RWBY Volume 5: Ending with a whimper

Screenshot of the end of Volume 5's opening

RWBY, the Rooster Teeth series about plucky school-kids wielding hyper-cool weapons in a fight to save the world, is the animated version of a comic-book “BANG.” Read that description again—how could it not be? Between the clashing personalities and backgrounds of its motley group of heroes and the animé-inflected designs and jaw-dropping action that constitute much of its visual vocabulary, RWBY seems designed to speak almost exclusively in bombast and explosions.

But RWBY Volume 5 is, in many ways, about how to proceed in the aftermath of an explosion: if Volume 4 was the protracted settling of dust following the fall of Beacon, then Volume 5 is an extended reflection on the “What now?” that’s left behind. Grappling with this question spurs welcome growth in both writing and animation/production values, but despite all that, Volume 5 still finds the show fumbling to square its stylistic and narrative register with the stories it wants to answer with.

Nothing encapsulates this more than the last third of Volume 5, which spans Episodes 11-14 and revolves around the defense of Haven Academy.

A screenshot from RWBY Volume 5's "The More the Merrier"

Well, that looks awkward.

After a season of spinning their wheels with uncharacteristic docility at a Mistral safe house, Qrow, Ozpin/Oscar, Ruby and the rest of RNJR have answered the plot’s—er, Headmaster Lionheart’s—summons to a trap laid down by the villains. They’re accompanied by Yang and Weiss, who have spent most of the volume getting up to speed, literally and metaphorically, with the A-plot involving Salem, Maidens, and Relics. The impending showdown promises to bring together the Mistral arc’s various threads, but it also turns out to be the culmination of the shortcuts and contrivances that have hobbled an otherwise promising volume.

Right off the bat, there’s a disconnect between action and, well, everything else. For a show that made its name on exhilarating fights, RWBY makes the baffling mistake of treating the finale’s fight scenes as extraneous to story: something to break up expository dialogue or emotional beats with, nothing more. Characters break off into separate skirmishes, but other than a few perfunctory digs or declarations (Mercury snarking at Yang, for example, or Emerald warning Ruby away from Cinder), the character connections and histories seeded in prior volumes hardly inform the details of each encounter.

The fights, therefore, feel bland and inconsequential, and the stilted choreography and unimaginative staging don’t help. Most of the time, the episode drops in at the last second before a fight stops—in time for the character in focus to deliver a cookie-cutter line—then cuts away right before the action resumes. Consequently, the final confrontation is a disjointed mess that lacks texture and rhythm.

Screenshot from RWBY Volume 5's "Downfall"

No, Ruby, I don’t know what’s going on there, either.

Putting everybody in one beige, empty room does no favors for the finale visually, either. Worse still, it draws attention to characters’ unfortunate tendency to vanish from existence the minute they cease being the main focus of a scene. (Watch Oscar confronting Lionheart, for example, and tell me there are other people in that room.) Each skirmish seems to be taking place in its own bubble, left in stasis until the plot cues it back in.

Screenshot from RWBY Volume 5's "Downfall"

Hear that, kids? That’s the plot coming to put you on hold.

With the finale essentially scripted as one big fight stretched out over four episodes (itself a questionable writing choice), these contrivances are difficult to ignore. More so when these visual shortcuts have numerous counterparts in the narrative corners that the finale chooses to cut.

Consider Blake’s confrontation with Adam Taurus.

Their last traumatic encounter confirmed—as Weiss pointed out to Yang in “Alone Together”—many of Blake’s worst fears, sending her into a spiral of guilt and self-blame. Her Menagerie arc centered on Blake learning to confront her fears and lean on her support system, but it did comparatively little to address the specific issue of Adam as a longtime threat and a major source of hurt and fear in Blake’s life.

Screenshot of a captive Blake

This was Blake just 3 episodes ago when Ilia said she would be sent to Adam.

When she dispatches him at Haven with a quick knockdown and a dismissive “I have bigger things to worry about,” it feels unearned: for a long time, Adam was Blake’s biggest personal demon, and what progress she’d made since their last encounter concerned relationships (e.g., Ilia, her family) and areas (e.g., the White Fang) too oblique to yield such a drastic shift in their particular dynamic. It’s a too-pat “resolution” that glosses over character history and forgoes emotional logic to tick off another box on the list of plot beats to hit.

