Alice in Borderland Season-Finale Recap: Explosions in the Sky

Alice in Borderland

Episode 8
Season 2 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 5 stars

Alice in Borderland

Episode 8
Season 2 Episode 8
Editor’s Rating 5 stars
Photo: Photo Credit: Kumiko Tsuchiya/Kumiko Tsuchiya

I imagine this season finale — which works as a series finale, too, adapting the second half of Haro Aso’s manga — will be divisive. Conclusions always are. Where before there was limitless space for theories, speculation, and imagination, there are now clearly defined edges that may keep some viewers’ subjective preferences ignored. I love how Alice in Borderland wrapped up, but I respect those reactions that will inevitably feel dissatisfied with this conclusion. Not every story works for everyone, and for those who went into Alice in Borderland season two hoping for a bloody, action-driven ending and found something much more psychological and reflective, I hope you still enjoyed the ride.

Of course, before the finale gives us definitive answers, Mira takes us on a ride. The Queen of Hearts game is deceptively simple. Arisu must play three croquet rounds (the one with the mallets) with Mira. He doesn’t have to beat her; he just has to finish. The catch? Mira will do all she can to quash Arisu’s will to live, and she has some serious emotional manipulation tactics in her arsenal.

First, she giggles and lies, telling desperate-for-answers Arisu and Usagi — who just left their friends in various stages of dying to play this game — that Borderland is run by aliens, is a VR game being played by bored, basically immortal humans in the future, is Arisu’s traumatized attempt to process Karube and Chota’s deaths. It’s that last one that almost works on Arisu; the story that Arisu has been in a mental-health facility this whole time and that Borderland is a figment of his imagination, a reality created to escape into because he can’t accept the deaths of the people he loves most. It works so well because it feeds into a lie that Arisu has believed: Karube and Chota’s deaths were his fault, and he didn’t deserve to live when they died.

It’s cruel and believable, and Mira had me wondering if the series might end this way, too — and what a depressing end that would have been! Because Arisu has spent the past two seasons, since he first lost Karube and Chota in the third episode, remembering his friends. When he has been happy and when he has been sad, when he has needed guidance and when he has been lost in a depressive cycle, it’s usually been a memory or projection of Karube and Chota that has come to his mind. He loved Karube and Chota and has struggled to find the will to live without them.

It’s Usagi that saves him. She cuts her wrist and asks him to see her, to save her. One thing that has always pulled Arisu back from the edge has been his desire to help others, to help Usagi. “Remember what you said. You said you’d risk your life to save me,” Usagi says as she lies next to Arisu in the woods, in the game arenas, in the intersection, at the beach, in the tunnel. “No matter what Mira says, I am most definitely here with you. I am alive.” She spells out what she’s learned in Borderland, what they’ve learned together. Arisu has been searching so desperately to understand if there is a reason to live. He’s asked every citizen he’s met if there is a way to return to the real world, but what he’s really asking is this: Why should we keep going amid all this pain and suffering? Will there be something that makes it worth it?

But other people can’t answer those questions for Arisu. Instead, again and again, the citizens have told him that he will know the answer only when he clears the game. But Usagi will share her conclusion because it’s something she and Arisu found together, even if he is having trouble seeing it in the haze of Mira’s lies. “The answer is different for everyone,” Usagi tells Arisu, unwilling to leave him behind. “A reason for living … it doesn’t matter if you have one or not. This whole time we’ve searched, we’ve been searching together. That alone was enough. The one who made me realize that was you.”

The turn — Arisu’s choice — is shot so beautifully. You think he is reaching for the pills Mira has offered, but he reaches for Usagi’s hand. “I want to hold your hand again. I want to walk with you again. I want to eat with you,” he tells her, and Usagi agrees. “Me too. I want to say good morning to you again tomorrow, Arisu.” They essentially exchange marriage vows, and why not? They have already made so many promises to one another.

In the end, finding someone else to face the games together has been enough. Arisu finishes the game, and Mira has a good time. She wins two out of three rounds as the sun sets on Borderland, but she dies by laser. “Life is like a game,” she says in her weirdly supportive final words. “Enjoy it more.” The surviving players have a choice: Choose to stay as a citizen in Borderland or don’t. The video billboards don’t tell the players what “don’t” entails, but it’s enough information for most players to decide. Aguni, Heiya, Kuina, Chishiya, and even Niragi reject the offer of citizenship. Arisu and Usagi do the same. They want out of Borderland, no matter what. Fireworks fill the sky.

