My 2 Cents on RWBY: Volume 8

(NON-SPOILERY REVIEW—if you want my spoilery opinions, feel free to check out the chapter breakdowns on my blog)

What’s new, everyone? If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you know that I watch RWBY, the Rooster Teeth fantasy anime-style web series where courageous Huntsmen and Huntresses are charged with protecting the fictional world of Remnant from the ravenous Creatures of Grimm. The show, which premiered with Volume 1 all the way back in 2013, just brought Volume 8 to a close, and hooboy, do I have some salty thoughts on it.

It’s important to review the latest volume in context—specifically, the context of Volume 7, which revolved around a turbulent election in the militarized and technologically advanced kingdom of Atlas, the joy-inducing return of a beloved character who was once presumed dead, and a project to launch a satellite that was supposed to restore communication and unity to Remnant. My opinion on Volume 7 has slowly changed in the nine months between its finale and the premiere of Volume 8. Initially, I came away feeling like it was an old sweater—the kind that sported frayed edges, some weird gray stains, and a hole in the armpit, but nonetheless was something you were comfortable wearing because it just was so soft, warm, and familiar. As time passed and I was able to reflect on Volume 7, though, I was forced to remove my rose-tinted glasses and recognize said sweater for the splotched and threadbare mess that it was.

Unfortunately, things don’t improve in Volume 8—an installment in the RWBY saga full of dismally unsatisfying material that left me thinking variations of “Say what now?” and “No, just no.” Before I watched the first episode—which aired on Rooster Teeth FIRST on November 7, 2020, and went on public release a week later on November 14—I already felt dubious toward the direction that the show had been taking. Volume 7 featured so much and yet so little narratively, including a subplot focusing on the class warfare between the floating City of Atlas where the blue bloods and the wealthy snugly reside and the land of Mantle down below where the poor and the downtrodden have to get by. In the end, a great deal of the material felt like the writers reached into a bucket of plot arcs, grabbed up a handful, and stitched them together with the purposeful intention of hand-waving away any major impact they might have on the story. On top of this, Volume 7 wrapped up with a run-of-the-mill cliffhanger that came off like a mid-season finale and left me going, “Wonderful, I can’t wait for things to get captivating in Volume 8.” It would have benefitted the show to condense the events of Volumes 7 and 8 into one season instead of dragging things out into a two-volume arc.

I know I’ve been ragging on Volume 7, but it’s crucial to lay out its shortcomings and how they contributed to the misfires of Volume 8. However, it isn’t bad enough that the latest season of RWBY is essentially fourteen episodes of plot bucket baloney. No, this is also the volume that left my brain screaming into the void in response to the characters pursuing bafflingly stupid decisions almost every step of the way. While plotting has never been the show’s strong suit, I don’t think any of the previous volumes have shown such a tremendous fixation on flouting the most fundamental tenets of common sense on a regular basis. One of the markers of a good story is a cast of characters who drive the narrative with proactive choices that have a logical impact on further events, subsequently causing the characters to engage in more proactive choices, and so on. Little of that is present in RWBY, which stars utterly reactive heroes who moan about the fact that nothing is being accomplished while they stand around and accomplish nothing.

You might assume from the title of the show that the main characters are Team RWBY, which consists of four Huntresses whose first name initials make up the acronym—Ruby Rose (played by Lindsay Jones), Weiss Schnee (Kara Eberle), Blake Belladonna (Arryn Zech), and Yang Xiao Long (Barbara Dunkelman). As recently as Volume 6, this would have been the case. Not anymore, though. The past couple volumes have greatly diminished their roles and inversely expanded the roles of side characters in whom the writers are clearly more interested. The cast has grown so bloated that there are multiple episodes where Team RWBY shows up for only a smidgen of screentime or never even appears. The only supporting character I truly care about now despite the problems I had with her arc this season is Penny Polendina (Taylor McNee), a deeply likable character whom we met all the way back in Volume 1 and was revealed to be a robot in Volume 2. She’s basically an honorary member of Team RWBY anyways. I realize this won’t happen, but personally, I would be all for a story that relegates all the side players to the background and concentrates on Team RWBY and Penny.

As for the villains, I actually find some of them to be riveting as well, including Salem (Jen Taylor), the master of the Grimm who is hunting down a quartet of fabled Relics to destroy the world; Hazel Rainart (William Orendorff), a minion of hers who desperately wants to avenge the tragic loss of his sister; and Cinder Fall (Jessica Nigri), Salem’s right hand who is a quarter of the way towards possessing the potent magic of all four of the legendary Maidens after having stolen the power of the Fall Maiden (though I could have done without the casual misogyny that gets sprinkled over Salem and Cinder’s Volume 8 arcs). Another member of Salem’s circle is discredited Atlesian hacker Arthur Watts (Christopher Sabat), a supporting villain who came across as obnoxiously over-the-top in Volume 7. But in Volume 8, the show presents him more enjoyably, benefitting from the combined efforts of the animation for his specific mannerisms and Sabat’s vocal performance. However, one major antagonist that the show misfires on is totalitarian Atlesian military general James Ironwood (Jason Rose), who couldn’t have been more cartoonishly evil if he literally twirled his mustache.

