Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a show with many tragedies. From character deaths to horrible misdeeds, there are many to choose from. That’s not to say the show itself is tragic, in fact far from it. Brotherhood at its core is a show that celebrates humanity and life, and views all the tragic shortcomings as a part of the double-edged experience of living a fulfilling life. Even just looking at one of the main narrative points, ‘The Law of Equivalent Exchange’- which states that for something to be obtained something of equal value must be given, supports this idea. It’s only ‘fair’ or ‘equivalent’ that a live filled with joy and triumph must also have sorrows and hardships. The tragedies of this show serve as a powerful driving force for our heroes and, while they are by their very nature unfair, have some positives that come from them. All but one. Up until this point I’ve been entirely spoiler free, but this is where I will be getting into spoilers and I implore you to tread with caution if you have not experienced Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. It is a truly once in a lifetime experience that if you’re fortunate to have a chance to experience with an unspoiled eye you won’t regret.
There are a few things that make the moment I’m about to discuss so much more impactful. As I mentioned earlier a large overarching theme of this series is the perseverance and the triumph of humanity. Characters in this show are all shown to be heavily flawed and heavily scarred, and its the journey of them overcoming these setbacks or in the case of the villains failing to do so, that makes every member of the cast so memorable with a powerful message. The journey of Colonel Roy Mustang is an interesting beast even by this shows metrics. For much of the series Roy seems to be a complete character: he is extremely competent and resourceful, he has admirable goals centered around helping others, extreme power, and an immense drive behind his actions. He rarely stumbles, and when he does he’s seen to pick himself back up in order to face the problems head on again. You’d be forgiven for thinking he was a character that was fully developed from the onset, and it’s only much later on that we begin to see the cracks in his character. This show does a masterful job laying breadcrumbs throughout the series that you only notice on subsequent viewings, and there are signs of his major flaw sprinkled throughout the narrative subtly and masterfully.
Mustang is a strong character, yet that in many ways is a weakness he has to overcome. He lost his best friend tragically and used that as fuel to push him towards his goal. At his core he is a man driven by his emotions. We see him briefly grieve before redoubling his conviction, which is on the surface a good thing. However we see this twist his original intentions from wanting to protect others into a dark vengeance filled pursuit to kill the one responsible for his friends death. Whilst on the surface he seems to have moved past that tragedy, in truth he is wallowing in it to the point of it consuming him.
The growth his character arc seeks to facilitate is letting go of these extreme emotions in order to reign in his desire to achieve his goals at any cost before he does something terrible, and accepting what happened before he loses sight of everything important to him. Towards the end of the series he finds the killer he has been searching for, a homunculus named Envy with hundreds of lives worth of energy at his disposal that grant him special powers like regeneration. The two ‘fight’ in the loosest of terms. In actuality Mustang completely overwhelms them as he slowly tortures and kills Envy repeatedly in the most agonizing ways he can muster. It’s a really dark scene, but thankfully one with a happy resolution. The close bonds he made with others end up helping him realize what he’s doing, and he stops himself before he crosses the point of no return and lets go of his tempestuous emotions. When we finally see him give up his hatred and and realize what he did we feel happy for him, and that’s where the true tragedy lies…
In his following scene the villains need a fifth ‘sacrifice’ in order to fulfill their goals. The sacrifices are people that have attempted human transmutation or in other words people who used alchemy to attempt to bring someone back from the dead. Doing so always fails and throws them through a portal to see the ‘Truth’ which forever changes the ones who attempted it. They attempt to get Mustang to do human transmutation, going so far as cutting the throat of his Lieutenant and closest confidant, Riza Hawkeye. If it wasn’t for the growth he underwent he would have done it, but he doesn’t do it and foils their plans and Hawkeye is rescued by reinforcements. Happy ending, right..?
You see what makes something truly tragic for me is when these events happen to those truly undeserving. Often when people finish their character arcs we as the audience are rewarded with a scene of triumph to help encapsulate their growth and let us feel even better about their change. Here though that is not the case. This scene was the culmination of Roy’s arc, an arc that took place over more than 50 episodes, and we expect to be rewarded. However the villains have other plans. Seeing his refusal to activate it willingly, they take action and pin him down before forcefully having him open the portal and commit human transmutation against his will.
Roy’s refusal to do human transmutation was the culmination of his character arc, so what is our ‘payoff’ for his character’s growth? He gets permanently blinded. For me this was the biggest gut punch in the show. More so than the deaths, more so than the twists, this act felt extremely saddening, infuriating and tragic for me. It made me hate the villains all the more, realize just how despicable their methods are and just how far they’re willing to go. Roy is a fan favorite of many, consistently ranking in the top 3 for popularity polls. Seeing him go from one of the most powerful and confident characters to completely helpless here feels awful, and is a brilliant move by the creator. Just compare my earlier gif to the one below where he’s struggling to even walk and you’ll get a feel for just how sad seeing him like this is.
In summary, what separates this tragedy from all the others is the unjustness of it, and the fact that as the audience we expect a reward and are instead given pain. Usually character arcs finish and our characters are made stronger and rewarded for it, but here we see him punished by the villains and left the weakest he’s ever been. Like the danger of something freezing and then being rapidly heated up, our joy and excitement for the character is quietly destroyed by the opposition and it makes the emotions we feel all the more potent for it.