What else could go wrong? The arc words of catastrophe, spoken only by the unaware the second before something else goes wrong. In an attempt to break this cliche convention, Attack on Titan throws a curveball and simply makes the situation worse, without anybody having to say those classic words.
With Reiner and Bertholdt still holding focus, I was honestly not expecting the series to throw another ingredient into the clusterfudge it has been baking over these past few episodes, let alone an ingredient that was so…smiling. Yes, friends, the Smiling Titan is back, the very same Titan who devoured Eren’s mother and ignited the fire that burns out of control within his soul. Though it may seem coincidental that this one particular Titan would appear at such a crucial moment, feelings of contrivance were washed away by the sheer shock of it all. Existing as a horde, connections to a particular Titan are few and far between within the series. The verbage of Eren’s outbursts and the scope of his hatred following his mother’s death also never pinned the Smiling Titan as a target. He hates Titans. All of them. His revenge was never so focused as to make us think twice about the Smiling Titan and that’s why this appearance shines. Like the second appearance of the Colossal Titan, the sheer shock of it throws everything off balance. This particular Titan return is also aided in its disquieting nature by the fact that the Smiling Titan is a Titan. Not a Titan Shifter. Maybe not even an Abnormal. Just a regular Titan, as creepy as the day the concept was introduced, perhaps even more so. With the development of Shifters and the appearance of the language capable Beast Titan, returning to the days of mindless unknowns is…what’s the terrifying equivalent of refreshing?
Even considering the reappearance of the Smiling Titan, this episode managed to startle me in a way I never saw coming: Development between Mikasa and Eren. With her body bruised and most assuredly broken in a few places, Mikasa has no choice but to sit still and finally tell Eren the extent of her belief in him. With Eren also unable to Shift, he too must sit still and listen. The symbolism of this moment is not lost on the episode, which goes to great lengths to show the consistent onslaught of carnage that occurs around the two, even as they have finally have a peaceful moment of clarity with each other. It’s honestly the best we can hope for in this series, though it does lean towards the concept of taking victories where you can find them, something that is all to clear in this sacrifice laden world. The greatest element of this moment however, despite the catharsis of Mikasa outwardly expressing herself and smiling for the first time in forever, is that Eren finally seems to get it. Beginning this season with a blank stare and oblivious statement regarding replacing her tattered scarf, Eren now understands the meaning behind what he still has in the world, simply saying, “I’ll wrap that [scarf] around you, as many times as you want. Now and forever, as much as you want.” It’s symbolic, it’s sweet, it’s a little corny, but it’s a declaration I think most of us have been waiting for. If not for the persoanl connection between Miaksa and Eren, briefly stripped back to their childhood selves, then for the new motivation it grants Eren. The motivation of a hero.
Though raw and honest, Eren’s motivations for fighting have always been personal. Though allies and friends surround him, Eren’s lust for revenge has always pushed him forward. And it is in this episode he finally learns that vengeance is not enough. Calling back to the moment he went Titan over a teaspoon, Eren’s rage against the Smiling Titan was not sufficient to initiate a Shift. Though he desired it more than he ever has before, he had not true purpose to transform. With the twisted scenes that follow of Eren tearing chunks of flesh from his hands in a bid to transform, we are unflinchingly shown the extent to which fury can consume him. As cathartic as his triumphant moments of rage have been in the past, this is the darker side, the pointless side…the painful side. Especially when seen by Mikasa. And it is only after the two finally connect, that Eren is able to utilise his power to explicitly protect what he cares about and not simply destroy what he despises. Symbolism truly brings this home by having Eren utilise not only a new facet of his power, but by doing so without Shifting. Cementing that Eren is, for once, truly in control.
Pulling back to the world itself, some truly harsh truths are dropped this episode. As poor Connie considered since visiting his hometown, Hange now lends her support to the theory that Titans are actually humans. Though a foregone conclusion by most viewers, seeing stalwart characters react to the news loses no impact. Even with Erwin’s broken smile and insistence that discovering the truth must be worth the sacrifices they have made, it was actually Levi’s statement that resonated with me the most. “So you’re telling me, that I’ve spent all this time and energy running around killing people?” A simple statement, stripped of all scientific inquiry and grandiose ideals about the bigger picture. Just a soldier who is questioning his role for perhaps the first time in his life. What truly sells this for me, is the fact that he used the word “people”. Not humans. People. And for once, those two words could not be less synonymous.
And thus we close another chapter of Attack on Titan, the series that reminds us that it is always darkest before the dawn…and then reminds us that humanity is equivalent to worms and there are a lot of early birds about. Eren has altered his manifesto from kill to control, Reiner and Bertholdt stole away into the world with Ymir, humanity has been killing themselves and the Beast Titan watches on from afar. And yet, despite these plot threads threatening to unravel the tapestry of humanity, it is a satisfying conclusion for now. Truths have been revealed, consequences have been faced and characters have grown. And one of those characters was Eren. So hold fast people, because miracles can happen and if what we’ve learned is a sign of things to come, we’re going to need every damn one we can get.