caper flick standards. Even by Great Pretender standards. So my take on it really can’t be based on that, even if it is a little disappointing. The question should be whether it worked from a thematic standpoint. But unfortunately, I’d have to say it disappointed me on that score too.
The structure itself was a choice I’m not entirely sure I agreed with, but it was interesting I guess. The big con went down in the penultimate episode, and the A-part of the finale was given over to the buildup and “explanation”. This kind of time manipulation has been a regular part of Great Pretender but I’m not sure I would have used it for the finale, where a lot of the emotional momentum was lost because of it. As for the explanation. well – like I said, ludicrous. The whole business with the drugs, the fake skyscraper on the desert island, the lot – it was pretty silly. But that is what it is.
Where I really had a problem with the ending was that it pretty much punted on all the big character questions that were raised over the course of the series. There was one moment of real emotional truth here, when Makoto pulled his fake double-cross on Laurent. It may have been part of the con but he was certainly saying things he pretty much believed, and it was the only part of the finale that really felt honest. That it wasn’t given more respect by what came before and what came after is a real shame.
Let’s tot up the mistakes. Bringing the three villains from LA, Singapore and London is as accomplices pretty much puts the lie to any notion that there’s an ounce of nobility or sense of justice in what Laurent does. But the narrative keeps up that charade anyway. Oz having all his sins symbolically erased in the epilogue, undercutting the central thematic spine of the story. And Dorothy being alive? My goodness, what a disaster that was – the asspull to end all asspulls. The bit with Razzie ending up as President (and Laurent’s next target) was totally random, but at least it was basically harmless.
We never really got to see Makoto wrestle with the emotional dilemma of betraying Akemi and Ishigami – it just happened as part of the plot resolution. Their very nature itself was a fascinating element that was basically ignored in the end. By any measure they’re awful people (human trafficking is about as venal as it gets), but they were revealed to also be human beings with a sense of loyalty and they became parental figures in Makoto’s life. But that was all kicked to the curb, as all we got was a “their future is theirs to decide” platitude. Makoto never confronted his father apart from what he did as part of the act – which I guess has to stand in for real emotional closure.
Most of all, Laurent kind of walks away scot-free here. The story doesn’t judge him or his actions, and he never pays a price for the things he’s done to Makoto (and generally). It’s not so much that Laurent is evil – rather, it’s complicated and so is he. But that’s the problem – Great Pretender did a great job of setting up complex character and story issues, and in the end addressed them with simplistic resolutions. Doing otherwise would have required a lot of heavy lifting, but that’s what it would have taken to lift this series to the heights it seemed capable of achieving.
On balance, “Wizard of Far East” was certainly the weakest arc for me. It tried to do too much and in the end didn’t do most of it all that well, despite a couple of stellar episodes intermixed. Even low-grade Great Pretender is still better than most anime out there, and this series will certainly rank among the best of an admittedly very weak 2020. But it was definitely capable of more than it delivered, and that always leaves you with a bittersweet taste in your mouth.
So where do we go from here? That’s certainly an interesting question. Netflix is not at all allergic to sequels, and to some extent they come at anime production from a non-anime perspective. As best I can tell Great Pretender seems to have been very successful, especially in Japan, and there was nothing in the final arc that would have precluded a second season (or suggest that it wasn’t on the table). Despite my lukewarm feelings towards the conclusion I’d be quite happy to see that happen, because this was still an excellent series on the whole – at its best it was great, in fact.
Great Pretender absolutely ranks as my favorite Netflix-produced anime series to date, and offers tantalizing glimpses of what might be possible through this expanding partnership. The core of the issue is clear – Netflix offers a path to production that largely bypasses the traditional production committee system. And since that system is suffocating anime creatively, anything that undercuts its near-monopoly is very welcome. Netflix has whiffed more than hit with anime if we’re honest, but that can change – and if nothing else, it’s facilitating the production of shows that don’t fit into the increasingly narrow niches production committees are willing to subsidize. The next stage is for the money Netflix infuses to start reaching the people who actually make anime, the animators – but that can’t happen unless the relationship continues to develop.