After eight years, four seasons, and hundreds upon hundreds of dead characters, Attack on Titan is finally in its endgame. The final episode of season 4, which premiered on Sunday, promised a bleak and bloody conflict to bookend a bleak and bloody show. The show is now expected to wrap after the manga ends in April, with Final Season part 2 due during the next winter season.
Last season, Attack on Titan viewers learned that our main characters were not the last remnants of humanity, but a small group of Eldians — a race reviled both for its ability to turn into man-eating Titans, but also for a long history of conquest and alleged atrocities against other nations. Attack on Titan Final Season doubles down on its complicated and uneasy appropriation of real Asian history by shifting perspective to the people that have been subjugating our heroes for the past eight years. The antagonists are now complicated and even sympathetic characters with justifiable morals, while the show recognizes that our heroes may not be that heroic anymore.
Attack on Titan began as a show about survival, and grew into one rooted in morality and ideology. Reiner, the guy who kickstarted the events of the show by breaking the walls of the city where our protagonists lived, was made to believe his enrollment in the Titan Warrior program would reunite his broken family; Zeke grew up with the weight of an entire resistance movement on his shoulders. At the same time, the show has turned its own protagonist into a hard figure to root for: Eren went from a bright-eyed kid swearing revenge on the mindless creatures who killed his mom to murdering innocent men, women, and children in episode 6 of this season. Now he plans to euthanize the entire Eldian race.
Though these characters have committed horrible acts, Attack on Titan spent a significant amount of time in the first part of the Final Season illustrating a world that would not only accept those atrocities, but encourage them. Gabi, a character that instantly brought out strong opinions in fans after she killed the fan-favorite Sasha Braus in episode 8, spent the second half of the season spouting propaganda lines about Eldian devils and trying to prove herself a “good” Eldian, despite her being on Paradis Island without a single Marleyan officer in sight. As a candidate to replace Reiner as the next Armored Titan, she’s elevated the social status of her family to “Honorary Marleyans,” allowing them to occasionally leave their internment camp, as well as get healthcare and other vague benefits. Gabi’s even earned the genuine respect of some Marleyan soldiers and officers, who would otherwise never even look her in the eye.
Likewise, Eren has followed a path of violence and destruction since the moment the show began. He’s eliminated his home’s Titans, and even cleaned up the government of those who hid the truth of the world from the people. At this point, violence and death have become a sunk cost for the characters in Attack on Titan, and they have no reason to think that violence isn’t going to serve them now.
But the ending of Final Season part 1 makes it clear that violence is not a permanent solution. When Pieck, another Eldian warrior in the Marleyan military, infiltrates Paradis and briefly tricks Eren into thinking she’s turning to his side, Gabi is shocked at the thought of a mentor joining the Eldian devils. But Pieck immediately explains that no matter what they do, no matter how much they try to please the Marleyan authorities, they’ll never be anything other than “Subjects of Ymir” (another name for Eldian). Gabi may think that she’s found some successes by pleasing Marley, but it will never be enough because their power as a nation depends on using Eldians as a military force. In episode 10 we learn that Zeke became a double agent for Eldia and offered Eren and company a plan to save Eldia forever: wielding the power of the Titans as both a weapon of mass destruction and a bargaining chip to keep other nations at bay. Eren briefly went along with the plan, but eventually decided against it because he thought of it as only a temporary fix, rather than a solution.
His new solution, or rather, the addendum to the previous plan, is using the power of the Titans so no Eldian can ever have children. Yelena, a zealot follower of Zeke who believes him and Eren to be the equivalent to gods, sees this as the solution to the entire world’s problems. If Eldians can’t have children, she argues to Mikasa, Armin, Jean, and Connie, there is no reason for Marley or other nations to invade. All the suffering brought about by Marley using Titans as weapons of war will disappear gradually, and Eldians will be free to live the rest of their lives in peace.
Of course, it doesn’t take long before other characters find flaws in the plan. Jean points out that the euthanizing effort will leave only old people able to defend Eldia from an attack that will inevitably come because nations are giddy to invade other nations. While talking to Gabi, Pieck also acknowledges that the time of the Titans will soon come to an end because of technological advancements in warfare, meaning Marley will probably want to slaughter all Eldians when they no longer have a use for them.
By “both sides”-ing the central conflict of Attack on Titan, and asking the audience to consider Eren as a monster while sympathizing with characters like Gabi and Zeke, the show finds itself on an even more nihilistic path than the one hinted at by its initial premise. If Reiner, Zeke, and Eren are victims of circumstance rather than motivated war criminals and mass murderers, then fault becomes a messier game, as any unspeakable act of violence is justifiable by someone’s logic.
So far, the show has mostly avoided the ambiguity by being clear the characters make their own choices for themselves, rather than for some higher purpose. Back in episode 5, Reiner confesses to Eren that he didn’t destroy the wall of Shiganshina District because of his duty to Marley or because he wanted to save the world, but because he was a selfish little boy who wanted people to respect him. At that moment, Eren recognized Reiner as an equal, and said he was also doing what he does because he has always “moved forward,” throwing himself head-first into danger because that’s what he does.
But neither Eren nor Reiner may be as in control of their own destinies as they claim. At first, Eren’s reckless behavior was meant to be a good trait, a sign of a hero protagonist who genuinely cared so much about his loved ones that he disregarded his own safety. Final Season’s Eren is different, and it seems like he may just be too deep in his own endless pursuit of vengeance against a replaceable and vague entity that he simply cannot stop himself.
If the Final Season part 1 finale made anything clear, is that every character in Attack on Titan is too far deep in their own vision of justice to even consider an alternative. Before this is all over, the sunk-cost fallacy will bring about a violent, ugly, and very deadly finale this next winter season.