Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 54 of
Attack on Titan (TV 4/2019) ?
I'm at the point in my life where it's difficult to be truly “shocked” by a story anymore. There are still moments of triumph that can make me jump out of my seat and punch the air in excitement, but I can't remember the last time a show genuinely blindsided me. Made in Abyss certainly shocked me in how far it was willing to go in depicting its heroes' suffering, but the overall downward trajectory had been telegraphed since the first episode. Even in Attack on Titan, we've been taught for years that character deaths should come as no surprise to anyone. This is a war, after all. Hell, last week's episode was literally about Erwin and his men coming to terms with their imminent demises; the dead end ahead couldn't possibly have been more clear. This week, there were death flags popping up scene after scene that had been foreshadowed since the season picked back up a month ago. Looking back on it, I almost feel foolish for not seeing the episode's big sacrifice coming from a mile away.
And yet, when it came time for Armin to give up his life to secure his friends' survival, I still found myself thinking, 'He'll be fine. He can't die yet. He hasn't been to the sea yet'.
I'm going to need a minute before I can deal with all of those emotions, so let's start back at the beginning. Erwin has fallen, and his other men are in the Beast Titan's sights. As he winds up another shotgun pitch, the Beast's musings offer a natural counterpoint to Erwin's aggrandizing final charge. He pities the young fools who fight for a home that stole their own memories away from them, and he laments that humanity is doomed to repeat this fatal final stand ad infinitum, since they have lived so long blinded to the truth of their history. The jury is still out on how I feel about this perspective coming from a giant monster who's mercilessly slaughtering our heroes with a bunch of rocks – going into slight spoiler territory, I know there's a lot of controversy surrounding how future chapters will frame the motivations and backstories of the Titans, but I'd like to think Attack on Titan will be able to empathize with the Titans enough to give an appropriate amount of weight to the anti-war themes it's explored so far, without entirely excusing the havoc the Titans themselves have wrought.
Anyway, the Beast Titan's characterization isn't the central focus of this scene. The point is to show how terrible and terrifying the final moments of the Scouts are – R.I.P Marlo – which serves as perfect fuel for Levi's ferocious counterattack. I'll be the first to admit that this second half of Season 3 has been inconsistent in its production values, and there are a number of rough-looking cuts in just this episode that betray just how hard Wit Studio and company must be pushing themselves just to get this show done (and I can only hope the staff aren't being dangerously overworked). But this scene where Levi slices the Beast Titan into ribbons and tears its operator out of its neck with his bare hands is absolute perfection. Hats off to everyone in charge of storyboarding and animating this sequence, because it belongs near the top of Attack on Titan's most impressive pieces of animation to date.
Of course, this is all undercut when Levi manages to lose the Beast Titan's operator in less than a minute to that goofy-looking Titan that runs on all fours, which is every bit as frustrating as I'm sure Hajime Isayama intended. The spirit of the moment still matters though – this battle has been so hopeless that the notion of even a momentary respite from defeat is enough to reignite the fire of battle in our heroes. This is what leads to the final showdown between the Scouts, Reiner, and Bertholdt. Armin has been crunching the numbers in his head, and he's seen how the Colossal Titan becomes thinner and thinner with every blast of its steam. If he can just get Bertholdt distracted for long enough to cause him to expend enough of his energy, then Eren has a shot at taking him down. All the rest of the scouts have to do is keep Reiner at bay long enough to let the plan play out. Finally, Armin reminds Eren that if the going gets too tough, he's getting out of there. He still has to get to the sea, after all.
What follows is a barrage of pure cathartic spectacle, a pair of hard-earned victories that overcome some shaky visuals and occasionally obtuse direction to rival anything Attack on Titan has ever produced. While Mikasa and the others literally shove their Thunder Spears down Reiner's throat, Armin anchors himself to Bertholdt's skull and braces himself to endure the Colossal Titan's onslaught of steam. Eren seems down for the count before the battle even starts, so we have to watch as Armin's hair and flesh is burned away moment by moment, which is when it becomes clear that Armin's not walking away from this one after all. Erwin's death was as grandiose as it was quick, but Armin's demise is different. He dies by himself, in one of the most painful ways imaginable, and he bears it all with the ferocity of a true warrior. It's the perfect culmination to years of character development, made all the more powerful because I truly thought Armin would be safe. He's one of the Big Three of the series, so it speaks to just how good Attack on Titan can be when it's able to build up such a gut-punch of a climax. When Reiner and Bertholdt are yanked from their Titans at the end of the battle, I jumped out my seat, yelling excited expletives while my startled cats ran for cover. Any show that can elicit that kind of reaction from its audience is something special, even after all these years.
Of course, death isn't necessarily the end for Armin. The show put a big giant pin in both Erwin and Armin's fates when Levi practically paused the show to remind himself and the audience that his spare Titan Serum can bring people back from the brink of death. I'm sure that's going to come into play before too long, so either one of these deaths might not stick. That doesn't take away from the raw and immediate power of “Hero”, though. Regardless of who does or doesn't make it out of Shiganshina alive, the blood that covers the soil of this ruined city has still soaked in. It still matters that Erwin rode headlong into his doom, and that Armin was able to hold onto Bertholdt for his life, even as his skin burned away. Just like Erwin said, that pain will be seared into the memories of the survivors forever. What they do with it, and how they live with it, is what makes a war story worth telling.
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