Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episodes 1-5 Recap – Let The Games Begin

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: December 10, 2020 (Last updated: March 6, 2024)
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Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episodes 1-5 Recap
Alice in Borderland Season 1 (Credit - Netflix)
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Summary

Alice in Borderland wastes no time in getting straight to the action as three best friends are forced into a series of deadly games.

You get the sense very early on in Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 1 that the show isn’t much interested in taking its time, and this very much persists all throughout the episode.

In the opening scene which introduces Arisu, the “Alice” of the title, we’re given just the right amount of preliminary information to understand him as a character, all without much dialogue. He’s an avid gamer, he’s very clever, but he’s also a layabout, much to the chagrin of his stern father and careerist brother. He’s clearly still harboring some trauma over the death of his mother, and he finds solace in his friends Karube and Chota, whom he meets up with outside the bustling Shibuya Station.

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 1 Recap

The friends have to text each other — the messages show up on-screen — just to locate one another in the heaving crossing, which makes for an effective juxtaposition a little later. See, Arisu, Karube, and Chota’s messing around earns them the attention of the authorities, and all three take shelter in a toilet cubicle inside Shibuya Station.

When they emerge, the entirety of Tokyo — including Shibuya Crossing, one of the most famously busy junctions in the world — is deserted. It’s the 28 Days Later effect, and it really works here as the trio begin to poke around. All their phones are dead. Nobody is around.

Behind them, a building lights up to inform them that a game will commence in a moment, and an arrow directs them to the arena where it’ll take place. With no better ideas, they follow the arrow to the GM building, where they pick up new smartphones with face recognition software that relay details of the game to the players, who also include the severe Shibuki Saori and a sacrificial lamb whose name I didn’t catch but who is only really present to make the players and audience aware of the stakes.

Those stakes are pretty life-threatening. Once the game is underway, it has a border that instantly kills any player who crosses it with a laser. A playing card, the three of clubs, denotes the difficulty of the game, which is called “Dead or Alive.”

The rules are simple. In a series of rooms, and within a shortening time limit, the players have to select the correct door out of two choices, marked “live” or “die”.

There’s a two-minute timer on the first room, which eventually starts flooding with gas. Here’s where the no-name girl is offered as a sacrifice to prove to the players that choosing the wrong door means instant death, though it’s telling that she’s manipulated into choosing by Shibuki, who believes this is a game of sacrifices.

But Arisu quickly figures it out as a game of logic. Using his memory of the car parked outside, he’s able to figure out the rough shape and dimensions of the building, using that to inform his decisions. He leads the group through the right door each time, and despite Chota getting caught by the flames on the way out, they all make it out alive.

I really like how believable Arisu’s intelligence is. Usually, this kind of thing is depicted as a contrived superpower, but you can really follow the train of logic here, and the smart use of a diagram lets the audience see the decision-making process.

Since the game was ranked as the three of clubs, that gives the winners a three-day visa. To explain what that means, a random man stumbles into the alleyway to declare that he’s dropping out of the game since it never ends no matter how much you clear. His visa expires and he gets lasered to death instantly, so we have our stakes set nice and high. The characters all have to continue playing.

Right on cue, we see lights crop up all over Tokyo, presumably denoting the location of more games, as the camera cuts to a woman stood on a rooftop surveying the city.

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 2 Recap

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episodes 1-5 Recap

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 2 (Credit – Netflix)

Episode 2 opens with the woman who functioned as something of a cliffhanger in the previous episode living up to the distinction — she’s literally a mountain climber who promises the memory of her father that she’s going to survive. Her name is Usagi. Looks like we have our second lead character.

In the meantime, Chota figures out that all modern technology containing IC chips is dead and the older stuff isn’t, suggesting that perhaps an EMP device was used to wipe out Tokyo’s communications, but unfortunately that doesn’t explain the smartphones utilized by the games.

This little getting-to-know-you session provides some quick backstory for Shibuki, who was sleeping with her boss when everyone disappeared, but also ponders some more lingering questions about the overarching mysteries.

For Shibuki, everyone disappeared three days ago, yet for the boys, it was only yesterday. Arisu also finds some rotting vegetables while out and about, so the timeline is obviously different for everyone. Are we introducing the potential for time travel here? Shibuki floats the notion of a VR overlay, but that doesn’t explain the very real consequences of the lasers. There’s obviously a game master, someone designing these challenges, but who?

