Well, that’s one way to boost manga sales.
After a bumpy third act hamstrung by ongoing production issues, Gangsta comes roaring back with a stellar final episode that reminds me of all the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place. Taking time to expand upon the supporting cast while never losing its central focus on our main trio, “Odds and Ends” is one-part character study and one-part tense, action-packed shootout, drenched in melancholy and badassery in equal turns and looking damn sexy to boot. It’d be one hell of a great way to end the series… if this were anything even remotely resembling an ending, that is.
As has become customary, I’ll spend the first part of this post providing a mostly spoiler-free series review and the second discussing the episode itself. Hit the jump and I’ll let any newbies know when to close the window.
Gangsta never quite fit the expectations much of its (non-manga reading) audience had going in, myself included. Marketed as a slick, high-octane shoot-em-up in the style of Black Lagoon, it quickly proved itself to be more adept at quiet character interactions and sociopolitical world-building than thrilling, bloody crime action. Rather than revel in the hyper-aggressive violence that runs its world, Gangsta prefers to explore the psychological ramifications such a culture has on its individuals, particularly those at the bottom of the power structure. While it took a couple episodes for both me and the show to get comfortable with this storytelling style and tone, once it did, it proved a thought-provoking and frequently riveting one.
The series takes place in Ergastulum, a city designed to house (read: imprison) “Twilights,” people born with a combination of superhuman and disabilities considered dangerous and sub-human by the “Normal” population. While the world at large hates and frequently hunts Twilights, Ergastulum’s laws provide them with a modicum of dignity and freedom thanks to a shaky peace maintained through the combined efforts of police, mob bosses, and mercenary guilds.
At the center of the story are Worick and Nicolas, two unaffiliated “Handymen” who provide aid to the various factions, and Alex, a former prostitute who comes to work as their secretary. While Gangsta is rich with a diverse supporting cast who all show at least hints of complexity and developed backstories, it’s our central trio who provide the emotional crux of the story. Their strengths, flaws, and contradictions combine to form complex, nuanced individuals and some of the best character writing of the year.
All three are survivors of abuse and marked by elements both in-world and out of it that separate them from the ruling powers (for instance, Nic is both a Twilight and deaf), tying Ergastulum’s overarching social conflicts directly to our main characters and providing a quiet connection between the bigotry present in Gangsta and that in the real world. Where a lesser series might trivialize their marginalized positions or turn them into a Very Special Episode, Gangsta (barring 15 unfortunate minutes in Episode 8) handles our protagonists and their personal traumas with respect but never pity.
There’s a rich history behind Ergastulum and our main characters, and much of Gangsta’s (very strong) second act is spent weaving past and present together in a graceful narrative tapestry, alternating between developing a current conflict and showing us how our characters and this world came to this point. The series utilizes a “shifting sand” narrative that constantly reveals new information to readjust our understanding of individuals and events, often making us quietly complicit in the misconceptions held by many of the characters themselves and encouraging us to reevaluate our own unconscious prejudices.
As great as all this is, the series struggles in its third act as it moves away from backstories and into a full-blown anti-Twilight war, expanding the cast (with mixed results) and shifting the focus away from our main trio for extended periods of time. While it continues to circle back to its central ideas about prejudices and dehumanization, it doesn’t really push on any of it, causing it to lose some thematic focus. Worse still, Manglobe’s production values see a noticeable dip during episodes 8-9 that improves but doesn’t truly correct itself until the finale. The off-model designs, stilted movement, and over-reliance on still frames cause this “action-packed” arc to drag when it should gallop.
Then the finale happens, and we’re right back in the groove thanks to dynamic direction, drastically improved animation, and a return to the characters and conflicts that made the middle arc so fascinating. It’s great stuff—right up until it ends in medias res and we’re left hanging from a cliff with no resolution and no second season announcement. Thank goodness for licensed manga, I s’pose.
So where do I stand with Gangsta when all is said and done? Do the psychologically complex characters make up for the sometimes bland direction? Does the journey justify the lack of a proper destination? And can a series touting itself as an “action crime drama” be truly considered a success when it struggles so often with the “action” part?
Because this does have so much latent potential and flashes of brilliance, a part of me will always be disappointed it never lived up to what it could have been. Still, at its best, this was a thoughtful character-driven series that handled its diverse cast with remarkable taste and touched on some worthwhile themes about how marginalization and hyper-masculine aggression affect (and hurt) people at all levels of society. Production woes and non-endings are pretty serious sins, don’t get me wrong. But strong characters and ideas still count for an awful lot in my book.
Series Grade: B- (and if we ever get a season two announcement, raise that to a B+)
And the nitty-gritty details about the episode itself are below.
