After the events of episode seven and the angst race, Free! has definitely taken a turn for the angstier, with lots of side glances, snide smirks, and glares. Rin is still an insufferable asshole, obsessed with winning, and even the addition of more backstory in episode ten can’t help him (in fact, it just made it worse, since there wasn’t much of a reason for his actions). However, Free! has made it clear just how amazing the rest of the Iwatobi Swim Club is. From banding together after Haru’s distressing loss to remind Haru why he swims and to win the medley relay (yay teamwork!), to a desperate attempt to keep Rin and Haru from running into each other at a local festival, the members of the swim club are sweeties. We’ve also been further introduced to Gora, who was everyone’s swim coach back in elementary school and is now their team’s official coach. Amakata-sensei and Gou have been playing larger roles, as well. Again, KyoAni’s research pays off—the moment when Rei surfaces and his goggles have flipped down put a punch through my heart, as I’ve gone through that way too many times. I also appreciate the fact that none of them actually qualified on their own; while it’s obvious the series was going for the teamwork angle and the obvious parallel of the childhood medley relay, it’s nice to see a sports series that acknowledges that even if you train hard and do your best, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
The festival episode was a nice break from the high tension of the tournament and the emotional roller coaster KyoAni put everyone through in episode eight, with Haru working through his reasons for swimming and everyone trying to motivate him and stick together as a team (and Rin realizing just what he’s kicked to the curb and burned down behind him). It’s fun to see everyone goofing off and showing how much of a complete dork everyone on the team can be, but it was ruined somewhat by Rin’s angsting. While I understand that Free! can’t let him be happy—for the sake of motivation and a rival character—they’ve gone too far with his issues. Thankfully everyone’s love of swimming and the excitement of racing helps boost the mood. Unfortunately, episode ten is almost entirely Rin backstory, which fails to do anything but cement how little he deserves the efforts of everyone else. With three episodes left, they’ll have to pick up the pace a little. We’ve got the relay against Rin and the Samezuka team at regionals, as well as seeing if they make it to nationals and whether or not Rin will ever be able to redeem himself.
There are always little things that really show off that KyoAni’s team put a lot of thought into the series, but I will never be able to get over the fact that none of the characters pull their caps on all the way. It’s always hard to tell swimmers apart when they’re in suits and caps and goggles, so I understand the reason, but with everything else represented so pitch-perfectly, it really throws me off. (Although I guess Makoto having a gallop stroke makes up for it.)