Either way, Chota needs a doctor after his burn, so Karube suggests that he and Arisu play the next game together in order to meet more people, potentially a doctor, and get a better idea of what’s what. Arisu also figures he might be able to determine the game master’s “signature” and devise a strategy for beating it, so at this point, the plot essentially splits into two, with Karube and Arisu going to the game and Chota and Shibuki staying behind.

The game also includes Usagi; Karube and Arisu arrive shortly afterward. There are a total of 13 participants this time, and Karube suggests sacrificing some as Shibuki tried to do in the previous game. The difficulty this time is the five of spades — a man named Nitobe explains what this means.

The suits denote the type of game: clubs are a team battle; diamonds test wits; spades is physical; and hearts, the worst category, force you to play with people’s emotions. The number obviously denotes difficulty.

The game this time around is tag, and the goal is to touch a symbol hidden in one of the apartments in the block where the game takes place while avoiding the tagger. After 20 minutes, a time bomb hidden in the apartment building will explode.

There’s also an additional complication: The tagger is wearing a horse-head mask and is carrying a submachine gun — if he tags you you’re not “it”, you’re dead. Nitobe has apparently played five times, but this will be his last game.

A new, thus-far nameless character with long, silvery hair spends much of the game observing from a vantage point. Usagi wants to keep herself to herself. But once the players begin being messily killed off, by both the tagger and the border when they try to escape, it’s only Usagi who response to Arisu’s shouted instructions when he determines that the tagger’s mask limits his field of vision and that they can exploit that to defeat him.

Having said that, a thuggish player named Aguni and his accomplice team up with Karube to physically take the tagger down while Arisu and Usagi search for the symbol. This leads to a fun, nasty little fight given a slight note of comedy and horror both by the horse-head mask.

Elsewhere, Chota and Saori’s conversation clues us in on their respective backstories, particularly Chota’s. His mother was a part of a devout and weird religious cult, and he was bullied for it, which is how he fell in with Karube and Arisu, who protect him. He gets upset about his background, and Shibuki consoles him by kissing and seducing him, explaining how since they’re “both the same” they can “work together to survive”, which is certainly one way of putting it.

As they have sex, Chota’s flashbacks reveal that his mother’s religion was basically a sex cult, but then again aren’t they all?

Anyway, both Arisu and Silver Hair figure that the symbol is in the apartment the tagger fired at from a distance the MAC-10 wouldn’t be effective from — he was trying to keep the players away from the door.

When they enter, though, they’re attacked by another tagger and separated. Arisu makes it into the room with the symbol, but it requires two people to push two separate buttons at the same time, which he shouts out of the window.

As Aguni fights one tagger and Arisu fights the other, Usagi makes her way to the room in the nick of time, and both she and Arisu — with the help of Silver Hair’s taser — are able to clear the game with only a second remaining. The tagger in the room is revealed to be a woman wearing a collar that detonates once she loses the game. The taggers had no choice in playing either.

Episode 2 ends with Karube finding a radio on Aguni’s compatriot. The voice on the channel insists that “the answer is in our hands now” and implores everyone to “get back to the beach.” Whatever might that mean?

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 3 Recap

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 3 (Credit – Netflix)

Well, blimey. I wasn’t quite expecting this. Before it reaches its game-changing climax, episode 3 opens with the gang back together, pondering “the beach” as their next, most promising lead.

But they can’t follow up on it just yet since Chota and Shibuki’s visas are about to expire, so they need to win a game. Arisu, meanwhile, is still struggling with the guilt of the tagger’s death, which he believes was entirely his fault.

Here, we begin to see stress causing some friction within the group. When Karube takes a slight detour to pick up an engagement ring from his former place of work, Chota snaps at him because he and Shibuki are running out of time. It’s only fitting, then, that the next game is designated a seven of hearts, and is designed to test their relationship.

This game, which takes place at the botanical gardens, is much crueler than the ones we’ve seen thus far as it seems it’s only possible for one person to win it. As part of the rules, everyone has to wear a pair of goggles. One person is designated a wolf and the other three are sheep.

