Attack on Titan The Final Season
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Attack on Titan The Final Season ?
“We killed any hope for peace, but we had no choice.”
Given the blitz of destruction and trauma Attack on Titan delivered with its extended assault on Marley, it makes perfect sense for the story to pause so that we (and the characters) can have a small moment of reprise and reflection. Also, now that we're at the season's midway point, this is the opportune time for AoT to finally explain what exactly went down during the three years that passed between the Scouts arrival at Paradis' ocean shore and now. “Brave Volunteers” kills two birds with one stone in that regard, offering valuable insight into just how the Scouts made such an effective and terrifying transformation into the tactical force of guerilla warfare that we saw reign hell down on Marley these last few weeks.
When it comes to narrative revelations and the like, what we learn is quite simple and straightforward on paper: Three years ago, when Eren and the Scouts were still trying to figure out the next phase of their Marley attack plan, one of Marley's own scout ships arrives on Paradis' shore. After a brief standoff, we see Yelena and Onyakopon shoot their commanding Marleyan officer dead and offer a truce to the Paradisans. After explaining that they are survivors of nations that Marley has already conquered, the two defectors also reveal that they are explicitly working under orders of Zeke Jaeger himself. Once the crew of the remaining two scout ships have been taken prisoner, the elder Jaeger's plan is set into motion: Supply the Paridisans with all of the weapons, intel, and training they might need in order to launch an assault on Marley and retrieve him. His plan requires the blood of a Titan with royal lineage, which Zeke himself possesses, along with the power of the Founding Titan. In order to learn the full scope of Zeke's plan, though, the Paridisans will need to act on the Anti-Marleyan Volunteer's supposed good faith.
So, that explains what the Paridisan Scouts have been up to, and how they all managed to obtain and master the use of Marley's relatively high-tech weaponry and vehicles. The expository nature of the plot works in AoT's favor, though; for one, it's information that we needed to get at some point, and the way the flashbacks are intercut with the Scouts' grim return to Paradis allows the show to reckon with the emotional fallout of the attack in a truly effective way. It is framed as a conversation between Armin and an unknown party, and he is clearly shaken by everything he has seen and done. He cradles the conch shell he retrieved from the ocean that day like it is the last fragile remnant of the boy he used to be, and in a way, I suppose it is.
He says, at one point, “It was fun, back then.” When the young Scouts were discovering new weapons and skills, they were also being given the opportunity to scare the Marleyans with their Titan powers, and to maybe even revel a bit in getting to live up to the Eldians' own monstrous reputations. It was easier to buy into the righteous and adventurous spirit of their mission. Now, with Sasha dead, and Eren falling further and further away from the rest of them, there's little glory left to be had, and the reality of what it means to take the fight to Marley is settling in. With Marleyan allies like Yelena, Onyakopon, and Nicolo around, it is harder to argue that everyone across the sea is their enemy, and Armin confesses that the world is more complicated and nuanced than ever, that he wants to celebrate the diversity of people and spirit that the Paridisans have discovered. He wants to try and make peace.
That's the throughline that makes “Brave Volunteers” such a chilling episode to watch, even though there is more humor and lightheartedness in this episode than we've seen pretty much all season. Like the bit where Hange's accosts the Marleyan scouts with their “shitty skit” (Levi's words, not mine) and nearly flips the hell out at the mere notion of flight technology; or the way Levi insults Zeke in the present day by presenting him with the forests of Paradis as his assigned “hotel”; or Sasha's perfectly deranged reaction to eating seafood for the first time. I laughed more this week than I ever expected too with an episode of Attack on Titan: The Final Season, but it is still impossible to escape the darkness that is falling over the island of Paradis the whole time.
When Sasha dies, Nicolo comes to visit her grave. She loved his food more than anyone, and he simply wanted to grieve and pay his respects, but a local Eldian beats him terribly simply for being a Marleyan. After spending three full years with these new Marleyan allies, Armin can barely reckon with the horrors he inflicted when he transformed in the harbor. As Eren robotically devotes himself to his training, Armin and Mikasa both make reluctant calls to peace. Not everyone in Marley hates them, and the Scouts have all now seen that it is possible to live in harmony. They just need time, the opportunity to reach out, and the perspective to realize that should the Eldians go through with Zeke and Eren's plan, they really will become the devils that Marley believes them to be.
Eren is unmoved. He acknowledges the truth of what Armin is saying completely, but counters that they all are devils that can assume a monstrous form, and it is clear that he has no intention of letting Marley's blood debt go unpaid with such power at their disposal. The only path forward that Eren can see is to fight, and when it is revealed that Armin has been confiding in a still crystalized Annie, it seems like he can't see a way out, either. He tells her: “I can't help but think: Could there have been some other path?" Perhaps there was, back when Armin and his friends first found that shell, lying among so many others on shore, and the world still seemed impossibly big. Back when there was still hope for a victory that didn't require so many people to lose their lives, or their souls.
Now, though? Armin might not have gleaned any useful tactical information when he inherited Bertholdt's memories, but he empathizes with his old friends better now than ever. He now knows what it is like to be dragged by someone you used to trust into a conflict that was borne out of blood and terror and fear, and he knows exactly what comes after that. Whatever chance they had for peace is dead now, just as it was when the walls first fell, and there wasn't any choice to be had in the matter. Right?
As Eren glares at his own reflection, haunted and all too willing to become the devil that Marley needs him to be, his refusal to stay or slow his hand has me thinking of one of my favorite lines of poetry, from Margaret Atwood's “Half-Hanged Mary”. It's about an American woman from the seventeenth century who was hanged for allegedly practicing the dark arts in her Puritanical town, though she survived the execution and lived another fourteen years in spite of her neighbor's best efforts. Atwood writes from Mary's perspective, having just plucked the noose from her own swollen neck: “Before I was not a witch./Now, I am one.” Replace “witch” with “devil”, there, and yes, I think Eren would understand completely. Gabi would too, I think, as she sits in her cell with Falco and obsesses over the man who took everything from her. Perhaps now the question that Armin should be asking is which is to be feared more? The monster that his best friend has become? Or the ones that Eren will leave behind in his wake?
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