And the first thing they do is completely torpedo each and every one of our expectations.
“Criados’ Heartbeat” is unbelievably subversive, even for this show. With its ominous countdowns, imposing and mysterious antagonist and seeming dramatic, game-changing plot twists, this is the kind of episode most shows would save for their season finale. And Dirty Pair casually tosses it at us five weeks in with another twenty to go. But we’ll get to all that later-This episode works on a multitude of different levels, so let’s take a look at the most obvious one first. One thing old school science fiction buffs like about Dirty Pair is its musing on trans/posthumanism, typically in the classic cyberpunk sense of body modification and upgrading or augmenting the human form through emergent biotechnology. This is the most visible in Adam Warren’s Dirty Pair adaptation for Dark Horse comics, but it’s a theme the franchise on the whole is known for, and, it’s worth noting, one it hasn’t actually looked at before now.
This manifests, obviously, in Criados himself, a literal mad scientist who, upon committing suicide two years prior to the events of this story, transplanted his consciousness into the computer core of a deep space automated hazardous waste processing facility. It doesn’t look like he did a particularly amazing job of it though, considering he’s become consumed by rage and has dedicated his existence to hunting down and killing Kei and Yuri, who he blames for his death after they shut down a drug smuggling ring he was involved in. And he’s brutal about it, tormenting them with horrific imagery via psychic projection and sending out entire starfleets to track them down and drag them to the space station, which is a meant for the disposal of dangerous toxic waste unfit for human exposure and actually called the Graveyard of Ships. Criados is clearly unhinged and evil and, given what we know about the loose cautionary tone pervading much of Dirty Pair, it’s possible to read this as a criticism of the kind of augmentation he attempted on himself.
But that’s not what I think this episode is actually trying to get at with this theme. As a character, Criados is, in fact, a revelation: It’s only mentioned very briefly when the girls are going over his biography, but Kei does state he had a particular fascination with the supernatural and life after death, which he, of course, managed to attain in the end through his transhumanist experiments. Combine this with his power of telepathy and his interest in hallucinogenics, which is what got him busted by the girls in the first place, and it starts to sound a lot more like Criados is a kind of futuristic shaman who was able to heighten and focus his own pre-existing power and abilities through technology. This alone is a breakthrough in speculative fiction: In the Blade Runner post I expressed concern about mainline transhumanism’s apparent ignorance and dismissal of humanity’s connection with the larger universe, meanwhile, in Dirty Pair, even Criados gets this, understanding transhumanism through his prior exploration of spirituality, and singlehandedly solving one of the biggest questions of mind and consciousness in the process.
And this understanding turns Criados into a truly formidable figure of immense power: He is an absolute menace and a genuine threat to the Lovely Angels, and is the first antagonist who can truly compete with them on their level. He possesses all of the girls’ narrative powers, except twisted and honed into terrifying weapons. He’s telepathic, but he projects it as an invasive and debilitating image-based assault. He leaves a trail of destruction wherever he goes, but, unlike Kei and Yuri, when he does it it’s *very* deliberate. He’s even capable of rewriting the narrative of Dirty Pair: When I first saw this episode I was a disappointed that all of Criados’ backstory seemed to be pulled out of thin air in a throwaway exposition dump, and I remarked it would have worked better as the end of a story arc because it felt like a sequel to a story that didn’t exist. Upon rewatching it though, I realised that’s exactly what it is. Criados is so powerful and so frightening he can bend the show to his own will, calling forth a story revolving around him out of nothing, which is something only the Angels were able to do before.
This is why Criados is so dangerous: The last handful of villains have in one way or another been pegged as evil twins of the Lovely Angels, most obviously the Elegants, but King too. Criados, though, is the one who’s actually come the closest to besting them, and this makes him genuinely nightmarish. While Lan and Jerry were the girls’ doppelgangers as far as the plot was concerned, Criados actually has mastery over postmodern cinematography. King did too, but he was only able to attain a textual level of enlightenment (if you recall, there were very few scenes of King looking directly at or out of our camera). Criados is on another level-His perspective has granted him an understanding of the true nature of reality, and he would use this knowledge to wipe it out. Even before the girls show up in this episode, we get to hear Criados’ ominous voice while intrusive countdown timers and error messages constantly pop up everywhere, shattering the diegetic coherence and artifice of the narrative. Criados is literally trying to force the universe to crash, and it’s well within his power to do that.