A lamb found by a wolf becomes the next wolf, and so on and so forth, passing the role of the wolf back and forth. Whoever’s the wolf at the end wins, and all the lambs’ collars explode.

A wolf “catches” a lamb by making eye contact with it, so the idea is to become the wolf and then run away and hide. Chota becomes the first wolf automatically, but Shibuki quickly steals the position from him and legs it. Karube gives chase and they fight, while Arisu implores them to help him outsmart the game rather than just give in to it.

But I’m not sure there is a way to outsmart it in any case, let alone when the players are gradually turning against each other. This is pretty expected for Shibuki, but less so for Karube, who begins to tear into Arisu verbally.

Arisu is still mightily struggling with his guilt over the death of the tagger, and naturally many other anxieties and insecurities come to the fore as well, not to mention the seemingly inevitable prospect of losing his friends in this game. We’re treated to some flashbacks of Arisu’s home life with his father and his brother Hajime, and also to a bit more of the central trio’s friendship, which this game is obviously designed to test. And boy, does it test it.

With time running out, Arisu offers to drop out, since his friends are all that matter to him. He’s the wolf, but when he runs out into the open, he can’t find anyone. Nobody responds to him on the radio and we see Chota drag Shibuki, his hand over her mouth, into the foliage.

They’re all hiding from him, sacrificing themselves for him. I was convinced that there was going to be some last-minute way out of this. But no. The timer ticks down to zero, and the collars explode, Karube’s right in front of Arisu. Alice in Borderland just killed off three of its four main characters in just the third episode.

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 4 Recap

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episodes 1-5 Recap

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 4 (Credit – Netflix)

After the calamitous ending of the previous episode, Arisu is struggling, to say the least. In fact, Usagi, while out wringing a rabbit’s neck, finds him collapsed in the middle of the road, begging to die. The first portion of episode 4 gives us some welcome backstory for Usagi and delves into Arisu’s headspace a little, before delivering another game.

Usagi’s key relationship is obviously the one she shared with her father, a fellow climber who was accused of faking his widely-publicized no-oxygen climbs and subsequently killed himself. The loss of her father obviously deeply affected Usagi, so she knows how Arisu feels when he says he wants to die, even if she doesn’t quite get his sense of personal responsibility — he thinks he personally killed his friends and therefore doesn’t deserve to live. She reasons that since they’re going to die at some point they might as well eat while they’re alive, and they do, and some progress is made.

Arisu’s visa is due to expire so he needs to play another game, and Usagi wants to repay her for saving her life during the tag game, so they go together to the next challenge, which begins on a bus in an underground highway.

A team is already aboard, a threesome who met during their first game and have cleared three more since then as a team. This game is called “Distance”, and is rated a four of clubs. The deliberately vague clear condition is to safely attain the goal, but everyone determines it involves running a significant distance.

The problem is that one of the dudes they just met, Takuma, has a badly injured leg and can’t do that, so he demands everyone leaves him behind. They do and set off running.

Eventually — a distance tracker on the smartphone keeps notching up the miles — the group reaches a replenishment station which they’re all too hesitant to drink from, so Usagi shares her little canteen with Arisu and he shares it with everyone else. Further on, they come face to face with a big cat — it looks like a panther or some such — which pursues them in the other direction.

It must be said that the CGI used to bring the cat to life is questionable, at best, but the sequence itself is still pretty well choreographed, so that helps to take the edge off. Seizan, one of the threesome, gets eaten, leaving behind only the guy with a wife and kid whose name I never caught. Let’s just call him Family Man.

Anyway, the next thing the group comes across is an old Royal Enfield motorcycle with a diesel engine, which should still run despite the suspected EMP detonation since it doesn’t have any electrical circuits.

Arisu’s plan, which admittedly is rather farfetched, is to push the bike back the way they came and use the diesel in it to fuel up the bus and thus rescue Takuma — he’s done winning by letting other people die. There should be just enough time to get back to the bus, fuel it up and then drive all the way to the destination, but just in case Usagi and Family Man continue running as they were.

Having made it to what they believe is the endpoint, Usagi and Family Man sit down and have a chat until they’re interrupted by jets of water bursting through the creaky doors at the end of the tunnel. Uh-oh.

