Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
There are potential spoilers for Season Four in this article.
I am loving the final season of Attack on Titan in both the manga and the anime because of the many difficult questions it raises. One of the biggest ethical dilemmas has been one it has been asking under the radar all along.
How far is too far to achieve your goals? And does that make you a hero or a villain?
There are three characters, in particular, I want to look at because they most embody these questions, and for whatever reason, I find many reviewers and commenters overlooking it. Those people are Erwin Smith, the former leader of the Survey Corps; Willy Tybur, the head of the powerful Tybur family of Marley; and Eren Yeager, member of the Survey Corps and current holder of the Attack, Founding, and War Hammer Titans.
A School Boy’s Obsession
Erwin’s story begins as a schoolboy listening to a history lesson. He asks about human history outside the walls to the teacher, who also happens to be his father. His father partially answers his curious son with a theory about the King of the Walls somehow erasing the memories of the people. At this time, as far as the people inside the walls knew, they were the last remnants of the human race, thanks to the rise of the human-devouring titans. Erwin’s father, however, dares to think beyond those limitations and these possibilities stick with Erwin for the rest of his life. More so given that his father is killed because of them, which only inspires the young boy to a Batman-level obsession with the answer to his question.
This gnawing need drives everything Erwin does from joining the Survey Corp, up until his death at Shiganshina, where he finally relinquishes that need. While he is loyal to the fate of humanity, by his own admission to Levi, his longtime obsession is the stronger voice. And to that end, Erwin was willing to risk countless lives to get those answers, from those who served under him, to the civilians inside the walls.
His recklessness, however, is offset by his tactical brilliance and courage. Erwin doesn’t spend lives without purpose or reason. The more lives he risks, the more dire the circumstances were that demanded it. Because of this, Erwin is regarded by those soldiers outside of the Survey Corps and many others around him as a devil. Someone who, despite his brilliance and acumen, does not hesitate to risk lives unnecessarily if it will grant him victory.
However, the most remarkable aspect of Erwin’s obsession isn't the brilliance or casualty rate, which even for the death-ridden Survey Corps was deemed to be very high. It was his ability to conceal his true motives beneath his secondary desire for humanity’s survival, making the latter appear as the primary to all but Levi.
While it was secondary to him if pressed, Erwin still showed a strong commitment to his race’s future. His humility and willingness to put himself on the frontline, even using torture and losing an arm, is what inspired the Survey Corps to follow him into hell many times over. The only person who knew of the truth was Levi.
I think the reason why many fans don’t hate Erwin like they do Eren during the Marley Arc is because of how low-key he played his cards. We had gotten used to him as the stoic and calm commander before becoming aware of his willingness to spend as many lives as necessary for personal reasons. More so because the ones who call him out on this are characters we were already set up to dislike or mistrust.
The Genocidal Statesman
Willy Tybur is the current head of the elite Tybur family of Marley. His pedigree is everything that lifestyle appears to be, despite being Eldians. Well-mannered, well-spoken, and a gifted diplomat, Willy, like Erwin, was a cult of personality who had the ability to inspire the loyalty of many different people. However, he was far better at it, given the diversity of people whose trust he was able to gain, whereas Erwin’s was limited to the Survey Corps. A definite asset given Marley’s wars with its neighbors and imperialistic ambitions.
His family was considered heroes of Marley despite their race because of their role in the independence of the Marleyans from the ancient Eldians and their titans. However, this was all a longtime lie that Willie later reveals. He confesses publicly that the Tybur family did have a role in Marley’s independence, but it was working with the Eldian king at that time, not the oppressed Marleyans. The king, so grief-stricken by the bloody history of the Eldian empire, conspires with the Tybur ancestors to cause an internal titan war and remove himself and a portion of the Eldians to Paradis Island.
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Willie is able to use this news to his own advantage, using his confession as a plea of both forgiveness and unification for his declaration of war against Paradis Island. Or more specifically, against Eren Yeager, who promptly kills him on the spot when he transforms into a titan right as Willy makes his declaration.
Yet like most politicians, Willy’s benign appearance hides a more intense and darker truth. After his death at the hands of Eren Yeager, it is revealed that his true motivation was to improve the image of the Eldians living in Marley by wiping out the Eldians on Paradis Islands. He regards his Eldian blood as a curse and is just as bigoted against his kin on the Island as the Marleyans.
