Attack on Titan The Final Season
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 2 of
Attack on Titan The Final Season ?
"I, Falco Grice, hope to be freed from the evil blood of Ymir and my ancestors. I pledge my life to Marley! I would be proud to be an Honorary Marleyean, and be given the chance to display my loyalty to the motherland!"
From the moment I realized that at least part of this final season of Attack on Titan would shift its perspective to that of Marley, and particularly its and loyal Eldian soldiers, my number one question was how the show would handle the very delicate subject matter it has chosen to explore. I've already gone on for thousands of words in past reviews about the muddy and sometimes unclear allegory that AoT has been painting by using imagery and rhetoric that is so specifically tied to our understanding of the Holocaust, but “Midnight Train” also drives home the ways that AoT is twisting its allegories into something new, more complicated, and much harder to parse. The Eldians aren't simply victims of bigotry and historical revisionism; it seems like many of them genuinely buy into it their own devilish inhumanity, and are happy to serve as pariahs for the whims of the nation.
At least, they pretend to buy into it, or they lie to themselves long enough that it's impossible to tell the difference. Now, I have neither the time nor the cultural authority to break down all of the nuanced historical touchstones that this dynamic might relate to in the real world, so I'll have to append a permanent asterisk to every one of these reviews that reads, “I am making broad and well-intentioned analyses of AoT's themes based on my very limited knowledge of world history, so please feel free to correct or educate me on any points that I fail to address properly.” With that out of the way, it is the Eldian vs Eldian conflict that I have actually come to find the most fascinating about where AoT's story is headed, even if I have some very, very large reservations about its relationship to the real atrocities it is using as shorthand.
Take the three personalities that this episode revolves around: Gabi, Falco, and Reiner. Each of them represent an Eldian who is at a different stage of their self-actualization, and their relationship with the state that forces them to wear those armbands that ensure that nobody will ever see them as a “true” Marleyean. Gabi is the easiest to size up, at least for now: She's a completely enthusiastic warrior for her nation, one who has seemingly bought into all of the propaganda, and wants nothing more than to inherit her cousin Reiner's place as the Armored Titan. The train-ride back to the kids' hometown of Liberio is where the Eldian soldiers rally and holler in honor of this little girl, who demonstrated inarguable bravery in the face of impossible odds, such that even the Marleyean officials are willing to allow them just this one night of unapologetic humanity. In a fascist empire like Marley, there is no greater glory that an Eldian can aspire to than becoming a perfect tool of the military-industrial machine — and one with a very defined expiration-date, no less.
Falco is the one on the verge of turning against this system, taking the small chances that he is able to afford as a child soldier of the Marleyean Army to question his goals, his beliefs, and his path forward. It has been clear from the get-go that Falco doesn't possess the same natural skill for embodying the military spirit that Gabi does; not only that, but it doesn't look like he sees much sense in living that way at all. This is most obvious when he casually lets loose some biting remarks to Reiner about how willing the man is to see his young cousin commit to a life that will end tragically, one way or the other. Gabi will be either consumed and replaced by a new Warrior recruit when she turns 27, or she will be cut down on the battlefield. Reiner is quick to point out that even so much as questioning the glory of being selected as one of the Nine Titans is tantamount to treason, and Falco quickly snaps in to recite that pledge up there at the top of the review. His heart clearly isn't in it, too. It's a reflex, a fight-or-flight response borne out of a lifetime of fear, prejudice, and endless drilling.
Except, Reiner agrees that Gabi needs to be saved from this fate, and he insists that Falco must find a way to become the Armored Titan instead. Falco begins to wonder at this, whether Reiner has come around to believing that the Eldians deserve more than their current destinies, which all invariably conclude with them being pulverized in the meat grinder of Marley's imperial ambitions. The best scene in this entire episode is also the strangest, where Reiner's mother and uncle ask him to tell a little of what he experienced during the years he spent on Paradis Island. The monologue that Reiner gives is framed in ominous shadow, with a soft horror-movie score slowly building in the background, while the camera slowly racks in on the soldier's disturbed features. It's also so patently, hilariously deadpan that I simply have to reprint it here in full:
“Every last one of them was a savage, heartless devil. During their entrance ceremony, one of them started to eat a potato. The instructor yelled at them, but they hardly seemed to care. Said they stole it 'cuz it looked tasty. Realizing they crossed the line, they said they'd share half with him. But the piece of potato they offered wasn't even close to half. Being considerate doesn't even cross their minds. They're beyond all help. There was an idiot who forgot why he went to the bathroom...An insincere jerk who only thought about himself...An uptight oaf who only cared what others thought...A single-minded fool who charged ahead and the chumps who followed with him...There were all sorts of people there. And we were there too. My days were true hell.”
I've seen some fans express criticism at how this scene, which was apparently framed in a much more traditionally nostalgic light in the manga, is played up for black comedy under MAPPA's direction. I actually love this decision, because the very contrast of Reiner's words with how he is framing them is what highlights the fundamental absurdity of the propaganda he is trying to sell. Reiner is clearly describing friends, and fond memories, but he is attempting to repurpose them as further fuel for the anti-Eldian fire, and failing spectacularly. Is Reiner himself even aware of how clumsily the paradoxical halves of his identity are crashing into each other? Does his mother recoil because she detects some of the empathy that Reiner has clearly developed for Marley's enemies? Even Gabi is a little shaken, asking, “What do you mean, ‘All sorts of people’? They're bad people, right?”
I'm sure that the original framing of this moment made the context and responses to Reiner's speech easier to read, but it also makes total sense to have Reiner's entire perspective this way. Maybe he completely means it when he threatens to turn Falco's entire family in for questioning Marley's treatment of the Eldians; maybe he truly is haunted by the regret and confusion he feels about the bonds he forged – and subsequently shattered – with his former friends on Paradis Island. Both of those facts can live in increasingly violent disharmony within Reiner's heart. And just like Reiner's personal clash of conscience, it can be simultaneously true that individual soldiers such as Gabi are able to accomplish rousing feats of unambiguously admirable bravery, even when that bravery is in service to a demonstrably evil purpose. As Zeke, Porco Galliard, Pieck, Reiner, and the other inheritors of the Nine plan to retake Paradis Island and the Founding Titan for good, I'm sure we will learn that every one of them has a perfectly good reason to plan, and scheme, and fight for Marley. This will only make it that much more difficult to watch when those plans bear out as violent retribution on the heroes we have come to know and love over the years.
It used to be in Attack on Titan that war was about battling grotesque, inhuman monsters who existed purely to destroy and pillage our heroes' lives. Now, it is impossible to ignore that every one of those so-called monsters was once a father, or a mother, or a child to someone. Most of them never got a say in what they would become, or what they would go on to ruin. Even the Eldians who have retained their agency, such as Reiner, would likely argue that there was never much of “choice” for them, either. Like in our world, the real monstrous forces in Attack on Titan are bigger than any one decision, or any single evil man's will to power. They are systems of belief, blindly idolatrous machines that covet only their own power and ego, and they will fight tear apart whatever bodies and histories that stand in defiance of them. To break those machines down for good will require not just a single rebel, or even a small resistance, but an equally overwhelming force of unified bravery and strength.
Though it sure as hell wouldn't hurt to have a Titan or two on hand.
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