Attack on Titan
Episode 32

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 32 of
Attack on Titan (TV 2/2017) ?

I really feel like I'm running out of ways to describe just how good Attack on Titan has been this year. I've awarded more A grades to this one season than I have any other series I've reviewed at this point, but the series just won't let its foot off the damn pedal. I thought season one of AoT was good-but-not-great, but it seems like every new episode of this 2017 cour is determined to usurp its predecessor at being Peak Anime Entertainment. Not only that, but each new “Best Episode of AoT Ever” tops itself in entirely different ways. We've had thrilling games of cat-and-mouse, grueling detours into gothic horror, and last week was a complex and thoughtful peek at the way war desensitizes and dehumanizes the soldiers who are thrown into the front lines. This latest episode might just take the cake from all of those other victories, though.

A little context might be needed for why this particular episode, probably the simplest of the season, resonated so much with me. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with professional wrestling. The high-flying theatrics, the over-the-top drama, the villainous heel turns of my favorite wrestlers, and the grudge matches that decided who was truly the champion of champions – I ate that stuff up like candy. I mention this because Attack on Titan essentially gave us a twenty-minute grudge match between Eren and Reiner, and my god, it was glorious. Every earth-shattering suplex and stunning reversal between these two literal giants had me feeling like a kid again, when my dad and I would stay out all night at the Tacoma dome, watching people smash each other in the face with chairs while thousands of fans cheered.

So yeah, this might just have been a half-hour of Eren and Reiner beating the crap out of each other in Titan form, but the title of this episode is “Close Combat”. After last week's epic cliffhanger, the show had some pretty lofty expectations to overcome. The enmity between Eren and the Armored and Colossal Titans has been building from AoT's very first episode, and we finally get to see our hero take center stage to wreak some gloriously animated revenge for the first time. Wit Studio (with Production I.G's help) has always done strong work with AoT, though they clearly struggled to keep up the momentum of that quality for an entire 25-episode season the first time around. Not only is this shorter run more consistent, but this episode represents the best animation I've ever seen Attack on Titan produce. Everything about this bout is fluidly animated, expertly choreographed, and captured with creative and kinetic cinematography.

Even the CG is done well! This almost never happens in any television anime, but the studio managed to smooth out the rough patches from the Colossal Titan's CG model that was introduced last week. While the focus remained primarily on Eren and Reiner's confrontation, the detour the rest of the scouts took to tackle Bertholdt's colossal form was one of my favorite scenes. The soft cel-shading done on the Colossal Titan worked well to blend it in with the traditionally animated characters, and the fluid camera movement really highlighted the scale and urgency of the situation. If there has been a better example of CG integration in a television anime in recent memory, I can't think of it.

For all of this week's focus on delivering the most exciting fight the series has yet produced, there are some good character and story beats here too. Mikasa finally gets some time to shine, both in being the coolest human fighter as well as Eren's trusted ally. Even though she and Armin don't have any success taking down the two traitors, it was still nice to see the series' core trio working together again to tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem. The episode also uses flashbacks to the crew's time in training to remind us of the betrayal at the core of this conflict, that Reiner and Annie and Bertholdt aren't just turncoats, but trusted friends that now stand against everything Eren and the other humans are fighting for.

Or are they? Eren takes a moment to note how foolish it is that Annie and the other Titan hybrids took the time to teach their enemies how to fight, but I think that small moment of recognition is another key to understanding the ambiguity now flooding what was once a black-and-white conflict. In some way or another, Annie and Reiner and Betholdt cared enough about our heroes to work with them, learn with them, and help keep them alive all this time. The show is going so far to humanize the people we should be loathing the most; as Eren notes, the death of his mother and thousands of other innocent people can be directly traced to the actions of two young men he once considered friends. Still, the other soldiers (and the audience) must surely be questioning how immoral these guys really are. When Mikasa finds herself unable to dispatch Reiner and Bertholdt before they transform, it's because she sees them as humans, not as monsters. I'm sure the line between friend and foe will only become more blurry in the final stretch of the season.

If I had any bone to pick with this episode, I would argue that the extended flashback that leads us into the second act of the story slows down the momentum some, and cutting back and forth between the big fight and the flashbacks felt just a touch imbalanced at times. But that's small potatoes when you consider just how badass everything surrounding those flashbacks was. This episode had Eren put the Armored Titan in a judo hold and tear his arm off purely though the force of his bottomless rage. If the little James from decades ago was around to see just how cool cartoons would be in the future, he'd absolutely lose his mind. That alone guarantees this episode a comfortable spot on the Peak Anime throne.

Rating: A+

Attack on Titan is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

James may or may not have thrown his remote at the TV when this episode cut to “To be continued”. You can see if he survives the wait for next week by following him on Twitter.

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