Attack on Titan giveth, and Attack on Titan taketh away. For me at least the sort of approach this series takes is inherently going to have a fair measure of inconsistency. We saw the upside last week, where the series was at its bombastic, deafening best – and indeed, with Levi’s phenomenal display of battlefield prowess against the female titan as well. But this week shows off some of the limitations too – whether they be the source material itself or Araki-sensei’s directorial style, I’ll leave others to decide. But on balance this ep was decidedly a mixed bag.
The issue is mostly twofold for me. First, any series that relies so little on believable characters as this one does it going to have lulls, because no show – no matter how good – can constantly deliver riveting action and plot, week-after-week. When the cast is itself engaging, that smooths out some of the valleys because you’re always involved emotionally with the characters themselves. And second, Araki is using a sledgehammer “more is better” approach to everything in Shingeki no Kyoujin and while that works terrifically in the big set pieces – which due to that approach often gain a measure of emotional power the smaller moments usually lack – it often comes off as ham-fisted and heavy-handed in those smaller moments.
Where that leaves us is this: we have a scenario that in itself has emotional power, but Araki pushes everything too hard and somewhat dilutes it with sonorous orchestral BGM and long, lingering close-ups of tear-stained faces and dead bodies (one shot of those wrapped bodies rattling in a cart, boots hanging out, is powerful – ten of them just dulls the emotional senses). The sheer hopelessness of what the Recon Corps – and thus, effectively, humanity – faces is one of the strongest elements of Shingeki. These guys are out there risking and often sacrificing their lives and for that they get little respect from the general populace. Worse yet, their work truly does seem hopeless. What real signs of progress can Smith point to in justifying both the missions he leads and the sons and daughters he leaves behind? It’s a masterwork of bleak hopelessness, this premise, and when Araki’s foot momentarily eases up on the accelerator in this episode, it hits like a punch to the face.
For me at least, Araki steps off the gas too rarely. He seems to revel in the death and gore to the point of fetishism sometimes, and I just want someone to scream “I get it already!” but no one ever does. I’ll admit that I don’t really feel anything for Eren or Mikasa as people, so the moments that focus on them don’t impact me much – Eren is crucial as a symbol, but as a character he leaves me cold. So of course the eps that focus heavily on them lose something for me, too. But I do feel something for Gunther and Aurou and Petra and Erdo, and for the fact that even cold-fish Levi does too. And the weight of what Erwin bears on his shoulders is one of the most powerful character elements in the show by now. I just wish those things would be allowed to speak for themselves more – I don’t need to see extended montages of cute children and ojii-sans about to be told their loved ones aren’t coming home, accompanied by mournful strings. I get the point, and it speaks loudly enough that it shouldn’t need to be drowned out by a lot of unnecessary embellishment.
In terms of the practicalities of the situation, what really struck me is that for an organization as elite as the Recon Corps, it seems as if there’s a real lack of military discipline. An inordinate amount of time is always spent with officers arguing their case to grunts or junior officers in the face of imminent danger, first off – when it seems that what should be happening is orders being followed, not debates. And then there’s the matter of the soldier Dieter who went back to retrieve the body of his friend Ivan, defying a direct order from no less than Erwin himself. In the process he gets his other friend killed and brings a swarm of titans down on the entire surviving brigade, and would have died himself too if not for Mikasa’s intervention. And what he gets for that is Ivan’s insignia a verbal pat on the shoulder from Levi? I’m baffled by this – it was a disastrous act in direct defiance of orders that jeopardized the lives of everyone in the corps, and resulted in the bodies that had been recovered being abandoned. Shouldn’t there be a court-martial in there somewhere?
Yet for all this – for all their lack of discipline, military success and respect – Erwin’s force is seemingly the best humanity has to offer. And that’s a measure of just how fucked humanity is here, which is one of the things Attack on Titan is brilliant at communicating to the audience. Simply by nature of being willing to actually fight despite hopeless odds and having some sort of proactive agenda, the Recon Corps is the most admirable body we’ve met in this series – and they deserve better than the derision and scorn they receive from an ungrateful public. But in a sense I can’t blame that public, because in their shoes I’d probably be asking “What’s the point?” Eren’s existence at least gives the cause a wild card, a small ray of hope – but the public doesn’t know about that. And those that do know about it seem ready to pounce on the Recon Corps’ repeated failures and rip Eren away from them, wasting his potential to cause the enemy anxiety. Without even knowing who’s the enemy and who’s just incompetent, the true measure of the problem can only be guessed at – but what’s clear is that humanity is on a river of shit without a boat, never mind a paddle. And demonstrating that shows off Araki and Shingeki no Kyoujin at their very best.