Shōgun has a dark night of the soul in Episode 8, "Abyss of Life"

Things aren't looking good for Lord Toranaga and his allies on FX's Shōgun...unless the wily warlord has one last trick up his sleeve.
“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX
“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured: Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga. CR: Katie Yu/FX /
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A new episode of Shōgun is out, and as we do here every week, it's time to gush about its soaring highs and devastating lows. So far, FX's historical drama set in feudal Japan has been about as pitch-perfect as we could have hoped, doing justice by both the 1975 James Clavell novel that it's based on as well as the cultural nuances of its time period. With "Abyss of Life," Shōgun predictably turns in another hour of excellence. But it was also a painful episode with our characters at their lowest. With only two more outings left in the limited series, I'm hoping we're at a turning point for the show.

We've plenty to discuss about this week's episode of Shōgun. As always, beware SPOILERS ahead.

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“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured: Tokuma Nishioka as Toda Hiromatsu, Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige, Shinnosuke Abe as Buntaro . CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun Episode 8 review: "Abyss of Life"

Last week's episode of Shōgun, "A Stick of Time," ended with the death of Lord Toranaga's (Hiroyuki Sanada) son Nagakado (Yuki Kura), who slipped and cracked his head open on a rain-slicked rock just as he was about to murder his uncle Saeki (Eita Okuno), who was working with the politicians in Osaka to force Toranaga's surrender. "Abyss of Life" is all about the fallout from that event, which feels just right. The brooding calm before the storm.

The majority of this episode takes place in Edo, Toranaga's new stronghold which is under construction. Edo has been referenced quite a lot throughout the season, so it was very welcome to finally spend some time there.

That's not to say that anyone is necessarily having a fun time in Edo. Like Episode 7, this one is a bleak, heavy affair. Thanks to Nagakado's untimely death, Toranaga and his retainers have been granted the traditional 49 days of grieving before they are expected to go to Osaka for surrender. Everyone in Toranaga's camp thinks that he'll use this time to pull off one last clever scheme to win the war for Japan's future. But Toranaga is adamant that there has been enough bloodshed and that it's time to surrender. This causes an immense schism among his followers, as many of them would be put to death along with him and have qualms about surrendering without a fight after they've sacrificed so much for the cause.

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“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured: Shinnosuke Abe as Buntaro, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

This gives Shōgun ample opportunity to explore what this end-of-the-road moment means for its ensemble of characters. Buntaro (Shinnosuke Abe) tries to reconcile with his wife Mariko (Anna Sawai), which actually made me feel some empathy for him despite his string of awful behavior toward her. But even here, their differences are impossible to overcome: for Mariko, life with Buntaro is a prison. Her line that she would rather live a thousand years than die by his side was a wicked burn, and only on Shōgun could it be followed up by a polite bow to end the conversation.

Meanwhile, the Anjin John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) has to reckon with the fact that he is not the same man he once was. At last, he reunites with one of the crew members from his ship, who have been held in Edo these past few months. However, it goes badly, with the crewman accusing Blackthorne of leading them to Japan for his own ambition to be the first Englishman to land there. Fists are thrown, and Blackthorne leaves torn.

Now that he's no longer in Toranaga's good graces, that puts Blackthorne in an interesting spot. His own people seem strange to him, yet he is not accepeted by Toranaga either. Instead, he goes to Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), proposing an alliance between them as two men forced to steer their own fates. Yabushige refuses — at this point, he's still holding out hope that Toranaga's surrender is a ruse, and doesn't want to betray him. Yabushige has gradually become a favorite of mine this season. Whenever Asano is on screen, Shōgun is automatically more fun — which is more necessary than you might think, given how dour the show is at this late stage.

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“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured: Tadanobu Asano as Kashigi Yabushige. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Toranaga's faction is teetering on the brink of insubordination, which comes to a brutal head near the end of the episode. After several of Toranaga's samurai wear their armor at Nagakado's funeral in protest of the surrender, Toranaga decides to gather all his generals and force them to sign an official document proclaiming their surrender. A few jot down their names before, at last, voices of dissent are openly raised.

