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Episode One of Neon Genesis Evangelion left off at the start of a battle which would have been dramatically empty had it occurred at the start of episode two. While the first episode did everything to establish that this battle was damn near hopeless and that Shinji had no idea what he was doing as a pilot, it was nonetheless a foregone conclusion that Shinji would somehow win, because otherwise there would be no show.
Because of this, Eva pulls a twist that pays off in spades by only showing the beginning of the battle at the start of the episode, cutting off at a point when Shinji seems to have already horribly lost, and then directly into the aftermath of the battle with Shinji very much alive, leaving us chomping at the bit to find out what the hell he did to turn things around. Had the ensuing ten minutes of slowly paced exposition and setup been placed after the battle was shown in its entirety, then the second half of the episode might’ve felt like a boring write-off; instead leaving us desperate to learn what happened and allowing the episode to have an exciting conclusion.
But this isn’t just a gimmick to keep us glued to the screen throughout an otherwise boring episode. Once again, as iconically staged and beautifully animated as the battle turns out to be, it wouldn’t have meant anything at the end of episode one. By seeing the aftermath of the battle and learning about what was at stake, the battle itself becomes far more interesting. We find out how it sets into motion all of NERV’s plans when Gendo has his meeting at SEELE, and we learn how it affects the residents of the city when we overhear a conversation between some concerned citizens ready to get out of town. We see just what Shinji was able to protect in that battle with the emergence of Tokyo 3, and how Misato comes to appreciate the gravity of her treatment of Shinji when she takes him into her apartment. All of this context turns the battle from a foregone conclusion, into the inciting incident for all of the interesting things that we’ve learned.
In the process of slowly acclimating us to the setting and characters, and to the inner workings of NERV, this episode also peppers in lots of technical terminology and foreshadowing, which gives the impression of a much bigger story happening outside of the frame. SEELE talk about the human instrumentality project, which they consider to be more important than the fight against the angels, giving the impression that Gendo’s efforts with NERV are nothing but a backup plan in the eyes of the people funding him. Later on, we see an Evangelion unit in the wreckage of some kind of test chamber, which will be explained in another episode.
We also learn a lot of the practical details of how NERV operates by seeing the team piecing the Evangelion back together, reloading its weapons, and working press control. These details do a lot to ground the series realistically, which would be difficult to do in the aftermath of a giant robot going berserk, tearing an alien to shreds, and then revealing its creepy gross human eyeball. By seeing just how militaristic and logical the operation really is, we can appreciate how abnormal and wrong it is for the Eva unit to go all super robot at the end of the episode.
This episode even goes a long way in humanizing and uniting its main characters by giving them a little bit of downtime to get to know one-another. Shinji running out of the bathroom naked after seeing Pen Pen is the first time he really lets his guard down, while Misato shows what a fun-loving, alcoholic mess she is in her home life. Shinji crossing the threshold into Misato’s apartment is important not only for him, but clearly establishes Misato’s house as the emotional base of operations for the series itself. Now we have NERV as a very clear base for the action and plot to take place, and Misato’s apartment as a base for the characters interact and to have their emotional downtime. Grounding Shinji to this location is massively important to the feeling of the show, as it finally gives the viewer a sense of where they are and where they’ll be staying for the duration of the series.
By the end of this episode, we have a firm enough grasp of NERV headquarters and of Misato’s apartment that by the time we see them again, we will feel right at home in the setting without any need for exposition. In a series as leaden with thematic ideas and plot and character details as this one, having this sense of solid location and a sort of home base to come back to gives the viewer a sense of placement within the story, and allows us to focus our attention on each new idea that comes up without having to be acclimated to our surroundings every episode. By the time we see these locations in episodes three and four, they’ll be so ingrained into our minds that every excursion will feel like a field trip away from home, and every change to these locations will seem like a big deal. In this sense, Shinji isn’t the only one moving in with Misato–the viewer is taking up residence there right along with him; and getting to see this transitional phase before he’s even unpacked his luggage strengthens our emerging sense of place even further.
A lot of these setting details would seem passe watching this episode for the first time, as many of their effects are things which only pay off in the long run. For a first time viewer, the midsection of this episode might come off as boring–even if they subconsciously find themselves connecting to the setting in ways that will strengthen the emotional impact of later scenes. The fact that GAINAX could pack all of these details into an episode, and then make sure that it stayed exciting by chopping the amazing angel battle in half, can only be called a stroke of genius, and lays an excellent foundation for the outpouring of intrigue which the series has yet in store.