Alice in Borderland Recap: Into the Woods

Alice in Borderland

Episode 5
Season 2 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Alice in Borderland

Episode 5
Season 2 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Photo Credit: Kumiko Tsuchiya/Kumiko Tsuchiya

There’s something about archery and dystopian storytelling. From The Hunger Games’ Katniss to All of Us Are Dead’s Jang Ha-ri, bows and arrows tend to make more sense in post-apocalyptic narrative scapes than they ever do in real-world combat. Enter Heiya, a new character in Alice in Borderland who isn’t afraid to go up against the King of Spades with just her bow and her determination to live. Unlike Arisu, who is having trouble finding the motivation to keep fighting, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for Heiya. The teenager had a particularly brutal introduction to Borderland, snatched up from Shibuya Crossing, just like Arisu, and immediately thrust into the Seven of Spades game. Unlike many of the games in Borderland, the Seven of Spades game doesn’t involve much strategy. Rather, it involved the players simply sprinting for their lives as the baseball stadium they found themselves in erupted with tens of thousands of gallons of boiling water. We’re talking disaster-movie-level destruction. Heiya was the only person to make it out alive, and she lost her foot in the process.

Medical care isn’t easy in Borderland, but Heiya found a gross doctor who safely amputated her gangrene foot in exchange for sex. After the traumatizing experiences, Heiya becomes more determined than ever to survive, aware of how much she has had to endure — from this world and its players — to make it this far. Unlike Arisu, or the many side characters we have seen die by suicide in this world, Heiya doesn’t seem to struggle with motivation to keep going. She has never seriously considered a different option. It is not more or less admirable; it is a different reaction to trauma.

Heiya and Aguni might not make the most obvious of travel companions, but they work. Last season, we saw Aguni abuse his power at the Beach to kill so many people. Ostensibly, it was to find the witch and clear the Ten of Hearts game, but really, Aguni’s violence was fueled by the anger and guilt he felt after killing his best friend, Hatter. That guilt stays with him, though now he seems to be using it to help other players. He appears to be a true friend and protector to Heiya, chose to save Arisu from the King of Spades last episode, and is now using his skillset to beat the King of Spades. Unlike characters like Yaba, Banda, or Urumi, Aguni doesn’t seem to revel in the violence enacted, which means there is hope for him. If the first step in his redemption arc was tackling Niragi into the flames last season, then Heiya, Arisu, and the King of Spades could be phase two.

Whether it is about redemption or something else, Aguni has yet to set himself up for easy success. His goal is to kill the seemingly unkillable. Thus far, the King of Spades has come off as an unstoppable killing machine who never falters. In broad daylight and darkness alike, he appears like a phantom to kill as many people as he can as quickly as he can. Whoever is going to kill him is going to have to get creative …

Aguni has a plan, and Arisu is the perfect addition to the team. They will lure the King of Spades into the woods after dark, guiding him toward a cliff, and eventually pushing him into a gully. Yeah, it’s something Wile E. Coyote might come up with, but it’s worth a try! Aguni tells Arisu he is the lookout, but he is the bait, a job he does very well. Somehow he survives, probably because he is the one to be guided toward and then forced off the cliff and into the rapids below. Aguni and Heiya survive, too, hiding injured and tired in the muddy darkness. Unfortunately, so does the King of Spades. The dude has night-vision goggles and a cape like Batman; not even a bow and arrow imbued with the power of the dystopian genre can fell him.

While Arisu and other characters may be looking for answers about this world in the games and the citizens, Ann is puzzled by the landscape. The city itself is changing, with vegetation taking back the city’s buildings and streets and fish repopulating the rivers at an improbable rate. Time seems to move at a different pace in Borderland, supporting the theory that this place does not use the same logic as our reality. Ann hikes far enough that she should be in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan and only about 18 miles south of Tokyo … but she is not in Yokohama, and her compass is going crazy. When she hikes to the top of a mountain, she sees only more mountains around her: Where is the rest of Japan?

While this episode spends more time on flashbacks and reflection than your average Alice in Borderland installment, this series always stays within gameplay. Of course, there’s the ever-running King of Spades game, but we also enter the Queen of Spades’ arena — not featured in the manga source material. Unable to find Arisu and pretty fucking hungry after the failed bunny hunt last episode, Usagi wanders into a house in search of food. She finds a kind woman who offers her a morsel and a 10-year-old boy. They’re not related, and Arisu takes the boy under her wing. He needs a visa extension, which is how she and he end up in the Queen of Spades’ game, along with other desperate players. When one of the men there sees the kid, he is outwardly kind but pulls Usagi aside to make it clear he is not going to risk his own survival for a child: “This is a spade game. You’ll never win with a kid. I’ll get rid of anyone who holds us back, even a kid. Don’t hold it against me.” Um … thanks for the heads-up, I guess?

