Attack On Titan Final Season Brings Delightful Nostalgia And Character Development In Action-Packed 'Thaw'

I haven't talked much about the actual adaptation of the manga in these "Attack on Titan" recaps in order to focus on the episodes themselves rather than pointless comparisons, but the latest episode merits an exception. With "Thaw," Studio MAPPA goes above and beyond what's on the page, taking an exciting but unessential chapter of the manga (at least compared to the previous one) and turning it into a spectacle that celebrates the nearly 10 years of the show with nostalgia, thrilling action, plenty of character growth, and a highly anticipated character return.

Here's to the 104th Cadet Corps

We start the episode by catching up to the remaining members of the 104th Cadet Corps, surrounded by the millions of Wall Titans, as they finally get a chance to discuss just what the hell Eren has done. As usual, it is not Armin, but Jean who instantly deduces Eren's motives. Jean realizes that Eren decided the only way to stop the cycle of hatred in the world, and to prevent a future genocide of the Eldians, would be to destroy the rest of the world first (in order to save the friends that matter more than anything to Eren). After all, it was the rest of the world that started all of this with talks of a race of devils — there's nothing they could have done, right? Of course, Armin argues Eren simply did not have to go this far.

Then Jean asks the question that has been looming over their heads for a season: Should they stop Eren? Before they can answer that question, there's a Falco-sized problem to handle first. Jean argues they should feed the young boy to Pixis, as they need a chain of command and all the officers are now Titans. But Connie finally has enough and breaks down, deciding to take Falco and feed him to his mom, a character we saw turned into a Titan all the way back in season 2. Armin tries to stop him, saying they should think rationally, but Connie reminds him that Eren and Mikasa did not think rationally when they forced Levi to feed Bertolt to Armin instead of Erwin. Connie has always been one of the more cheerful characters in the show, as close to comic relief as "Attack on Titan" gets, so it's genuinely heartbreaking to see him break like this, especially after losing his friends, his mom, and Sasha. Connie leaves with Falco, and before the others can catch up to him, they are attacked by none other than Titan Saul Goodman — seriously.

"Escape the Forest. Even If We Can't, We've Gotta Keep Trying"

Ever since she was first introduced, Gabi was a controversial character. Even though she was clearly positioned as a parallel to Eren, the fact that she spouted Marleyan war propaganda all the time coupled with her killing of Sasha did her no favors. But if there's one thing that's become clear in the past 20 or so episodes it's that Hajime Isayama knew what he was doing when he introduced Gabi and Falco. Ultimately, it is Gabi's story and the way it involves Kaya that are the most important lessons of "Attack on Titan."

After helping a severely injured Reiner to safety, Gabi decides not to listen to the Armored Titan's pessimistic advice of just running away since there's no stopping Eren. If it wasn't clear before, "Thaw" makes it clear "Attack on Titan" was never about a right or wrong side, or even about doing the right thing. This has always been a story about being caught in impossible situations and choosing to damn the entire world and the status quo in favor of the people you care about. In the clearest parallel to Eren yet, Gabi pulls her hair back while standing in front of a mirror and ties it up just like Eren while all but shouting "tatakae."

Though Gabi doesn't get to Connie and Falco, she does catch up to Kaya and the Braus family, who are being chased by Titan Niles. Right as Kaya is about to be devoured, Gabi jumps in and kills him with her anti-Titan rifle, appearing to Kaya as the living image of her big sister Sasha. Then, right as a couple of soldiers appear and confront Gabi for being a Marleyan invader, Kaya returns the favor and shouts that she's her sister, not an invader. 

This is what the entire Eldia/Marley conflict has been building towards, as the two girls recognize they both acted like devils and yet saved each other — before Niccolo says the quiet part out loud and explains everyone has the capacity for evil. "The world is like this 'cuz there's a devil in all of us," he says, before adding that to break free from it we should "Escape the forest. Even if we can't, we've gotta keep trying." This is a callback to the speech Sasha's dad gave in the first part of this final season, where he talks about how war and hatred are like an enormous forest we all grow up in, and it is the responsibility of adults to "keep the younguns out of the forest. Otherwise, ain't nothin' gonna stop it from happening. That's why it's up to us adults to shoulder the sins of the past."

That is what "Attack on Titan" has been trying to say since it became about more than just people fighting Titans. Right now, Eren is trapped in the 2000 year forest, and he sees burning the entire place down as his only path forward. But Niccolo, Gabi, and Kaya show there's a better way — if given a chance. Is it simplistic? Maybe. Is it too on the nose? Yes, but when has this show been anything else? Is it a resonant and important message? Absolutely.

Remember the Titans

Right after such an emotionally charged and cathartic moment, "Attack on Titan" switches gears and delivers one of the most purely thrilling and exhilarating moments in a while. It starts with and none other than Keith "Bystander" Shadis decides to let bygones be bygones and save the very same recruits that beat him to a pulp last season from the enclosing Titans. We see the coordinated efforts of Jean — finally becoming the leader he was always meant to be — gathering the surviving Scouts to fight back while Shadis and the recruits lure the remaining Titans to the big tower in the middle of town.

Suddenly, we are thrown into a sequence straight out of season 1, with Studio MAPPA dialing back on the CG to deliver a throwback tracking shot of actual OG ODM gear swinging across the streets of Shiganshina, fighting actual 2D Titans. It's a total nostalgia play, one that takes a couple of pages of an almost throwaway scene from the manga and turns it into a bit of pure, unapologetically exciting moment of triumph. It's the first win for the Scouts since reclaiming Trost, recalling memories of when this show was simply about humans fighting giant monsters, back before the story got complicated and the morals turned grayer. The score even takes a breather from the somber, dramatic sounds of earlier episodes to go full Sawano drop once again, with "Barricades" accompanying the fight and taking the hype to new levels. 

Yet the sequence, as incredibly thrilling as it was, also served to point out just how much things have changed for our favorite characters. As we see Armin, Mikasa, and Jean stand at the top of the tower with the other soldiers and throw themselves at them as they did during the battle of Trost, we realize how many people we've lost over the years. We also realize how the characters have grown and changed — both in terms of maturity and as now-seasoned Titan-killing veterans who don't even flinch at the sight of a monster. The kills are much, much gorier this time around, too, playing into the seriousness of the situation — and then we see Pixis.

Welcome Back, Annie

For nine years now, the Titans have remained the most effective piece of horror imagery at the show's disposal. They are unstoppable, emotionless, and brutal. While we've known that Titans are actually humans for quite a while, this is the first time we've seen our characters being forced to kill Titans they knew and cared about. Pixis has been an important part of the show from the very start, and he convinced the other officials not to kill Eren when he first turned into a Titan. So to watch as Armin is forced to deliver the killing blow is just heartbreaking, especially since this is his very first Titan kill.

And, of course, Floch had to come along and ruin the moment. Not only did the despicable psycho survive, but he has Yelena and the other volunteers detained, probably including the goodest boy Onyankopon.

Then we have Armin and Mikasa meet with the Braus family as Gabi begs them to let Falco go, and asks Eren to stop the Rumbling. While they talk, Armin realizes that just as the walls came undone, so did all the Titan hardening — including the crystal trapping Annie. And so, after more than 8 years, everyone's favorite deadpan Titan is finally back! There is a lot to catch up to, but they have no time to waste. What will Annie be able to do? We don't know, but it's good to have one of the original antagonists back after all this time.