If you know anime, you know Attack on Titan. Even if you don’t know anime, you probably know Attack on Titan. Its meteoric rise to mainstream came quickly after its debut in 2013, quickly appealing to the tastes of a culture that wanted gritty and lethal action. It has since become one of the biggest gateway anime of the 2010s, and all time.
It did this through impeccable production values on the part of Wit Studio, with twisting plot where nothing felt certain, and sheer hype. The first season of Attack on Titan is a powerful and upwards climbing show, so its absence was strongly felt when it dropped off for four years. The manga suffered production issues and faced delays, and the anime waited patiently to give it time to get ahead. However, when Attack on Titan returned in 2017, all was not the same.
There was hype, naturally, but the series had become much more calculating in dispensing that hype. It was clear that we were building up to something, with both season 2 and season 3 part 1, in a way that their predecessor had not been. Before, they delivered on our expectations quickly, within a handful of episodes. Now, they were playing a longer game, and as the wait became shorter, the tension of waiting for this payoff became painful. There was still plenty of that spark that had made the series so dominant, but now we were building up higher than before.
Then, season 3 part 2 came, and in the span of roughly 60 episodes, it became clear that every previous moment was leading to this. This is your official spoiler warning, because from here I will be diving into each part of the journey and how it led to where we are today, waiting for the final season.
I feel almost silly having to describe the plot, because if you’re interested enough to read this, then you ought to be interested enough to save yourself from spoilers. However, here we go: Attack on Titan takes place in a world where humanity has been driven behind massive walls to keep them safe from the giant man-eating monsters named Titans. Eren Yeager is a young boy living in the outermost parts of the wall when two sentient Titans appear and crush humanity’s fragile sense of safety. From there, he and his childhood friends, Armin and Mikasa, join the military in hopes of getting revenge on the Titans and reclaiming their home and mankind’s freedom.
The first season is dedicated almost entirely to setting up the world, the conflict, and Eren. Armin, Mikasa, and Levi get some screentime, but the rest of his squad get mostly ignored, but their time will come. As Eren nearly dies in his first battle and discovers his ability to transform into a Titan, he must come to grips with this new power and learn to master it on behalf of the military. This revelation shakes their world, and Eren must hone and focus his hatred of Titans if he is going to become powerful enough to defeat them.
The primary antagonist of the first season, Annie, a fellow Titan-shifter, is more of a force of nature than a character herself. She possesses a similarly sized Titan and is roughly the same power level as Eren, but she is much more knowledgeable about her abilities and competent in employing them. Unfortunately, it is pretty obvious that she is the Female Titan as soon as she shows up in Titan form, but they already withhold so much from the audience that it’s hard to fault them one small weak reveal.
The season shows humanity’s darkest moments, where there is no hope until Eren returns from the bowels of a Titan. It is this heel turn that makes Attack on Titan one of the optimistic anime, returning from the brink of despair to give mankind a fighting chance. Optimism is not defined by its positive attitude, but by holding that shred of hope even as it seems utterly futile, and holding onto it until it doesn’t. These low points enable the show to reach its highs.
If the Scouts are not destroyed when the Titans appear at Trost, then it means nothing when Eren is able to patch the hole in the wall. If Levi squad is not decimated, then Eren’s victory over Annie does not mean as much as it would. Season one does a phenomenal job of building this world as a real place with grisly stakes and consequences. It bounces between victory and defeat, and its lightning quick pacing can leave the viewer breathless.
And then we come to season 2, the misfit of the family. A work of art in its own right, but the heroes do not pick up a win this whole arc. Eren gets kidnapped, Erwin loses an arm, and the Survey Corps loses a large part of its ranks just to retrieve Eren. They might discover the identities of the Armored and Colossal Titans, but the cost at which they find out is too great. And with the betrayal of the Titan-shifters Reiner, Bertholdt, and Ymir, they don’t know who to trust, and certainly not their own government.
Season 2 is much more devoted to its character work than its predecessor. The side characters get a whole arc to shine, even though I couldn’t have told you the difference between Jean or Reiner before the Titans trapped them in that fortress. Season 2 is now about building up, with a longer timeline in mind than the first season. The information comes slowly, or just not at all.
You have no idea what Reiner and Bertholdt’s motivations are for betraying the Scouts, or why they’re so reticent about the atrocities they committed. There’s no clear reason why they’d kidnap Eren, as he doesn’t seem special among Titan-shifters. It is at this point that the mystery surrounding how humans turn into Titans, and Eren’s cellar back home becomes suffocating. It dogs every step that the show takes.
So season 2 was short, and it didn’t offer a lot compared to season 1, I can understand why a lot of people were disappointed when it first aired. However, with the benefit of being able to see what they were building up to, I can easily say that it was worth it.
Looking back, season 3 part 1 appears to be a companion to season 2, rather than one cohesive unit with part 2. The drip feed of information is still there, especially now as we learn about the main casts’ childhoods in greater depth, and how it informs their behavior now. Part 1 has its own big reveals around the Founding Titan, like season 2 had the identities of the Armored and Colossal Titans, but now the spider-web of deception grows greater as the history of the kingdom becomes apparent. Learning about Historia’s royal background and the Ackermans’ former allegiance goes a long way to giving the lore multiple layers, as well as fueling this story arc.
And then, season 3 part 2. The buildup is finished, it is time for that glorious climax that it feels like this has all been leading up to. The first three seasons of Attack on Titan clock in at around 24 hours, and it is worth it for the approximately 5 minutes that Levi fights the Beast Titan.
I still can’t identify the feeling I felt as I watched Levi dismantle the Beast Titan in a fit of unholy fury and with new levels of technical expertise. The closest I’ve come to describing it is ecstasy. It is a new height of my anime viewing career, and I don’t know if I will ever reach it again. All of my emotional investment came to a head, and I could recommend this near perfect show on the strength of that payoff alone.
After following these characters through the tragedies that define their lives, it re-contextualizes what is otherwise a really well done fight scene. They have clawed their way through the worst things a person could ever experience with grit and determination to stake a flag for the human race. It is beyond hype, it is beyond triumph, it defies words and any description would ultimately minimize this genre defining work of animation, writing, and voice acting.
Now, I know that Levi vs. the Beast Titan is not the actual climax of the series. There is a fourth season coming up and I actually expect it to live up to what came before. This is merely an analysis of the path that Attack on Titan has taken in the past seven years, and how each season has built on the victories and defeats of what came before it. I think it is almost unprecedented to have a series be this consistently good. Even Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood’s first couple of arcs were sort of weak as they covered material the original had already done.
Attack on Titan is truly a cultural phenomenon, and I hope that you’re already on board, because if you’re this far in that means that you spoiled like 75% of the series for yourself just to read an essay. I hope to return after the fourth season concludes with that ever so smug I told you so, that I knew it would be a masterpiece from beginning to end. I’ve been wrong before, but I have never so desperately wanted to be right.