Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 48 of
Attack on Titan (TV 3/2018) ?
After taking a week off due to Typhoon Trami, Attack on Titan returns with a time-skip and another flashback. It's been two months since Historia has taken over as Queen, and things are going relatively well for Eren and the rest of our heroes – Historia has taken to her role as a leader with aplomb, Eren's been able to master the Titan Hardening ability well enough to start patching the holes in the Walls, and Hange has developed her very own Executioner from Hell, a guillotine system that uses giant logs to smash the napes of Titan necks without risking a single soldier's life. The scouts are all recovering from the toll the past months have taken on them, and society is slowly beginning to rebuild itself as well. I still think the way the show has handled the reintroduction of the Underground society has been somewhat poor, especially for people like me who haven't had access to the OVAs, but if that's what's needed to keep the plot moving, then so be it.
I do appreciate how these opening scenes give us more time with Eren, Historia, and the others simply bonding with one another and reckoning with the changes on humanity's horizon. Mikasa is unfortunately given short shrift yet again, as even though she gets more lines here than she has all season, they once again revolve around coddling Eren. You'd think she would have something more personal to say given her recent discovery of family ties to both Levi and Kenny, but mum's the word so far. We do get some nice exchanges between the rest of the crew, so as far as this season's many table-setting episodes go, “Bystander” isn't half-bad.
Speaking of which, Eren's visions from the cavern lead him to the one man who might have had contact with his father on the day of Shingansina's fall, who turns out to be the old Cadet Corps commandant, Keith Sadies. When they track him down, they find a bitter and broken man who's more than willing to share his story. though it comes with a warning: he knows almost nothing about the truth behind Grisha Yager's actions, and his tale will ultimately be “useless”.
Keith isn't wrong, as far as his flashback contributes to the story's overall mythos. Outside of revealing Grisha's origin as an amnesiac from outside the walls and Keith's longstanding friendship/rivalry with him, we don't learn much we couldn't have figured out on our own. Grisha's identity was a mystery even to himself as far as Keith knows, but he was able to make his mark by becoming a doctor who helped as many people as he could. He met Eren's mother after saving her from the plague, sired his son, and eventually took his boy out into the forest to avenge Carla Jaeger's death and change Eren's life forever.
Instead of fleshing out Attack on Titan's lore or plot, Keith's flashback acts in parallel to Kenny's episode as a thematic infodump more than anything else. This episode is more effective than Kenny's too, because Keith is a more interesting character. He isn't just a bloodthirsty survivor who does terrible things for mundane reasons; he's an ambitious man who has been stifled by humanity's own inability to grow and move forward. After meeting Grisha, he desperately wants to believe that he really is “special”, that he has more hope for himself than the ignorant dumb yokels he paints all the people around him to be. Then, after years of failed missions and dead scouts have hardened his heart and crushed his ambition, Keith is forced to watch his friend, a man with no past and no prospects, become a beloved and respected hero, who marries the woman that Keith has clearly been pining after to boot.
This episode paints Keith as a man both profoundly arrogant and deeply ashamed of his own mediocrity, and it's an interesting story to tell on the heels of Eren's own confrontation with his supposed “lack” of specialness. Both Keith and Eren used their status as a soldier to bolster their anger and anchor their pride, convinced that they would be the “chosen one” to bring down the Titans once and for all. Their motives may have been different, since Eren was driven by revenge where Keith has only ever cared about his own ego, but the basic structure of their journeys was the same.
But the hard lesson that Eren has had to learn is that his specialness isn't some innate quality he was gifted with by virtue of his own exceptionalism – he just happened to be the son of a man with blood on his hands and plenty of secrets to keep, and when the world came crashing down, that man thrust the burden of his own actions onto Eren's shoulders, whether he wanted them or not. In the ongoing conversation about how we should be reading Attack on Titan's perspective on nationalism, I think it's fascinating that we're being presented with the story of a man who thought that he would become a great person simply by donning a uniform and climbing the ranks. If Eren's journey so far has proven anything, it's that his greatness is not measured by the power he has acquired, but by what he chooses to do with that power. There's obviously much more going on with Attack on Titan's use of historic military imagery, but I continue to suspect that the series is ultimately interested in rebuking the worship of military might for its own sake.
And that's where Attack on Titan leaves us this week, with Eren being told by Keith that his mother was never concerned with her son being exceptional or mighty or “great”. Given what he's gone though lately, I expect that it's immensely comforting for Eren to be told that all his mother ever cared about was Eren being able to live as himself, and that he was just so darn cute. It's a small comfort, but seeing as Bertholdt, Reiner, and the Beast Titan are on their way, Eren should be taking solace in whatever he can get to see him through the coming battle.
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