(SPOILER ALERT: This is a full breakdown review for “Second Birthday”)
“Second Birthday” is the third episode of Rooster Teeth’s mecha anime web series, gen:LOCK, and lasts twenty-five minutes. This is a conflictive episode for me, since it strengthens the team dynamic of the characters on one hand and presents a tiresome love triangle on the other.
The first scene is pretty short, taking place in the Holon lab, where the recruits spell it out to Dr. Rufus Weller that they are indisposed to continue with the gen:LOCK program after witnessing the imposter Sinclair’s death. Cameron “Cammie” MacCloud is the most outspoken out of all the recruits. Valentina Romanyszyn and Yasamin “Yaz” Madrani clash briefly; the latter was a Union member, so Valentina faulted her for what the Union did to her people, causing Yaz to yell, “It was not my Union!” This makes me more curious about her backstory and what makes her feel so defensive about it.
There’s a joke that I have to point out where Able, Colonel Raquel Marin’s android assistant, materializes in the lab to inform Dr. Weller that he’s requested to join Marin. Dr. Weller replies, “Mix into my lab again without permission, and I will rewrite you to speak only in Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics.” After Able leaves, Dr. Weller comments, “More of a Dylan fan, I suppose.” I had to rewatch this three times to finally get the joke, but it was worth it.
When Dr. Weller enters Marin’s office, she expresses her displeasure that a Union spy sneaked into the Anvil and cautions that the Union will reach the West Coast in six months according to current estimates. At that point they will completely push the Polity out of North America. When Marin criticizes the recruits, Dr. Weller vouches for them, saying they can be trained and they’re not children. This turns into a wryly humorous bit when the scene cuts to Cammie kicking, cursing, and trying to break free of a robot that’s restraining her from leaving the place. Another short return to Marin’s office where Dr. Weller tells her the recruits will become the best fighters she has ever seen segues well to Valentina claiming she isn’t here to fight. She had retired from active combat and was informed the program focused on scientific research. Julian Chase half-jokes that it’s scientific research on how to fight better. All the recruits, in fact, were deceived as to the program’s intentions.
The recruits aren’t immediately convinced when Dr. Weller talks to them about the program, and Cammie remarks, “You think we’re gonna Luke Skywalker the war for you?” He asks them to start over and try out the Holons at least once, and if they want to quit, he’ll come up with an excuse to cover them. Cammie ends up being the first one to enter a pod, not necessarily because she chose to do so, but more because Kazu Iida and Valentina were quicker than her to say no. She promises Kazu that if she doesn’t survive gen:LOCK, he can have her manga collection. He replies in Japanese that he hasn’t read manga since he was a kid, which clearly disgusts her. This episode features a good amount of dialogue between them, including an earlier bit where she calls him “kazoo” instead of “Kah-zu.” I’m predicting this is a foreshadowing for a relationship of some sort in the future.
Dr. Weller gives Cammie this whole spiel about needing to relax and to find the light and grab it. This would have sounded laughable coming out of anyone else’s mouth, but David Tennant sounds like he sunk his teeth into these lines, and it works with surprising subtlety. We even see the rainbow tunnel from the title sequence as Cammie’s mind shoots through it and successfully transfers to the body of her mech. Her mech is stationed with all the others in the Holon bay, so she heads outside to familiarize herself with this new form. Valentina and Kazu join her in their own Holons. Julian and Yasamin “Yaz” Madrani subsequently follow suit.
Dr. Weller tells the recruits that this is their second birthday — hence the episode title. They play some baseball and tag for a minute before getting sent to a training ground where tank pilots — Leon August, Jodie Brennan, and Miranda Worth — will serve as their instructors. From afar in his Holon, Julian spies on Miranda and Jodie talking about their relationship and whether they should tell Julian. He doesn’t say anything about it, but Miranda notices him, and from her expression it seems like she suspects he overheard them.
