Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 40 of
Attack on Titan (TV 3/2018) ?
Poor Historia. We've always known that she didn't have the most stable upbringing, but the extended flashback that serves as the central hook of “Old Story” shows that her wounds run deep and come from some very dark places. We begin with her recounting that until she was old enough to read and write, Historia didn't even realize that mothers were supposed to be attentive, caring, or loving at all. It wasn't until fictional stories about mothers and daughters showed her what her own life lacked that Historia could recognize that something wasn't right. With no father around and a mother who seemed content to ignore Historia's existence, the young girl simply had no frame of reference for a maternal relationship, and so Historia flings herself at her mother to see for herself how a hug could possibly feel. It's tragic enough that the woman tosses her daughter away with enough force to give her a nosebleed, but the real kicker comes when young Historia lights up in unrestrained glee, since she's ecstatic to have any manner of interaction with her mother at all.
Granted, Historia later has to watch as Kenny and his goons slit her mother's throat at Lord Reiss' behest, but I'd argue that this first failed familial connection does the best job of telling the audience what kind of trauma has shaped her worldview. Much of the Reiss family flashback is about filling in the gaps of a story the audience has been able to mostly piece together by now. Historia was the product of an ill-fated affair between Reiss and one of his servants, and for political reasons Reiss needed Historia's mother permanently silenced after the Wall fell; only on her father's emotional whims was Historia spared an ignoble death and instead cast off into anonymity as Christa Lenz. While her father is putting on a big emotive show for their reunion, it's telling that he's only come calling for her now that the Reiss family bloodline is in a position to be reinstated and a plan to eat Eren Yaeger can be put into action.
So the plan seems to be for another Titan under Reiss control to eat Eren, in order to transfer powers between the creatures; Ymir ate a shifting Titan and gained the ability to shift into human form herself. Thus, Eren and Hange both reason, the ultimate goal must be for the Nobles to steal Eren's ability to control Titans. It's a nebulous plan, and the particulars of this branch of the show's mythology have yet to be fully ironed out. This was the part of the episode I found the least interesting. For me, Eren's kidnapping matters because of how it will force Levi Squad to act, and for what it has to say about the increasingly desperate humans behind this plot; I'm not necessarily captivated by the more abstract rules governing Titan power transference at this point.
The rest of the kidnapping plot is mostly just played up for momentum's sake this week. Erwin is formally arrested for his fabricated role in the death of Dimo Reeves, and the Scouts are placed under Hange's command. Levi and the others are also slowly tracking Reiss, but they're becoming more and more hindered by their status as wanted fugitives. It's tense stuff, and I'm still glad to see the effects of such a monumental shift in status quo, but given that this “Old Story” is more interested in looking to the past than the future, it's not surprising that the present-day plot doesn't manage to thrill as much this week.
The biggest development is Erwin and Pyxis's growing plot to overthrow the King and place Historia on the throne, and even then, this episode frames it as more a tool of thematic intent than anything else. With the leadership so obviously corrupted, our protagonists are now having to directly confront their society's flaws in a manner that highlights Attack on Titan's political underpinnings. I'm not caught up on the manga, so I can't speculate much on where this political commentary could be going, but I can certainly understand how Attack on Titan's peculiar mix of visual and tonal allusions to empires and campaigns of nations past could inspire a certain level of wariness amongst viewers.
That being said, I think the show has gone out of its way to complicate the simpler perspective it began with years ago. Season 2 really zeroed in on the ambiguities that complicate our definitions of “Ally” and “Enemy”, and this season really seems to be digging into the darker consequences of surviving in a state controlled by the military and run by an aristocratic monarchy. Erwin's flashback caps off this episode, relating the sad death of his father, a history teacher who made the mistake of expressing doubts about the inconsistencies and fabrications of government-approved history books that pointed toward a larger conspiracy. Erwin's father believed that the King and his servants had purposefully altered the population's memory so as to hide the truth of humanity's existence before the walls went up. This will no doubt have implications on the larger story going forward, but for now what really hits home is the image of a young boy standing at his father's grave. To this day, Erwin believes that his father was right, and that the tyrannical government's forces killed him to keep the truth from spreading.
Granted, Erwin is also fighting to simply replace the current monarch with one he likes better, so it's entirely possible that the story could go any number of ways from here thematically. With episodes like “Old Story”, Attack on Titan shows how well it can balance complex and nuanced storytelling with its usual forceful spectacle. Thank goodness this season still has plenty of weeks left to develop these threads and flesh out its message, and I imagine that we'll also get plenty of acrobatic ass-kicking to enjoy along with it.
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