This is it- the last episode. The Iwatobi team is more confident than ever, but they have no idea about the devastating news Rin received at the end of last week’s episode. There’s lots of volatile emotions and plenty of pressure here as we go into episode 12 of Free!, and there’s only one way to find out what happens and how it ends. Let’s dive in.
The episode opens up with a flashback- Rin, Haru, Nagisa and Makoto are still in elementary school. It’s before Rin has left for Australia, and they are admiring a cherry blossom tree that has yet to bloom by their elementary school. The bricks surrounding the tree all have different phrases written on them by students. On Rin’s, he’d written “for the team.”
Which brings us back to the present- the Samezuka and Iwatobi swim teams are both arriving at the location of their big competition. The Iwatobi team is awed by the size of the venue and seem optimistic about the entire event. The same can’t be said for Rin though. He hasn’t recovered from the shock of learning that he’s been removed from the relay team, and despite Nitori’s best attempts, nothing can improve his mood.
He goes into the freestyle competition like that, and the results are devastatingly bad. Everyone watches, shocked, as Rin performs terribly and is even unable to pull himself up out of the pool afterward. The Iwatobi team immediately leaves the stands to find Rin and see what’s wrong.
They find Rin in a hallway yelling at Nitori, who had been trying to calm him down after his terrible performance. Rin claims he’s quitting swimming and storms off, leaving the rest of them stunned. The Iwatobi team didn’t just hear Rin say he was no longer in the relay, meaning that they would not swim together again after all- they also heard him echo the same words he said back in middle school that led to Haru quitting swimming. Haru reacts similarly to how he did when he lost to Rin at the last competition. It’s clear that he is not in a good frame of mind to compete either.
Rei watches as Nagisa and Makoto struggle with the new revelation and Haru’s reaction to it, and he finally comes to a decision: he tells the group everything he learned from Rin the night before, including why Rin really stopped swimming. He argues that all Rin wants to do is swim with the Iwatobi team again; Rei knows this because that’s all he wants as well. Which means that there is only one way to fix the situation. The team quickly splits up to find Rin before the start of their relay.
Haru is the one who finds Rin first- as he thought, Rin is standing beside a nearby tree Haru had noted that morning. It looks almost exactly like the tree from the childhood scene shown at the start of the episode. When Haru tries to talk to him, Rin lashes out angrily. The scene gets really physical as Rin nearly hits Haru and takes him down to the ground. Things come to an abrupt end though when Rin sees something written in the dirt in front of the tree: “For the team.” Haru wrote it there that morning as he reminisced about their childhood.
The anger seems to leave Rin, and he starts to get emotional instead. That’s all he’s wanted this entire season: to be a part of a team again. Not just any team, though. He wants to be a part of the team he forged such strong bonds with when he was young. As it turns out, that’s exactly why Haru and the others were looking for Rin. They want to offer him just that.
The Iwatobi team meets back up inside the arena just in time for the beginning of the relay, much to the relief of Coach Sasabe, Gou, and Amakata-sensei in the stands. Makoto goes first, followed by Nagisa; then, it should be Rei’s turn. Should be, but Rin is there instead. He swims with the team as part of the relay while Rei watches from the stands. Haru follows Rei, and the team comes in first place.
It’s not surprising that the team gets disqualified though, in the end, because mixing up teams isn’t something that goes over well in professional swimming. But for the Iwatobi boys, it seems like it was worth it. Rin was able to swim with the team again, and the team was able to get their childhood friend back.
This episode really tackled the biggest loose thread the series had left: Rin’s emotions regarding his childhood and the Iwatobi team. And wow, this episode really amped things up. The fight (and while no one was hit, there was plenty of rolling around in the dirt and anger, so I’ll call it a fight) was even more intense than that between Rei and Rin last episode. Seeing Rin this angry and unhinged was really scary to watch. Conversely, when the anger fades and we get to see just how hurt he is and how much he needs his teammates from Iwatobi, I couldn’t help but feel for him.
But it was Rei that was really the shining star of this episode. He’s had to go through a lot as the “fourth wheel” on the team, and he had finally gotten to a point where he felt included and completely welcomed. And what does he do? he gives up his chance to swim with the team so that they can come together with Rin again. It’s a bittersweet moment, because we know this is what Makoto, Haru, Nagisa and Rin really need. But this is also what Rei wants and what he has been working so hard for. Other than Rin and Haru, Rei is the one that feels like he’s grown the most this season, and this episode really proves that.
And then there’s the relay itself. There was a lot of time dedicated to the relay visually, and we get some really amazing shots of the boys swimming. It was a little corny how much they tried to emphasize that the race was important to them all- for example, Nagisa imagines he can see animals in the water representing all of his teammates swimming in front of him. It’s a little weird, but still cute. Overall though, I think they did a good job of really making this relay stand out like it should, what with it being such an important moment. The entire show was leading up to it after all.
What a bittersweet episode. On the one hand, everything was wrapped up nicely. The boys end up as friends again and it’s shown that they continue to have a good relationship after the competition is over. Rin got to swim with his team again, but only thanks to Rei sacrificing what he wanted the most. And of course, it’s sad because this is it. The last episode. There’s been no announcement regarding a second season of the show yet, but fans are feeling positive. I for one would love another season, but I think the ending we got could stand alone as well.
To sum up my feelings about the entire show: I went in expecting a lighthearted, fanservice-y slice-of-life show about boys swimming. Free! delivered so much more than that in the end. These characters were made much more likeable and interesting than I expected, and the show packs a bigger emotional punch than I was prepared for. Other than being beautifully animated, the show was just plain fun to watch. I will really miss watching it every week.
As always, you can watch the episode for yourself with an anime membership over at Crunchyroll.