My 2 Cents on RWBY: Volume 8—Chapter 14, “The Final Word”

(SPOILER ALERT: This is a full episode breakdown of “The Final Word”)

What’s new, folks? Let’s dive into RWBY, the fantasy anime-style web series from Rooster Teeth Animation. Released on Rooster Teeth FIRST on March 27, Chapter 14 of Volume 8, “The Final Word,” was directed by Kerry Shawcross and written by Kiersi Burkhart, Miles Luna, and Eddy Rivas. I must say, I was a little apprehensive when the season finale opened with a content warning akin to two previous chapters, “Ultimatum” and Worthy.” Unlike the heads-up they gave for photosensitivity, though, “The Final Word” alerts viewers to death-related themes—and implicitly suggests a major character will be killed off. The episode was enthralling enough to make me temporarily forget the warning until the death occurred, so I didn’t mind the vague spoileryness. Besides, I appreciate the fact that CRWBY was aware of the ways that distressing content may affect their audience. I generally wish more of the media we consume could come with trigger warnings to prepare us for tough subjects like rape, mental health, and substance abuse. Furthermore, the chapter description—“Sometimes it’s worth it all to risk the fall”—refers to a line from the Volume 8 opening theme, “For Every Life.” The description goes on to include the National Suicide Prevention hotline number.

Following the CW is a shot of Monstra continuing to rot in the farmlands of Atlas as sludge and smoke start materializing into, as we later learn, Salem. Then we go to the Atlas Academy vault, where Winter Schnee and James Ironwood are keeping up their clash. Ironwood claims he sacrificed everything to rescue the ungrateful population of Remnant, and Winter retorts, “No, you have sacrificed everyone else! You closed the borders, yousqueezed Mantle until it broke!” Amen to that.

In the bubble dimension, everybody is continuing to brawl, with Cinder Fall and Penny Polendina embroiled in their aerial duel until Weiss Schnee summons a Queen Lancer to save Penny from Cinder’s Grimm arm. At the same time, Jaune Arc tells Nora Valkyrie, “Priority one,” referring to the evacuation. We transition back to Penny and Weiss as the former says that all Cinder “ever wanted was the Maiden power. I can buy you all time.” Then Cinder blasts a fireball at the Queen Lancer, causing Penny and Weiss to crash to the main platform and hurt, but not break, their Auras. Penny attempts to divert Cinder’s attention from Weiss and the Relic of Creation, declaring, “I’m right here! I’m what you want!” to which Cinder responds, “I want it all.” Right as she begins to move in, Blake Belladonna shows up to give her a well-deserved kick in the face. Blake and Penny stay to confront Cinder while Weiss vamooses with the Staff in hand.

In the Atlesian ship transporting the bomb, Qrow Branwen doesn’t look anywhere close to talking down the unbearable Harriet Bree, who cuts the bomb’s straps and tilts over the ship to make it slip towards the open bay door. As Qrow tries to hold back the bomb, Robyn Hill pilots her ship up into view. Elm Ederne, with her feet Semblance-rooted to the roof of Robyn’s ship, and Vine Zeki, with his Semblance arms still hanging onto Harriet’s ship, are teaming up to link the two crafts. Wow, this show has gone to some very creative lengths to employ Elm and Vine’s awkward Semblances. Elm urges Harriet to abandon this ludicrous plan, and Harriet says, “Why can’t you just let me do my job?!” She sure does look like she’s going to keep drinking that sweet, sweet bomb juice until Elm says, “Because you’re our friend! And we won’t let you go through with this!” This is when Harriet makes a face that says, “Oh, I have friends? Well then, maybe it’s time to scrap the genocide.” Good heavens, I can’t believe her character arc came down to this. Plus, is anybody even left in Mantle currently? The way that this scene is cut with the pocket dimension scenes in the timeline implies that the refugees have already traveled to Vacuo by now.
When the bomb slides away from Qrow, he produces Clover Ebi’s badge. It glimmers before the bomb halts right on the cargo’s open threshold, as though Clover left behind a remnant of his good luck. I’m curious as to whether Qrow will keep using the pin as a literal good luck charm. Also, to anybody out there who insists on the platonic nature of Fair Game, please take off your straight goggles and acknowledge their romantic vibes are on the same level as Rayaari. The situation isn’t calm for long, however, before that accursed Arthur Watts remotely triggers the bomb’s countdown.

