Shōgun’s Finale Is an Elegy Instead of a Bloodbath, and the Series Is Better for It

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Shōgun’s Finale Is an Elegy Instead of a Bloodbath, and the Series Is Better for It

For a considerable chunk of Shōgun’s 10-episode run, it seemed like things would end how you’d expect from this brand of historical epic: in a grandiose pitched battle. Early on, as Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) laid the groundwork for defeating his political rivals, the council of regents, we saw shots of sweeping armies, implying they would eventually be shown meeting their foes in the field. While other historical epics and, well, actual history have established this expectation, the show eventually backed away from this outcome during Episode 6 when it alluded to the “Crimson Sky” plot. Here, it suggested a new blueprint for how things would go, laying out a smaller-scale sneak attack involving our nominal protagonist, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), using his English boat’s firepower to swiftly dispatch Toranaga’s political adversaries in Osaka.

Normally, this kind of last-ditch plan would come in the finale, making for a guns-blazing climax where our leading characters survive by the skin of their teeth, losing a few brave companions along the way. But thanks to Toranaga’s (and the writers’) clever scheming, even this second layer isn’t quite what it seems. In the ninth and penultimate episode of the series, aptly titled “Crimson Sky,” Toranaga dispatches his vassal Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai) and Blackthorne to Osaka, seemingly to surrender on his behalf. But in reality, Mariko and Toranaga have something else in mind, giving her the chance to finally get revenge for her murdered family.

She sows internal division by drawing attention to how the head of the council of regents, Ishido (Takehiro Hira), has trapped the other regents and their families. After she gets Ishido to publicly allow her to leave, putting pressure on him to do the same for the rest of the hostages, he privately sends shinobi to capture her. The assailants corner Mariko, Blackthorne, and their retainers inside a storage shack as the ninja set up explosives to pull them out of hiding. However, Ishido’s plans suddenly go sideways when Mariko steps in front of the blast. She announces that she does this in protest of Ishido going back on his word, but in reality, she knows that her death will be the critical piece that causes the other nobles to cut ties with Ishido, eroding his support so that Toranaga can eventually deliver the final blow and become the shōgun. As he later explains, she was Crimson Sky.

As for where this leaves the finale of what’s quickly become one of the most talked-about shows of the year, the last episode of Shōgun, “A Dream of a Dream,” ends up less a propulsive denouement and more a somber comedown, an elegy for a single person that wrings the weight of their absence from every frame. By trading a flashy battle for an emotionally devastating gauntlet, it pays out on nearly every character arc and cements the show as one of the most memorable and moving in recent memory.

When we catch up with those who knew Mariko, they’re figuratively—and sometimes literally—shell-shocked. Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) is borderline a different person, his regular boisterousness and treachery completely overshadowed by a concussion and deep guilt over betraying Mariko. Despite being someone who used every underhanded tactic imaginable to even moderately improve his chances of survival, we see that with her passing, he finally realizes that his selfishness was fruitless and that some things are more important than self-preservation.

We find that Mariko’s friend-turned-enemy Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido), who previously vowed never to side with Toranaga, was similarly rocked by the news. In their last meeting, Mariko said “Flowers are only flowers because they fall,” referring to how the beauty of flowers and life extends from their impermanence while also implying to Ochiba that she intends to sacrifice herself. Although Ochiba remains cool on the outside even after her friend is gone, we can feel the emotion swell as she completes Mariko’s poem and, by extension, her will. “Flowers are only flowers because they fall, but thankfully the wind,” meaning that even though Mariko is gone, Ochiba will act as the wind that will bring her to where she could never go, fulfilling her dream of toppling the government that butchered her family.

And then of course, there’s Blackthorne, who is also noticeably transformed. Following the blast, he falls into a deep dream (which initially seems like a flash-forward) where he’s an old man on his deathbed who continues to clutch Mariko’s rosary, an indication that he still hasn’t moved on. When he finally wakes up, he’s weighed down by physical and emotional trauma. He limps through the woods with the men he presumes will kill him. But once he learns that it was Mariko who guaranteed his safety, something begins to change in him, as her many words of advice hit him like a wave.

Perhaps the most painful and direct reminder of Mariko’s death is the lack of her translations between Blackthorne and others, sequences which worked on so many levels: they showed how cross-language communication acts as a stand-in for the transfer of cultural ideas, served as a crash course on court etiquette, fostered efficient characterization, and made for quietly hilarious sequences that spawned a new meme format. Instead, Blackthorne struggles through conversations, not able to convey everything he wants to, as the loss initially alienates him from his surroundings. The camera further reinforces this void, intentionally presenting off-center shots framed to emphasize the now-empty spot where Mariko would sit while also providing visual callbacks to scenes where she was a lively presence.

All that said, it’s not entirely dispiriting because, in these people’s eyes, her death wasn’t in vain. Toranaga lays out exactly how her actions paved the way for their side’s victory. Blackthorne eventually accepts that Mariko went out on her own terms, fulfilling her goals in the process. As he and Fuji (Moeka Hoshi) mourn, the latter quotes Mariko when she says, “Let your hands be the last to hold her,” conveying how much she helped Fuji in her time of grief.

Then, it all comes full circle. Blackthorne shows that he fully internalized what Mariko taught him when he threatens to take his own life in protest of Toranaga’s treatment of the village of Ajiro. Instead of continuing to take part in a fight he no longer believes in (battling the Catholics), Blackthorne accepts where the current has taken him, and takes up a new cause. And perhaps most poignantly, the episode’s elegiac tone directly pushes back on Blackthorne’s initial impression that this was a place of “insanity” where human life had no meaning, instead demonstrating how much Mariko’s passing impacts everything and everyone around her.

I don’t doubt that some chunk of the audience left the finale disappointed that things didn’t end on the battlefield with raining arrows, cavalry charges, and foot soldiers cutting each other down with flashing steel. After all, the real-world conflict that the series is based on concluded with the Battle of Sekigahara, where hundreds of thousands met on the field to decide who seized control of their country. We see a brief snippet of the battle as Toranaga prognosticates about his future victory, but it isn’t the episode’s focal point.

Because while Shōgun depicts political machinations and the pendulum swings of history, it is frequently more interested in the grounded drama of those swept up in these larger-than-life events, a focus that makes it feel appropriate when the last chapter hones in on the personal instead of the epic. By portraying the details of this particular time and place with such obsessive, exacting detail, it sets the stage for a story that shows how a single person’s life and death can make all the difference.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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