Everything You Need To Know To Catch Up With Attack on Titan

by James Beckett,

If there was an entry for “crossover hit” in the dictionary, it wouldn't be strange to see a big picture of Attack on Titan right next to the definition. It's easy to forget if you've been consuming anime for most of your life, but the medium still resides firmly in the territory of niche entertainment. For a title to become popular with the general public, it must strike the difficult balance of being approachable enough to not scare away newcomers, while also maintaining the aesthetic and style so unique to a Japanese production that it will satisfy dyed-in-the-wool otaku enough to spread it in the first place. Just one of these crossover hits will pop up every couple years or so, oftentimes acting as excellent primers for new viewers to dive headfirst into the world of anime. Cowboy Bebop and Dragon Ball Z did this in the '90s. Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note did it in the 2000's. Then a young production company by the name of Wit Studio (staffed largely by up-and-coming talents from burgeoning parent company Production I.G) burst onto a global stage in 2013 with their adaptation of Hajime Isayama's dark fantasy/apocalyptic horror manga, Attack on Titan, taking the anime industry by storm to become the most mainstream new anime franchise of the 2010s.

Whether you're an old fan just looking for a refresher or a newbie in need of a crash course, this handy guide will get you all caught up to speed for the newest episodes.

Act 1: The Fall of Zhiganshina

When our story begins, humans are already an endangered species. For over a hundred years, they have lived in fear of the Titans, a mysterious race of giant, animalistic humanoids that wander the world searching for people to devour. Nobody knows anything about these creatures or where they came from, and the small population that managed to escape the Titans' wrath unscathed have barricaded themselves within numerous towns, surrounded by three layers of sky-high stone walls. Life behind the walls is peaceful enough, but our protagonist, Eren Jaeger, yearns for the adventure and freedom afforded to the Scout Regiment, who are the only souls brave enough to combat Titans beyond the cities' walls.

Eren lives in the town of Zhiganshina, along with his best friend Armin Arlert and a girl his family recently took in, Mikasa Ackerman. Armin is a shy nerd prone to being picked on, and Eren is too stubborn and combative for his own good, while Mikasa is the strong, silent, and exceedingly intimidating badass who bails the boys out of the messes they make for themselves. Despite this outer strength, Mikasa's backstory is later revealed to be tragic and bloody. Her parents were murdered by slave traders when she was young, leaving Mikasa in danger of being sold into bondage. Eren and his father, Dr. Grisha Jaeger, happened to make a house call on the family mere hours after the incident, so Eren tracked down the slavers and killed them with Mikasa's help. She has remained by his side ever since, and the equally loyal Armin makes three.

The trio's lives remain relatively peaceful until the day the Titans break through the first wall of the city, Wall Maria, with the help of a never-before-seen Colossal Titan, and everything goes to hell. Eren's mother is brutally eaten by a Titan in the attack, while his father mysteriously vanishes. Amidst the bloodshed and destruction, the young boy swears vengeance on the monsters, while a great number of civilians are slaughtered around him. Those who survive are forced to migrate further into the city and become disenfranchised refugees. The starvation gets so bad that a quarter of a million people are exiled outside the walls, where they are summarily wiped out by the Titans, including Armin's grandfather and the only remaining guardian over the trio. Embittered and orphaned, Eren, Armin, and Mikasa resolve to join the army and fight to reclaim their world.

Act 2: Humanity's Comeback

Five years pass, and everyone has worked tirelessly to develop the skills needed to fight the Titans. Central to the militia's arsenal is the Omni-Directional Mobility Gear, a harness that combines numerous razor-sharp blades with multi-directional grappling hooks to provide soldiers with maximum mobility and speed. After mastering the difficult skill of zipping through the air with nothing but rapidly-fired cables, the soldiers are able to attack the Titans' only known weak spot: the nape of their neck, causing instant death when slashed deep enough. Eren is the most passionate and aggressive soldier in the corps, while Armin is an exceptional strategist, and Mikasa has become the strongest and deadliest cadet in the program.

This is also where we get to meet the majority of Attack on Titan's supporting cast, the training recruits who fight alongside Eren, Armin, and Mikasa in battle. These include Reiner Braun and Bertolt Hoover, ranked second and third behind Mikasa, as well as the aloof Annie Leonhart. There's also the proud and antagonistic Jean Kirstein, the friendly Marco Bott, the outgoing and empty-headed Connie Springer, the kindhearted Krista Lenz, and her brash yet mysterious companion Ymir. Last but not least is Sasha Braus, whose zealous gluttony and loud personality has made her a fan-favorite. Together, these members of the 104th Training Division graduate with honors and take on a number of roles to prepare for the inevitability of another Titan attack.

