How Attack On Titan Became A Different Show In The Final Season

This post contains spoilers for "Attack on Titan."

Many TV shows become different as they go on. New characters are introduced, others depart, and status quos are torn down. What's rarer is that a show uproots its whole premise. And yet, that's what "Attack on Titan" does.

A bombshell twist at the end of season 3 reveals the show's setting is only a drop in the bucket of a much larger, much different world. Season 4, adapting chapters 91 to 139 of Hajime Isayama's original manga, explores that world. Along the way, the story changes from a purely black-and-white conflict about people slaying monsters into a man-versus-man story. Whereas before the heroes were fighting for survival, the conflicts of season 4 were more abstract, rooted in prejudice spanning generations and the resultant cycle of revenge.

As the "Attack on Titan" final season approaches its end, it's time to ask: was this change for better or worse?

Mysteries unraveled

"Attack on Titan" begins as a post-apocalyptic story. We're told that humanity is near extinct, devoured by the enigmatic Titans — mute and ravenous giants shaped like naked humans. The survivors live behind three ring-shaped walls until Titans break down the outermost Wall Maria.

Our lead, Eren Yeager, lost his mother in the fall of Wall Maria. So, he and his friends enlist in the military to fight the Titans. Eren also carries a key to his family's cellar given to him by his father, Grisha. He's determined to find out what's in there, which means making it back to his hometown of Shiganshina, now overrun by Titans.

Things quickly get thrown on their head when Eren discovers he can transform into a Titan. The Titans who attacked Wall Maria turn out to have human forms as well. The biggest surprise of all? The walls protecting humanity actually have rows of Colossal Titans hidden inside them.

Eren and his friends finally make it to his father's cellar at the end of the season and discover the truth. Humanity isn't extinct outside the walls. The main characters are part of a race called the Eldians, the only humans who can transform into Titans. Eldians ruled a world-spanning empire until about a century ago. The remnants retreated to a small island called Paradis, which is where the walls were built before Eldian King Fritz erased his people's memories, all with the powers of the "Founding Titan."

While the people of Paradis didn't know about the outside world, the world knew about them. Grisha, and the Titans who the main cast have been fighting, came from the nation of Marley. They were exiled, transformed against their will, and let loose to keep the Paradis Eldians trapped.

A new setting

Resolving a long-running mystery usually comes with closure, but not here. Instead, the answers about the world of "Attack on Titan" only open a dozen new doors.

The world outside Paradis looks different. During the first three seasons, the setting appeared to have a medieval technology level, barring the "Omni-Directional Mobility" grappling hook harnesses the heroes use to fight Titans. When we see Marley, we learn that's because Paradis is literally stuck in the past; the rest of the world has had an industrial revolution, with trains, tanks, and blimps to show for it. While Paradis is culturally homogenous (with a strong German influence), the rest of the world is home to countless different cultures.

When season 4 opens, most of the main cast is nowhere to be seen, and we get an inside look at life in Marley. The only familiar character is Reiner Braun, the Armored Titan, who posed as a friend to Eren and co. while infiltrating Paradis. It's revealed Marley has a "warrior program," where Eldian children are given one of the Titan-Shifter powers, and in exchange for military service, their families earn citizenship. Reiner is a product of this program. So were his compatriots Bertholdt (the Colossal Titan), Annie (the Female Titan), and Zeke (the Beast Titan, not to mention Grisha's son and Eren's half-brother). They attacked Paradis because the Marleyan military wanted the island's resources and the Eldians living on it dead.

When Eren and the rest of the Paradisian cast return, they launch a surprise attack on Marley, mirroring the destruction of Wall Maria, which kicked off the story. The posters for seasons 1 and 4 are mirrors of each other, reflecting this cycle of violence.

A new conflict

I've compared the initial setting of "Attack on Titan" to a zombie apocalypse; humanity is on death's door, danger is everywhere, and the monsters look human but are little more than a mindless, unfeeling horde. Like in a zombie story, there's no question of who you're rooting for with humans vs Titans. It's hard to get invested in both sides equally when one has all the characterization. While "Attack on Titan" is always a war story, the realities of war only arrive in season 4.

Marley hates the Eldians because the ancient Marleyans were conquered and subjugated by the Eldian empire. In turn, the Paradis Eldians hate the Marleyans for their attack on them. When Eren confronts Reiner before the attack on Marley, he asks him, "Why did my mother have to die?"

The focal point of this theme is Gabi, Reiner's cousin and a fanatical Marleyan soldier. She totally buys into the propaganda about Eldians and wants to prove herself one of the good ones. When she stows away to Paradis, she discovers the people there are just that, people. The family of a Paradis soldier she killed even forgive her, being the first ones to break the cycle of hatred. The message is that people shouldn't be judged for the actions of their ancestors and when they are, violence and hatred are the only results.

Eren, though, isn't so forgiving. He decides to unleash the Titans within the walls for "The Rumbling," which will flatten all life outside Paradis. The Paradisian and Marleyan main characters ally to stop him.

And here's where the story falls apart, both due to prior build-up and the ultimate resolution.

The failures

Some critics have described the initial black-and-white morality of "Attack on Titan" as reflective of a nationalist mindset; a nation needs an external enemy to survive, and there can be no room for nuance in that conflict. I believe that even when the series moved away from Titan-slaying towards political intrigue, that mindset never left.

All we see of Marley is evil, plain and simple. The average Marleyan citizen's attitude towards Eldians is genocidal; a flashback reveals that a Marleyan guard fed Grisha's little sister, Faye, to his dogs while she was still alive. The horrors of the child soldier program go without saying. Adding insult to injury is the hypocrisy; Marley is repeating the sins of the Eldian empire with their own conquests and Titan weapons. We see a brief glimpse of an Eldian civil rights group, but it turns out they still hate the Paradis Eldians.

The only sympathetic POV for Marley is the Eldian characters like Reiner, who aren't citizens of Marley so much as the nation's victims. Meanwhile, the rest of the world gets scant screen time and, based on one piece of dialogue, actually treats Eldians even worse than Marley. So when the Alliance forms implicitly to save Marley, it's hard to be cheering like the story wants you to be.

Now, one could argue that it's Eren's mindset that hasn't evolved; he needs an enemy to hate and has chosen the world outside Paradis. But if so, the text needs to support that by giving us reasons to not totally hate Marley — and it doesn't.

Failure of resolution

Eren's plans are monstrous, no doubt. However, the series never seriously entertains an alternative to war and mass death. Paradis is boxed in both by the outer world's technological superiority and undying hate for them. In fact, before Eren begins the Rumbling, the Marleyan military was in the midst of invading Paradis again. By the end of the series, when peace seems to be within reach, it's only because 80% of the world has been wiped out. On the surface, "Attack on Titan" wants to show war as a horrible, avoidable thing that only causes further suffering. In practice, though, Isayama constructs his story in a way where more war is the only possibility.

At the same time, the portrayal of racism in "Attack on Titan" is facile. People do have reasons to fear Eldians; they can turn into Titans, after all, and the early seasons of the show demonstrated how horrifying Titans are. This makes the anti-Eldian racism seem rational, where racism is by definition irrational. This is doubly icky because "Attack on Titan" drew inspiration from real history by employing Holocaust imagery (ghettos and armbands) to showcase the Eldians' persecution. This appropriation is, at best, so careless that "Attack on Titan" has been accused of anti-semitism.

"Attack on Titan" poses questions that seem provocative, but unravel the more you consider them. Worse, the text doesn't have the answers to back those questions up. Maybe the series should've stuck to the heroes killing giant monsters.