A similar clumsiness pervades other pivotal scenes, undercutting their intended impact. Jaune’s Semblance, for example, has been a dangling thread since the first volume. But the build-up to its reveal is so ham-fisted that the payoff hardly seems worth it.

Here’s how the show primes and sets off the trigger: Jaune, understandably furious about the events of Volume 3, confronts Cinder. To spite him, she arbitrarily impales Weiss with a spear, the whole sequence even framed in a way reminiscent of Pyrrha’s final moments.

Weiss impaled

Annoying—but it does make for an excruciating cliffhanger.

Taken out of context, it’s not a terrible scenario for provoking a Semblance reveal. But Cinder’s story post-Volume 3 had been written to emphasize her obsessive grudge on Ruby. Ruby, for whom the visual callback to Pyrrha’s death would have had a more visceral impact since she, and not Jaune, saw Pyrrha die. And Cinder targets Weiss, who happens to be Ruby’s partner and best friend. Never mind that Ruby is a title character and of greater narrative importance than Jaune. By all accounts, the strongest reactions still ought to come from her, because Ruby has the deepest narrative and emotional wells to draw from.

Screenshot from RWBY of Ruby knocked out

Except this happens. Tough luck, Little Red.

Instead, the show chooses to knock its main protagonist out just moments prior, conveniently clearing the emotional stage so that Jaune’s response gets sole focus. (Yang, arguably a closer friend of Weiss’, gets little more than a split-second reaction shot.) Sure, Jaune’s Semblance activation is the whole point—but disregarding the moment’s context for convenience’s sake is a disservice to all the characters involved, Jaune included. Ironically, all these storytelling gymnastics occur to cement Jaune’s acceptance of a supporting role in the group, as evidenced by his “They’re the ones that matter” declaration and the nature of his Semblance.

Some fans blame these problems on unwise fight budgeting. Maybe so; the Raven vs Cinder showdown definitely looks like it devoured Rooster Teeth’s time and resources.

Screenshot of Raven and Cinder's fight from RWBY Volume 5's penultimate episode

There, but for the gift of prudence, goes the season’s fight budget.

But whether or not that’s the immediate explanation, stumbles like Blake’s rushed encounter with Adam or Jaune’s belabored Semblance activation point to broader missteps of vision and planning. Bad budgeting, if that was the case, would just be another symptom.

If the Volume 5 finale tells us anything, it’s that the show still struggles to marshal its disparate elements into a cohesive language that can convey the stories it wants to tell. Volume 5 has made great strides in polishing individual elements like animation, voice acting, and certain characterizations, but the finale falls short of combining and deploying these with true fluency.

What’s baffling is that Volume 5 did manage that fluency early on, and with remarkable self-assurance, too. This is clearest in Yang’s arc (especially the development of her relationship with Raven), which proves to be the volume’s highwater mark.

Consider how the first section of that arc played out. At first, Yang’s choice to find Raven contradicted the deep love for her sister that’s long been a core aspect of her character. The subsequent revelation that Yang sought out Raven for her portal-generation Semblance (i.e., a faster way to get to Ruby) resolved that in a way that enhanced Yang’s character—fleshing out her practicality, smarts, and devotion to her sister—while expanding the world (with the Mistral bandit camp) and adding more dimension to a new character (Raven Branwen, whose actions up to that point were wildly antithetical to the nature of her Semblance and the outlook it implied). Along the way, we got an excellent fight scene that demonstrated Yang’s character growth and said a lot about her emotional state and mindset. It’s the first of several satisfying payoffs in a plotline driven by Yang’s established characterization, catalyzed by a choice she carried out.

Screenshot of Raven and Yang from the RWBY Volume 5 opening

“All we need’s a miracle,” as the opening says

Unsurprisingly, Yang’s conversation with Raven in the Haven relic’s vault is one of the finale’s best moments, and not just for lack of competition. What’s frustrating is that the finale was designed to offer tons of competition. But unlike much of Yang’s arc, the finale—and much of the build-up for it—suffers from a readiness to cleave to the expedient and a mistaken belief in the separation of story and action, of plot and characterization.

RWBY may be best-equipped to speak in flash and awe, but Volume 5 nevertheless tried to extend that register and tell weightier stories. While the season isn’t without its successes, especially in earlier episodes, its sure-footed writing and execution both falter by the volume’s second half. What should have been an explosive conclusion relies too much on contrivances and shortcuts for its fuel, and the result rings hollow—more soundbite than indelible statement, a sputter instead of a bang.