A really, really good episode, and at this pt, the anime is really on a roll.
The gym itself looks really nice. Has sort of a cathedral feel to it (and I know that's not the right word...but I can't think of how else to describe it), and it's the perfect environment for a ghost type gym. And as always, anything that makes a character/place unique is a positive. Fantina also has her own little quirk, which is screaming Nooo! when her pokemon faints. It's quite the priceless reaction, and I completely forget she did that.
This is a very analytical battle for Ash, and he does a great job. On the spot thinking has generally been his strong point, but normally he's only had to make 1 adjustment or so before the battle turns completely in his favor. That's not quite the case here. He starts out with the advantage thanks to his counter-shield (and this move is the key to the entire match, as Ash tries a little warm-up of using Aqua Jet and Sonicboom, w/o any success; and I get the feeling he wasn't expecting them to land, and he was just trying to see how Fantina would battle-specifically looking for how Hypnosis would be used), and Buizel deals enough damage with the counter-shield that Ash feels comfortable engaging in a bit of a power struggle, with both Buizel and Gengar taking big hits (by the way, water pulse looks so awesome; it's a shame Buizel starting to go away from that move later on). Buizel is the one left standing, and Ash is in the lead.
Mismagius offers a different type of battle, as Fantina makes a pt of telling Ash at the start that Mismagius cannot use Hypnosis. Instead, she's looking to totally thwart Ash's counter-shield, and she's seemingly successful, as Mismagius's Magical Leaf manages to nullify Chimchar's counter shield. This is just what Fantina was looking for, and she gains a great deal of confidence from that. Ash does manage to win this round with another neat combination, having Chimchar launch a flamethrower while using flamewheel so that Fantina has to deal with 2 attacks at once. But the momentum is with Fantina as she's figured out a way around the counter-shield, and as was demonstrated at the beginning of the battle in Ash's warm-up, Ash will have a hard time landing attacks if that's not working.
So out comes Drifblim (I know my spelling is terrible, and I should probably look this up...sorry), and Ash is very, very quickly put on his heels as Pikachu's counter-shield is quickly canceled out. And then Fantina does something really interesting, and she pulls out her own counter-shield. This is something Ash could have taken very badly, as he's put in so much time into developing the move for his pokemon. In just a few minutes, Fantina has not only seemingly figured out how to counter it, but she's even using it enough for her own offense. I really think this is a show of Fantina's ego, in a way, that she's using the countershield herself; it's as if she's showing Ash that it's a nice little trick, but there isn't much to it. I would kind of compare it to (lame reference, but for what it's worth) a DBZ battle, the one b/w Perfect Cell and Trunks, when Cell does the exact same transformation that Trunks does to prove that there's nothing special about the transformation, and that it has a glaring weakness.
Pikachu is surrounded by Drifblim's counter-shield, and Drifblim sneaks in (it's quite sneaky, and I think that's a nice touch-it's seemingly practiced this alot) and grabs Pikachu by the cheeks. Pikachu is unable to launch an electric attack as its cheeks are covered, and Pikachu is quickly put to sleep.
Buizel is up next, and Ash has pretty much given up on the counter shield technique now. Buizel's Aqua Jet manages to overcome Fantina's shield, and we're back to a normal battle. But that's really no good for Ash, since he's had trouble using a precise hitting move to get a hit against Fantina, and that happens again here. Fantina easily outmaneuvers Ash by using Will o Wisp to cause an explosion when matched against Water Pulse, and Drifblim sneaks in and lands a hypnosis.
Things look really bad for Ash for now. Chimchar comes out, launching a Flamethrower to start off, and Fantina uses Will o Wisp as a defense. Ash notices how intense the explosion is, and he smiles as he figures out there's a way he can overcome the counter-shield. Fantina questions why Ash looks so happy (reminds me another lame DBZ reference, but I won't go there), but she finds out soon enough, as Chimchar's flamethrower (I think) breaks through her counter shield and scores a big hit. Ash taunts Fantina a little that she doesn't know all there is to counter-shields, which I think he's basically saying she over-estimated her abilities to use his move. Fantina laughs a little, but she's sure she'll still pull this battle out. But I think that little reprimand from Ash is a really big deal for him; I think this moment, right here, is where he absolutely gains the confidence that he's a really good trainer, and becomes unafraid of trying things out. Fantina seemingly had Ash's move completely figured out, and even was using it against Ash proficiently with almost no practice (Fantina even mocks Ash that this move is stronger than anything Ash can come up-and personally, I like this show of arrogance from Fantina. Roark did it a little too back at the 1st gym. The show of arrogance maybe a fault, but it's a fault that makes them feel like human beings. Trainers this strong probably have a bit of an inflated ego. Again, that's why I'm so amused by how easily Cynthia has beaten 2 members of the elite 4 so far.). So if a move that Ash and his pokemon worked so hard on is THAT easy to master, than maybe Ash just isn't a very good, or creative trainer. I think he really starts to feel that, and he expresses that when he tells Pikachu that its hard work will pay off sometime, even if it didn't in this battle. But he has to be wondering about his merits right now as a trainer, and his realization here gives him a huge boost of confidence. He doesn't have to worry about Fantina's "mockery" of his move anymore, b/c she can't use it as well as he can. And so, his style of training can work.
But he's still in a bit of a bind over how to deal the finishing blow to Fantina. So he comes up with a nice little strategy. Head on attacks have been working in Fantina's favor (except for some of Buizel's attacks), and Ash has had trouble using a precise move to block Hypnosis when it's come his way. Counter-shield allowed him to not have to worry about precisely locating where hypnosis is coming from, but since that's not really an option now, he needs to figure out another way. So he has Chimchar use Dig to get behind Drifblim, and it's able to blast a flamethrower just as Drifblim is turning around to use hypnosis- Ash knows exactly where the attack is coming from now. The attack scores a ko, and Ash wins this really impressive battle.
Jessie also wins her 2nd ribbon, which was a surprise back when this episode came out. That's one of the things in retrospect that maybe lost when rewatching Sinnoh, and that's how big of a surprise some of these events were.
I need to say something about Brock and Dawn. Brock gives compliments where he sees compliments are due, I think. Dawn just wants Ash to win, and she's more into how things are going on Ash's side of the battle. And she's quite impressed with how Ash uses Chimchar, saying his strategy is amazing. Brock, though, says that's typical Ash. Maybe, in fairness to Brock, if Dawn had traveled with Ash as long as Brock had, she maybe would view Ash's battles as he does. But I also think that's part of the charm of Dawn, and Paul to an extent. She does a great job of reminding me that many of the things Ash does that I've taken for granted, are really something remarkable. At the beginning of the region, she thought of Ash as a bit reckless, but she's seen now there's a lot more to him than that. And Paul eventually does, too. But it's seeing them realize it, that reminds you of how special Ash really is, and also how he's improved from previous regions. Maybe that's also something that should be said in Brock's defense, and that he's seen Ash grow the whole time. It's alot easier to be impressed with stuff seeing the mature Sinnoh Ash, and not having to watch him step by step starting from the mistakes and strategies he used in Kanto.