Act 3: The Battle of Trost

It turns out the cadets won't have to wait long, because shortly after graduation, the Titans return to launch another offensive, led once again by the Colossal Titan. Despite the unit's years of training, these Titans are still formidable foes, and the soldiers are absolutely trounced in a matter of hours. In a desperate attempt to save Armin's life, even Eren is dismembered and devoured by a Titan at the very start of the battle.

This isn't the end of Eren's story, however. In his final moments, he discovers that by shedding his own blood in a moment of rage, he can actually transform into a Titan himself. In a maddened stupor, Eren is able to use his Titan form to decimate the other Titans and give the cadets a fighting chance, before reverting back to human form, unconscious. This understandably results in much confusion and fear, but Eren manages to survive the army's interrogations by offering his services as a tool in Titan form. Commander Dot Pixis requests that Eren use his formidable strength to seal the hole in the second wall, Wall Rose.

Wary of his own strength, Eren agrees under the condition that he be escorted by Mikasa and Armin, as well as members of the elite Scout Regiment, a group of expert soldiers with the skills and fortitude to explore the world outside the walls. Heading up this special task force is Captain Levi, an enigmatic and exceptionally skilled soldier who has little trust in Eren. Also working with the Scout Regiment is Hange Zoë, who has a morbid fascination with studying and dissecting Titans. Thanks to an overwhelming effort from everyone involved, Eren manages to move a giant boulder to patch Wall Rose's massive hole, saving the remaining populace from further decimation by the Titans. Still, Eren briefly went berserk during the mission and almost killed Mikasa, so he has a long way to go before he can trust himself in Titan form again. In the aftermath of the Battle for Trost, Eren is subjected to a tribunal, where his continued survival is allowed only through surveillance by the Scout Regiment. He gladly joins Levi and Hange in this deadliest branch of the army, hoping that they can help train him to control his Titan transformation. Most of his comrades join the Scout Regiment alongside him, including Armin and Mikasa, of course.

Act 4: The Female Titan

As Eren studies with the Scout Regiment, he learns about two Titans that Hange has captured to study, affectionately named Sawney and Beane. However, an unknown traitor murders Sawney and Beane to prevent further research, escaping into the land outside the walls. In order to find out who could possibly be willing to collude with the Titans, everyone prepares for an expedition in pursuit of the truth about their core nature, which Eren believes lies dormant in the ruins of his home in Zhiganshina. Unfortunately, it isn't long after leaving the safety of Wall Rose that the Scout Regiment makes a startling discovery: a massive Female Titan, in hot pursuit to murder them all.

After she demonstrates indisputably human intelligence, the Scout Regiment realizes that she must be a human with transformative powers just like Eren, who she seems to be tracking down specifically, even choosing not to kill other targets. She pursues Eren's group into the forest, resulting in a grueling battle that kills a large number of soldiers while injuring many others. With a few clever traps, the Scouts are finally able to subdue the Female Titan, but she cocoons her weak spot in an organically generated crystal substance to protect her identity and her life. Mikasa and Levi attempt to wear the Female Titan down, but to no avail, and even Eren is no match for her in his Titan form, resulting in more casualties and her ultimate escape. Demoralized, battered, and ashamed of their defeat, the Scout Regiment returns to the city completely empty-handed.

While Eren languishes with his fate once again up in the air, Armin and Mikasa have their own suspicions about the Female Titan's true identity. With Armin's help, the other members of the 104th training division construct a plan to lure the Female Titan out of hiding, under the guise of liberating Eren from internment. As it turns out, the culprit is none other than their fellow cadet Annie Leonheart, who confesses but reveals no more information before frantically battling with Eren and the others. As the Female Titan, she wreaks havoc on the capitol behind Wall Sina, but the cadets are able to hold her off long enough for Eren to take her down in Titan form. As he hesitates to land the killing blow, Annie encases her body in organic crystal, forcing the army to take her into custody with no way to interrogate her. The first season ends on a note of uncertainty, as it becomes impossible to ignore that other humans who can transform into Titans have infiltrated the army, and unlike Eren, they are not on humanity's side. The final shot of the season shows a chunk of stone from one of the Walls crumbling away, revealing the uncanny visage of a Titan sleeping inside the structure. There truly is nowhere safe to hide anymore, with the reveal that Titans not only live inside the Walls, they also live inside the Walls.

