Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 39 of
Attack on Titan (TV 3/2018) ?
Something I've come to really love about Attack on Titan is how it seems to constantly be reinventing itself, taking its interesting original kernel of a premise, where humankind must fend off a race of terrifying and mysterious giants, and then constantly stretching and distorting it into something that becomes much more complex and challenging with each new arc. The first season ended by complicating its relatively straightforward horror story by raising some serious questions about the Titans' true motivations, and the second season ran with those misgivings until it was as much of a gothic phantasmagoria as it was a war fable, peeling back the grandiose idealism that drives all war propaganda and giving both its audience and its heroes all the chaos of the messy viscera that awaits them on the battlefield.
This second episode of Attack on Titan's third season is simply titled “Pain”, and I struggle to think of a more fitting title, as Attack on Titan undergoes what may be its most painful and difficult transformation yet. The message that Levi relayed to Mikasa just before being ambushed by Kenny's crew sums it up: from here on out, our heroes will be fighting humans as well as Titans. But just like before, to hesitate in meeting their human foes with deadly force is to give themselves a death sentence. It's a funny thought at first, to realize that after all of the bloodshed and betrayal that Eren and company have suffered over the years, none of the Scouts have ever truly had to reckon with shedding human blood. It's true that they've fought former allies in Annie, Ymir, Bertholdt, and Reiner, but the discovery of their Titan identities forced them into the position of the “other”, an inhuman and monstrous enemy by default. Kenny and the special ops hunting down Levi Squad are different. They're regular old flesh and blood, as Armin notes. They're not separated by some any easy-to-rationalize difference in physiology. They just want different things and serve different masters. As a result of their disagreement, someone from one side or the other must die when they clash.
For the audience, this is something of a tragically obvious observation, but the next question that must be asked is whether or not this ideological schism justifies all the killing and destruction that tends to follow in war. This is exactly where the Levi Squad find themselves after failing to rescue Eren and Historia, especially Armin, who was the one to kill one of Kenny's goons after she drew a gun on Jean. In last season's finale, we saw how much humanity Armin was willing to cast aside to rescue Eren from the Titans, and here we see him slip even further from his former innocence, having to grapple with the cost of taking a woman's life to ensure his friend's survival. Levi is obviously much more used to making such choices, so he gives him the typical commander speechifying that you might expect. "If it weren't for Armin, Jean wouldn't be here; it isn't about right or wrong, it's about the choices you make to survive", etc. However, Armin still seems troubled.
Things get worse when the torture begins. Levi and Hange leverage Dimo Reeves' cooperation and manage to kidnap the men from the Military Police who were responsible for killing Pastor Nick. Levi and Hange are more than willing to tear the men apart slowly, with Armin and the others listening to their screams. When Levi and Hange finally get the MPs to crack, it isn't through physical violence, but psychological torment. They feed lines of betrayal through the mouth of one officer to prey on the fanatical devotion of another, and in just minutes they have the information they need: Eren and Historia have been taken by Lord Reiss because Historia is the true heir to the throne and, as Hange suspects, the nobles mean to eat Eren.
It's a grim situation for our heroes to be stuck in, and though I was initially troubled to see the show fall back on torture as a simple fix for Levi Squad's immediate problems, AoT makes sure to balance its perspective with Armin and the other cadets. In one of the most frank and heartbreaking beats Attack on Titan has yet delivered, Armin states almost matter-of-fact: “We aren't good people anymore.” I've seen many complaints from manga readers about this arc being especially weak compared to the material surrounding it, but I have to give Attack on Titan credit for continuing to engage with its world and its characters in increasingly thoughtful and challenging ways.
Lest you think that “Pain” is all about dark portents and heavy philosophizing, rest assured that the the crew at Wit Studio have gone out of their way to provide some truly rollicking action scenes, with some cuts of animation counting among the most impressive work we've ever seen from AoT. Levi's harrowing escape from Kenny's death squad is an exquisite piece of work, capturing the captain's desperate aerial maneuvers with fluid and dynamic aplomb. The way he and the camera careen around corners and through the scenery is just absurdly impressive, and Levi manages to work in some truly killer moves too. At one point, he quickly reverses and then snap-backs his own hooks for a speedy retreat maneuver, and later in the episode he actually grapples straight through the skull of a gunman. But my favorite beat of this entire sequence is probably the standoff between Kenny and Levi at the bar. Between Kenny's cowboy shtick and Levi's measured dialogue with the madman, the whole Western pastiche was spot on, with the best detail being how Levi used a bottle's reflection to nab a quick shot at the murderer before flying off.
So while I'm still prepared for a potential drop-off in quality from this arc, I'm happy to see that Attack on Titan is still capable of telling a nuanced and thoroughly compelling tale even beyond its appeal as pure spectacle. This is a story about soldiers and monsters that knows how sharp and uncomfortably thin the line between those two can be, especially when the soldiers are being manipulated by the government they've sworn their lives to protect. It's a story that understands the ugly and terrible truths that children are forced to reckon with when they learn that the enemy on the other side of the battlefield might be less of a threat than the monsters hiding in plain sight at home.
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