We segue to Ruby Rose and Neo’s fight in the bubble dimension, in the middle of which Weiss interrupts to propel Neo into a portal. Cinder knocks Blake off their platform, causing Penny to fly off and save Blake. Cinder now has time to focus her power on Ruby and Weiss—but not before Weiss hands the Staff to Ruby and shoves her out of the way of Cinder’s explosion, which catches Weiss and breaks her Aura. Neo ambushes Ruby, stealing the Staff and pushing her off the platform. Ruby lands on a bridge, but Crescent Rose ends up plummeting into the abyss. Seriously, these kids don’t have a good track record when it comes to retaining objects of universal or personal value (The Lamp, the Staff, and now Crescent Rose). The scene concludes with Ruby looking back at a glaring Neo, a moment that makes me go, “Yeah, Neo, just keep being your badass self.”

Back in the airships, Qrow realizes that the autopilot for Harriet’s ship is locked, and Harriet claims they don’t have time to flee the blast range. Vine uses his Semblance to get up onto the ship and carry Harriet down to Elm, and the look he gives the bomb makes it clear that he’s planning to sacrifice himself. Elm vehemently objects to this, but Vine says he’ll do it “if it means saving all my friends,” which elicits a cry of “No!” from Harriet. As Robyn flies Qrow, Elm, and Harriet away, Vine wraps his Semblance around his ship to bottle up the subsequent explosion. Too bad I don’t give a crap about his death thanks to the show’s failure at fleshing out the batch of cardboard cutouts that is the Ace Ops. How does this even fit within the power limits of his Semblance? We’ve never seen him apply his stretchy arms this way. It smacks of the show’s habit of Semblance inconsistency, e.g. Penny’s flimsy explanation of Ruby’s Semblance and Lie Ren inexplicably gaining empath abilities. And why do we have to keep hammering the friendship note with the Ace Ops? Wasn’t it just last volume when Team RWBY won a fight against the officers because the latter were merely colleagues who didn’t rely on the almighty power of friendship like Team RWBY? The show wants the Ace Ops to be so important, but I don’t give two turds about them.

We return to the pocket dimension as Ruby tells Neo, “Whatever you wanted, I hope it was worth it.” Neo rushes at her with Hush, her parasol, but Ruby flies over to the far side of the pathway with her Semblance and smacks off Neo, who hangs off the edge. Ruby is unable to retrieve the Staff before Cinder fires at her back, blasting her off the walkway and breaking her Aura. She’s left to dangle from Neo’s feet, and Neo is still holding onto the edge. It’s not a shock when Cinder takes the Lamp from her and kicks Hush into the void. To Neo, she says, “You should have never threatened me,” and to Ruby, who is about to flash on her silver eyes, she adds, “And you should have never been born.” Then Cinder hits Neo’s hand with the Staff, forcing her to let go of the edge. Penny throws Blake so that she can catch Ruby and then save themselves with Gambol Shroud. However, Cinder sunders the weapon’s ribbon with a fire blast, leaving Blake, Ruby, and Neo to disappear into the nothingness.

As Weiss, in a neat Checkmate beat, retrieves Gambol Shroud and switches it to gun mode to shoot at Cinder, Jaune dispatches Nora into the exit portal to get help. Unfortunately, we viewers know she can’t double back because of Ambrosius’s pesky one-way rule. We revisit Cinder and Weiss as the former sneers, “It figures that a Schnee would be the last one standing, letting all her friends die first.” Then Penny swoops in to block her incoming flames, retaliating, “You wouldn’t know anything about friends.” Huh, I guess we’re still riding the friendship train. As Penny and Jaune team up with Weiss, Cinder’s arm seems to go funny for a moment, signifying Salem’s regeneration.

Cinder isolates Penny from Weiss and Jaune with a V of fire, giving herself an opening to dig the claws of her Grimm arm into Penny. Weiss attacks her before she can drain the Winter Maiden magic, leaving Jaune to attempt to heal Penny. But she tells him there isn’t enough time and Cinder can’t be allowed to possess both the Winter Maiden’s power and the Relics. As it turns out, she wants Jaune to kill her so she can freely decide who will inherit her magic. Meanwhile, the scene quickly crosscuts between both Schnee sisters—Weiss losing Gambol Shroud to the abyss, Winter suffering the depletion of her Aura against Ironwood in the Vault. Cinder is about to kill Weiss, but gets thrown off by Jaune’s scream. We don’t see him actually kill Penny, but we see her blood drip off his sword. Animation-wise, it’s an excellent touch to have his tears drip alongside the blood. It’s also worth noting that this beat of altruism for Penny resembles the earlier sacrifice she was willing to make when she was infected with Watts’ virus. Ruby was successful in whipping up an alternative solution on that occasion, whereas in this event Jaune wouldn’t have had enough time to heal Penny before Cinder came in for the kill again.