Act 5: The Beast Titan

Attack on Titan's second season picks up exactly where the first season left off. Hange Zoë interrogates Pastor Nick of the Wall Cult to figure out what exactly Titans are doing buried in the city's walls, but before any progress can be made on that front, the 104th Cadets are caught in the middle of another crisis: Wall Rose has apparently been breached, and Titans are lumbering their way southwards. Everyone scrambles to inform nearby villages to evacuate, but the unfortunate Miche Zackarius has a fatal encounter with the Titans’ newest foe, a hairy goliath that seems more cunning and intelligent than any Titan we've met before.

Following the arrival of the new batch of Titans, Eren, Armin, Mikasa, Levi and Hange are try to work out the Wall Cult conspiracy while the other cadets fight simply to survive. Sasha barely makes it out of her old hometown alive after a terrifying one-on-one encounter with a Titan, and Conny comes to his own hometown, Rakago, to find it destroyed. His family's house has been crushed underneath the weight of a Titan, who Conny can't help but find eerily familiar looking; later in the season, the Titan speaks to Conny, and we discover that the creature looks like a Titan-ified version of his own mother, which forces our heroes to yet again ask the question that has been haunting them their whole lives: Where do the Titans come from?

Act 6: Krista and Ymir

As the surviving Cadets regroup and search for the breach along Wall Rose, we get to see more of some of the characters who've only been background players so far, with two standouts being Krista and Ymir. These girls have a fairly complicated histories that are both deeply tied to the larger universe of Attack on Titan. These secrets are revealed through multiple flashback scenes and episodes throughout season two, but I will try and lay it out in (mostly) chronological order:

A long time ago, Ymir lived in a country far away, and was worshipped by a cult there. When the cult members were caught and punished by the authorities, they (including Ymir) were injected with a mysterious chemical and thrown into the wilderness (this will be very important later). Years later, Ymir and Krista meet as cadets during a brutal winter-training exercise, and they end up growing very close. Ymir also knows Krista's greatest secret, that she's actually the member of a noble family whose real name is Historia Reiss. In the bitter winter frost, the two girls vow to support and protect each other as cadets.

Back in the present day, Ymir and Krista wind up trapped in a crumbling old castle after failing to find any breach in Wall Rose. Without warning, the Beast Titan arrives with a small army of Titans to attack them, and while the Cadets fight bravely, it doesn't take long for them to be backed into a corner with no way out. Valuing Krista's life more than anything else, she sheds her blood and leaps of the Battlement, revealing her own dark secret: The injection she received as a child turned her into Titan capable of shifting back into human form, just like Annie and Eren. She originally spent 60 years mindlessly wandering the land as a Titan, but she eventually regained her humanity, and now she's hellbent on using her Titan powers to protect the woman  she loves.

Act 7: Bertholdt and Reiner

Unfortunately, Krista and Ymir aren't the only ones with secrets. After spending most of Season 2 seperated from everyone else, Eren, Armin, and Mikasa finally reunite with their fellow cadets after the battle at Castle Utgard. Their peaceful reunion is short-lived, however, because Eren's group harbor some suspicions regarding their friends. Pastor Nick already warned Hange that Krista was the key to the secret of the Wall Titans, and the lack of a breach in Wall Rose would only further suggest that there are yet more Titan traitors living among the humans. Unlike the prolong arc that preceded Annie's reveal, however, we learn within the span of a single episode that Bertholdt and Reiner are also Titan Shifters.

What's more, Reiner reveals this information himself, meaning that these two were part of the attack that killed Eren's mother at the very beginning of Attack on Titan. Reiner pleads with Eren to join them and stop the bloodshed, but Eren naturally doesn't take this very well, answering instead by transforming himself and engaging Reiner in an epic Titan-on-Titan brawl. 

While Eren puts on a brave fight, Bertholdt and Reiner end up gaining the advantage, absconding with both him and Ymir. Eren is immobilized as he recovers from the debilitating injuries he took in the fight against Reiner, and Ymir is unwilling to make any moves against their captors until she has an advantage on them. They take up hiding in a nearby forest while Mikasa, Armin, Hange, and the others plan a rescue mission.

