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Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With the stakes and the end goal of escaping set up, Promised Neverland moves on to showing us all the walls in the way of that goal, both literal and figurative. Underdog heroes going up against impossible odds have always been a staple of Shonen Jump, and Promised Neverland is no exception. What differentiates it from most shonen is that Emma and her friends are engaged in a battle of wits rather than power. Isabella’s power comes from her connection to the demons and her ability to track the children, so they have to win by figuring out how to get past those obstacles, as well as the concrete wall around the property, so the children have to figure out how to outsmart her and get past all the obstacles in their way. The entire situation is rich for building tension, and Promised Neverland knows how to use it to full effect.
In the wake of Emma and Norman learning the truth of their world, Grace Field House has taken on a far more sinister vibe. The ominous atmosphere from episode one is present here, and is far more apparent than before. Much of the episode is set in dark rooms, at night, or under overcast skies, mirroring Emma and Norman’s mental state. Emma and Norman were both shaken to the core by what they saw at the gate, which they cope with in different ways. Norman hides his fear behind the same distant smile as before, while Emma struggles far more with hiding her reactions. Isabella knows that someone was at the gate the night before but not who, which is the only thing that saves Emma and Norman. Of course, this also means that they have to force themselves to act normal so she doesn’t find out. These are the same life and death stakes as other Jump series, just presented differently. They know that they’ll end up like Conny if they make even one mistake, which creates a tense aura that doesn’t dissipate until the episode ends.
It’s under these circumstances that Emma shows the same iron will and determination as all her Jump predecessors. She initially manages to put on a happy face with some help from Norman, but that determination is tested when Isabella herself comes to ask Emma if something’s wrong. What follows is a seemingly mundane conversation that’s so tense that it feels like it could burst at any second. Kanbe’s direction once again highlights all of the shadows and dark corners in the hallway with bright lights that accentuate the shadows rather than illuminate them as the string music in the background only serves to build the tension. This one conversation has life or death consequences, and Emma rises to the occasion, maintaining a smile as she diffuses Isabella’s suspicions with a clever lie about missing Conny.
Her strength is put on display once again when, after telling Ray what happened, he and Norman confront her with the fact that it’s going to be virtually impossible to escape with so many small children. Ray argues that the three of them would have a better chance just leaving themselves, which Emma adamantly refuses to do. The fact that Norman agrees with Ray but wants to go along with Emma tells us more than anything else what their dynamic is going to be from here on. Norman and Ray are undoubtedly smarter and more competent than Emma (although she’s no slouch herself), but neither of them have the same unquenchable spirit and determination. Emma has decided that they’re going to escape with everyone, and nothing is going to change that decision. Her determination is what convinces Ray and Norman, and is without a doubt going to be what drives everyone else forward as things get more difficult going ahead.
We’re just two episodes in and The Promised Neverland is already the standout show of this season. The entire episode is chock full of the kind of tension usually reserved for action shows like Attack on Titan, which is only accentuated by consistently excellent direction. Our three leads are quickly falling into an engaging dynamic, and hints of future developments only make things more intriguing. Aside from one character design that looks like it belongs in a racist cartoon from the ’30s, this episode excels across the board.