Willy is also fully aware that his public appearance will bring about an attack from the Paradis Eldians, though he is unsure of the means. In a private conversation with Theo Magath, and a rare moment of losing control, he calls his kinsmen devils and that any Eldians killed served a higher purpose. Moreover, he labels the high command of the Marleyan military incompetent, making their deaths also a small price to pay for his grand ambitions.
Willy Tybur was so obsessed with this goal that he even willingly put his own life on the line, knowing he was probably going to die as well. Marley needed Paradis’ resources and the world needed to unite under one banner after Marley had made war on them. That could only be accomplished by sacrificing himself and the people at his public appearance, very much like Erwin with his previous cavalry charges against the titans. Willy had to be the tip of the spear.
Underneath the gentle words and humility, Willy had extreme violent intentions towards the “devils of Paradis Islands.” He wanted a genocidal, all-out war and subsequently got one. However, I don’t think it turned out how he hoped it would.
The Lone Wolf
Of the three examples I’ve chosen, Eren Yeager is the most different as well as the most similar to Erwin and Willy. Attack on Titan is his story. We saw him change from the selfish and angry young boy who watched his mother get eaten by a titan, to a dedicated soldier fighting for the survival of humanity, to finally becoming the global threat that everyone feared.
Eren’s obsession originally was the destruction of all titans. He wanted to be the tip of the spear against the man-eaters. He even showed no fear of the all-mighty Colossal Titan when the Battle of Trost began. After discovering his titan powers, the young soldier began to see himself as even more critical to humanity’s survival, and Erwin favoring him as a high priority only furthered this view.
This all changed during his capture by the Riess family, where he is chained up along with his comrade and friend, Historia. He is forced to relive how he actually gained his powers. Despite the horrors he has already seen, Eren is broken by the realization that his own father killed most of Riess family and then forced him to become a titan around the time Shiganshina fell at the series’ start. The trifecta being that he also now remembered eating his own father not long afterward. It was his father’s plan so that Eren could inherit the Founding Titan.
Eren no longer sees himself as the savior of humanity. He sees himself as being worse than the titans for what his father and he himself had done. He wholeheartedly agrees to Rod Riess’s plan for Historia to become a titan herself and kill him, taking his powers and relieving himself of the tremendous guilt and agony forced upon him. From this point on, Eren begins to see himself as part of a team, becoming less obstinate. He still hates titans, but he is no longer blinded by this hate.
Things take another twist at the end of the Battle of Shiganshina. At the cost of almost the entire Survey Corps, Eren’s hometown is retaken. With Mikasa, Levi, and Hanji in tow, they return to the family basement that his father had given him the key to. It had been the sole reason why so much blood had been shed since the beginning of the series.
There, Eren discovers the truth. He learns humanity exists outside the walls and that their society is more advanced than the group living on the island. He learns his people are called Eldians and are hated by the world for their ancient empire and use of the titans to maintain and expand it. But most of all, he learns that the titans are not monsters from hell, but human beings turned into titans by the Marleyans.
Here is where we see the great shift in Eren’s then-cooling obsession. His hate reignites, but flips from the titans that plagued his homeland to the nation that released them on his people. The elimination of all titans does not bring Eren peace as it does his friends, but he gets anxious as he stares across the ocean, burdened with the knowledge that his father has gifted him with.
In the next four years, Marley sends more ships to the island, making Eren even more anxious despite their capture. His friends see this as an opportunity to change the minds of the world that they are not the monsters they’ve been told they were. That is not what Eren sees, however. Rather, he sees the larger threat that most Marleyans and the world are not going to just let the Paradis Island Eldians slide. This is only confirmed by the defectors from Marley who allied with them, explaining Marley’s intention of invading Paradis Island.
Paradis Island needs time and the lack of it makes Eren more and more frustrated and angry. The final straw appears to be the plan to turn Historia into a baby factory by having her turn into a titan to then eat Eren’s half-brother, Zeke, possessor of the Beast Titan. Already burdened by the inherited memories of his Attack Titan, Eren starts to change, eventually taking matters into his own hands and going AWOL to infiltrate Marley. While his prejudice of the Marleyans softens somewhat after learning that not all of their people are evil, he still believes that the majority still hate them.