After the scene fades to white, we come to an infinite white space inhabited by Penny, who smiles and greets, “Salutations! You made it!”—a merciless heart-twister of a line. Winter appears next, and as she realizes what’s going on, Penny says, “It seemed fitting that it should be you. It was your power after all.” Winter: “No, Penny. You were always the real Maiden at heart. I was just a machine. Just… following orders.” Penny: “You are my friend.” I know what I said about the friendship crap, but I believe in the amity between these two, so it comes off much more sincerely. After Penny passes on the Maiden powers to Winter, the latter says, “Thank you for trusting me with this. When you’re gone…” Penny: “I won’t be gone. I’ll be a part of you”—a callback to Nora’s Part of You line that I actually don’t think feels shoehorned into the exchange. A crying Winter (I know how she feels) replies, “Good. I’m glad.” The scene ends with one last smile from Penny before the light washes her out.

Now, I’ve made it clear time and again that Penny has consistently ranked as one of the most beloved RWBY characters for me alongside Salem, Cinder, and Neo. If I consider only the heroes, Penny is the one I root for the most. So I’ve been making an effort to objectively examine her fate and consider whether it’s fulfilling enough. On the one hand, I realize that almost everyone who has delved into the Maiden lore is at risk for raising huge death flags. They exercise an awesome amount of power that attracts unwanted attention from relentless enemies like Cinder, and the rules of their mythos places a great deal of storytelling weight on who the Maidens transfer their magic to upon dying. If the fan theory that the show will end with Team RWBY becoming the Maidens turns out to be correct, it would have to result in the loss of all the former Maidens. That’s why I was almost certain Penny would die sooner or later. The question was when. It would probably feel more appropriate one or two volumes down the line. But because it happened at this specific point, so soon after she returned in the Volume 7 premiere and became the Winter Maiden in the finale, it feels like the show diminished her to a tedious plot device who simply served to pass on her magic to Winter. Rubbing salt in the wound is her transformation from a robot into a human, which deeply undermines her story and repudiates the personhood themes that AI-centered tales usually promote. Again, I find it realistic that Penny would want Winter to be the one to inherit her magic because of the connection between them, and I’m very interested to see what the future has in store for Winter. But couldn’t we have let Penny stick around just a bit longer and stir up more Nuts and Dolt hijinks? In addition, why isn’t Ruby the one to grant Penny her sacrifice? The show needs to involve her and her teammates, not the bowl of cold gray gruel that is Jaune, in more of the major character beats.

Back in the Vault, Ironwood tells the new Winter Maiden, “So… the destiny I chose for you has arrived.” Winter counters while levitating upward, “You chose nothing. This was a gift.” Eyes blazing with blue Maiden fire, she uses her magic to easily deflect Ironwood’s cannon blast back at him, then soars off. Yep, Winter is the new Winter Maiden. It doesn’t sound as preposterous as I thought it would—certainly not as preposterous as some of the bull filling the rest of the show. I hope it will be self-aware enough to hang a lampshade on this detail in the future.

We return to the pocket dimension, where a livid Cinder battles Jaune and ends up breaking his sword, Crocea Mors (I recently learned that it literally translates to “saffron death” in Latin, which could be a nebulous allusion to his sister Saphron). This moment is quite evocative of Bucky Barnes catching Steve Rogers’ shield out of the air and Hela destroying Mjolnir. Cinder asks Jaune where the Maiden power went, and she immediately receives her answer in the form of getting struck by a blue energy blast. Just like when she got a mouthful of Blake’s boot, she deserved that. While Winter flies into the dimension and engages Cinder in a fast-paced duel (Winter summoning a Nevermore flock to envelop her opponent is a favorite bit of mine), Jaune and Weiss try to flee to the Vacuo gateway. Cinder drops the staff during the fight, then launches an attack on Jaune and Weiss that ends with the former losing his Aura and the latter tumbling into the void. Winter doesn’t use her newfound magic to rescue her sister for the purposes of… Yes, plot convenience, that’s right. After Cinder regains the Staff, the bubble dimension reverberates with a furious shout. Winter promises Cinder that she’ll pay for everything she’s done before running off to the Vacuo wormhole with Jaune. Cinder leaves through an Atlas with both the Lamp and the Staff, after which the portals and walkways start to dissipate. Winter makes it to Vacuo, but Jaune doesn’t enter in time before the gateway vanishes, leaving him as the last one to plunge into the abyss. Oh joy, he’ll tag along Team RWBY and Neo in the spirit realm, because of course the show desperately wants him to be an important character.

