Attack on Titan Episode 38
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 38 of
Attack on Titan (TV 3/2018) ?
I have to say, it's wonderful to be able to cover a brand-new run of Attack on Titan just a year after wrapping up season 2, and since I've opted to stay as clueless to manga spoilers as possible, I was definitely shocked to see just how different this season feels right from the start of this 38th episode. The OP, which features music from the collaboration of legendary X Japan founder YOSHIKI and L'Arc-en-Ciel frontman Hyde, is a melancholy and almost eerie affair, standing in stark opposition to the famously bombastic openings of the first two seasons. The visuals focus on our world-weary heroes as they reflect on their younger and more innocent selves, and that contemplative tone is an apt primer for what we get in this season premiere. Eren and Historia (formerly Christa) are in hiding after nearly getting abducted by the Titans last season, and Levi has assembled a squad to protect them, consisting of Armin, Mikasa, Conny, Sasha, and Jean. This is the perfect crew to start the season off with in my opinion; not only have all of them proven themselves in the series' darker moments, but these kids have been building a rapport that allows the show to just let them just live with each other and provide solid entertainment. The episode begins with a harried Eren trying to clean house for Levi while Jean, Armin, and Sasha bicker with each other like old friends often do, and while I wasn't expecting season 3 to start off on such a calm and enjoyable note, I'm certainly glad we got it.
As far as the plot itself is concerned, we're actually doubling back to threads that have been left up in the air since the beginning of season 2. The discovery of the Titans within The Walls was the big cliffhanger image that ended the first season way back in 2014, but last year barely introduced Pastor Nick and the conspiracies churning within the city before getting caught up in the rest of that arc's more unrelated drama. Now Hange and Moblit are working with Eren to figure out how to utilize a Titan's hardening skill, but Eren is once again struggling to fully manifest his Titan form after repeated tests. The scene is largely played for laughs, hearkening back to Eren's early days struggling to master his powers with Hange. We even get one of the funniest gags of the entire series when Hange inadvertently pulls off Eren's entire face after yanking him out of his Titan, and their first instinct is to try and get Moblit to sketch the horrific results for the sake of Science™.
Hange and Moblit actually get more screentime in this episode than they've had in a long while, culminating in the pair's investigation of Pastor Nick's brutal murder. Hange is immediately suspicious when they notice that the First Interior Squad of the Military Police Brigade is handling what looks to be a burglary gone wrong all the way down in Trost, and through some intimidation on Moblit's part and some skilled sleuthing on Hange's, the pair is able to deduce that the Military Police were in fact the ones that murdered Nick, which points to a much larger conspiracy going on. I loved this sequence, both for how it fleshed out Hange and Moblit's dynamic as a pair and for the way it lent the whole episode a kind of mystery procedural vibe.
On Eren and crew's side of things, the situation is looking no less grim, though Attack on Titan once again shines in the way it balances thoughtful character writing with suspenseful and thrilling action. Eren and Historia get a moment together to reckon with how they've changed since the Titan spies revealed their identities and everything went to hell last season. Historia especially has retreated completely within herself, barely speaking and never smiling, with all traces of the friendly girl she used to be having vanished. In a show of maturity and subtle empathy, Eren admits that he respects this version of Historia more, since it is truer to how she really feels instead of just being the façade of a girl she thinks people want her to be. It's a quietly powerful exchange between people who have both learned to embrace the darker and more complicated emotional truths that lurk in the depths of their hearts.
Levi Squad's time for rest and reflection is cut short, however, when word comes of Erwin's arrest and a plot to kidnap Eren and Historia arises from somewhere within the government's higher ranks. Attack on Titan has been consumed with the immediate threat of the Titans for so long that it has only been able to hint at the corrupt institutions rotting humanity away from the inside, but that looks to be a subject season 3 will be focusing much more heavily on. When Levi Squad has Jean and Armin act as body doubles for Eren and Historia, their escape into Trost is framed within King Fritz's regular donation of rations to the citizens, a publicity stunt to cover up the noblemen's real goal of capturing Eren and Historia. One of these schemers just so happens to be Lord Reiss, the same nobleman who abandoned Historia to obscurity all those years ago.
This political scheming is understandably being played up as a long game, which makes sense given Attack on Titan's ever-increasing scope of storytelling, though I'll admit that I was beginning to wonder if this premiere was going to entirely abandon its trademark spectacle. To their credit, Mikasa, Sasha, and Conny manage to get the upper hand on the goons who are getting much too close to Armin for comfort, and even though this quick action beat was fluid and satisfying enough to make the episode feel complete, we only get the true Titan-style escalation of violence and chaos in “Smoke Signal”'s final moments. For much of the episode's second half, Levi had been wondering why the kidnappers would hire such hapless and obviously ineffectual men, but then he recognizes the trap for what it is, and we get our first glimpse of the cowboy-hat-clad psychopath known as Kenny the Ripper, a gloriously ridiculous man who wields maneuvering equipment outfitted with guns more suited to killing humans than Titans. Kenny comes with an equally bloodthirsty crew that murders some of Hange's companions while Kenny muses about the mysterious past he shares with Levi.
This kind of brutal melodrama is just as integral to Attack on Titans DNA as the mystery and wartime intrigue that kicked the season off, and it perfectly rounded out the experience for me. Kenny looks to be offering a specific kind of villainous humanity that Attack on Titan hasn't really committed to in the past, and I'm curious to see what he adds to the series' already complex web of character dynamics. Attack on Titan is back, and it doesn't seem to have missed a step in transitioning to this new story arc. The lives of Eren and his friends are going to become more and more twisted in the coming months.
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