Update, one week later: This post starts out negative, as that was my first reaction to the episode. Then as I thought about it more and more (as I wrote this post) I began to appreciate how the episode had been put together. The end result was a complete reversal in my feelings, such that I think this episode is actually quite good.
I’ve tried to believe. There’s been a lot that’s quite good about this overly-maligned series. But really, this episode was almost bad enough to be worthy of the disappointing Allison and Lillia.
You can see that they’re trying. The climax wasn’t a deus ex machina — we see all the bits of the machina being assembled, Macgyver-like, from things that have been introduced earlier in the series or in this episode, and it’s easy to see that something is going on. There’s pleasure to be gained from seeing how all the clues we see will be put together.
Unfortunately, some of it requires prison-guards with an almost Imperial-Storm-Trooper-like inattention to detail, plus there’s a small coordination problem that is glossed over: how does solitarily-confined Kuniko communicate the plan she’d hatched, during her three-days of punishment, to her co-conspirators?
The creators of Shangri-la actually try to account for the problems. We see the prisoners exploiting the corruption of some guards; the inmates stage a fight, creating a plausible cover-story that a potential weapon is to be used to get revenge against another prisoner; we see the components for the escape being assembled from parts we can understand — alchohol distilled from fermented orange juice, hydrogen generated by an alchohol-catalyzed reaction — the hydrogen was introduced in an earlier episode as fueling explosions used in the logging operations; we see a vital component tossed from Kuniko’s window and discovered lying in the dirt by one of the prisoners. There are lots of significant looks and exchanges that only make sense once you see all the pieces put together. The only “luck” involved may be the timely arrival of the ice-shrapnel storm. Even that is accounted for: Kuniko sighs that the “weather prediction was right, for once”, when it arrives.
I imagine this episode actually works in the novel (which is not something I expect is true of Allison and Lillia).
On screen it still adds up to being disappointingly unbelievable. What tries to be a plot built by MacGuyver feels like it was built by Rube Goldberg, instead.
Update: The one thing I will say in its favor: paradoxically, the more I think about it, the better it looks: the mis-direction worked on me as well as the prison-guards, I suppose. It’s just that first impressions count for a lot (moreover, the escape is followed by a few happy coincidences that are poorly timed to win this viewer’s sympathy). This series has shown signs of being very subtle and clever, this time I think it was too clever by half.
Update update: PSGels keeps the faith, I think with some justification. As I said in comments there, it’s possible that, in the context of the entire series, this episode will come to seem less contrived than one’s original impression leads one to think.