Code Geass is frustrating. It really genuinely annoyed me. It’s one of the very few things that I Googled the ending for before finishing it and felt absolutely no shame. I had to take a sabbatical from the bloody thing three times because it began to actually make me angry. I don’t have a dog, but if I did I almost certainly would’ve punted it out of a fourth storey window in sheer frustration. Yes, Code Geass killed my metaphorical made up dog.
Right, I’ve got that out of my system. Let’s start again.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion is pretty much Death Note with mechs, or Gundam with mind control, or a giant game of Risk with an anorexic Batman and his army of butlers. That’s not all hyperbolic bullshit this time either; from Death Note, we have a main character who stumbles across a terrible power with oddly specific limitations, hides his secret from his friends while everyone in the country knows about it and who becomes more morally ambiguous as the plot goes on; from Gundam, we have the giant mechs that are infeasible in almost every sense of the word and the world conquering politics stuff; and from Batman we have a guy who puts on a cape and a black mask and flounces around a bit. His butler army is even called The Black Knights for God’s sake, it’s not exactly hard to find the comparison.
The story goes that Lelouch Lamperouge, a high school student with genius level intellect and a perfectly normal name, stumbles upon a mysterious green haired woman who gives him a Geass, making a seagull get stuck in his retina and giving him constant redeye as well as the power to control another person’s actions for a period of time. With this newfound power and an itchy eyeball he wants to overthrow the Holy Britannian Empire, which strangely doesn’t contain Britain but does contain the USA, who have taken over Japan and rule it and most of the rest of the world with an iron fist. There’s also robot suits called Knightmares and mandatory high school hijinks for comic relief, such is the breathtaking innovation on display in this show. They never actually get round to properly explaining what a Geass is either, going so far as to say it’s passed down by a mystical somethingorother and manifests differently in every person. This is the writers equivalent of saying “Please, just go with it”, roughly the same explanation as to why all the best mech pilots in the country are 17.
So it’s massively unoriginal, but it at least manages to get you invested for the most part. Chess is a recurring theme, so battles are played out strategically with the majority of fights being between groups of people/robots with leaders ordering them around and trying to outmanoeuvre each other, which is a nice twist on the usual mech smashy combat routine. Luckily for the high school sections, the Death Note formula still hasn’t worn out its welcome yet; having to deceive everyone you know and love for your idea of the ‘greater good’ is morally interesting and played pretty well, with at least one impressively gut wrenching episode that works purely because of its absolute permanence.
However, this is where it all starts to go wrong. Everything I’ve mentioned up to now has been in the first season. The second season, subtitled R2 for unknown reasons, manages to be almost perfectly identical to the first series but without any subtlety, character development or noticeable quality. It starts with a literal reset of every character and plot point back to the very first episode, and the screenwriting only gets worse from there. It is to the first season what the Star Wars prequels are to the original trilogy; a horrible reminder that the same creative team that made something good can also fuck up catastrophically, and the two are now linked forever. You think I’m exaggerating? R2 features the Fantasy Seduction Team for all of a minute. It’s a minute I wish had never existed.
I could go into endless detail as to why R2 is a pale imitation of the first season, such as the numerous plot holes, the sudden removal of any depth to the characters, the utterly ridiculous plot points that happen mostly by luck and stupidity rather than judgement, the annoying habit of forcing a cliffhanger onto the end of every episode that then gets resolved before the opening titles of the next one, etc etc etc. What it boils down to, however, is that I simply wasn’t as interested in the second season as the first. The reset killed any investment I had in the series, because it removed the absolute permanence I mentioned earlier.
With an introduction of a reset it becomes like any Supes story after ‘The Death of Superman’, where I won’t care if someone dies because they could just be magicked back to life by the writers. The personal sacrifices Lelouch makes can theoretically become undone at the drop of a hat. I might be a bit more forgiving if it wasn’t so forcefully manipulative with some of its characters, but instead we have a bad guy shouting “EQUALITY IS WRONG” to a room full of soldiers, replicating the Nazi leader guy from Hellsing Ultimate in an attempt to show himself to be the most blatantly evil person in the plot.
The final nail is the amount of pointless padding there is just to stretch the runtime to 26 episodes; when the plot repeats the first season for the first ten or so episodes only for a million people to then randomly escape on an iceberg to China (this actually happens) I just can’t care anymore.
Both seasons share faults. They both have pretty rubbish dialogue that eschews organic storytelling in favour of the characters telling you literally everything in about twice as many words as are necessary. They both have character designs that look like Jack Skellington with eyeballs, skin and a funky coloured wig. They both have way too many characters with none of them being particularly great other than the main two or three. They’re both sponsored by Pizza Hut.
The main problem is that R2 has way more story problems and way less intrigue, which means I’m less invested and more likely to notice everything that’s wrong with it. I became annoyed at the lack of story progress, the way it ignored most of the events of the first season, the gaping plot holes, the stupidity of some of the characters, how the apparently unstoppable Knightmares became cannon fodder within minutes, the endless cliffhangers and “Aha!” moments, the gratuitous ‘fan service’. Code Geass can be better than that. I know it can, because I saw 26 episodes of it that were infinitely better.
R2 starts to claw its way back up to par towards the end when they climb the ‘thought elevator’ (what in the fuck), and the ending is about as perfect as you can get for what the story has dragged its raw, swollen arse through for the preceding twenty odd episodes. They finally get around to addressing the major plot points set out in the first season, instead of pissing around in China or trying to repeat memorable scenes from the first season, discovering far too late that removing a character from the plot for the second or third time is less effective than doing it just the once. The final scene is genuinely pretty well handled and basically the only way it could end, even though the fallout is preposterous; we must have learnt by now that eliminating one guy is a touch unlikely to end literally all war on the planet and allow everybody to focus on “solving hunger and poverty”. Idealistic doesn’t even cover it.
In short, I both like and hate Code Geass at the same time. The first season is paced well enough so I don’t notice Jonny Yong Bosch’s terrible voice acting as much, or how Lelouch flings his arms around and points at everything before saying anything important. However, the second season spends over half of its running time stalling for time, and so every tiny little problem that the show has, of which there are quite a few, is immediately noticeable. A show being boring is bad enough, but when it becomes actively annoying then you know you’ve fucked up somewhere.