In Vacuo, Nora is futilely pounding on the portal while Oscar Pine, Emerald Sustrai, and Ren are warding off the Ravagers. Winter blows them away when she levitates through the portal, and she sheds tears upon seeing Willow, Whitley, and Klein Sieben among the refugees. Hooboy, it’s going to be difficult for them to mourn for both Weiss and Jacques. The scene ends with her launching at an oncoming horde of Ravagers and a new breed of silverfish-like Grimm called Sulfur Fish.

In the Vault, Ironwood (who somehow survived his own cannon shot, even though Jacques didn’t) regains consciousness and sees Cinder holding the Staff. Then a cloud of black smoke zooms into the Vault and manifests in Salem’s body as Cinder—in a moment of manipulation reminiscent of her phony apology to Neo—lies about the outcome of her mission, alleging Neo killed Ruby and Team RWBY used the Lamp’s last question. Salem takes both Relics from Cinder and apparently praises her, though I suspect the flash of suspicion on her face betrays her awareness of Cinder’s deception. Personally, I think this is what Salem wants—a wily and insidious minion who’s nevertheless immature and vainglorious enough for Salem to push her buttons and manipulate her into carrying out her dirty work. When she asks what Cinder created with the Staff, we cut to the conflagrant military base as Cinder answers in the voiceover, “I merely added more flames to the fires of Atlas.” Watts can be seen through the dense smoke as he attempts to escape in vain. Obviously, we knew Cinder was going to wash her hands of him, especially after his rant against her. But what did asking Ambrosius to set fire to the compound entail? We know he’s a stickler for blow-by-blow schematics, which is why I don’t think it would have been as simple as Cinder telling him to burn down the building. Judging from how Team RWBY told him to construct the bubble dimension, Cinder probably would have had to get specific about the building’s layout, which I don’t think she had beforehand. I have a feeling this won’t be the last time that the show ignores the Staff’s complicated rules for the sake of plot convenience. Then we return to the Vault as Cinder glances back at Ironwood, who is tremblingly aiming Due Process at her and Salem, and she smirks, “And that’s checkmate.” She and Salem glide out of the Vault, leaving Ironwood to resign himself to his downfall. The culmination of his arc is insanely ironic. Terrified of Salem and the black queen chess piece that Cinder left in his office last volume, he was determined to “defend” Atlas in his own authoritarian ways. But in the end, Salem deemed him to be such an insignificant foe that she completely ignored him in the Vault and didn’t feel the need to kill him off herself.

We cut back outside as Atlas, after all this time, finally crashes on the vacant land of Mantle. Cinder and Salem take off from the destruction, and Qrow (who is terrified as he yells for his nieces over his earpiece and gets no response), the remaining Ace Ops, and Robyn are up in their ship as they witness a tsunami roaring through a fissure in the mountains and engulfing the fallen kingdom.

The credits are accompanied by the last Volume 8 track, “Friends,” which I’ve heard is about Penny. It’s a poignantly top-notch jam that I’m glad caps off the Volume 8 soundtrack, the release of which I’m highly anticipating. Unlike Volume 7, we get a post-credits scene that shows Crescent Rose sunk into the sand of a mysterious beach. The camera pans up to reveal a giant tree with vividly colored leaves sprouting from a cliff in the distance. Running along with the show’s proclivity for borrowing from fairy tales and literature, the most popular fan theory is that the realm is inspired by Alice in Wonderland. And that’s it. No more Volume 8. It ends on an incomplete denouement that forces the audience to teeter on the cliff’s edge until next season—and not in the good way. I’m not wild about this after we already dealt with the Volume 7 finale’s lack of worthwhile closure.