Stories centered around robots and cyborgs commonly cover themes of personhood and whether they’re as sentient as their human and wholly organic counterparts. Penny embarks on her own journey of self-exploration, albeit a feebly executed journey. Notwithstanding the engrossing emotional beats she’s given, particularly the ones in Chapter 5, “Amity,” the show builds her up to an anticlimactic and cheap ending that does her arc dirty and rejects all the lessons you’re supposed to pass on in any narrative following androids who wrestle with their capacity for self-awareness and humanity. On top of it all, it meshes with what deeply feels like an attitude of casual ableism that the show aims at robots and cyborgs. Whether it’s the writing staff revealing that they gave Ironwood a prosthetic arm to represent his descent into inhumanity or Yang repeatedly and bitterly regarding her own bionic arm as an alien appendage that pales in comparison to the organic limb she once had, RWBY tends to look down on those built with any steel, power cells, and wire as being inferior and grotesque in comparison to those who are fully made of flesh, bone, and blood. It’s especially discomfiting when you apply this distorted and small-minded perspective to the real-life physically and mentally disabled.

As vexed as I am by the show, there are a few elements that I continue to find genuinely compelling. For one thing, as much as I’m slamming RWBY for the aggressively poor writing, it definitely doesn’t apply to the well-crafted animation. Whether it’s the resplendent sunset backdropping a scene, the camera’s dynamic sweeps through a chase sequence, the grotesquely chilling design of a new and advanced breed of Grimm known as the Hound (the creature vocals were performed by Jason Liebrecht, who also plays Ruby’s uncle Qrow Branwen), or the visceral emotion injected into a heart-wrenching exchange between Penny and her tech wizard of a surrogate father Pietro (Dave Fennoy), there were several points where I could effortlessly tell just how committed the animators are to the show. The production quality in general keeps making strides with every passing volume. I likewise commend the show for playing around with the horror genre on a few occasions, one of which includes an episode that presents a surprisingly engaging Haunted House scenario. The show has offered some of its best work when it takes a quick hop into horror, and I hope we’ll continue getting similar beats in the future.

As always, I’m anxious for the release of the Volume 8 soundtrack by vocalist Casey Lee Williams and her composer father Jeff Williams. It consists of the Volume 8 theme song, “For Every Life,” which I initially wasn’t crazy about due to it being built with a slower and more somber sound compared to the red-blooded catchiness of earlier themes, though it’s grown on me by now; “The Sky is Falling”; “The Truth”; “Awake,” which is actually a track off the latest EP from Casey’s band OK Goodnight; “Treasure”; “Be Strong and Hit Stuff”; and “Friend,” which gives Casey writing credit alongside her father and co-composer Alex Abraham. Casey’s voice is stronger than ever and the score effectively supplements both the touching character moments and the energetic action scenes.

By explicitly confirming that May Marigold, a minor character who had been introduced in Volume 7, is trans, Volume 8 gives the show its first trans character. Kdin Jenzen, the Rooster Teeth employee who plays May, is trans too. Even though this is a tokenistic move, I’m willing to accept any positive queer representation from RWBY at this point. While we’re on the topic of queer rep, though, it’s disappointing that the show continues to queerbait its viewers. Last season, it was Fair Game, a m/m ship between Qrow and Clover Ebi that the writers have stated was never meant to be anything more than a friendship. Yes, in spite of the various ways that the animation and the dialogue exuded strong romantic vibes, they want us to think Fair Game was purely headcanon. This time, it’s Bumbleby, a f/f ship between Blake and Yang that hasn’t culminated in a kiss or an overt declaration of love thus far, but has been clearly gay-coded over the past few volumes. There’s even a beat in Volume 8 where they share an intimate embrace with Yang touching Blake’s face and their foreheads resting together. The cognitive dissonance between the currently platonic status that the writers allegedly want us to believe in and the romantic chemistry that the show ends up communicating gets more intriguing when you consider the RWBY creators told marketing to temper the Bumbleby-themed tweets and merchandise, as though they’re afraid of viewers prematurely boarding the Bumbleby ship.

Let me clarify that my harsh criticism comes from a place of love for RWBY. Honestly, if you came up to me a couple years ago and asked for my take on the show, I would have sung its praises over strengths like the likability of Team RWBY, the fight choreography, and the worldbuilding. The show possessed a peculiar charm that made it easy to accept its shortcomings, such as the fact that it’s easy to look at the writing and go, “Did a bunch of anime geek bros wrote this?” The answer: yes, yes they did. Even as maddening as RWBY has become now, I’m treating it as if it’s a troublesome child I unconditionally love. No matter how much they infuriate me by pulling shenanigans like jamming all the locks with toothpicks or hiding a dead fish in my bag, I’ll still love the little beastie. This is why I intend to stick with RWBY all the way to the end. That being said, Volume 8 reads very much like a first draft, and it doesn’t bode well for Volume 9.

All my love and prayers go to you, folks. Stay healthy and stay strong.

Windup score: 30/100

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