Thursday, April 16, 2020

Quick Sips - Serial Box: Ninth Step Station [ep02.01 & 02.02]

Ninth Step Station is back! I was incredibly excited about the announcement and especially after some of the other series I’ve really liked seem in limbo at the moment, it’s an added relief to be able to visit once more with Miyako and Emma as they deal with the realities of a Tokyo literally cut in half by Chinese and American occupying forces. The previous season left things in a rather tense way, with a series of assassinations culminating in some open fighting in the city. That’s died back, albeit with some concessions from the Japanese/American side, and as the new season gets under way it’s far from business as usual, except that there is a murder, or really a multiple murder, to solve. To the reviews!

Serial Chapters:

“The Spiked Cocktail” by Malka Older (ep02.01)

No Spoilers: After the cliffhanger of last season, this episode opens having skipped forward a little bit. The situation is a lot different now, with both Emma and Miyako hiding things from the other. Though they’ve come to mostly trust each other, their national loyalties are still guiding a lot of their actions, and so when a murder happens when they’re both working a little bit off the books, they have to navigate the lies and the awkwardness to figure out what’s happened. The series continues to be pull of political intrigue in a near-future where international relations are at a boiling point. Japan is the stage for a play that might just be the opening number for all out global war, or might yet find a less bloody denouement.
Keywords: War, Murder, Poison, Boxing, Queer MC, Split Loyalties
Review: I love that both Emma and Miyako make terrible spies. It’s something that right away makes Miyako uncomfortable, her role in something that is clandestine, that goes against the law. And in many ways almost like she’s a part of it because she’s trying so hard to be loyal to Japan. Because she feels so unable to actually protect her home against invasion. Because she is stuck in this situation, with a physical border between her and her girlfriend, maybe even because she envies Emma her loyalty to her country and the ease with which she can disconnect from police work and do things more “for her country,” whatever that means. And I love that it then puts Emma and Miyako in sort of opposite roles. Miyako now is playing political games while Emma is the one trying to investigate her former boss’s murder on her own. On her own because Miyako already knows who killed him. Not that Emma isn’t keeping secrets of her own, but on her side at least she’s not working with the conspiracy, with the killers. Which, I mean, Charles continues to be creepy and I love it as bear the shame of having a fellow Charles be a complete dickbat.

Anyway, the mystery this time is solid and unfolds well, featuring a rather improbably poisoning that kills four and implicates a bartender who seems convincingly innocent. What’s perhaps more important is that the murders took place in a crime boss’ bar. And really the chapter seems to deal a lot with the organized crime present in the city. Organized crime that certainly seems to be playing all sides, with connections to the Americans, the Japanese, and the Chinese, none of whom are really sure of where the gang’s loyalties are. It’s something that seems to seed a lot going forward, and adds an additional wrinkle to the already messy situation with Emma and Miyako. Because their lies to each other have given room for them to be manipulated, for them to be used not just against each other, but against peace. It’s something that is rather delightfully underscored in the way that the drink that kills four people is called a Peacekeeper. It’s an apt name, given the situation and what Emma’s superiors have done, and it might hint that it’s what comes when peacekeepers carry guns and have a tendency to shoot first. 

The resolution here, though, comes without bloodshed, as Miyako is able to find a way to connect with the murderer and prompt a confession. Which isn’t exactly usual for the series but makes for a nice bit of hope. A reminder that even surrounded by crime lords and spies, politicians and double agents, sometimes it’s guilt that speaks loudest and most honestly. And it’s perhaps a further reminder that Emma and Miyako’s partnership works best when they can trust each other. When they’re honest with each other. And that the secrets they’re hiding are likely to blow up in their faces. Otherwise, it’s a great return to the series, checking in with some old favorites (Dr. Sato! The tech ladies!) and introducing some new characters who have yet to be truly revealed what their motivations are. It’s certainly gotten me excited to see what else happens this season! A fantastic read!

“The Absent Artifacts” by Curtis C. Chen (ep02.02)

No Spoilers: A museum housing a controversial exhibit of World War II ceremonial swords is robbed, and it’s up to Miyako and Emma to get the bottom of it. To do so, though, they’ll need to negotiate a peace of sorts with the new police chief from the Chinese side of the border, a gangster whose elevation by the Chinese is an obvious provocation. More than that, though, Emma is still on the trail of the killer of her former boss and friend, and Miyako’s dealing with her own multiple allegiances. The case also brings them face to face with one of the case from last year--the one involving the invisibility cloak. It’s tense, full of action, and shows the evolving face of the political factions roiling inside Tokyo.
Keywords: Gangs, Assassinations, Invisibility, Politics, Theft, Queer MC
Review: Like last season, when Curtis C. Chen gets in the driver’s seat, the sex, violence, and swearing will likely amp up a bit, which provides for a rather thrilling chapter even as the characters have some quieter moments and dig themselves deeper into their lies and secrets. And again, it shows just how much they really need each other, because I’m pretty sure that Emma would be able to see that the resistance, in working with organized crime, is setting itself up for a terrible shock. And Miyako would almost certainly, if she didn’t already know the people responsible, be able to help Emma with her investigation. As it is, Miyako ends up hanging out at a known resistance gathering place and Emma straight up assassinates someone. Like, it’s a moment that she sees as justice, but her investigation has gone about as far as who had the guns and ammunition used to kill her friend and former boss. Not who was actually behind it. So her killing a man this episode is both a rather dramatic turn for her character and kinda a false finish, because while she kinda considers the matter closed now, she really doesn’t know the whole story.

As for the mystery, I like that the series has picked back up on the invisibility tech from the first season. It gives a sense of continuity as well as acknowledging that it’s a pretty big piece of tech. The idea of invisible killers is creeeeeepy. And I’m hoping this isn’t the last we’re seeing of it. I also like that this episode really starts to flesh out the gangs, the ways that they aren’t completely organized, for all that they’re organized crime. And that they’re willing to throw some of their own to cops means that there’s a bigger game going on, one that they have a very big vested interest in seeing play out. For me, it shows that the stakes here are rising, and the sides are growing rather foggy because everyone seems to be in bed with demons. Some because of patriotism, some because of personal loyalty, some out of greed and avarice. But it’s a great line that Emma remembers about no one winning in war, only surviving. Because regardless of what “side” would “win” in Tokyo, none of them are free from having done terrible things, and the toll already is high indeed.

All in all it was a rather fun episode. I will admit I like Emma as a foul-mouthed American who might resort to guns just a bit too quickly. And it sees a lot happen, from the Big Moments like Emma’s killing a person to the softer ones like Emma finally meeting Miyako’s girlfriend. It still very much has the feel of a fragile situation, though. Both women are in situations they couldn’t have predicted, doing things and sacrificing their beliefs in ways that should surprise them, but which make sense given their journeys. Where it takes them from here, though, seems bound to bea rather dark road with some deep shadows, and I’ll just grab my popcorn now for when the fireworks really start. A wonderful read!


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