Based on the manga, Attack on Titan has long been one of the most compelling dark fantasy series to grace our screens. It’s a show that’s been defined by its bloody body count, but within that, the show has constantly put the emphasis on humanity’s survival from, at the start, the man-eating Titans, but has since expanded to humanity itself. This focus on survival is equally as prominent in the fourth and final season, but it also forces our characters and viewers to confront their moral limits in a war that blurs the line between justice and vengeance. In what can easily be its darkest season, the fourth season of Attack on Titan places a strong emphasis on perspective. There are no right and wrong answers in this morally grey conflict, but throughout the first half of this season, we are forced to confront these blurred lines that stem from the multiple narratives that contribute to this wider discussion of survival and war.
A Change of Perspective
The season begins, not with our beloved scouts, but with our “enemy.” In a dramatic shift in narrative, it took time to get used to this change in perspective, but the intention was clear. Getting to understand the “enemy” further blurs that line between hero and villain. The final episodes of season 3 finally revealed the truth about what lies beyond the walls of Paradis Island and, in doing so, seemed to reveal our villains. However, season 4 completely flips this assumption on its head as we come to spend time with the residents of the Marley Empire, specifically the Eldian residents that are often discriminated against and used as Titan weapons for the Marleyan army. In this time, we come to see that this cycle of violence and death stems from an institutional agenda, one that spotlights the military and political benefits that come from acquiring the remaining Titan powers. In these opening episodes, we meet a slew of new characters, including two kids that, much like Reiner, Annie, and Bertholdt, have been raised as “warrior candidates,” soldiers carrying the inbuilt shame of their Eldian heritage, but determined to atone through regiment training and the prospects of inheriting a Titan power. Leading this narrative are Gabi and Falco.
Having heard so much about Gabi before the anime, it was interesting to see just how involved she was in the narrative. As a warrior candidate, she, in many ways is a reflection of how Eren was in the first season. Her actions and the pride she holds in causing so much pain through the people she killed is unsettling, making her an easily unlikeable character. However, what the show does so well is offering us time to understand why. The first five episodes of the season provide an insight into her mentality as a child soldier who’s witnessed the murder of her neighbours and allies. She’s been fed a countless stream of propaganda painting residents of Paradis Island as “devils” that bring shame to their Eldian heritage. Therefore, her vague knowledge of the destruction the Marleyans inflicted on Paradis Island is a just cause. You can’t justify her actions, but there is an understanding of how her upbringing conditioned her to react this way. Hopefully, the kindness showed by the Eldian “island devils” she so abhors will give her cause to reflect on the grey line of war, and the consequences that befall the innocent in this pursuit of revenge.
Falco, on the other hand, represents a child that has a clearer grasp on the needless cycle of war. The more he interacts with the residents of Paradis Island, the more he comes to understand his mentor, Reiner’s torment. That the Eldian ” island devils” he was raised to hate are just as much a victim as they are to this cycle of violence. His motivation for becoming a warrior candidate does not stem from this conditioned hatred of the residents of Paradis Island, but a personal sacrifice to save the life of another. His compassion often makes him an easy target to manipulate but, through meeting the innocent casualties of the war on both sides, he comes to recognise that the price of war is not always written in black and white.
What of our heroes?
Our beloved scouts don’t actively appear until the sixth episode and, this season highlights the maturity of our heroes as they’re older, more experienced, but also hardened by their past traumas, making them a formidable enemy and ally to those that approach them. Of course, Eren continues to be at the heart of the scouts’ plan to infiltrate Marley, but there’s also a shift in tone in Eren’s relation to his oldest friends and allies. Acting on his initiative, Eren intentionally manipulates the scouts into joining the attack on Marley, with devastating consequences. His apparent distancing from the allies that have long put their lives on the line for him put him at odds with those he considered dear to him and, more importantly, make you question his true motivations.
Beyond the changing nature of the dynamic between Eren and the scouts, it was warming to see just how deeply the bond runs between the Levi squad. Jean, has risen to be the leader Marco believed he could be inspiring loyalty from the scouts. Similarly, Jean’s interactions with Sasha and Connie remind us of the history that now connects these individuals, one that forms a foundation of security in their deepened friendship. Similarly, getting to see Mikasa and Armin work separately from Eren gave them room to shine beyond the confines of the friendship that ties them together. This allows us to appreciate their individuality as we learn more of Mikasa’s heritage. In Armin, we are privy to the weight of memory carried from the aftereffects of season three’s battle for Shiganshina. Of course, you can’t mention the scouts without the infamous captain Levi. This season reinforces his commitment to the legacy of the scouts but also shows his weariness of war. This is a man that has fought for freedom yet is weighed the memory of those lost along the way.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
If ever there was an apt summary of the final season of Attack on Titan. This season shined in its complex exploration of the blurred lines of war. The circumstances of both our heroes and enemies and the institutionalised propaganda ingrained into their respective societies give viewers a richer understanding of this war and, in doing so, makes you question the nature of perspective concerning heroes and villains. While politics and manipulation of power from within and afar shape the trajectory of this tale, it’s in the innocent bystanders that we feel the true costs of war. It’s in Niccolo, a captive Marleyan soldier finding joy in cooking for the Eldian “island devils.” In the orphans created as a result of the Titans attack. In the mothers and fathers, the sons and daughters, and vulnerable bystanders sacrificed in the price of war.
Eren states to Reiner that the two of them are the same. In many respects that’s true. Both were child soldiers raised to believe that the enemy beyond their borders was responsible for their suffering. They wanted to be the hero, to bring salvation to their people, but as the dream shatters and the lines blur, it’s that sheer will that conditions them to fight until the end, no matter the cost. It is circumstance and perspective that set them down this road but, how much are you willing to sacrifice to see the end of this and at what cost? Can you call yourself the hero when you manipulate your allies and killed countless innocents in the name of survival? That is the reality we as viewers are forced to confront, alongside our characters.