Though Bertholdt and Reiner harbor some fear of Ymir (she ate one of their companions many years ago when she was still trapped in her Titan form), they being to slowly draw her to their side by offering a safe haven for both her and Krista. Though Ymir suspects Bertholdt and Reiner's many years of duplicity have left them mentally scarred and a little unstable, she agrees to help them take Eren back to their homeland.

Act 8: Rescue and Revelation

As Bertholdt, Reiner, and Ymir make their escape with Erin, the rest of the Cadets come charging after them, despite the many Titans swarming the outskirts beyond the forest. It is a vicious, bloody battle; Erwin Smith loses an arm to a Titan after offering himself up as a distraction, Hannes is killed, and many other Scouts are crushed or eaten as they fight their way to Erin. While Mikasa manages to rescue Erin, they end up confronting the same Smiling Titan that killed Erin's mother years ago.

Believing their deaths to be inevitable, Mikasa finally confesses her love for Erin, but the surge of emotion unlocks a new ability within Erin: He can control Titans. He uses this gift to force the other Titans to kill the Smiling Titan, and then he uses his power to ensure a victory for his friends, though Bertholdt, Reiner, and Ymir end up escaping in the process. Even though Erin and the others have survived yet another vicious battle, dark tidings loom on the horizon. Hange and Conny confirm with Commander Pyxis that the Titan invasion originated not from outside the walls, but within the town of Rakago, meaning that no how many walls they build, humanity can never be truly safe from a Titan invasion. Far away, the apparent mastermind behind these events emerges from within the Beast Titan, promising even more wickedness to come for our heroes…

Act 9: “A Princess, a Killer, and a Titan walk into a bar…”

At the beginning of Season 3, Levi Squad is camping out to recuperate and support Eren, who is struggling to master his ability to harden in Titan form, which is how Hange plans finally seal the hole in Wall Maria. Also there is the former Krista, who has now fully adopted her birth name of Historia, and she's having her own troubles reckoning with the events of Season 2. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing in the districts: Pastor Nick is brutally killed, and initially the incident is written off as a one-off murder, but Hange and Levi discover that it's merely the first act of bloodletting in a vast conspiracy being perpetrated by the Military Police themselves. The government has seemingly become determined to purge any knowledge of either Historia's noble lineage or the secrets of the Titans they've been keeping from the public, and they are willing to use their influence on the military to kill anyone who might compromise their goals.

Before the military can execute their raid on Levi Squad, though, our heroes flee into the city and execute a clever gambit to evade their captors. They almost manage to pull it off, too, until Levi learns that there's another team on the squad's tail. They're a gang of expert marksman who have modified the military's traditional omni-directional mobility gear to function with their guns instead of blades. Their in the business of killing humans, not Titans, and they're being lead by the infamous killer known as Kenny the Ripper, who shares a bloody history with none other than Levi himself.

Kenny and his crew make off with Eren and Historia, who are taken to the latter's father, Rod Reiss. Eren is fully a prisoner, but Historia is surprised to find her dear old dad to welcome her back with open arms. Their complicated relationship forms the backbone of this entire arc of the story, and this is where Attack on Titan decides to drop a whole mess of bombshells all at once, and they all have major ramifications for the show's characters and plot. For one thing, our heroes discover that King Fritz is little more than a puppet, and Rod Reiss is the true heir to the throne, which would make Historia the next in line to rule the kingdom. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Act 10: The Princess' Story

Historia's life had always been marked by misery and solitude, we learn. Her mother, Alma, was a former servant of Rod Reiss' who was essentially banished to the countryside after giving birth to Historia. Alma's resentment towards her own daughter manifested in equal parts disdain and rage. The first physical and emotional connection Alma ever made with her young daughter was to shove her to the ground and bloody her nose, and the poor girl was convinced that such abuse was the only kind of love she could ever feel.

There was one girl, though, named Frieda, who would come to Historia's ranch and read with her and speak to her, loving her in the way that Historia never thought possible. After Reiss had Alma killed, Historia was renamed Krista and sent away for good, and she forgot Frieda's existence entirely until reuniting with her father. This was no accident, either, because Frieda had the power to alter people's memories in whatever way she wished.

This magical power is a kind inherited by members of the true royal bloodline, who transfer their talents across generations along with the ability to assume the form of Titans. Below the ruins of a family cathedral, Rod escorts Historia and Eren both to a gigantic crystal cavern, where the Reiss clan has held its Titan rituals for generations.

