I think this is the type of episode where it helps to watch once, walk away from it for a day, then return and watch one more time before judging it.
I won't lie, this episode originally left me stunned. My initial reaction was pretty much an incoherent scream followed by a long, long period of silence as I tried to piece together what just happened because it felt like a horrible joke. I couldn't help but feel like, as a series ending, this episode failed. I enjoyed Decade - a lot - but at the same time I didn't want to make undeserved excuses. If you were expecting answers, you had to be disappointed and probably pretty annoyed as well. Not only did it leave virtually all of the questions unanswered, but it seemed to raise just as many new ones.
However, and this is a huge "however", this clearly is not meant to be the series ending for Decade. It was the last episode that aired on television, of course, but the 20 seconds after the buckle closes around Natsumi's face (if you're not still yelling at your television/computer screen) is proof that it wasn't supposed to be the ending. It's not a novel idea for a kids' show to wrap up story lines in a big-budget (or, at least, bigger budget) movie - for example, Disney Channel shows have been doing it for years. Granted, there are never gigantic cliffhangers involved like we have here, but I'd argue that there is some international precedent.
So for me, after mulling it over, that's what this episode boils down to - can you handle a cliffhanger ending, with the promise that the loose ends will (hopefully!) get wrapped up in a few months or, to put a spin on the wise words of Eijirou, does the cliffhanger make the entire journey a waste and ruin the series in your eyes?
I'll probably get even more wordy in the series discussion thread (scary thought, given how long this ended up), but to put it briefly I fall in the first category. If I were to look at this episode as if I could expect another episode to air next week, I'd say this was a pretty good episode. Not without its faults, primarily characters acting too indecisive for my tastes or somewhat bizarrely given earlier events of the episode, but pretty darn good. The cliffhanger was a great hook and, by springing it on the audience unexpectedly, they maximized the shock value.
The Tsukasa we're left with by the end of this episode has come a long way from the Tsukasa we met with in the first episode. This Tsukasa may still be lacking his memories, but he's got a conscience, a heart, and those precious comrades that we heard so much about. I mean, he was crying when he listened to Wataru talking about Kazuma and his world disappearing! That type of personal growth was really touching to watch and made me want to root for him regardless of whether he was supposed to be the big-bad destroyer or not.
Heck, I even found myself rooting for Daiki a few times, which doesn't always happen for me. We still don't have firm answers about him, but I think his comment about being the only one to destroy Decade revealed his true purpose in the series. He was supposed to destroy Decade but, for some reason that has yet to be explained, he couldn't or didn't want to. So, if he couldn't do it before the series started, that means there's got to be something twisty about that final shot at the episode's end.
Natsumi, well, I've just come to accept that Rider girls lose a chunk of their brain cells when they need them the most, so I won't fault her for essentially walking into Apollo Geist. Where I will find fault is when she (and Decade and DiEnd to a lesser extent) is so chipper after Apollo Geist gets blown away. Did she really forget that Yuusuke had been injured so badly that he was knocked out of his Henshin? Yeah, she remembers a few minutes later right when the Rider War seems to kick off anew, but I had a really hard time believing that she could be so happy while one of their "important" comrades was badly injured or that she forgot completely about him.
Speaking of Yuusuke, I thought what happened when he was hit by Super Apollo Geist's attack was a little ambiguous (unconscious? dead?), but jumping in front of Tsukasa was a great moment for me regardless. Yuusuke really matured into the protector of the group. I won't say he was always effective, but it was a nice juxtaposition from, say, Den-O world where Tsukasa forced Yuusuke in front of him when he was about to get possessed again. Yuusuke was the type of person to do anything to protect a friend (and their smile), and the fact that he was willing to go so far to protect Decade even knowing that his world might disappear showed how strong his character really was. Of course, looking at all of that makes comparing his response to Kivaara's bite all the more shock-worthy. (And that bite makes me wonder if that's how Narutaki's displayed some of his more unusual abilities, but that's a tangent best left for another thread.)
Another nice touch was when the "kid" riders eventually paired up with their "mentors". By connecting back to the bonds that were formed in earlier episodes, it really gave them that extra bit of meaning. It also reminded me of the American superhero tradition of having a younger/in-training sidekick team up with an older, experienced superhero. Their colors were even similar! (Okay, I'm stretching that one, especially for DiEnd/Hibiki, but maybe if you squint a little the blue on black starts to look purple...or not.)
Neat to see Wataru - original Wataru - again. Helped give that bookend feel to the series. Kenzaki Kazuma I'm ambivalent about. He didn't act like the same Kazuma that I admired from the finale of Blade, and he seemed a little rusty since he couldn't even slide his card in the Rouzer properly, but I'm hoping more explanation on why he popped up is forthcoming in the movie.
It was also nice to see the opening one last time, although I couldn't figure out why the heck we were getting DiEnd's theme as the final insert song.
One other nit-pick - razor-sharp boomerang cards were just a little more absurd than I could handle at that point in the episode.
On a second watch of the episode, there seemed to be a lot of dialogue that hinted there was more story to come. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I was so shocked that it ended on a cliffhanger. I kept glancing at the clock on my first time through, wondering how in the world they were going to wrap up the Apollo Geist storyline and the Rider War storyline when there was only 10 minutes left, 5 minutes, 3 minutes, etc. I think I would be more disappointed today if the writers tried to force a resolution into such a short period of time than pulling the cliffhanger twist.
Sorry, that was a lot longer than I expected. One final note that has no bearing on the episode or series - I missed not having one last Super Hero Time featuring Decade and Shinkenger.