Overall, “The Final Word”—I wonder if the title, which contrasts with the rest of the Volume 8 chapter titles by being more than one word, is meant to refer to “checkmate,” the “final word” in the episode—is a season finale that I like far more than I expected, though it isn’t without its disappointments. Comparably to the previous episode, it’s filled with compulsively watchable fight sequences between characters who I care for, the animators keep aiming for the gold with the stupendous visuals, and Elizabeth Maxwell, Taylor McNee, and Jessica Nigri execute some superb line readings as Winter, Penny, and Cinder, respectively. That being said, what detracts from the finale for me is saying goodbye to Penny too soon, anything Ace Ops-related, and the fact that it’s tying up the frayed threads of a dull and absurd plot. The bones of the finale itself are solid enough that I know I’d be higher on it if the rest of the volume was bolstered by much stronger connective tissue. Oh, and where the hell are Maria and Pietro? I know the show tends to let things fall between the cracks, but how did this glaring omission pass through multiple stages of writing, editing, and animation without anyone pointing it out?

Reflecting on the Volume 8 deaths, most of them were satisfying. Hazel Rainart, who had pinned the blame for the tragic loss of his sister on Ozpin, realized he was fighting for the wrong side and joined the heroes, then soon after redeemed himself with his sacrifice. Jacques deserved the karmic bite in his ass delivered via Ironwood after the nightmare of abuse he inflicted on his family. Watts was growing into a fun side villain, but his prominent associations with Atlas makes it a narratively valid decision to kill him off in the season that draws to a close with the collapse of his home. Ironwood undoubtedly got his due reward. I just wish the show waited to run up Penny’s death flag for one or two more volumes.

According to the show team, Volume 9 is something that everyone was excited for before the release of Volume 1, and Luna remarked at GalaxyCon that Volume 9 is “different,” “interesting,” and has “new adventures.” Looking ahead to Volume 9, it seems like the plot will follow Team RWBY, Jaune, and Neo in the Wonderland dimension; Nora, Ren, Oscar, Emerald, and Winter in Vacuo; and Qrow, Robyn, and the Ace Ops in wherever they go after departing from the flooded ruins of Atlas. Don’t forget that Tyrian Callows and Mercury Black are on their way to Vacuo. I wouldn’t be astonished if Salem and Cinder head there as well. Like I’ve said before, the overstuffed cast isn’t doing the show any favors, especially when it comes to the reduction of Team RWBY’s screentime. At least they’re together in Wonderland. It would have been ridiculous and yet conceivable for the show to split them off into separate journeys again.
As to what this place is, I’m leaning towards a spirit world or some other extradimensional realm rather than the afterlife. I know this is a stretch, but maybe it’s where Nora came from. Aside from how she and Ren met and Volume 8’s revelation of her mom ditching her, we know little about her obscure childhood. It could be possible that her dad is a godlike entity akin to Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and this world is his abode.

In my breakdown of Chapter 11, “Risk,” I put forth some predictions for what could transpire at the end of the volume, so let’s tally the results.

1. Either Emerald or Cinder will use up the Lamp’s last question: Yes.

2. Emerald will trick Ironwood with her hallucinations: Yes.

3. The show’s current obsession with trust, risk, optimism, and fear will build up to a moral message that turns out to be infuriatingly vapid: Those ideas were virtually thrown out the window in the finale, so no.

4. Death flags for Ironwood, any of the Ace Ops officers, and/or Pietro: Yes.

5. The reveal of Grimm Summer: No.

6. The show will keep shoving the fact that Penny has personal feelings in our face: Not really.

7. Salem will show up again before the volume ends, but merely in an incorporeal form: I’ll give myself half a point, since she did show up, but in a corporeal body.

8. Oscar and Ozpin will finally merge together: no.

9. Amity Tower will be successfully launched, but it won’t have any consequential impact on the plot itself: It didn’t launch, but it’s been a gigantic waste of time these past couple volumes, so I’ll give myself another half a point.

10. The show will canonize the Mettle Semblance that Luna claimed Ironwood possesses: No.

11. Qrow and Robyn, the two characters with misspelled bird names, will kiss: No.

12. The heroes will save everyone in Mantle and Atlas, but it won’t feel earned: Yes, although they technically didn’t save everyone when you take into account the refugees whom Cinder blasted into the abyss of the pocket dimension and the refugees who were caught by Ravagers.

13. The heroes will conclude the volume by hitting the road for Vacuo: Yet another half-point situation, what with some of the heroes making it to Vacuo and the others getting lost in RWBY’s version of Wonderland.

So, that’s it for Volume 8 chapter breakdowns. It’s been—how shall I put this—a trek. Yes, a protracted and rocky trek. As frustrating as it’s been to watch this show, it’s nonetheless an experience I’ll miss. That is, until Volume 9 arrives in the fall. Hopefully, the world will be in better shape by then. All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.

Windup score: 56/100

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