As the metal begins to bow and more and more water begins leaking in, they set off running back the way they came at full sprint, hoping to outrun the tidal wave. Family Man isn’t able to. Usagi, though, is saved in the nick of time by Arisu, who is able to drag her onto the speeding bus, which is promptly swept up and toppled over by the current.

When everyone comes to, we see that the graffiti on the side of the bus reads “Goal”. Their distance counters had been counting how far away from the goal they were getting. They were safe at zero. The bus was the goal all along.

With their visas renewed, Arisu and Usagi decide to head to the beach next, and Arisu resolves to stop the architect of these games and return the world to how it was.

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 5 Recap

Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episode 5 (Credit – Netflix)

As it turns out, finding a beach in Tokyo isn’t as easy as first imagined. Arisu and Usagi are certainly struggling, which is a problem since their visas are due to expire. But Arisu is still determined to make good on the sacrifice of his friends, even if he isn’t entirely determined to share a tent with Usagi.

Eventually, she insists, but only on the basis of sleep deprivation being a big danger to them during games. Honestly, I could totally live without any romance blossoming between these two, and at this stage, I’m not sure I’ll buy it if it does.

Nevertheless, Usagi teaches Arisu how to hunt, which he picks up quickly since he can equate the basic principles to an online game he likes. They also continue to surveil real-world games looking for clues about the beach, and Arisu hits on the idea of looking out for people wearing locker keys, like the ones Aguni and his compatriot were wearing during the game of tag in the second episode. They both pick up a couple of marks and give chase, somehow keeping pace with their cars on-foot and following them to a destination that looks very much like the beach, at which point they’re taken hostage.

Episode 5 introduces the Beach utopia and its leader, the appropriately-named Hatter. It also introduces the goal of the Beach, which is to collect all 52 playing cards — this is kept track of using a giant wall depicting every card, many of which are crossed off — and use them as a way to send one person back to the “normal” world.

Hatter and his executive board would like Arisu and Usagi to play the games with them and help collect the missing cards. The Beach is a self-sufficient community with its own resources and rules, including a mandate on swimwear and a zero-tolerance traitor policy.

If Arisu and Usagi don’t help, they’ll be considered traitors. Luckily, if they do, the seven of hearts card that Arisu won was a missing one, which makes him and Usagi eligible for a promotion.

The Beach is a party hotspot where everything is allowed and even encouraged, including drugs and sex, though Arisu and Usagi get some funny looks. When a game is active, everyone sets out, including some familiar faces.

One of the players from the tag game is knocking around, Aguni is the leader of the militant faction who controls the Beach’s weapons, sits on Hatter’s executive board, and is clearly planning a revolution, and Silver Hair — I still don’t have a name for this guy — also occupies a seat on that executive board, along with having a kind of shifty partnership with Kuina, a woman who only ever seems to wear a bikini and keeps an unlit cigarette in her mouth as a quit-smoking aid.

Part of painting the picture of how the Beach operates is showing a little montage of various different games taking place, and while this is fun, it doesn’t have the sustained tension of a single, focused game. Arisu’s test for executive suitability presided over by the leggy An is much better. It’s called Lightbulb, and finds all the participants stood in gradually-rising water. The objective is to determine which switch, A, B, or C, turns on a lightbulb in an adjoining room, but you only get one opportunity to test a switch with the door open. It takes a while, but eventually, Arisu is able to figure out the right solution.

We get a real sense of the Beach’s leadership woes when Aguni orders his men to take Usagi away and Hatter himself is forced to intervene. This is clearly going to be a continuing thread, as when Hatter hosts a meeting and explains he’ll be participating in the next game, both to extend his visa and in the hope of locating the elusive ten of hearts, we get an ominous zoom-in on Aguni when Hatter says he’ll be leaving his executives in charge in his absence.

But that’s for the next episode. This one ends in a low-key way, with Hatter explaining his backstory to Arisu in as grandiose terms as possible — he was the host at a gentlemen’s club, basically — and delusionally insisting that all the Beach’s citizens revere him and will be happy to see him return to the old world a hero.

Every hero, he says, needs a tragedy, as the camera pulls out to reveal the lights of the Beach as the only illumination as far as the eye can see.

What did you think of Alice in Borderland Season 1 Episodes 1-5? Comment below.

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