Updated: Dec 10, 2021
WARNING: Spoilers for Attack of Titan Season 4, Part 1.
On paper, people have the ability to survive, even under the worst conditions. We are a collection of instincts and impulses which drive our survival and rationale. Empathy is just a tool to ensure that a community of people becomes an asset to each other by looking out for the best interests of each other as well.
But we can honestly see why this system doesn’t work. Empathy is not all-powerful, and a community can be as small as one wants it to be, a neighbourhood, a family, or maybe just one person who you care about more than anything else. Maybe, we watch stories that rip our hearts out to, in a sense, hone this tool of empathy, try to expand it, see if Mufasa’s death gets us to understand why Simba cannot do what’s best for his pride and instead choose to run away, or understand why Captain Miller let go of his own survival attempting to save Private Ryan. This is just one take, no more valid than any other.
Using this, Attack on Titan is one of the prime examples in all of fiction which keeps pushing us to look beyond our first impression, as well as the second and maybe even all subsequent ones. Every single character in this show holds wells of depth which we cannot witness until Isayama allows us to.
The moments of redemption, of reconciliation of closure, are heavily outnumbered by the loss of those we are attached to and can never claim that they, in the end, were fulfilled, whatever that means. Attack on Titan’s primary themes are 100% reliant on our ability to empathise with, well, everyone.
Remember Petra, one of the members of the Levi Squad? Right before her death, she felt… so immune. She had no karmic retribution heading her way, had proven to be one of the most skilled soldiers around, and had a fairly strong screen presence. Isayama knew this, so we even get to see her father request Levi not to let her risk her life at such a young age, leaving us to witness a speechless Levi, not out of stoicism, but guilt.
Every soldier is asked to carry the memory and resolve of their predecessors. There is no way left for them to live, as far as they know, that it's just nature that has screwed them over, that we live in a classical man vs nature world. These extreme emotions, guilt, hatred, sorrow, had to be weaponized further and further, by their great leader Erwin Smith, into ending as many of these tragic tales as possible, to allow us to see as few fathers walking to their daughters’ graves as we can.
The harshest of horrors within Attack on Titan came when they realised how insignificant their existence within the wall actually is. Outside of this small land is a thriving, real world, as real as ours is today, that rejoices for every Sasha, Marlowe and Marco that have been slaughtered.
In truth, the world outside is as complicated as it has always been. Most people outside are also victims of indoctrination, subjugation and oppression, and fight their own battles, unaware of the atrocities committed against the Eldians, creating dissonance for communal interdependence, to risk it at all.
One of the best arcs, which also highlights the idealistic themes of the series, is followed immediately after Sasha’s assassination. At first, it may seem that choosing her to get murdered out of all is a tonal manipulation, letting us know that this is a dark arc by killing the most light-hearted character in an apathetic way, but the way everything follows here on out is truly one of the finest depiction of grief you could get from the death of one insignificant hunter...
Sasha, of course, had an indescribable impact on her comrades-in-arms, especially Connie and Mikasa, who were both haunted by Eren’s seemingly callous laugh, which, in actuality, was acceptance that the prophecy of extinction will come true. But we see that we aren’t allowed to move on from this. From Niccolo, the anti-Eldian chef who found strength in cooking for her, to her father, who made the decision not to go for the other eye, forgive the little assassin that shot her girl and end this cycle in an extremely rare and ideal scenario.
Then there was Kaya, the little girl that was saved by this valiant knight without shining armour or even a weapon. Kaya did not buy into the general hate between Marleyans and Eldians, nor the idea that anyone is to bear the sins they did not commit. She didn’t even hold it against this new girl, Mia, for trying to kill her in order to cover her escape, but the true extent of her love for her saviour, who was as scared of death as she herself was, her foster sister, is revealed when the knife reaches centimetres away from killing Gabi.
For Gabi, for the Braus family, and us, it hurts to see that a seemingly untouchable and exalted girl may be unable to approach a situation like this as nobly as Arthur Braus did, and despite stepping above hatred against entire communities (or maybe not yet having that experience you need to be hateful towards those you don’t even know), a personal loss sticks. Forever.
Finally, perhaps the most divisive moment in the show, at least before the finale, is the choice between Armin Arlert and Erwin Smith. Judging from a small consensus, quite a few people argue against the revival of Armin, for two primary reasons.
Firstly, Erwin Smith is, within the walls of Paradis Island, the most skilled strategist, perhaps even someone who could have stopped the Jaegerists. Despite the Titan threat having ended by the time Levi had to make the choice, it cannot be considered wise not to assume Zeke and Reiner Braun and Zeke Jaeger as a threat to humanity’s survival.
Secondly, some argue that it taints the impact of Armin’s sacrifice in the previous episode, “Hero”, which stands just below Ozymandias as the best episode of a TV Show on IMDb. While neither of these criticisms can be called unjust, it is important to remember that no one, least of all, Levi himself, was satisfied with this decision.
While trying to plead their case to Levi, Eren argues that humanity’s saviour will not be Erwin Smith or he himself, but Armen, the blooming strategist that always tries to see diplomacy and self-sacrifice as the first option, who doesn’t yet have the ability to look at people as chess pieces.
Levi’s basis for his final decision was seemingly a multitude of factors, but the trigger was what Erwin was always curious about. One of these two imagined the world outside with seas, volcanoes, mountains, everything beautiful there is. The other was certain that there ARE more people out there, and was interested in knowing that he was not alone, that others suffer just as much, are fighting just as hard, and the survival of humanity goes beyond what he himself can and cannot do. One can call it fortune, but Erwin did get to prove that his father was right, and spared from the knowledge of what the world outside is truly like.
Erwin Smith is the perfect character that represents the burden of this choice, who gets to live and who doesn’t, that the recruits have to die to give Paradis a chance against the beast. It is thus fitting that his death is a result of someone making an irrational decision in favour of, what he knew but didn’t believe to be, the extent of humanity.