Mixed bag, this episode. On the one hand, it's a sweet story about friendship, the value of teamwork, and putting aside your own desires to better serve a community. On the other hand, I guess this is a series that's 75% about war? Bit of a bummer!

With the introduction of Pandora's Tower and open conflict between Seito and Touto, we're very much in a new phase of the story. I just wish it felt like a different phase of the story. We've still got murder robots, Hell Bros, rubble in the streets, crisis scenes with Rogue's Dad in an office, all the trappings of the last dozen or so episodes. Even as the stakes ostensibly change (Nanba doesn't care about the bottles?) and the danger's increased, visually and structurally it doesn't feel like anything's changed. That can be death for the middle of a Kamen Rider series, and it's a disappointing rut for the series to fall into.

The story is still compelling though, since it's based so firmly in the three hero Riders' history. The beats are familiar (Grease wants to protect Hokuto, Sento doesn't think the answer to war is more war, Banjou is just hopeless at articulating his feelings and convincing anyone of anything except for that one time with Sento), but the resolution still delivers a gorgeous image of the Three Crows adding their strength to Grease and Build. It's lovely, grounding a standard fight in something more heartwarming, and it's easily the strongest thing in the episode

Wait, no, Sawa's in the new opening credits! That's the highlight, not just for the episode but for the whole series. Act 3 is off to an electric start!

This show is the best at delivering exposition. In what for another series might be a slow set of scenes, the "what can learn from Vernage and what do we know about Banjou" stuff was golden. All the right questions get asked with so much style. Just masterful work by the cast and crew, turning an info dump and foreshadowing into character-driven comedy and meta hilarity. Super, super good.

Similarly, it's both a clever Build plan that gets deployed (it's not an invasion if you've been kicked out of the military for treason) and some nice reactions from the rest of the cast to Sento's would-be martyrdom. Some folks are angry, some are worried, but everyone just wants to be there for Sento. It's a really charming team dynamic.

Other than that, not much stood out for me this episode, partly because the Vernage stuff was so unique and funny, partly because the rest is the same dudes fighting the same dudes on the same set. This show, especially in the second and third acts, is just nailing the smaller character moments, and doing above-average to great work when they can make the fights feel personal, but the overall war setting can feel dull when it's just about the plot. Definitely something that has not gotten better in the last few episodes.

A bunch more exposition (not as impressively delivered), and a really great starting fight with some terrific cinematography, but I left this episode not really feeling it.

A lot of that is because this is an episode designed around revealing big secrets about Banjou, but it's not designed around revealing big secrets to Banjou. The audience, through Sawa and Misora, gets to find out Banjou's Super Special Origin, but Banjou's left (characteristically) ignorant of all of this. It's good info for an audience to get dots connecting, but dramatically the only point is to force the character to deal with it. It's not important for the audience to know Takumi is Sento, for example, but for Sento to know that Takumi is Sento. There's a little bit of new info that Banjou gets, that Stalk had Kasumi killed to motivate him. (Fridging his girlfriend? So he'd have something to fight for? One of the worst tropes in fiction? Stalk is a monster, and a hack.) That's useful to potentially excavate some new layers of Banjou's personality, but practically it ends up resulting in I'll Fight Even Harder Now. Not exactly a revelation! Banjou gets an upgrade, but his character is basically the same. The real change might happen when he finds out Everything He Knew Was A Lie. The Mars/vessel stuff'll mean more to me when Banjou has to process it, and until then it's not much more than an interesting data point.

The fight that kicked off the episode, that's where it felt like the meat was. It just looked so pretty, exchanging tan walls for a wintery beach. Those weirdo frames, creating unusual shots. After a bunch of episodes of city and warehouse fights, it's nice to head out to Kamen Rider Beach. Just, again, a visual change that makes things feel less visually repetitive. Less dull.

And, yeah, unfortunately "dull" is the keyword for this string of episodes, despite some big information and quirky moments. It's tough to care about things like Seito's government and Nanba war robots and Martian civilizations because they feel so big. Too big for the smaller moments that this series kills at. Misora and Banjou and Stalk (I assume Stalk) are all inhabited by space people who have space beefs with each other, but so far it's not telling me anything about Misora or Banjou or Stalk. The Nanba stuff is an interesting take on war profiteering and the military industrial complex, but I don't care about it at all. When this show can tie the massive to the personal, it's transcendent. That's not the show I'm seeing in these last three episodes.