The tank pilots test the three recruits with a game of capture-the-flag, where they have to grab the flag without being shot by the tanks. The recruits repeat the game over and over, failing to win, but Julian steps in to take a turn and wins easily. This is meant to demonstrate the Holon’s strengths, but his true intentions are made obvious when he pushes over Jodie’s Strider and looms over him for a moment in a challenging fashion.
A fleet of carrier vehicles carrying injured refugees arrives beside the Holon pilots’ training ground, much to their dismay. Dr. Weller explains that he invented gen:LOCK to be a way to bridge disparate sides and solve the culture war, but instead the military weaponized it. Even so, perhaps the six of them — the doctor, Julian, Yaz, Cammie, Kazu, and Valentina — can introduce a new way of fighting the war if they work together to assist the military, whether it’s through battle or rescue missions. After the pilots all agree to continue with the program, the episode concludes with Marin pointing out to Dr. Weller that he didn’t inform them about the six-month deadline. It is also revealed that he intended for the medevacs to show up next to the Holons — a devious way to motivate the formerly hesitant recruits to stick with gen:LOCK.
Watching the recruits interact with each other pre- and post-gen:LOCKing is my favorite part of “Second Birthday.” It makes me grow more attached to the characters, especially Cammie, whose spunkiness and distinct Scottish accent allow me to accept her bunny ears (even when she quips inside the Holon pod, “down the rabbit hole”), and Dr. Weller, who gives off the superficial air of a zany scientist but is capable of acting very shady and manipulative. His disappointment over his program being militarized also appears to make him a pacifist. I find him to be a very multifaceted character, and this should serve him well if he does turn into a villain. Again, Tennant is perfect for him, infusing his lines with delicate wit. His talk with Marin had an amusing bit where he vents his frustration over having to manage multiple tasks, and it isn’t as if he can clone himself. “Believe me, I’ve tried,” he adds.
Watching the recruits get accustomed to the Holons is enjoyable too. The stakes have been laid down to stop the Union before they can dominate the country in six months. I have faith in Gray Haddock that we’ll find out just what the Union is sooner or later; they’re still faceless for the moment. And in this episode Dr. Weller states that if you aren’t matched with the Holon, you might as well put your brain in a microwave. So, as I pointed out before, how realistic is it that the imposter Sinclair would have broken into the Anvil to hook himself up to a Holon that would be a complete mismatch for him? The Union should have been able to figure that out. But I digress.
Now, here is where I’m going to get persnickety over my least favorite part of the episode: the banal love triangle. Julian flaunting his Holon in capture-the-flag, getting so jealous, and eavesdropping on Miranda does not make him sympathetic at all. Couldn’t she have dated anyone other than Jodie, who had been making rude remarks about her and Julian back in “The Pilot”? I think it would have been more interesting if she dated the tank mechanic Migas, since he’s close with Julian and he just seems to be a far more decent guy than Jodie. Miranda is fitting well into the suffering girlfriend trope that everyone dreads to see in anime. Michael B. Jordan and Dakota Fanning deserve much more complex character material. But I’m going to keep faith in the belief that this will get better, somehow.
Dr. Weller mentioned something towards the end about the pilots having to settle down before they reach their uptime. This sounds like they can’t spend too much time in their Holons for some reason, maybe because the procedure takes a toll on their minds. I wouldn’t be shocked if this becomes an important plot point where they’re forced to get close to the uptime.
This episode includes two songs, “Still Got That” and “We Ain’t Done,” by the nerdcore artist Richie Branson, who has also written ending themes for Rooster Teeth’s Camp Camp. Another song is “Alive” by Battle Tapes, the same electronic rock band that has “Belgrade” play over gen:LOCK‘s title sequence.
All in all, though, the team dynamic is what this episode is about. I’m ready to see the recruits embark on a mission in the next episode or the one after that. It should provide opportunities for further story development and good old mecha anime action. And please, the Julian-Miranda relationship needs to improve.
Windup score: 92/100