The following scene is gripping, as Toranaga contests wills with his generals, ordering them to sign what essentially amounts to a contract for their own deaths. Toranaga's oldest friend, Hiromatsu (Tokuma Nishioka), pushes things to the brink by declaring that rather than sign his death warrant, he will commit seppuku right there on the spot to prove that Toranaga is leading his followers to die in vain.

There's been quite a lot of seppuku in Shōgun, but Hiromatsu's might hit the hardest of any we've seen, thanks to the emotional weight hanging between him and Toranaga. That Hiromatsu's son Buntaro is the one to second him and take his head after he's opened his own stomach adds another layer. And then, of course, there's the horror of all the assembled samurai as they realize that the longest-serving man among them had just taken his own life in protest of the surrender.

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“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured: Tokuma Nishioka as Toda Hiromatsu. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

It's a brilliant scene that's helped along by top-notch acting, lighting and staging. All seems lost for Toranaga and company.

But lo! At the eleventh hour, Toranaga hints to Mariko that he is in fact planning one final scheme — and that Hiromatsu, his oldest and most loyal friend, understood his duty well enough to know that it would only work if everyone well and truly believed Toranaga was defeated. It's not quite clear if there was an explicit arrangement between Toranaga and Hiromatsu about the latter's seppuku, or if he just knew his friend's mind that well. I do hope Shōgun clarifies that just a little, but either way, the end result is the same: Toranaga has a plan to surprise his enemies in Osaka.

Like all the samurai following Lord Toranaga, I've been waiting for this kind of twist for episodes now. Shōgun is masterfully drawn and never anything less than excellent, but the past few episodes have been one difficulty after another for our heroes, without much of the levity and rapid scheming that was more prevalent in the first half of the season. To some extent that's fine — after all, the stakes are life and death and it'd be a tonal clash if Shōgun didn't treat that seriously. But I'm longing for a reminder of Toranaga's canniness as a leader to push us over the finish line. And from the looks of things, Shōgun is poised to deliver on that in its final two episodes.

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“SHOGUN” -- "Abyss of Life" -- Episode 8 (Airs April 9) Pictured (L-R): Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX /

Shōgun Bullet Points

  • It was nice to see Lady Ochiba (Fumi Nikaido) back in this episode after she sat out the last one. She now has a marriage proposal from Ishido (Takehiro Hira) on the table, but personally I'm hoping she finds a way out of that one.
  • Speaking of Ochiba, one of the more interesting developments in this episode is the idea that she may be convinced to join with Toranaga against the Regents. Perhaps that's part of why Mariko is accompanying Blackthorne and Yabushige to Osaka?
  • This was a big episode for Omi (Hiroto Kanai), who is one of the few younger men in Toranaga's retinue. It's interesting to see what these decrees mean to a young, ambitious person like Omi, as opposed to the older generals, and Kanai did a great job with the material.
  • Toranaga gives the Portuguese permission to build a Catholic church in Edo...but leaves out that it will be located next door to the brothel district. I cackled.
  • I also cackled at Blackthorne ragging on Yabushige to Mariko about how he's forced to ally with him: "I don't wish it. He is a shitface. But he is a brave shitface." Classic Blackthorne.
  • Kudos also need to be given to the haiku battle between Toranaga and Mariko. That allowed for some beautiful writing as well as being a fun touch, just before Toranaga bears his heart to Mariko and enlists her in his plan.

Verdict

It should surprise no one that Shōgun continues to be amazing. At this point, the show has maintained a consistent level of excellence that has made for a marvelous viewing experience. I do hope that its final two episodes balance the brooding tone of the past few out a bit with the ultimate reveal of how Toranaga approaches his enemies in Osaka. Shōgun has earned that trust several times over; all that's left is to watch and see if it sticks the landing in the coming weeks.

Episode Grade: A

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