(SPOILER ALERT: This is a full breakdown review for “The Best Defense”)
“The Best Defense” is the fifth episode of Rooster Teeth’s mecha anime web series gen:LOCK, lasting almost twenty-four minutes. This is an enthralling entry with a focus on character development for a traumatized gen:LOCK recruit, a broader look at the gen:LOCK process itself, and a battle with an increasingly enigmatic Union mech.
The episode opens with a nightmare where Cameron “Cammie” MacCloud, who has been enlarged to the size of a Holon unit, disintegrates during her attempt to flee the Union. The shot of her holding up her hand and peering through a hole that opens in her palm is especially unsettling. She awakens all of a sudden in the gen:LOCK team’s bedroom with her mini robo-dog Nugget, then lies back down and summons a holographic monitor showing the design specs for her Holon. We get a bit of levity the morning after, when Valentina Romanyszyn is waking her up and Kazu Iida is playing his electric guitar.
As the team is preparing to gen:LOCK, Julian Chase has a short talk with Dr. Rufus Weller about the mystery of Nemesis, the Union mech that violently attacked Cammie’s Holon in Dallas, and points out how strange it is that it knew to go for the brain stored in her chest. When training starts, Cammie struggles at the shooting range and then at a test to take down drones flying around her. One of them shoots her Holon, and she uses the moment to slump down and watch the other Holon units. Then we get an in-depth view of gen:LOCK for the first time, seeing Cammie sit in front of several holographic monitors inside her own cyberspace nook. At first she’s about to delete the memory of Nemesis’s attack, but decides against it and moves on to a section that allows her to poke around her digitized mind and increase her confidence and aggression.
Before she can increase her other personality traits, she momentarily shorts out, then reawakens and engages in the drone test again. This time, there are dozens of them flying around her and she shoots all of them down in quick succession, repeatedly and angrily stomping on the final one. A small cutaway to Dr. Weller gives us another look at his shadiness when he realizes her settings have been changed but holds off on restoring them, obviously curious to let this unfold for experimental purposes. As it turns out, Cammie undergoes a psychotic episode when she challenges Kazu Iida to a spar, wildly attacking him and shouting, forcing the other recruits to hold her down until Dr. Weller restores her settings. I like the shot where her Holon fades into her human body for a moment as she prepares to punch Kazu, showing the furious grimace on her face.
The recruits try to encourage her at mealtime, revealing that each of them had slightly different nightmare of themselves in place of their Holon units in battle. I like Valentina and Kazu being supportive of Cammie and the bits of humor that get thrown around when the team discusses their dreams. From the way they talk about them (Yasamin “Yaz” Madrani mentioned she didn’t have her bodysuit, that she was naked, and Valentina didn’t even have a human body), it seems to weave well with the show’s core theme of identity.
Colonel Raquel Marin briefs the gen:LOCK team and the Vanguard pilots about a mission to a Union base in Atlanta that handles nanotech manufacturing and production. Dr. Weller expresses his worry about sending them off so fast, since this would be their first assault on the Union territory in a while. Julian and Miranda Worth start chatting with each other as everyone leaves the briefing, and her boyfriend Jodie Brennan watches them with a hint of wariness before he leaves, too. The rest of Julian and Miranda’s talk revolves around his resistance to the possibility of returning to the Vanguard. He also expresses anxiety over his belief that the Vanguard probably won’t ever be able to repair his body. Out of all the Julian-Miranda interactions so far (aside from the first episode), this is the most compelling one, making Julian’s character a little more sympathetic.
Dr. Weller reveals that he has given the team’s Holons auxiliary upgrades, while Miguel “Migas” Garza informs Julian he fitted his Holon with wings for aerial combat. Julian, having been a fighter pilot, is elated and puts an arm around Migas’s shoulder. The shot lingers on them when his arm flickers as it passes through Migas, perhaps to remind us of the incorporeality of Julian’s holographic form.
At the Union base, the team spies on it from a distance and finds out that Polity scientists are being brought in and taken hostage. Things get exciting when they break into the base, especially with Dr. Weller’s upgrades, like Cammie’s drone that resembles the ones used for training, Kazu’s sword, Valentina’s sniper rifle, and Yaz’s laser arm cannon. Miranda steals a truck to rescue the scientists and speeds out of the base before the team destroys it. Cammie accompanies the truck and, with help from bombs that Miranda sets off, wards off a few of the Union spider mechs that pursue them down the highway.
Their exit gets blocked by the animalistic, four-armed, nanotech-equipped Nemesis. It’s already threatening enough of a villain, but now its creepiness rises when it calls out Miranda by her name, complains that Cammie hasn’t shut up since her “birthday,” refers to Julian as its “copy,” and speaks in a distorted version of his voice. Nemesis engages the team in a brutal fight, during which Cammie and Valentina mind-meld with each other’s Holons, so that when Cammie points a finger-gun at Nemesis, Valentina shoots it with her sniper rifle — one of my favorite scenes in the entire show. Eventually it flees the area, leaving everyone bewildered, just like last time.
The best thing about “The Best Defense” is how it fleshes out Cammie as a kid who can go overboard with trying to power through her ordeals but is also strong enough to resist erasing the memory of Nemesis. I’m glad the plot isn’t dismissing her trauma and that it’s leaving open more ways to delve into her difficulties in the future. Another great thing is the exploration of the neural cyberspace of gen:LOCK. I have always suspected this, but now I know for certain that the recruits feel like they are one with the Holons during gen:LOCK. And this can open up quite the philosophical debate about what it would be like if Black Mirror-esque technology existed to alter your memories or adjust your personality.
Dr. Weller is one of the most engaging characters on the show. This is made up partly by his underhanded behavior, which we saw in action when he decided to let Cammie go into her psychotic episode. This makes me wonder if he’ll be willing to probe into the recruits’ digitized minds by the end of the season.
I’m still surprised at how much the animators designed the Holons like agile, combat-ready humans instead of clumsy, beefy mechs, which is one of the smart elements that distinguishes gen:LOCK from other mecha anime shows. And Youtuber SungWon Cho (Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue and Camp Camp), AKA ProZD, played Heng Li “Henry” Woo, one of the Polity scientists. In spite of him only being a minor character, he was fairly talkative and had funnier lines than I expected. I wonder how the scientists will affect the story and what motives the Union may have had to imprison them.
The Union’s aims are still enigmatic, but at least they have a face in the form of the Nemesis. On top of this, it seems to have an uncanny connection to the gen:LOCK team, particularly Julian. I also noticed that Nemesis isn’t completely bestial; it’s intelligent enough to know when it’s best to run away from the fight, which it has done during both encounters with the team. The phrases it utters are so garbled that I had to replay them a few times: “Miranda,” “You think too loud. You haven’t shut up since your birthday” (a callback to the third episode “Second Birthday” directed at Cammie), “Let the good times roll” (a callback to the first episode “The Pilot”), and “Kill copy.” My best guess is either it’s a clone of Julian or it is the real Julian and the one we have seen as the protagonist is actually the clone. Who knows, maybe Dr. Weller himself is related to this; he could have mucked around with Julian’s mind. It has also been stated that Julian’s body is infected with Union nanotech. Maybe they’re spying on everyone and feeding the enemy info, which would explain how Nemesis knows so much about the team.
My biggest concern at this point is how the show will cover so many issues when there are only three more episodes to go. Hopefully the plot isn’t so long that it will stretch into the second season. But I truly am captivated by gen:LOCK, which is far wittier and more character-driven than the rest of the mecha anime genre.
Windup score: 93/100