Alice in Borderland

Alice in Borderland
Alice in Borderland
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There were two things that stood out in Netflix’s Japanese battle royale series Alice in Borderland Season 1: one was how director Shinsuke Sato made sure many of the frames and blocking looked like a live-action anime; the second was that the games were good. They were interesting. They invited speculation about their outcome and wonder what you’d do if put in the same position as the protagonists. Both are distinct qualities that set a high bar for Season 2, and if this is what you’re looking for in new episodes, know that it only gets better from here — Twisty! Turny! The bad news is, an uncertain future for the show may have caused some aspects of the story to fall flat.

True to its ink-and-paper roots (the show is based on Haro Aso’s manga series), Alice in Borderland Season 2 takes those stakes from Borderland and elevates them even further. It introduces bosses (or “citizens”) who actively participate in — not just host — the competitions they propose. This means Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami) and other players can only move forward if they defeat and kill more experienced players who know more about Borderland than our lead characters do. All of this was teased at by the end of Season 1, but it’s great Season 2 immediately follows up on that, so we quickly understand this newly unveiled hierarchy of Borderland.

The best thing about Alice in Borderland Season 2 is its structure; not only does the debut episode pick up right where we left off last season – not only does it turn this season on with a ruthless boss that challenges everything Arisu and Usagi think they know about these games – but then it separates everyone into different groups so now we have to watch these stories jump between arcs, which — despite sounding boring — never is. It never gets boring! At the same time, having different cores allows Alice in Borderland a lot of room to explore some games that are more understated and cerebral … and it’s a perfect balance to the ones they play that are so adrenaline-fueled your own heart feels like it’s about to explode out of your chest. It also makes room for exciting new characters; even if some of them don’t get the screen-time they deserve, it’s still nice to meet them.

That choice to split these narratives is exactly what makes Chishiya the MVP of this season. If in Season 1 we had to take his intelligence and wits mostly at face value, now we get to see him in his element. The games he participates in are by far the most interesting and intriguing of the season — but more importantly: they’re what feed us (or, rather, Arisu) some much-needed information about who’s behind these things and why they exist. And as you watch him overcome each one of these games… You can’t help but admire his quick thinking skills…. So much so that you start feeling closer to him than ever before… To the point where you might even be freaking out over how he’s gonna survive what might be one of Season 2’s best cliffhangers?

Season 2 of Alice in Borderland also emphasizes the harsh reality of these people’s lives, and while the games are fun to watch, they’re never romanticized — their cruelty is often shown on screen in many different ways. At the same time, there are moments where the series loses sight of its own high stakes. The first game is immediately set up as being the deadliest, but the way it plays out ends up being numbing for viewers. After that point, it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to keep fearing for these characters’ fates.

And that brings us to Alice in Borderland’s biggest problem. Knowing full well that it eventually needs to start giving some answers, instead the series chickens out and reveals the truth(?) about the “citizens,” then seems unwilling to dig into its own mysteries. Shinsuke and Yasuko Kiramitsu’s scripts keep putting off their revelations, happy to only suggest that some key characters have learned important information — but they never sit down and tell each other what they know, which obviously matters in that world. Until the final episode, the closest we come to understanding what’s really going on in Borderland is when certain characters stumble across some revealing footage, but calling it a cop-out doesn’t even begin cover how much of an end-of-a-scene letdown that proves.

By the time you reach this show’s last episode … man, you hope those 80 minutes turn into a massive info-dumping ground; unfortunately not quite. Some answers are indeed given by Alice in Borderland’s conclusion-episode (let’s call it), but once this hour wraps there’s a feeling like it shied away from truly delving its core-own into itself. Maybe scared of cancellation without proper ending — understandably — Shinsuke at least safely routes his major questions through one character who apparently figured everything out off-screen and drops hints from another who knew certain things, but before revealing their knowledge never sat down to talk with the other person who needed to know that information. Good grief.

And so you’re left with a final scene tease which could be worked on in a potential Season 3; if it does, we definitely can get a lot further and this last episode is easily forgivable — but if this turns out to be the actual ending, it’s truly a disappointment.

With higher stakes, better games and more interesting characters, Alice in Borderland Season 2 is an exciting ride that never becomes boring. The episodes force you into thinking and put you in the players’ shoes without fail, ultimately keeping you engaged until the end. The new episodes also aren’t afraid of digging into some key characters’ pasts which makes them all the more interesting to follow as well as speculate about their journey in Borderland and why they might be there. However, the series gets high on its own supply of deadly games and mostly forgets to tackle its themes (though most episodes still have criticism towards savage capitalism somewhere legit), only deciding to get to them on a final episode that doesn’t do much work for show’s mythology satisfaction way.

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