Actually, gang, I’m gonna keep this short because I just wrote a whole lotta words and I still need to wrap up my summer season retrospective, so you’ll forgive me if I skim over this week’s plot points and just talk in terms of general impressions.
As I said above (a couple times, in fact), I adored this episode. It’s a microcosm of everything I love about Gangsta: The understated character interactions, the by-and-large tasteful portrayal of violence (both physical and sexual), the scattered bits of history that continue to flesh out the world, and the bursts of loyalty, courage, and kindness that color the story in just the faintest tinges of warmth, reminding us that this world might be broken but there’s still a great deal of good in it thanks to a smattering of individuals fighting to protect those important to them.
But substance wasn’t enough this week—no, Gangsta had to go and have style, too, creating an atmosphere that managed to be melancholy and bleeding cool all at once. The air was thick with impending tragedy, visually portrayed by all the falling raindrops and people, and was full of those voyeuristic alleyway and window views this show loves so much.
And, for the first time since probably “Sanctions,” the fight sequences looked damn good, full of shifting angles and a mix of mid- and close-up shots to create a sense of speed and chaos without sacrificing coherency. It came as no surprise when I checked the credits and found Ho Pyeon-Gang (who also handled “Sanctions”) in the director’s chair this week.
He’s got a knack for using framing (architecture as well as black space) to create a sense of claustrophobia and isolation, and is easily the best of Gangsta‘s directors when it comes to tension and movement. Worick and Miles’ fight was cramped, frantic, and excellently staged, and proof of what this show’s action could have looked like if every director had Ho’s eye for angles and shifting perspectives.
There are some half-baked plot points this week, particularly surrounding the Esminets, who are apparently Twilights but without the compensations (how terribly convenient!). This has been more and more Gangsta‘s M.O in recent weeks. We get some other plot points that are introduced but never expanded upon, and there are a lot of kernels about Alex’s past that get brought up even though the showrunner knows damn well we won’t have time to explore them. This one ain’t perfect, mind you, but the atmosphere and character work do a lot to cover its weaknesses.
The work the past few episodes have done to expand our cast begins to bear fruit, as everyone’s individual stories weave together. More importantly, we’ve spent enough time with them at this point to care what happens next. Gangsta is proving adept at developing its characters through key flashbacks and present-day actions, revealing new facets and adjusting audience perception along the way. Case in point: My opinion of Loretta has shifted from (to put it in professional terms) “ugh” to “woo!” in the last few weeks. So kudos for that one, Kohske.
Still, it’s the main trio that have and always will make this show shine, so bringing them back to the story and tying their actions in with everyone else’s is what keeps this episode emotionally engaging in a way that last week’s wasn’t. Nic and Alex have an intimate moment together as Alex grapples with her returning memories and grows closer to the people of Ergastulum. Worick uses that brain of his to not only do some sleuthing, but to help take down a dangerous member of Esminets. And Nic offers silent consolation to Granny Joel during the most poignant moment in the episode, as well as a helping hand with the search to find Connie.
All three are outsiders to some extent: Nic is the freelancer brought in to replace the regular bodyguard, Alex gets left behind to watch the shop, and Miles encourages Worick to escape a fight that isn’t his. Yet all three—along with Loretta, Yang, and others throughout the story—either want to get involved or actively are involved because of the emotional bonds they’ve developed with the people in this town. Ergastulum is a mess and none of our characters perfect, but it’s these small acts of loyalty and courage that prove the city is, in fact, still worth saving.
The final scene brings us back around to our central themes about both marginalized groups and systemic bigotry, as Worick remembers a speech where he was encouraged to stay out of the Twilights’ battles because “No matter how far they come, Twilights will always remain beasts who can only survive by submitting to normals and dying for normals.”
I’m glad we were able to return to this one more time, and the implication that Worick might be jealous of the Twilights (because of their strength, or perhaps because they, at least, have a community of their own?) is rife with potential analysis. But honestly, there’s not a whole lot for me to add at this point because it’s the kind of thought that will feed into whatever happens next. And there kind of, um… isn’t a next.
As much as I loved this episode in a vacuum, it makes for one piss-poor “ending.” Someone at Manglobe must have been pretty sure Gangsta was going to be a hit when they greenlit this finale, but current sales projections suggest otherwise, and as far as I can tell there’s been no season two announcement at this point. So we’re stuck with a cliffhanger.
The only consolation is that, unlike some non-ending series this season (*cough*Rokka*cough*), there’s at least a licensed English-language version of the source material we can scoop up to see what happens next. I suppose the fact that I’m biting at the bit to do exactly that proves Gangsta was—for all its production flaws and Act 3 stumbles and utter troll of a finale—a successful advertisement for the manga, if nothing else.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an online shopping cart to fill.