Attack on Titan
by James Beckett,
Anime News Network's coverage of New York Comic-Con 2018 is sponsored by Good Smile Company's Grand Summoners.
How would you rate episode 59 of
Attack on Titan (TV 4/2019) ?
Despite the controversy Attack on Titan has courted with its questionable use of parallels to real world atrocities, “Beyond the Walls” reinforces my belief that the core philosophical tenets of the series are most easily read as Hajime Isayama's messy attempt to wrestle with what may be an irreconcilable paradox. When the ugly, stupid wastefulness of war is laid bare for all to see, can you still revere the accomplishments of the people who fought and died in it? Does it do justice to the men and women (and children) whose bodies are buried in the mud to share tales of their victory and courage, or does it simply perpetuate the endless cycle of violence, providing fuel for the fire of conflict that future generations may use to burn everything down once again?
At the top of this episode, which marks the finale of Attack on Titan's incredibly ambitious third season, Queen Historia makes a choice. The old King of the Eldians decided to rob his people of their memories and agency, and in telling all of her people the truth about Titans, she aims to steal it back. Within surprisingly short order, all the citizens of Paradis Island know about their ancestry, the lies fed to them for generations, and the hatred of their kind that the Marleyans harbor out there across the sea. As Hange and Levi sit at the newspaper's headquarters and try to come to terms with just how much and how quickly everything has changed, the paper's journalists wonder what will come of the Eldian and Marleyans' mutual enmity. It's a conversation that seems to speak to the heart of Attack on Titan's central question, which looks at the hatred and dehumanization that has grown through this conflict and asks, “What if this hell only repeats itself?”
Later, at an event that acts both as a funeral for the soldiers who didn't return home from Shiganshina and an awards ceremony for the ones who did, Floch gets into it with Eren after he stops telling Hitch how courageous and inspiring Marlo was before he died. This man has seen the depth of his own fear and the slaughtered bodies of all his comrades, and it's poisoned his ability to have faith in any but the most exemplary of men. He argues again that it was Erwin, not Armin, who should have lived, and he makes it clear that he doesn't see himself or any of the other survivors as “heroes”. Armin isn't able to disagree, and even Eren's attempts to course-correct this assertion fall flat. He tries to reassure Armin and the others of the hope for victory and peace that lies beyond the sea, but then he remembers those visions of his father's former life. Beyond the sea lies a land of misery, where young girls can be mauled by dogs for the amusement of others, because it was decided long ago that the Eldians just weren't quite as human as everyone else.
It's no accident that the one glimpse of a Titan we see is during the Scouts' ride to the ocean beyond the walls, where they encounter a pathetic Titan who has been crawling toward the capital at such a snail's pace that new trees have managed to sprout in its wake. Past season finales have hinged both on the mystery of the plot and the spectacle of Titan battles, but our heroes recognize that everything is different now. In the show's first episode, which launched Attack on Titan into the mainstream in a way few anime have ever accomplished, the stakes were high but also simple. The humans were good, and the Titans were a monstrous evil. Now the truth is out. The Titans are just people. Some of them have chosen to become monsters, but most of them were turned into monsters, making them victims of this war alongside their prey.
Then the Scouts reach the sea in as perfect an ending for the season as I could've hoped for. Nearly blinded by its bright blueness, Hange, Armin and the others approach the ocean with a mix of awe and fear. For Armin, it's a culmination of everything he's lived (and died) for, a confirmation that he wasn't wrong to have hope for a better world. The Scouts splash and play in the water, and they marvel at the shells that litter the sand. Mikasa's stony façade drops, for once seeming apprehensive about the inexplicable sight in front of her. It's the first real moment of respite any of these soldiers have known in months, and it's a moment of catharsis strong enough to knock the wind out of a long-time viewer like me. For Armin and Mikasa, the ocean represents the endless possibilities that now lay stretched out before them. For Eren, who looks more haunted than ever, it's another wall to scale along the path that leads them all to the people who would see their race exterminated.
For all of the speedbumps we've encountered in this season's efforts to expand and complicate Attack on Titan's narrative and themes, the show's impeccable character writing has done a masterful job at exploring each soldier's relationship to the war they fight. The show has grown into a gripping exploration of how the extreme conditions of war can bring out both the best and worst in humanity; people can rise beyond the limits of their greatest selves or give into their worst instincts, but at the same time, all of that potential for good or evil can just be chewed up and spat out without a second thought.
I want the best for these characters. Over the past three seasons, I've come to care about them deeply, and I think they deserve a happy ending after all they've been through. I don't know exactly what the future holds for Eren and the others. As much as I'd like to think that they'll be able to rise up and become their best selves, that vacant and horrified exhaustion in Eren's eyes reminds me that things are never that easy. With the series' final season looming, it's clear that things will have to come to an end one way or the other.
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