‘Shogun’ Finale: A Meditative End to a Masterpiece

FX's "Shogun" Finale

Everything about Crimson Sky sounded cool, right down to its name. When Lord Toranaga revealed Crimson Sky – his plan for storming Osaka castle – back in episode 6, audiences could assume that the assault would be the action-packed climax of Shōgun’s first season. Armed with John Blackthorne’s devastating cannon and backed by the righteousness of their reluctant leader, Toranaga’s army would dispense with the duplicitous Ishido, and the series would climax with Toranaga ascending to power as the show’s titular ruler.

This is not what happens in the finale, “A Dream of a Dream,” which airs Tuesday, April 23 at 10pm ET on FX. Although we’ll save specific spoilers for the section below, Shōgun’s finale is subdued and meditative, in some ways more notable for what it decides to forego than include. It’s a final pivot in a season full of them, and it solidifies Shōgun as a true modern masterpiece.



SPOILERS for the season finale of Shōgun follow!

The finale opens where episode 9 “Crimson Sky” left off: With Toranaga’s emissaries devastated by the death of Mariko. Let us pause here to join the chorus of those who are calling for Anna Sawai to win an Emmy for her performance as Mariko. Mariko’s grace and poise while longing for death and duty made her an incredibly complex character, and in “Crimson Sky,” Sawai was able to summon all of her character’s many facets over a single episode. Sawai will win a lot of awards for this performance, and she will deserve every one of them.

The speech that Mariko gives Blackthorne about the importance of empty space now applies directly to her character; her absence is felt painfully and acutely by everyone in the show, along with the audience at home. The once-fiery John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) has slowly learned the way of the eightfold fence, and he only lets his emotions come through in brief, uncontrollable blurts. Jarvis was our favorite performer through the season’s first five episodes, and while Sawai ultimately earns top honors, Jarvis isn’t far behind (let’s call it a tie for second among Jarvis, Hiroyuki Sanada as Toranaga, and Tadanobu Asano as Yabushige). Blackthorne’s growth is the spine of the show’s narrative, and Jarvis sells all of it.

This is where we need to talk about the episode’s intro. Looking older than Methuselah, “A Dream of a Dream” opens with Blackthorne on his deathbed, untold decades into the future. As his (sadly racist) grandchildren inspect the weapons he brought back from the Japans, Blackthorne clutches Mariko’s necklace, a seemingly lovelorn gesture toward the woman he’s never stopped dreaming of. Elderly, safely back in England, and surrounded by his family, this seems to be Blackthorne’s ideal version of death, just as sacrificing herself for a noble cause was Mariko’s.

However, as we see in the touching boat scene with Fuji, Blackthorne drops Mariko’s cross necklace in the water. So was the opening scene a fantasy sequence meant to misdirect the audience, a hallucination that Blackthorne had following the explosion, or the actual end of his character’s journey many years later? Although showrunner Justin Marks commented on the official podcast that this scene was intended to portray the future that Blackthorne was surrendering by staying in Japan, the ambiguity around its meaning is fitting given that his character has become a man who exists between two worlds.



Yabushige’s ending has no such ambiguity. After betraying Toranaga to Ishido, he’s sentenced to commit seppuku, and Toranaga lobs off his dome with theatrical flair. But this scene is a masterstroke in adaptive choices. After concealing his plans from most of his allies (and of course, the audience), Toranaga spills the beans to Yabushige before his death: Crimson Sky was never going to be a violent assault. Instead, true to form, Toranaga simply put specific people in the proper places at precisely the right time, and let everything work itself out…all to his benefit. He didn’t need to defeat Ishido on the battlefield, he needed to defeat him in the minds of his fickle allies, and crucially, he needed Ishido to do it to himself, to commit a sort of moral seppuku. Not death before dishonor; dishonor before death.

We suspect that some critics and fans will take issue with the fact that this is all revealed in exposition. We never get a final battle, we don’t even get the book’s brief epilogue that reveals Ishido’s fate (Wikipedia has details, it’s not pretty). Choosing to end the season with Toranaga on a gorgeous seaside bluff rather than atop a bloodied warhorse is a bold, even subversive choice, one that may not sit well with everyone.

From our POV, it’s near perfect. In one final masterstroke in a season full of them, the show’s writers reinforce the show’s themes in miniature in its final scenes. You think you’re getting a violent war epic, when in fact you’re getting a carefully drawn character study. You think the war will be won due to the shattering explosion of cannonfire when it’s actually won through subtle suggestions and poetic turns of phrase. And you think Toranaga will become Shōgun because of a military genius honed from an early age, when it’s actually due to his facilty for seeing through allies and enemies alike (let’s not forget, unbeknownst to even Yabushige himself, his betrayal was an important part of Toranaga’s plan).

What you expect is not what you get. This is the lesson that John Blackthorne learns, and it applies equally to the show’s audience. Shōgun never gave us the epic battle it seemed we were promised from the start. It gave us something better.


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