“But you’ll win, Usagi,” says a voice off-camera. It’s Arisu! You better believe this reunion had me squealing (internally, I’m a silent watcher like Aguni). Moments of joy are so hard to come by in the Borderland, and to see these two reunited is special. The two hug, and for a moment, I can pretend this is a seemingly high-stakes but actually low-stakes young-adult romance-action-drama on the CW. But it’s not, and the moment of squeel-inducing togetherness quickly ends as Arisu, Usagi, and their adopted kid have a game to survive.

The Queen of Spades game is basically team tag. The Challengers’ Team starts with 16 members, the Queen’s Team consists of four (including the Queen), all players wear vests with big red buttons on their backs that, when tagged, switch players to the opposite team and temporarily paralyze them. Whichever team has the most players after 16 five-minute rounds wins. Oh, also, the game takes place on the top floors of a skyscraper-in-progress, its ramps, grates, and walkways open to the wind and hundreds-of-feet drop to the ground below. The rule that makes this game particularly emotionally brutal? Each team will have a king, a player who can never switch sides. The Queen is the king of her team, and she chooses the boy as the king for the Challengers’ team, which is a dick move. This means that the Queen’s team must fail for the boy to survive.

As quickly becomes apparent, the Queen has an edge in this game. Not only is she hella fast and agile, but she and her three teammates have played this game before, and they get to be “it” first. After a few rounds, the numbers have shifted in the Queen’s Team’s favor. In the first few rounds, players were eager to return to the Challengers’ Team, which had more people. Eventually, however, they try to evade going back. The Queen’s Team has more players, which means they are poised to win, and the Queen has a good pitch: Help me win and you won’t have to play any other game. You can stay in my arena, in my game, for as long as we keep winning. It’s an offer many players can’t be bothered to refuse.

In a somewhat contrived plot development, the Queen decides she wants Arisu, who is dedicated to staying on a team with Usagi and the kid, for her side. I get it — he’s the protagonist, and we’ve seen other powerful characters take an interest in him before — but it seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble to go through. (“He’s my type,” she tells her team members. Maybe she wants a boyfriend and/or fuck buddy?) Whatever the thin logic, it complicates the game in a distracting way, giving the episode a mediocre cliffhanger endpoint. Realizing that the Queen’s team is gunning for Arisu, Usagi puts herself physically in the way, telling Arisu to run. These two have been through too much together to let a high-stakes game of tag split them up.

In many ways, this episode is probably the most all over the place this show has been, tying together multiple games, showing us parts of this world we’ve never seen before, and introducing an entirely new central character with only three episodes left. Even so, there’s rarely a dull moment. If this is Alice in Borderland at its messiest, what a ride.

Expired Visas

• I wish we had gotten to know this kid better before he was used as an emotional complication in the Queen of Spades game. I at least want to know his name.

• Do you think the King of Spades and Queen of Spades know one another? Do the face cards have, like, mixers? You know Mira would be up for it.

• I respect that Heiya holds onto her bag as the baseball stadium erupts around her. But, really, this is a good character detail.

• It’s natural to wonder about one’s own chances of survival while watching a show like Alice in Borderland. I might have been able to pull my leg off of a steel rod, but there’s no way my claustrophobic self would have been able to crawl through that duct.

• “Yuzuha, if I die in a climbing accident, don’t you cry for me.” Big ask, dad.

• Shout out to the man whose tent Arisu barges rudely into, thinking Usagi is in there. I hope he makes it.

• In this episode, we get a glimpse of Kuina absolutely slaying in a Jack of Spades game. The game involves fighting other players in hand-to-hand combat, which gives Kuina a distinct advantage as she is a martial-arts wizard. She wins, though not without accumulating some cuts and bruises.

• “I’m sure we’ll return to the real world.” I know adults lie to kids all the time, but when Usagi says this to the boy as they head into the Queen of Spades game, it feels like a significant, fragile promise.

• I appreciate that so many people stretch before games in Borderland. Stretching is important.

• If I were the 10-year-old boy, I would probably at least try to tag some people.

• Seriously, what is the budget for this show? It looks so good.

Alice in Borderland Recap: Into the Woods