Attack on Titan The Final Season
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Attack on Titan The Final Season ?
“For some reason, I can't help but think: That old man, I think what he wanted…was to be judged by someone.”
That is what Bertholdt thought of the old man that he, Annie, and Reiner saw kill himself in the village all those years ago, and it is the chief thought on Reiner's mind when he confronts Eren in the basement that lies within earshot of Willy Tybur's call to arms. When Falco realizes that this is not the reunion of old friends that Mr. Kruger promised him it would be, he tries to take his leave, but Reiner, at Eren's insistence, bids him to stay. He wants Falco to see this through to the end, too.
Outside, as Marley's allies, citizens, and subjugated Eldian soldiers watch in rapt attention, Willy puts on a show to be remembered. He begins by detailing the history of the Eldians, the Great Titan War, and the victory of Helos that they all know so well, and the macabre propaganda plays like gangbusters. The basement brims with an almost unbearable amount of tension; Eren sits, stoic and almost dead-eyed, while Reiner is obviously cracking under the pressure of reliving all of his greatest traumas and regrets. Willy decries the Eldian race and their savagery as “the darkest blot on humanity's history.” Eren asks, with traces of biting venom and genuine empathy brimming in his voice: “You hear that, Reiner? Isn't that why you destroyed the wall?”
Then, when Willy finishes his recounting of the history that everyone knows, he goes on to share what the world doesn't know about Marley and the Eldians, and that is that there wasn't ever any Helos, nor a paradigm-shifting victory hard-won by the Marleyan people. According to Willy, when his family inherited the memories of the Hammer Titan, they discovered that it was King Fritz and the Tyburs who sought to end the infighting and destructive ways of their own people. Fritz acknowledged the weight of the Eldian Empire's crimes, used his Titan powers to pass on a vow of nonviolence along through his bloodline, and then sought to seek peace and atonement in exile on Paradis Island. The longstanding sham of a peace-secured Marleyan rule came to an end, however, when the power of the Founding Titan was stolen. And thus, this new war on Paradis must be fought, Willy argues, in order to stave off the apocalyptic threat of Eren Yeager, who is sitting now in this basement with his leg mending nicely, close enough to hear every word of this speech, while his allies make their moves on the nearby Titan soldiers, and Reiner has to sit and stew in Eren's devastatingly simple question.
Yes, Reiner's unit was made up of children who were born and raised in a society driven by the same propaganda that Willy just finished tearing down, and yes, they were meant to believe that their mission was a truly just and necessary one. We've since learned that the powers-that-be in Marley consider the power of the Founding Titan to be necessary to win their wars and maintain the borders of their vast political ambition, but in a fascist state, the borders and military and might of the machine of its empire are the world, and the only things worth saving. So, when Reiner, Annie, and Bertholdt brought down the walls and triggered the entire chain of events that led Eren to this very spot, on this very moment, his hand soaked with blood and his eyes turned dull with a truly terrifying sense of resigned duty — you could argue that all of that was brought into motion because a few kids wanted to save the world.
There are so many things that I can (and eventually will have to) say about Attack on Titan's always complicated and uneasy relationship with allegory, and the cultures and conflicts it has been clearly alluding to in order to make those allegorical parallels. There's the obvious connection to the Jewish peoples' history as victims of discrimination, political scapegoating, and genocide, of course, and someday I'm sure the show is going finally break me when I have to somehow reckon with whether Attack on Titan was able to justify its appropriation of all that sad and bloody history. That said, “Declaration of War” is a perfect reminder that, whether it be through intent or happenstance, Attack on Titan has made it impossible to stick with only the most obvious interpretations of this story.
As we see in the events to come, you could easily read the Eldians as a nationalistic Japan of WWII, beaten down and forced into decades of armistice, only to have the fervor of militaristic pride begin to bubble uncontrollably. Or perhaps the Eldians are meant to simply be metaphors for all of humanity at once: equally capable of subjugation and righteous retaliation, with their violence aimed at their enemies and themselves in equal measure. It's tricky, and I'm not comfortable making definitive statements one way or the other on what I think AoT is trying to say, especially considering that there is still so much of this story left to play out.
Whether we are to believe Willy's new version of history as being any more concretely true than Marley's is also hard to know at this point, and I continue to be both curious and wary of how the show is basically framing the Eldians as the villains and victims of their own story. I'm holding out faith in the show's intentions, however, especially given how episodes like these do such a fine job of utterly laying bare the broken foundations of nationalistic ideologies, particularly fascism. Reiner and Eren's journeys reveal fascism for what it is: A murderous and self-defeating parody of the society it pretends to care about. Fascists seek to cast the most powerful and terrifying projections of themselves onto their friends and enemies alike, but at the end of the day, their work is built on the backs of hateful fools and broken children, spurred on by men with impotent egos and a crippling lack of imagination. The violence they cause may wreak havoc for untold years to come, but their legacies remain as flimsy and fleeting as shadows cast upon the wall of a stage.
Attack on Titan, to this point, has not peddled or glorified fascism, though I do think it has always attempted to understand it, and to weigh the inevitable costs of such a poisonous movement on the adults — and most importantly, the children — who might be suckered into dying for a fascist or nationalist cause. It asks us to seriously empathize with men like Reiner, who has done objectively deplorable things for the sake of a country that would not even regard him as human, though now he has been reduced to a crumbling wreck before his old friend. Reiner falls to the ground and begs Eren to kill him, because he wants to die, and because he knows that the storm of hellfire that Willy is out there prophesying is coming for them; it's already here, in fact, and standing on two good legs again. He knows that thousands upon thousands of people, many of whom Eren openly acknowledges are completely innocent, are going to die the horrible and terrible deaths that Eren promised him four years ago, and Reiner can't even say that it was because he wanted to save the world. He was just a selfish little boy that didn't want to die a failure.
That's why the walls came down. That's why Eren's mother died. And that's why Eren rises from his seat to take Reiner's hand and kick-start the war that Willy has gone through so much trouble to sell to Marley and its allies. Even if Eren's disguise hadn't made him so hard to recognize, he no longer even seems to be brimming with the raw and unquenchable rage that used to define him so clearly, and I would believe you if you told me he'd completely forgiven Reiner. He tells Reiner that he truly feels like they are the same, born into lives they never could have escaped, both of them unable – and unwilling – to stop their inexorable movement forward. The sparks fly from Eren's palm, the Attack Titan bursts forth from underneath the earth, and Willy Tybur's stage is consumed by blood and chaos.
There aren't any heroes or villains anymore in Attack on Titan. Neither Reiner, nor Eren, nor anyone else that we've met in this series are the ones who built up the pillars of hatred and conflict that have held their world aloft for so long. They didn't choose to be born as “devils”, and they didn't choose to get drafted into this never-ending Titan War. Still, all those years ago, Reiner Braun knocked down a wall, and let the monsters into Eren's life. If Reiner didn't understand the old man that hung from the tree that day, he surely does now. The Devil has finally come home to roost in Marley, and he will not stop until all of his enemies have been judged, once and for all.
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