Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans is a bleak show. So bleak that the ending caught me off guard with how weirdly optimistic it managed to be whilst still fitting the tone of the series perfectly.
Maybe that’s a weird way to describe an ending which leaves most of the main cast dead and the antagonists triumphant, but it fits; because ultimately, all the major players got what they wanted.
McGillis rebellion ultimately lead to the reforms within Gjallarhorn that he aimed to force, Kudelia’s attempts to secure a future for Mars begin to bear fruit, Orga and Mikazuki managed to at last create some form of safe haven for the surviving Tekkadan members. Even the love triangle, a part of the series that didn’t really work for me managed to resolve itself surprisingly well. (Also, Iok dies, which is absolutely a positive for the entire universe).
Which is what makes it all the more tragic. IBO’s cast are forever reaching out to grasp a better future, only to miss the mark by inches.
A recurring pattern throughout both seasons is how Tekkadan and their allies consistently come within arms length of lasting success, only to have things go belly up at the last-minute due to factors entirely outside their control. Thrust into a conflict they have no business being part of, they muddle along and push towards their nebulous destination, because that’s all they really can do.
And it’s rarely anyone’s fault. While bad decisions are absolutely made, it’s always understandable from the perspective of the characters involved. When things go wrong, Orga’s initial response is to try to just push through regardless, because that’s what’s brought him this far. Having lived his whole life only making any real headway through being decisive and stubborn, it’s all he really knows how to do. Fight hard now to reach your goal, and hope the gains outweigh the consequences.
For the driving force of the plot, McGillis’s plan is surprisingly naive, after years of manipulation and sacrifice, stacking gambits on top of gambits, his ultimate endgame boils down to “acquire a symbol and everything else will fall into place”. After years of abuse at the hands of his adoptive father he’s incapable of truly trusting those around him. Finding solace in the tales of Gjallarhorn’s heroic founder he sees a recreation of that heroic single figure as the only path to fixing the corrupt system which ruined his life. Unwilling to truly trust any of those around him, he repeatedly turns away the advances of those who genuinely care for him. Had he not isolated himself things could have turned out differently, but he repeatedly turns them away, because one hero is all that is needed.
The cruel irony is that he succeeds. His revolution allows antagonist Rustal to position his underling Julieta as a new figurehead. By defeating Mikazuki she becomes the symbol of a resurgent Gjallarhorn. Julieta, a character seemingly without ideals of her own, content to act as a tool for her master becomes the hero of the new age. Rustal uses this to force agressive reforms which echo McGillis’s goals, by cynically subverting his plans. Ultimately both men were working towards the same ends, maybe they could have worked together in a better world, but this was never that better world. Throughout the series Rustal is portrayed as a defender of the status-quo, it’s not until after Mcgillis is dead that his true motivations begin to show, because that’s how McGillis saw him, just another obstacle to fixing the system.
IBO’s plot is a series of almosts, if things had been just slightly different, things would have turned out better. If circumstances had been slightly different, a happier ending might have been reached. Tekkadan rail against a system which has already left them unable to effectively challenge it, and still they persevere. And they win in the end, even in defeat they get what they wanted, just not in the manner which they hoped. Maybe in a better world.