The subject of this article is the 2006-08 animated series Code Geass: Lelouch of the Revolution, aired in two seasons (season one, referred to as Code Geass, 2006-07, season two, referred to as R2, 2008). The series attracted significant debate among fans as to whether the radical shift in tone brought about by the sudden decision to feature a second season, first shown in the delay between episodes 23 and 24 of the first season, and the rolling together of episodes 24 and 25 into a single double-length episode with its own title sequence, was a good thing.
The essential plot of the series concerns a future where a pseudo-British nation, Britannia, has regained its imperial aims and conquered much of the world, and focuses on an ostracised prince, Lelouch, attempting to get revenge on a family he considers his enemies following an attack on his mother and sister which left the latter blind and paralysed. Early in the series he encounters an apparently omniscient woman, CC, who agrees to help him find vengeance and gives him the ability to control the minds of others – the geass of the title. Subsequently, the series follows two plots; Lelouch’s attempts to avenge his mother’s death and his attempts to conceal his secret identity as the freedom fighter Zero from his companions and enemies. The second season, R2, adds further complications and focuses more on the corrupting effects of power, with Lelouch becoming increasingly megalomaniacal and distant until ultimately becoming too caught up in the lies that he has relied on to gain power to be able to continue.
This general plot, about the extent to which a self-important and arrogant protagonist is prepared to sacrifice others, lie and cheat to get vengeance while still remaining convinced his actions are completely justified, is well-worn but interesting; as a series with a target audience of young people it is entirely as expected for a science fiction drama. The idea of a double identity and the inherent difficulties in reconciling lifestyles and the required fictions is stock superhero stuff, executed for the most part as a source of comedy stepping away from the central storyline. That said, often these low points in dramatic tension are oddly placed and the overall arc of the story becomes muddled early into R2 and never fully recovers. The end result is something that seems disjointed, inconsistent, contrived and at times quite dull.
It is rare for a series to be completely without any redeeming factors, however, and despite being genuinely poorly written, at many points poorly drawn and ultimately a waste of a potentially interesting concept, Code Geass is at times incredibly entertaining and occasionally shows flashes of being a far better series than it turned out as. Having watched both seasons of the show recently, two main failings are evident which each contribute to it being ultimately a poor product despite these moments of quality.
The first, and probably the most significant, is the lacklustre pacing of plot developments. The first season worked well by gradually escalating the stakes, showing how Lelouch initially sees his power as the solution to all potential problems, tries to learn how it works and keeps running into situations where it does not. Mixing the standard plot points of a superhero story (learning about an emerging power and encountering enemies who make using it difficult) with the stock elements of the military sci-fi genre can work; supernatural powers set against technology and military force provides an interesting and time-honoured narrative convention. However, a story needs a defined arc and R2 especially does not have one; while Code Geass set up a series of mysteries (what the “geass” is, who CC really is, what a mysterious temple discovered towards the end of the series means), R2‘s resolution of them is haphazard and uneven. Each big revelation is cheapened by the next, which results in the series ultimately feeling like it climaxes and then continues needlessly; the revelation the audience has been waiting for (the truth about Lelouch’s mother, and the geass) is not the endpoint of the series and the final arc instead attempts to create a fresh crescendo of tension which ends up ridiculous.
An arc-based or episodic storyline would be no problem; completing one story and then moving on to another is effectively what the first season does by pitting Lelouch against a series of antagonists (beginning with the ineffectual Clovis and then proceeding upwards through the military hierachy and royal succession) but R2 shies away from this by running its stories concurrently; while other series may use comic episodes to relieve built up tension following a storyline’s completion, R2 simply inserts them seemingly at random and uses them as part of the buildup. Not only is this tonally jarring to have character development of recurring antagonists take place during slapstick moments set around a school, it means there is no real sense of peak and trough throughout the narrative; instead it builds and builds with occasional sudden deviations. While this is thematically appropriate (R2‘s story focuses on how Lelouch is losing control – and possibly his mind) it does not make for a good piece of television.
The second main criticism is the significant tonal and setting-related inconsistency between seasons; a central part of military sci-fi is consistent and, if not realistic, credible technology. The first season had a very consistent setting; the overwhelming power of the Britannians was a result of their powered fighting suits, or KMFs. The escalation of the conflict moved from Lelouch first working out how to fight KMFs, to acquiring his own for his fledgling force, to an arms race as both sides put great minds behind weapon development. The scientists were central characters and their personal rivalry was played out in the combat sequences. The technological progress was restrained; it focused mostly on new wonder-weapons and culminated in the invention of flight-capable KMFs as a significant development which made both sides rethink their plans.
In R2, the technology of the setting is advanced so far as to make suspension of disbelief difficult; while the first season’s combat was intended to show how superior planning and strategy could beat militarily superior enemies, R2 instead focuses on a procession of geass users with powers including time travel, and incongruous units including transforming fighter craft. The tone has changed and the setting no longer feels like the same one as before despite both series being linked. Similarly, the tone of the whole series changes; by moving from one man’s quest for revenge and a warped perception of justice to ultimately the threat of global nuclear war and battles for control of half the world, the visceral and believable nature of the action is gone. R2‘s battles focus more on armies being moved around while leaders duel each other. Again, this is thematically relevant; the focus is no longer on a personal motive but instead how noble aims can be corrupted by megalomania, and how Lelouch is losing sight of the human cost of his actions, but it is ineptly handled. A viewer is consistently left thinking there must be ways of maintaining the credibility of the setting while still reflecting this thematic element.
That is not to say that there are not moments of Code Geass that are well-done; one scene in R2, shortly after Lelouch’s climactic showdown with the reigning Emperor, has CC lose her memory; the character had, over the course of the first season, become a fan favourite and the subject of internet memes focusing on her liking of pizza and docile nature. While these aspects of the character were secondary to her actual role in the story, they were nevertheless the ones that audiences identified with. As a result, the resolution of her narrative arc (explaining her history, identity and the reason for Lelouch’s losing control of his power) is given significant power in how it leaves her, for a period, as the epitome of docility; a literal mindless object of affection who can do little but obey and survive. The things which audiences had made the defining features of CC’s character are now the only features.
Similarly, the final chapters of the story provide the best possible closure to the narrative; while I do not wish to completely describe the ending of the series, a recurring theme in the final episodes is Lelouch realising how in his efforts to look after his own interests, he has neglected those of his sister and ended up losing her through his efforts to protect her. The final scene of the entire series, in which he is finally held accountable for everything he has done, is surprisingly effective and understated compared to the constant building up of tension and escalation of scale that has defined the preceding episodes.
To conclude, the main issues that consistently undo any attempts at challenging genre traditions and being thought-provoking by Code Geass are its inconsistencies and ill-defined narratives. While these decisions (the technological changes, the confused and overwhelming combining of narrative arcs) are thematically apt in a series about the abuse and loss of control of power, it is impossible to call the series an overall success; were it better written and more consistent in narrative terms, then it could explore the same themes in a clearer and more enjoyable fashion.