In order for the powers to be carried from one host to the other, however, the royal successor must consume the titan form of their predecessor. Literally: Rod has a dose of the serum that is used to transform humans into Titans, which has long been kept secret, and Historia is meant to use it to become the kind of monster that can eat whomever carries the power of the royal bloodline. This is why Eren has been kidnapped along with Historia: He has come to possess the power of the Founding Titan because of machinations of his father, Grisha Yeager, and Rod intends for Historia to take back her birthright by force.

Act 11: The Killers' Story

Meanwhile, Levi and the rest of the squad are on the run from the law, trying to reckon with the knowledge that the monarchy they've sworn to protect is a corrupt sham that will sacrifice the people on the altar of its own self-preservation. Knowing that they cannot possibly rescue Eren and Historia with an entire nation hunting them down, Levi teams up with Commander Erwin and General Pyxis to concoct a nearly suicidal gambit: Unite the citizens, overthrow “King” Fitz regime, and install Hisotorita as the new, legitimate Queen. Through feats of daring and subterfuge, the team actually manages to pull it off, and the the military leaders allied with Levi and Erwin take charge while Levi our heroes at last race off to rescue their friends from Rod Reiss.

Levi has some family ties to grapple with too, though. As it turns out, he and Kenny share the same family name, which also happens to belong to a certain red-scarfed girl we know: Ackerman. A series of flashback reveal that there exist entire cities buried deep below the earth, filled with people, and young Levi Ackerman lived there with his destitute mother, Kuchel, until she wasted away from disease. Kenny found the starving orphan and raised him to become a cold-blooded killer like him, which is the only way to survive in the harsh world of the Underground.

The Ackermans aren't just random killers - their entire lineage is inextricably linked to the royal family. Before falling out of favor with the nobility, they served as knights and protectors for generations,. It's even implied that the Ackerman bloodline has been imbued with superhuman strength and reflexes, which would explain Mikasa, Levi, and Kenny's ferocity on the battlefield. Eventually, Kenny found himself in the good graces of Rod Reiss' younger brother, Uri, who almost killed Kenny in his Titan form. Their partnership would span decades, and Kenny would come to be a trusted confidant of the would-be king, and the soldiers that served Uri would go on to form the ranks of his gang.

Years later, Uri would kneel in a familiar crystal cavern, and he was meant to be devoured by Frieda, though Eren's father had other plans. This is what has led Kenny and his troops to in the present day and defend Rod and Historia, as the latter tries to decide if she wants her father's love and power, and whether she's willing to kill Eren for it.

Act 12: The Titans' Story

The good news is that Historia is not at all in favor of having to murder her friends, so she slaps some sense into a despondent Eren to the Titan out of him once again. As Levi Squad assaults the cavern and takes out Kenny's gang, Rod Reiss is left alone with the last drops of the Titan serum and a fatal amount of desperation. He ingests the serum himself and becomes an impossibly huge Titan that threatens to crush everyone in the cave alive. Eren finally musters up the will to transform and harden his Titan body in order to protect all of his friends, while the Reiss Titan slithers away to the nearby Orvud District.

Our heroes escape, and they broach the succession plan to Historia while simultaneously scrambling to defend Orvud from the encroaching behemoth that will undoubtedly destroy them all if it isn't put down immediately. Historia agrees, and she even manages to strike the killing blow in the battle the creature that used to be her father. This stunning victory is the perfect piece of myth making that Historia needs to win the favor of the people and take her rightful place as Queen. With peace finally restored, Eren and the others can go about their original mission of sealing the hole in the Wall for good.

In the aftermath of Historia's rise to power, Eren finds clues to his father's true intentions when he seeks out his former drill instructor, Keith Shadis. Shadis knew Grisha from the very beginning, revealing how Eren's father came to the kingdom as an amnesiac, and that it took years for Grisha to build his life as a well-respected doctor with Carla, Eren, and Mikasa. Sometime between then and the breach of Wall Maria, though, Grisha discovered the secrets of the Titans and the Reiss clan; when Carla was killed in the Titan attack, he stole the power of the Founding Titan and killed all of the Reisses save for Rod, and then purposefully injected Eren with the serum in order to keep it out of enemy hands.

When Levi retrieves another intact vial of Titan serum from a mortally wounded Kenny, he establishes a new objective alongside repairing Wall Maria: To investigate the secrets that lie in the basement of the Yaeger home. The enemy Titans loom on the horizon, and now that the Reiss, Ackerman, and Yaeger bloodlines are so violently entangled with both sides of this war, there's no telling what explosive battles lie ahead…

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