Spoilers galore ahead; this is a meditation on the last episode of the series
“The Big O” has come under fire by people that initially appreciated it. To quote Wikipedia:
For some reviewers, the second season “doesn’t quite match the first” addressing [sic] to “something” missing in these episodes. Andy Patrizio of IGN points out changes in Roger Smith’s character, who “lost some of his cool and his very funny side in the second season.” Like a repeat of season one, this season’s ending is considered its downfall. Chris Beveridge of Anime on DVD wonders if this was head writer “Konaka’s attempt to throw his hat into the ring for creating one of the most confusing and oblique endings of any series.” Patrizio states “the creators watched The Truman Show and The Matrix a few times too many.” The reviewer at Japan Hero does not think the payoff was worth it, writing “the audience had been waiting on pins and needles for so long, and practically every episode upped the tension and suspense at least a little bit, if not a whole lot, and then we come to the big IT-moment, and… well, there it is. For me, it was honestly a little of a disappointment.”
Any anime/sci-fi work has to be examined in terms of the counterfactuals it develops and the questions it raises. The counterfactuals – “what if” questions – arise from the strangeness in any given story.
1. In “The Big O,” Paradigm City lost its memory forty years ago and seems to be the only viable place left on Earth. Our hero within the city is Roger Smith, a “negotiator” who acts like a lawyer and a private investigator rolled into one. The character is clearly patterned after Bruce Wayne, complete with an “Alfred” type butler, a mansion, and an expensive toy few know he pilots: a giant robot (“Big O”) used to combat threats the military police of the city cannot handle. Roger handles cases for people in tough spots, and is drawn into the quest for the truth of what happened forty years ago only by outside forces, including various memories that come back at the wrong moments with full force and paralyze him.
The technology of the robot determines the entire series. Smaller, regular human-sized androids act – and as we learn through R. Dorothy Waynewright – feel just like people. The larger robots, not just Roger’s but the others that appear throughout the series, we come to realize are sentient, and also struggling with fragments of memory.
Moreover, it is said explicitly by the fascist (literally – he owns the Paradigm corporation that runs the city) ruler, Alex Rosewater, that the power of the robots allows one to determine what is just and enforce that notion. The series continually refers to giant robots having the power of God; the three major robots, Roger’s, Schwartzwald/Gabriel’s, and Rosewater’s, all pass judgment on their owners: “Ye Not Guilty,” “Ye Guilty,” and “Ye Not.” We can assume the robots have some fragmented notion of what is just, at least: in acting with a pilot, they represent something more, even if what they represent is failed or incomplete.
2. The technology of the robots determines everything. If you can create a destroyer of worlds that is sentient, what else can you create? A lot of fans object to the ending of the series, where we discover the world is one big set, and that the reason why people are having hell with memories is that the memories were prerecorded using sets and TV cameras for maybe all of them. It seems like postmodern absurdity: can’t we just get back to big robots fighting? After all, we have a series of Communist robots (3 from the “Union”), a fascist robot (Rosewater’s), one that symbolizes the tyranny of public opinion (Schwartzwald) and is modified later to represent a base desire for power (Gabriel’s). Big O itself is explicitly repaired by a team of Paradigm’s own citizens at the end, and defended by those same citizens when appearing to lose the final battle. Why did we have to get smarter than the political metaphor?
The answer is that Paradigm City is an entirely man-made world, with men having crafted other men. The crudity of just giving people memories – roles-in-life – like you would give trick-or-treaters candy is precisely the point. No amount of human foresight in the series can respect human freedom generally: one of the funniest things about R. Dorothy is her initial disdain for religion, and yet the series continues with religious imagery even up to its final moments. In an entirely man-made world, God matters that much more: the fact people suck at playing God demonstrates His necessity, the fact people can prevent others from destroying everything His Providence.
So the postmodern imagery isn’t postmodern, in my book: the Phoenix, the Big Robot that can do as it will with the template of the whole, is the ideal robot the other ones are shadows of. The generic cast of the series – the city is “Paradigm City,” the characters are intoduced to us in one sequence as “negotiator,” “android,” “butler,” “officer” – makes it clear this is the situation we’re in. We may not have giant robots, but we have nuclear bombs. If we want a civilization to disappear entirely, we can do this. We also have, through mass media, the ability to shape memory however we want.
Roger’s existential crises, which seems to occur at the most annoying times, are the key to unlocking him as a hero. He’s engaging in self-reflection despite the fact he only displays a fairly mindless andreia – being courageous, being a “real man” in Greek – most of the time. Reason is almost exclusively the province of R. Dorothy. But she falls in love with him first: in a world without a history, literally constructed by technology, there is no “nature” to contemplate except through the noble. And Roger, for all his faults, is very noble.
3. The entirely man-made world still has Providence within it because of a memory that all share. The character known as “Angel” is utterly useless, unable to commit any act of violence (save one) even though she’s an agent for the Union. The initial creator of Paradigm calls her a “memory” at the end, and says she’s not human. She ultimately gets to determine what the next city will be, even as Alex Rosewater tries to destroy it all for his own gain.
She’s completely head-over-heels in love with Roger, but it is pretty clear that Roger is in love with R. Dorothy by the point she’s really hitting on him. If she is a memory – and certainly Dastun feels a kinship with her, and the coldness of the Union towards her might consist in its never having truly existed – then she’s in a peculiar situation. Her arising – I submit she is the memory of “being loved,” nothing less – is precisely because Roger and R. Dorothy have feelings towards each other. Yet she has to be spurned because of that very fact. In the final shots of the series, she’s behind a smiling, probably human Dorothy in watching Roger drive away for the day’s work. And yet she truly held the power of God.
Playing God isn’t as much fun as it seems to be for many of us: if you do it right, you don’t get to be anything. If you do it right, what you get is to watch others do right.