Tower of God's Season 1 Finale Was a Total Game-Changer

After a mysterious but propulsive first couple of episodes, Takashi Sano and Erika Yoshida’s adaptation of Korean writer SIU’s Tower of God settled into something of a groove. As the world-building and fleshing out of its ensemble cast continued around protagonist Bam (or ‘Yoru’ in the Japanese version), each episode would take the eclectic group of characters through a series of ever more complex (sometimes incomprehensible) games of life and death. In its early stages, the show’s shonen fantasy setup rang extremely familiar – with its stories of companionship forged through adversity and competition, and an ensemble brought together by an earnest, pure-of-heart protagonist with untapped power. But with the final two episodes, the show was turned on its head with countless reveals, including Bam’s betrayal at the hands of his supposed damsel in distress Rachel, whose real motivations were revealed in the season finale.The show’s starting premise was fairly simple – there’s a tower to climb, and a girl to save. But as the show found its rhythm, the established order of the tower slowly started to be challenged, most significantly with the reveal of the backstory of the lizard girl Anaak. It turns out that Anaak is actually a name taken from her mother, one of the tower’s appointed “Princesses of Jahad.” By rule of the land, Anaak was an illegal birth, as accepting power from the tower’s ruler King Jahad essentially forfeits control over the body. Her mother was killed by her fellow princesses, and so the younger Anaak sought not to climb the tower but to take revenge on its officials, something that didn’t go unnoticed. In a manner that might be too complicated to explain here, Tower of God’s final episode revealed plans within plans, as the test administrator appeared to be manipulating characters like pieces on a board, for a purpose yet to be revealed. One of those pieces: Rachel herself.

To backtrack a little, in the 10th episode Bam resolved to help Rachel, who was paralyzed after being attacked and held hostage by fellow participant Hoh – who at that point had gone mad with jealousy, looking to remove Bam from the contest. It turned out that Hoh was just a precursor to the much deeper, more bitter envy being harbored by none other than Rachel herself, who pushed Bam into the Tower’s depths the instant they won the test in the 12th episode. The motive behind Rachel’s actions was explored at length in the finale, going all the way back to the very first episode – but this time from Rachel’s perspective. Drawn into the tower before him, presumably to bait him into following, Rachel witnessed Bam fighting the same giant beast that she backed down from, and the tower’s keeper Headon (played by Jiraiya from Naruto!) immediately noticed Rachel’s jealousy and arrogance. In response, a sadistic offer was made: she could climb the tower, but only if she killed Bam herself.

Of course, Rachel accepted, noting that Bam has everything she has ever wanted – without even trying or wanting it. Plainly put, she was jealous – of Bam’s natural aptitude for “shinsu” (the water magic that powers the tower), as well as his affinity for making friends, his unceasing optimism, and his certainty of his place in the world – as well as an apparent higher calling. All of Rachel’s past dialogue towards him was recontextualized by this revelation – her questions and compliments were both regretful and bitter, a push and pull between genuine affection and guilt towards Bam as well as quiet resentment.

To simplify it further, she despised him for being a shonen protagonist. So she set out to fix this, pushing her faithful servant to his death so as to assume his place as the center of the group. Bam’s comrades, unaware of what happened, swore to help her on her journey as a tribute to their fallen friend. Rachel claimed: “in your place, I will become a star.”

While Rachel’s bitterness and underhanded scheme to use Bam as a stepping stone earned her quite a bit of fan hatred after the finale, perhaps Tower of God’s strongest accomplishment in its last episodes is in challenging the audience to empathize with her, even if her actions are despicable. It’s the flip side of the reaction that we’ve seen from each of the main characters as they became familiar with Bam – but for the most part this has inspired people to protect him rather than hate him. Everyone has their own reaction to Bam’s compassion and optimism, and the way he reminds them why they’re climbing the Tower in the first place. As Shibisu put it, he’s jealous of that spark as well, but he wants to protect that, perhaps in order to reclaim the humanity he lost in the pursuit of power and riches: “…I don’t want him to lose what he’s got – I don’t want Bam to have what’s important taken from him.” Hoh was the first to succumb to jealousy, to see Bam’s kindness and ability as a threat rather than a potential ally. After all, the Tower is a funnel, offering a long process of eliminating those with the strength to dissent, and designed to prevent companionship.

It’s not as simple as Rachel being “evil.” If anything, her response is extremely and fallibly human. That the show (and by extension the manwha) doesn’t fully condemn her and seeks to empathize with why she does this is to its credit, emphasizing that this is how the promise of the Tower works: to pit its lower denizens against each other, perhaps so that the ruling order can prevail. Khun recognized this, and so he supports Bam’s idealism and resistance to competitive jealousy. All of this builds to the pivotal moment of Bam being pushed off the tower, a genuine shock both to the viewer and an inversion of what, at first, seemed like the show’s central mission.

Bam survives, but not without confusion and heartache. With the assistance of an official of the tower, he recovers, presumably because he and Rachel have specific parts to play in the continuing story. The show’s empathy towards Rachel as well its meta-angle of Rachel wanting to literally replace Bam as the main character is fascinating, and raises the question of just how much Tower of God will reconfigure its own narrative and continue to remix the well-worn fantasy tropes that it initially seemed to be simply imitating. The final episode recontextualizes the entire season, rearranging the pieces for what will seem to be a very different game from here on out. Its final twist is that this was simply the prologue and the setup for a more complicated conflict, as a split-second flash forward shows what is presumably a more mature Bam. Welcome to the Tower of God.

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