GREAT PRETENDER – Series Review

It says Great Pretender

*Warning this review contains spoilers*

Where do I begin with this overall messy series?

When Great Pretender’s premiered, it had so much promise and had the most beautiful background art, I have seen in a long time (seriously chef’s kiss). The general premise of con-artists scamming awful rich people out of millions of dollars was interesting and I was excited to see if this series would deliver on its promising start, especially since we know actual rich assholes will never actually get punished for their crimes since they have so much money and power.

Case 1 (Los Angeles) did a good job weaving us into the con-artist world that Laurent Thierry wanted Edamura Makoto to be a part of since Makoto had essentially given up on the idea of living a decent life. Makoto’s world was shattered when his father, Oz was arrested for child trafficking and as a result he had to live with the stigma that he would become someone like his dad. In the beginning, it’s easy to empathize with Makoto’s struggles and it’s understandable why he ended up becoming a small-time scammer since no one was willing to give him a chance to make an honest living.

Makoto being interrogated by the police.
Aside from those background shadows looking beautiful; It’s sad that Makoto had few options to make a decent living and because of that he was susceptible to being taken advantage of by other people.

Similarly, another character introduced in the Los Angeles arc named Salazar wanted to leave Eddie Cassano’s drug business so he could create a stable home life for his son, Tom. Both Makoto and Salazar wanted to make positive changes in their lives, but because of the structural barriers set up against them, they’re continuously denied any opportunities to reform from their past crimes. Since the system is already rigged against marginalized people, the question Great Pretender’s initially asked was compelling because if the system wasn’t meant to work for you, why not use your skills to steal from rich millionaire assholes and use that money to directly support marginalized communities?

It’s a tough question and I wasn’t sure Kosawa Ryota would be able to deliver a satisfying answer. While Ryota is an experienced writer for live-action movies and dramas; Great Pretender’s was the first animated series he wrote for and he was given creative freedom to write all the scripts alone. Since Director, Kaburagi Hiro is well-known for his love of heists and mafia movies, it was safe to assume Great Pretender’s would be in good hands. Even though it had such a great start, the glaring problems with the show began rearing its ugly head in Case 2 (Singapore) and annoyingly, came into full circle in Case 4 (Tokyo).

Salazar happy to see his son Tom.
Salazar is just a dad trying to do his best.

As mentioned before, Case 1 (Los Angles) was able to ease us into the series, but Case 2 (Singapore) started to make me worry in terms of the writing quality and I started to wonder if future cases would be equally frustrating. While the initial premise of scamming two spoiled rich Arab brothers was appealing, the case bit off more than it can chew trying to handle Abby’s trauma and PTSD. There is nothing wrong with having a tragic backstory, but Abby’s past as an ex-child soldier wasn’t something that can be easily resolved after her confronting the ex-solider that bombed her home city in Iraq. Since Case 2 (Singapore) was determined to wrap up quickly at the very least the show could’ve offered some long-term solutions to Abby’s problems so that she can explore those options off-screen. While the heist was successful, the emotional payoff to Abby’s story felt lacking, which sucks since she is such a great character and deserved a better resolution.

Thankfully, Case 3 (London) had a really straightforward heist and a good conclusion to Cynthia’s backstory, so it made me hopeful that Case 4 (Tokyo) would get better, but in the end it made me frustrated. I can “forgive” Case 2 (Singapore) since Great Pretender was trying to figure itself out, but it’s clear that Case 4 (Tokyo) was more concerned about creating a grandiose spectacle rather than writing a compelling heist. There isn’t anything wrong with over the top heists or scams (the zanier the better), but Case 4 (Tokyo) was the darkest heist the Confidence Crew had to carry out since it involved child trafficking so it makes sense that the writing for this case had to be solid, otherwise the ending would be a huge failure. Case 4 (Tokyo) also had the added burden of having to reveal Laurent’s backstory and answer the lingering question if whether or not Makoto will commit into becoming a con-artist.

Lewis apologizing to Abby for bombing her home city in Iraq.
Yeah, “sorry” isn’t enough for bombing Abby’s home city.

Unfortunately, Great Pretender couldn’t commit to its promising start and ended up trying to redeem all the villains in the show. This is disappointing because the original purpose of the series was to steal from rich terrible assholes in power and use that wealth to help marginalized people, but instead not only did previous villains help out with the heist in Case 4 (Tokyo); Makoto also gave Akemi a chance to eventually reconnect with her estranged son. It doesn’t matter how much Great Pretender attempts to humanize Akemi, the fact remains, she trafficked children and viewed them as nothing more than commodity. The only time the children’s plight was ever voiced was through Kawin (one of the older children) and after that we never hear from them again.

Even though Great Pretender tells us child trafficking is bad, the show also treats the children as background characters with no agency, whatsoever. We don’t even get to see the children’s reactions to being saved and them realizing they have a chance to live a better life. Granted, we got to see Kawin living his life with Cynthia, but there isn’t any emotional payoff to the huge undertaking in this heist. The Confidence Crew also didn’t come out looking great either since Laurent traumatized Makoto into believing his comrades were killed so that he could become emotionally attached to Akemi. Laurent’s continuous manipulation of Makoto throughout the series quickly became redundant and ultimately it’s never really clear if Makoto committed to becoming a con-artist or not.

Kawin explaining the plight of the children being trafficked.
Kawin and the rest of the children deserved a better narrative structure.

There are several other things that annoyed me like Oz (Makoto’s dad) trying to justify himself as to why he ruined the lives of his family so that he could help Laurent get revenge for Dorothy (she’s great by the way) and it was frustrating to see Makoto’s mom easily forgive Oz for all his transgressions. Despite all of that, the biggest disappointment for me was the show forgetting it’s initial premise and tried to redeem the villains for the shock factor rather than centering victims directly impacted by the villains in all of the cases.

Great Pretender’s heavily emphasized that the Confidence Crew knew what it felt like to be disempowered and that they were going to dedicate themselves to seek justice for people who literally don’t have the resources and power to go against any form of structural oppression. Imagine how powerful Case 4 (Tokyo) would’ve been if all the people they helped throughout the series came together to help them to destroy Akemi and Liu Xiao’s child trafficking organizations? It would’ve been a wonderful way to end the show, but sadly the series never commits to its promising start.

The villains being surprised they were left on an island.
I too said WTF?! to this heist.

Instead, the ending was an over the top “successful” heist with no emotional substance. Despite all my criticisms, I still enjoyed Great Pretender and while I have my qualms about the earlier cases, those cases are still fun and can be treated as self-contained stories. Honestly, Great Pretender’s needs a remake to deliver the show’s initial great premise and we need Laurent and Makoto hooking up. You thought I forgot about the tension between them? HA! NEVER!! While I’m glad Laurent moved on from Dorothy (let’s face it, his lingering sadness wasn’t healthy), I wish the show did more with Laurent’s bisexuality, but I digress.

I’m sad Great Pretender’s isn’t a series I can wholeheartedly recommend without caveat, but hey at least its my new problematic fave…..

Laurent looking at Makoto lovingly.
Look at way Laurent looks at Makoto!! That’s love right there and despite the narrative mess, Great Pretender’s can’t take this away from me.

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