Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 57 of
Attack on Titan (TV 4/2019) ?
We've been asking for answers from Attack on Titan for years, and now that we've finally unlocked the secrets of Grisha Jaeger's basement, “That Day” delivers answers in spades. Obviously we don't learn everything right away, but we learn enough to gain a completely new understanding of the Human/Titan War, one that challenges everything our heroes thought they knew about their enemies. When a young Grisha took his sister Fay to see the zeppelin at the end of last week, they knew what the consequences could be if a pair of Eldians were found wandering where they shouldn't. One of the Marleyan guards beats Grisha terribly, yet he's content to let him stay and see the zeppelin he came all that way for. Fay isn't so lucky – she doesn't make it home alive. The mustached guard who takes her away claims that he lost track of her before she was killed, but young as he is, Grisha knows better than to take the Marleyans at their word. These are the people who have beaten down his entire race and spent generations feeding the Eldians venomous stories of how their ancestors used the Titans' powers to conquer other nations and commit genocides, adding that their King abandoned them to the ghettos of Marley in order to build a walled haven city for a chosen few on the island of Paradis.
It isn't until he's older than Grisha encounters a man named Grice, a member of the group of Rebel Eldians known as the Restorationists. Grisha learns that the guard who took his sister away had her fed alive to a pack of dogs for sport, which causes his long-simmering hatred of the Marleyans to boil over into full-blown revolutionary rage. A lot happens between then and the conclusion of the episode – too much really, a whole arc's worth of relationships, character growth, and tide-turning plot developments get brushed over in a scant ten minutes. There are so many interesting ideas being played with in this flashback, from the cloudy history of Eldian lineage to Grisha inadvertently committing the same sin as his father and turning his son against him. None of these ideas get enough time to grow this week, so I can only hope they get a proper amount of attention in future episodes.
For now, we get the mother of all info-dumps. First, Grisha discovers evidence that suggests the Eldians' history has been manipulated by Marley's propaganda, and that Ymir Fritz originally used the power of the Founding Titan to promote prosperity and peace. Then he meets and falls in love with Dina Fritz, an heir to the royal bloodline who bears him a son: Zeke, the future Beast Titan. Unfortunately, Grisha and Dina's eagerness to turn Zeke into a tool of the Eldian Revolution backfires, as their own child turns them in to the Marleyan military mere years later. They are brought to the “penal colony” of Paradis to be turned into Full Titans (much like what happened to our modern-day Ymir), but Grisha is saved by the same Marleyan soldier who beat him all those years ago – it turns out that he was the double-agent “Owl” who fed the Restorationists info from the military. Before the man can demonstrate the power of Titan-shifting to Grisha though, Dina is given the Titan Serum and tossed into the desert of Paradis. She transforms into the same Grinning Titan who would go on to devour Grisha's second wife and set Eren on his quest for revenge.
I honestly love a lot of what this story is doing. I'm a sucker for tales that examine recurring cycles of tragedy and violence, and I find the spiral of betrayal and revenge that plagues the Jaeger clan to be a perfect example of that arc. Grisha's disdain for his weak father causes him to devote himself to revolution, only to bear a son who would feed him to the Marleyan wolves (and years down the line, slaughter his half-brother's comrades). That Dina would be the one to destroy Grisha's new family (out of a zombified drive to find her husband) is another irony cruel enough to shock Eren out of his slumber. While the episode is filled with more still-frame panning shots and limited animation than usual, the story itself is riveting.
Then there are those damned armbands. If the parallels to the real-world history of Jewish persecution weren't strong enough in last week's teaser, things get even muddier this time. When characters cry out that the Eldians are their “god's chosen people”, it becomes impossible to mistake Attack on Titan's appropriation of specific imagery and allusions as anything but intentional. Divorced from the context of hundreds of years of cruelty and violence against the Jewish people, the world that Attack on Titan is building would just be complex and compelling. But that history is inexorably tied to an experience that still affects real people living in our world today, and Attack on Titan simply hasn't demonstrated the tact and forethought needed to so liberally borrow this sensitive imagery for its narrative.
While I don't think AoT is preaching anti-Semitism, its creators ought to be aware of how poorly a comparison between the Jewish people and a race of super-powered cannibals could be received. It's one thing to imply that this sordid history is propaganda being spread by the villains to justify their crimes. That can work both as real-world allegory and appropriate world-building for an anti-war fantasy story that's meant to stand on its own. However, what are we supposed to make of the fact that the Eldians are still literally man-eating monsters who've destroyed the lives of our heroes, who are also Eldians? Are we arguing that the victims of persecution are becoming just as monstrous as the ones committing that persecution? That would be a terribly tone-deaf and needlessly obtuse theme to pile on top of the show's already solid explorations of the politics of war.
Why did you have to employ Holocaust imagery at all, Attack on Titan? Why couldn't you just tell the same story without the ugly racial connotations? There are only a few episodes left of this season, and who knows when season 4 is going to come out. The last thing I want is for season 3 to end by alienating the fans who struggle to reconcile with all these new precarious story elements. The show has pulled off miracles before, so it's not like I've given up hope or anything, but I am starting to worry that before all of this is over, I'll be wishing we'd never opened up that damned basement.
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