This Great Pretender season 2 review contains no spoilers.
There’s absolutely nothing like being left in a dumbfounded stupor after a multi-stage con has been properly executed. Stories that revolve around conmen and grifters operate with a very specific kind of jubilation and when they’re done right there is no greater high. A perfectly planned con is no different than an immaculate magic trick or an effective third act twist. As much as cons involve the stealing of something valuable, they’re even more concerned with an understanding of human nature.
Great Pretender’s previous episodes have set a very high standard for this series’ ability to tell layered stories that know how to trick and delight the audience with a revolving door of plot twists. Great Pretender season 2, “Wizard of Far East,” truly goes for broke and continues to use intricate cons as insightful character studies into deeply flawed and lost individuals. Great Pretender’s stakes have never held more weight. This time around it’s not a drug ring or an expensive piece of art that’s on the line, but human lives.
Great Pretender’s first 13 installments were divided into three separate con jobs. For season 2 (which is what Netflix is classifying this batch of episodes as), one case is spread across nine episodes. This offers less variety than the previously shorter cases, but the series finds an important topic that justifies this extended length. There’s been a satisfying sense of schadenfreude as Makoto “Edamame” Edamura, Laurent Thierry, and the rest of their band of misfit manipulators con corrupt individuals and bring them to justice, but this new case specifically plays into that antipathy.
Edamame is sent to Vietnam and Shanghai and finds himself in the middle of a human trafficking ring that auction off children to the rich and affluent. It’s surprising to see Great Pretender explore such mature subject matter and highlight a dark corner of the criminal underworld that’s often ignored. It unfortunately feels prescient in a way that the previous cases haven’t and it works as a powerful catalyst for all of the characters involved. Human trafficking also brings Edamame’s story full circle in a strange way since he’s previously teased that his father’s arrest involved human trafficking suspicions.
Edamame has devoted a lot of grief to the loss of his mother, but this focus on human trafficking brings his father to the forefront in a fascinating way. Great Pretender has been interested in the question of whether people can fundamentally change or not and it digs even deeper into that idea as Edamame’s life runs parallel to that of his father and if he’s doomed to face a similar fate in life. Great Pretender has filled Edamame’s backstory with endearing quirks and painful confrontations, but these new episodes really put him through the gauntlet and he matures in some significant way. Edamame has to really examine if Laurent and company are a positive influence or if they’re making him sink deeper into a dark life that he won’t be able to escape. Laurent also gets expanded on in some very enlightening ways that help illustrate how he’s become so disaffected in life.
It’s very entertaining to watch Edamame and the rest of the team slot themselves into fitting roles as they attempt to dismantle a corrupt company and its vast web of clientele. Great Pretender has never traded in simplicity, but even by those standards “Wizard of Far East” operates like an ouroboros of grifting where double-crosses multiply into quadruple-crosses. This grift culminates in such an extravagant way that it makes The Sting or Matchstick Men seem lazy in comparison. A less carefully planned version of this would come across as cheap, but every moment here is earned and a testament to the tightly plotted nature of these episodes.
“Wizard of Far East” also plays even better on second viewing since you get to be in on these schemes and know where they’re headed. Great Pretender indulges in many tropes of the genre, but it never shows its hand or loses itself in exposition. This story knows how to subvert expectations and pull off major surprises that are satisfying both in terms of narrative and on an emotional level. This is consistent right up until the end, which sets up an even more ambitious con for next season that could have ramifications for the entire world if it comes to fruition.
Great Pretender features a brilliant narrative, but it’s also aesthetically a triumph. Wit Studio is one of the hardest working animation studios in the industry and they’re most widely recognized for their exhaustive work on Attack on Titan. Great Pretender is obviously much less driven by sprawling action scenes, but the animation here stands out with how it breaks the rules of color palettes and conventional character models. So many scenes are kaleidoscopic explosions that are just stunning to take in. The backgrounds and environments become as engaging as the schemes that are getting pulled off. The music also perfectly captures both the show’s manic madcap energy and the tender and introspective turns that the episodes take.
Great Pretender should be mandatory viewing for anyone who appreciates strong, meticulously plotted storytelling. The episodes tap into the right blend of mystery, action, and comedy while these realistic characters gain even more depth. The series is an impressive display of what can be accomplished in an anime, but Great Pretender will even connect with people who aren’t big fans of animation. It’s encouraging to see anime tackle increasingly morally complex material and it looks like next season is ready to go even further.
At this point, Laurent and company could announce that they’re going to steal the moon and I’d believe that it’s possible.
Great Pretender season 2 premieres Nov. 25 on Netflix