Before Arisu wakes up, he dreams of Karube and Chota. They are in Karube’s bar together, laughing about nose hair. Then, Arisu breaks down; he apologizes for their deaths. They tease him lovingly. “I bet you think you’re alive because you’re special and a chosen one, right?” asks Karube. “There wasn’t a single game that you cleared by your own effort alone.” It’s a rejection of Arisu’s efforts to take credit for the choices Chota and Karube made. “If you thanked us forever, it would never be enough,” Chota adds. Karube grabs Arisu by the shirt collar and leans close so that he hears him loud and clear: “Live your life to the fullest until the very end.”

We’re back at Shibuya Crossing, before Borderland, when everything seemed simpler. Arisu is with Chota and Karube, but we recognize other familiar faces too. Ann, Chishiya, and Kuina stroll across the street. Tatta sits nearby in a truck. Niragi sits on a bench, stretching his neck. Usagi stares off into the middle distance, waiting for someone or just thinking. Aguni and Hatter are there, too, side by side. Heiya sips boba with her high-school friends. In this brief moment, it’s a stupid, normal, wonderful day. Those fireworks — the ones we kept hearing about repeatedly in Borderland — are in the sky, and everyone’s looking. But they’re not fireworks; we know that now. It’s a meteorite exploding over Tokyo, turning Shibuya City into a nightmare in the blink of an eye.

We catch back up with Arisu and the others as they recover in a hospital. Karube and Chota died in the disaster, like everyone else we saw die in Borderland. For the players and us viewers, what felt like weeks was mere minutes in the real world. The people who went to Borderland were the ones whose hearts temporarily stopped in the explosion, transported to some purgatory between life and death. The players who survived and chose to leave Borderland were the victims who could find their way back to life. They were resuscitated by emergency responders in the real world with no knowledge of their time spent in Borderland.

It’s an interesting explanation for all that we saw happen in Borderland, which simultaneously always felt real in its stakes and surreal in the actual mechanics of its game mechanics: Lasers from the sky, entire arenas elaborately constructed for the sake of gameplay, people hanging on to life long after their wounds should have killed them. The chief clue was in everyone’s obsession with finding and/or losing the motivation to live. For some, revealing that Borderland is not a “real” place constructed by aliens or future tech bros may be disappointing, but I think that explanation would have always been hard for me to swallow.

Borderland is real, in some sense. We know this because we see these characters feel some connection to one another, even if they don’t remember why. Chishiya and Niragi bicker as hospital roommates. Heiya is drawn to Aguni’s room. Usagi and Arisu meet at a vending machine and find something familiar in one another. Their experiences in Borderland may not have taken place in this plane of existence, but they happened, and they mattered. For me, that is enough.

Expired Visas

• Yes, this is how the manga ends, too. I will note there is a sequel that sees poor Arisu returning to Borderland again … and married to Usagi.

• Yes, that Joker card suggests there could be more adventures in Borderland should Netflix choose to green-light them. In the manga, the Joker is a character akin to the ferryman ushering people between Borderland and our world, or someplace else.

• Apparently croquet is not widely known in Japan. I appreciated this detail.

• Ann survives! We see the doctors able to bring her back to life in the operating room.

• Arisu’s brother visits him in the hospital and mentions that their father cried when Arisu was in the disaster. Low bar, but progress, I guess?

• In other dad news, Kuina’s father, who hadn’t been supportive of Kuina’s trans identity, also shows up at the hospital. Again, I want these dads to do even better.

• Personally, I am glad these characters don’t remember Borderland. They already have enough trauma to deal with.

• Hey, that boy Arisu and Usagi temporarily adopted made it!

• Did anyone else get Your Name vibes from this ending? This is one of the highest compliments I can bestow upon a story.

• Presumably Borderland continues to exist populated with people stuck between life and death. Mr. Yaba and Banda are still there, having chosen to be citizens. Will they be face cards in the next cycle?

• For me, especially in the grand scheme of panthers and deaths by suicide, this is a pretty happy ending.

Alice in Borderland Season-Finale Recap