In a twisted way, it shows maturity. Eren is no longer motivated by his emotions like his younger years. He's aware of the severity of what he's going to do and what it will cost him this time. He accepts that burden as he drops all delusions of glory or vengeance.
By the time of the Battle of Liberio, the change is pretty much complete. Eren is now driven. He willingly causes collateral damage when brutally assassinating Willy Tybur and the high command. He goes AWOL and manipulates the Survey Corps into battle before they would have liked. And though his instincts were correct as Marley had been gathering forces to invade his home, Eren alienates the people closest to him to the point where most of them don’t recognize the angry but good-natured young boy who joined the Survey Corps seven years ago.
Right off the bat, Eren is proven to be no leader, unlike Erwin and Willy. While he is a good soldier, he is also too prone to going off the reservation when he feels compelled to. Other than his friends, he is seen not as a leader of the people but rather as an asset to acquire or an enemy to be eliminated. When he had led a charge at the Battle of Trost, he got his entire squad killed with the exception of Armin, whom he saved.
However, despite these flaws, Eren is the focal point around which other people make their decisions and events happen. Ironically, he became the important symbol his younger self wanted to be, but he is far removed from what he had in mind. And of the three people here, he is the most goal-oriented.
"I don't have time to worry if it's right or wrong. You can't hope for a horror story with a happy ending"
— Young Eren Yeager
A Monster’s Paradise
Over the course of its run, Attack on Titan slowly has evolved from a typical shonen hero story to one far more complex and difficult. I see this most in how the audience perceives these three men. Of the three, Eren is the most vilified.
His actions in Liberio demonstrate a level of deceit and callousness that we are used to seeing from villains, but not from him. Yet both Erwin and Willie did the same thing. While the series shows other characters making difficult life and death decisions as well, they are all almost hindered by the weight of them because they don’t have a longview vision that carries them through it. The light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.
Eren and Willy are willing to commit genocide for the same reasons: survival. It's ironic that in a way both of their ambitions literally feed off each other as if it were one plan. All three men willingly manipulate circumstances to further their goals. And they are driven by an existential need to accomplish something that conflicts with their relationships and own humanity.
Friends, family, comrades, and civilians become pawns tossed about like branches floating between large ships. The greater hands of players playing the long game. To this end, all three people make sacrifices, with things not always going according to their plans.
Erwin ultimately nearly wipes out the Survey Corps and nearly destroys a city and risked another for the sake of his obsession. Willy deliberately decimated his nation’s military and civilian population, damaging Liberio and creating the conditions for Eren and the Survey Corps to cripple the city, as well as unexpectedly lose the War Hammer Titan to an already powerful Eren Yeager. His actions plunge the world into a war that will nearly destroy it.
Eren sacrifices all of his close connections, causing two of their deaths, and chooses to become the very monster that the world thinks his kind are and that turned him into an orphan. For all three men, this is for the sake of victory. Whether that was victory of knowledge, gaining respect, or survival.
All three had people around them that agreed with their vision, but who could not fathom the cost it would entail or be willing to pay it if they did know. All three men had obsessions that were inevitably tied to violence. Goals that could only be achieved through the willing and unwilling sacrifices of others, as well as themselves.
Attack on Titan is a franchise about monsters, but we are finding out that the monsters are not just the titans. It has been raising this question from day one. Some in low-key ways, such as Erwin asking a young Eren who the real enemy was after the Battle of Trost. And others more high profile such as the revealing of comrades Riener, Annie, and Bertolt as enemy titan shifters and the ones responsible for the tragedies that befall the Eldians inside the walls. Titans go from being the main enemy, to becoming scapegoats and tools of more Machiavellian schemes.
From selfish motivations to racism, while not grotesque human-eating machines, humanity is steadily revealed to be arguably worse than the titan threat.
I think that when the series in both the anime and the manga end, the question we the audience are going to be left with is who was really the bigger threat to humanity’s survival: the titans or humanity itself?
And it is forcing it’s us to confront the more disturbing reality that there are some monsters we are more willing to accept than others.
© 2021 Jamal Smith