“On that day, mankind received a grim reminder”
DISCLAIMER: This rewatch will include spoilers for seasons 1-3 of Attack on Titan. If you have not watched all 3 currently available seasons of Attack on Titan, I discourage you from reading further. Even though I am a manga reader, I will not be talking about spoilers for the upcoming season.
ALSO DISCLAIMER: We are sub, not dub, in this house. If you’re a dirty dub watcher, get the fuc– I’m just kidding, watch it however you like (but the dub is inferior, in my opinion).
Television has always had a crutch that movies lack. Yes, they can expand on plots and have more time to build characters, but this exhaustive look at storytelling can come at the sacrifice of structure and focus. This is why procedurals and monsters/murders/cases/trials/patients-of-the-week have always found a comfortable home there. As television has expanded, and become more popular, we enter the age of prestige TV, where serialization of individual plots become more prominent. Major questions aren’t answered in the episode. Then, questions aren’t answered in the season. Maybe there’s lingering questions by the series end, accidental or purposeful.
I can only count on maybe one hand how many prestige television series I’ve felt have had complete successful journeys from beginning to end. I suspect that, at the end, Attack on Titan will be one of those. Part of that feeling of completeness, succinctness, structure, and focus is owed to Hajime Isayama’s strength in plot, where he waits to answer questions until the time is right. And when he does, the entire show changes (and this happens several times). Included in this is the full understanding of the title of this pilot episode.
Let’s consider the perspective of this episode, and how it’s changed now that we know all that we do from the 3 seasons of information we have. When we first watched the show, the perspective of the grim reminder was that a giant titan appeared and knocked a hole in the wall, allowing smaller titans inside the walls who then kill the citizens inside. It operates like a zombie thriller — a bleak survival horror where the only option is to run.
Now for how this has changed — The Colossal Titan is Bertoldt Hoover, and he comes from a separate nation called Marley that desires the oppression and death of all Eldians, especially Paradisian Eldians, the ones living on the island behind the walls. He appears at Wall Maria in Year 845 and knocks a hole in the wall, allowing the normal-sized dumb titans inside where they terrorize, dismember, and devour the citizens of Shiganshina District. While this is still survival horror, it changes from one of pure monster and fantasy to an intentional terrorist action.
Structurally, this first episode is a great representation of Titan’s commitment to non-linear storytelling. We open with the most important/exciting incident related to the plot (Colossal Titan appearance), flashback to several decades earlier to introduce the base concept of humans fighting titans (Sadies commanding the Scouts outside the walls), and then return to the present (but before the Colossal appearance) to slow the pace and establish and build the main characters. In that time, we also establish the central mystery around which the entire show will revolve — Grisha Jaeger’s basement, which we won’t get back to for another 54 episodes.
When watching with a friend, they pointed out to me that from this first episode on, the central conflict never gets solved — it only continues to expand and get worse as our knowledge of reality deepens. To me, this is an essential reason for the story’s cohesiveness where I see other television shows falter. They meander or new conflicts take place of the original, central one (To clarify, I do not think this is a problem with episodic shows like sitcoms or blank-of-the-weeks, but more with the serialized shows that I’m trusting not to waste my time). There is a common piece of advice in storytelling to, “enter late, and leave early,” in terms of the conflict (I most often hear it used in conversations surrounding scene structure). We enter this story so late into the conflict, several later episodes have to take us through how we even got to the pilot episode for different individual characters and what their perspective of history adds to the pilots context. Like a great mystery, we are continually peeling back layers in this show that change everything we understood about the past.
– During the first ODM sequence before the titles, I love that it isn’t a random character, but is actually a young Keith Sadies fighting as the current commander of the Scouts. You can also see a young Erwin in the background. This isn’t revealed until S3E11.
– Hannes mentions repaying Grisha Jaeger for a favor when he offers to save Carla by fighting the Smiling Titan/Dina. This favor was Grisha curing an epidemic. One of the people cured was Hannes’ wife.
– Worst way for your second wife to get introduced to your first wife.
– A reoccurring beat we’ll see is the individual soldier’s sacrifice in the grand scheme of an ongoing, hopeless conflict. When the Scouts bring Moses’ mother the only body part of her son that remains (his arm), she asks the commander if he was any help in the battle for humanity. Sadies, being an incompetent commander, sees no point in Moses’ death, and offers his mother no comfort. He says that her sons death was pointless, that they haven’t learned any new information about titans, or the world outside (jeez, no wonder the citizens complain about their taxes going to this faction). This definitely aids the bleak tone of the show, but we’re going to keep coming back to these ideas of glory, nationalism and sacrifice in what does it actually mean to be a dead soldier in a conflict.
– ‘That Day’ is a recurrent phrase that refers to peaceful times interrupted by acts of terror/loss of innocence. It is brought up several times in this episode that the Garrison has become lazy, that the government has outlawed talk about the outside, all in fear of disrupting the 100 years of peace they have experienced. Then an outside force comes and invades.
– Eren’s interest in the outside diverges from Armin’s in subtle ways, and we get an initial taste of that here. To him, the walls are a cage, the people are ignorant, and that makes them ‘no better than cattle.’
You can’t really beat that final scene. It’s a great hook. Sawano’s score comes barreling out the gate and never lets up for the duration of the show. The death of Eren’s mother is the impetus, the pathos that will carry the rest of the story.
With our new context, we have to consider what this is saying about Eren’s character and acts of war against innocent civilians. Even if we haven’t been directly affected, the very idea immediately conjures images in people’s minds. 9/11. London bombings. I think of Hawaii and what it must have felt like for their citizens during the 2018 emergency missile alert amongst all the concerns about North Korean ICBM’s — to feel that an enemy nation was attacking and you were all about to lose your lives. What do events like these instill in the affected population? Nationalism, for one thing.
And what can nationalism justify? Almost anything.