Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 51 of
Attack on Titan (TV 4/2019) ?
For the first half of “Thunder Spears”, I was a little worried. With the Titans simply standing stock still in their circular formation around Shiganshina, I knew that the battle was going to be a slow-burn, but I was still put off by how much this episode spent its first ten minutes indulging in the old “characters stand around giving detailed inner-monologues about their battle plans” routine. Granted, it's a pretty intense plan: Reiner has posted up in his Armored Titan form, ready to slaughter the Scouts' horses to prevent their escape, and the rest of the Titans will simply starve the other humans out until Eren is weak enough to kidnap. Erwin tasks Eren to play the bait in a risky ploy, luring Reiner away and giving the Scouts an opportunity to use Hange's newest secret weapon: the titular Thunder Spears.
While the plan itself has a lot of dramatic weight, it's clunky in execution. There's a conspicuous amount of archival footage and single-frame pans that pad out the dialogue and heavy exposition scenes, which gives the episode an inescapably cheap feeling. I'm also not a fan of the cartoony chibi diagrams used to illustrate Reiner and Erwin's thought processes – they clash with the serious tone of the episode and generally represent AoT's weakest humorous instincts. Given the number of moving pieces in play at this stage in the fight, I'm sure all of this exposition will end up feeling like a necessary evil, but that doesn't make it any more entertaining to sit through.
The saving grace of this first act is Erwin's character exploration. The man has taken an increasingly prominent role in the cast over the past couple seasons, and “Thunder Spears” showcases how integral Erwin has become to Attack on Titan's ensemble. This is easily the most perilous mission the Scouts have undertaken, and Erwin is painfully aware of how many of his comrades' corpses pave the path that has brought his soldiers to Shiganshina. He's not an entirely altruistic leader, either – his father's obsession with the truth of humanity's origins lives on within him, and he's willing to risk whatever it takes to see the secrets hidden in Grisha Jaeger's basement.
While Erwin's strong characterization is enough to get us through this shaky preamble, the main show of the second act proves to be well worth the wait. Eren and Reiner's rematch in Shiganshina isn't the most gorgeous or stylish Titan fight we've gotten lately, but it's easily the heaviest, and I don't just mean in regards to the sorrow and rage spurred on by Eren's homecoming. We've spent so much time in this universe that it's easy to forget that the Titans are giant monsters the size of buildings that can level cities to rubble with the force of their bodies alone. This week, when Eren and Reiner trade blows, we feel the weight and the power of each strike. I've been on a Godzilla kick lately, and the best of those kaiju fights embody the same sense of scale and consequence we get in this battle.
This is also where Hange and company get to use those Thunder Spears, which are essentially slimmed down rocket launchers that the Scouts can operate while flying around on their ODMs. They're powerful enough to crack the Armored Titan's plating, though Hange explains that the weapons won't be strong enough to break the plot as well, since their capacity for self-destruction only makes them usable in situations where there are plenty of standing structures to hook with wires and retreat from the blast. Poor Reiner doesn't have that luxury, and we cut to credits just as his Titan spine is ripped apart by the spears' explosions.
My favorite moment of this episode comes right beforehand, focusing on the human drama that makes all of this battle planning worth it. Just before landing the final blow, the Scouts hesitate. This is Reiner. He was their friend. Eventually our heroes rally together, but it's a potent reminder that nobody is getting out of this fight clean, because the Titans and the humans have more in common than not. Whatever secrets Grisha is hiding in that basement certainly won't make that truth any easier to swallow, for Erwin or anyone else.
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