In this regard, the threat Criados poses is that of a narrative collapse, which is usually defined as a story that has the potential to destroy the narrative and prevent any future stories from being told through a catastrophic and irreparable disruption, hence the name. In fact, “Criados’ Heartbeat” would seem to be an almost textbook example of a narrative collapse right up to its final moments by teasing us with a major plot twist: The death of Nanmo. In a narrative collapse story, the restoration of the status quo can only occur with a blood sacrifice, and this would certainly suffice-Being in many ways the biggest differentiation between the anime and the light novels it’s based on, killing off Nanmo would in a sense mark the end of this version of Dirty Pair. But of course, Nanmo is a robot and can’t actually die. While she does activate her self destruct sequence and prompts Yuri to fire her body at the computer core thus destroying Criados and severing his connection to the space station, she removes her memory disk first. As Kei points out several times, Nanmo can very easily be rebuilt if they have that disk, which contains all of her essential programming, in essence, her personality and consciousness.
So Nanmo’s supposed “death” turns out to be anything but, and this means she becomes a mirror of Criados himself and the episode’s transhumanist theme. What this shows us is that it’s not his experiments with technologically augmented ascendent spirituality that doomed Criados, but his obsessive self-absorption, anger and desire for revenge. Where Criados went wrong was not the fact he was a shaman, but the fact that he was a shaman gone bad and was never able to fully process and come to terms with the visions he experienced. And, in a way, perhaps Kei and Yuri did him a favour by killing him, thus allowing him to return to the cosmos to start again. Incidentally, this has the added bonus of averting our narrative collapse: By fighting transhumanism with transhumanism and having Nanmo very clearly not die, the girls have regained control of their narrative. Even here they’re able to dance out of trouble (a big clue things will turn out alright is Kei’s behaviour-Note how her biggest concern is not her and Yuri dying or the end of the universe, but that she’s going to miss her date). Kei and Yuri didn’t cheat narrative collapse, they beat it. They collapsed a narrative collapse.
Speaking of Kei’s (and Yuri’s) attitude, one last thing worth mentioning is the way the respective personalities of the Angels are depicted here. If there’s one criticism to level at this story, it’s that this seems to have retroactively become the blueprint for a lot of what the pop perception of what Kei and Yuri are like, and that’s not quite a good thing. Kei spends a lot of this episode seemingly not depicted in the best of lights, acting really hotheaded, obnoxious, impulsive and reckless. Yuri, by contrast, sits around alternating between serene competence and exasperation. I think this was perhaps the start of Yuri being seen as the “mature”, “responsible” and “professional” half of the pair, which is as inaccurate as it is misleading and dangerous.
That said, this is the fault of later, careless and cursory readings of the show rather than the episode itself. Note how the moment Yuri tries to go solo and take matters into her own hands she nearly gets everyone killed, how Kei is the one who comes up with the plan to defeat Criados because she understands Nanmo and how, as I mentioned above, the relative lightness and joviality of Kei’s demeanour telegraphs to us from the very beginning that Criados isn’t going to win. The point the episode is trying to make, I think, is that the Lovely Angels need to be taken together or not at all, and it is in truth splitting up Kei and Yuri that would kill off Dirty Pair faster and more decisively than any amount of cosmic horror and metatextual narrative collapse. But then again, one of the biggest strengths of Dirty Pair is that this can never happen.
What “Criados’ Heartbeat” is definitive proof of is that Dirty Pair will never succumb to the temptation of being self-consciously and po-facedly “epic”, in spite of its science fiction heritage. Criados wanted everything to “Die!”. Kei and Yuri want to not just survive, but to live, and that’s the message they bring to us, perhaps above all else. Even though it features explosions and carnage left and right, Dirty Pair is about love and hope, not conflict and destruction. And that alone means it can never be collapsed or killed off.