parallel story lines

Attack on Titan Echoes Game of Thrones’ Death Rattle

Photo: FUNimation Entertainment; HBO

Spoilers follow for every season of Attack on Titan and Game of Thrones.

The ultimatum is out. At the end of Attack on Titan’s 80th episode, “From You, 2,000 Years Ago,” and nine years since since the show’s debut, protagonist Eren Yeager initiates his plan to exterminate the vast majority of the human race by “rumbling” the weapons of mass destruction at his disposal: an army of brainless humanoid giants eager to trample the human race underfoot. Eren’s stated goal is to punish the world that has historically persecuted his people, the Eldians, by using the Titan powers that are both the Eldians’ curse and their genetic heritage.

It’s a break-bad moment that, in both the anime and creator Hajime Isayama’s original manga, frames his face like that of a menacing gargoyle, carved from stone and intransigent as he becomes the villain of his own story. You don’t come back from mass murder.

Attack on Titan’s path to this point has been about as wobbly and disconcerting as its titular, grotesquely caricatured behemoths. For most of the fantasy series’s early seasons, the audience is told that humanity lives solely within giant walls erected to protect them from the rampant Titan threat. The world outside? A no-man’s-land. Eren and his friends join the military and help hunt down the Titans right as he discovers he can turn into one at will. We learn over time that Titans aren’t beasts but Eldians who have been changed; that, in fact, there is a whole world beyond the walls; and that the Eldians are trapped in exile behind the walls, robbed of their memories by a conspiracy involving their royal family. Attack on Titan is a story about 2,000 years of violence and misery begetting increasingly more of the same. When the Eldians first discovered the Titan power, their enemies fought them until they managed to persecute the Eldians, ghettoize them, and steal the powers for themselves.

Eren’s mission is, in its indefensibly twisted way, a corrective to that history of violence. And it’s not a bluff, as his old comrades reckon with in the next episode, “Thaw,” which follows the aftermath of his declaration. He really means it when he says, “The Wall Titans will trample every inch of the world beyond this island until every last life beyond our shores is wiped out.”

That declaration, the explosiveness of these episodes, and the overall arc of this season of Attack on Titan collectively bring to mind another final-season heel turn: that of Daenerys Targaryen, who vowed, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood,” rode a black dragon into a city full of civilians, and indiscriminately torched it in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, a series I often fall back on when struggling to explain this highly divisive, dopamine-pumping anime to non-anime watchers. The shows share common references to Norse mythology, including magical trees, ancient creatures linked to those trees, and warriors who lose arms in tragic struggle. They were both adapted from sprawling fantasy texts — George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and Isayama’s manga — that are split into diverging, often conflicting points of view. They share an interest in shock value, viscera, decapitations, and (often problematic) allegory. They have a fair number of incestuous couplings: Jaime and Cersei, Jon and Dany, and Eren and Mikasa, who are in love despite having grown up in the same house as brother and sister. Their production schedules ran across years of high anticipation after shockingly brutal first seasons. They both led fans to petition for a change to the endings of their respective stories. They even share a few minor character designs because Isayama is apparently a Thrones fan. And their protagonists start out likable but grow so corrupted by power that the true heroes rally to stop them.

Game of Thrones has been criticized for ending in a cynical, nihilistic way, framing Dany’s actions in “The Bells” as the result of an inherent, genetic madness rather than a choice that felt earned. Eren’s final-season pivot is framed just as nihilistically, if not more so, spinning out of the revelation of a causal loop he created. In season four, as Eren and his brother, Zeke, explore the memories of their father, Grisha, they uncover the night he murdered the Eldian royal family and its children and took the power of their Founding Titan for himself. Attack on Titan reveals it was Eren who, by looking at this moment, managed to traverse time and goad his father to kill them, setting in motion the events of the entire series since Eren’s father gave him those same Titan powers that first manifested in season one. Put more simply: After four seasons of events that occurred only after Eren’s dad killed the royal family, stole their Titan powers, and passed them on to Eren, Eren went back in time to tell his dad — who didn’t want to kill children — to kill the royal family and steal the Titan powers. Eren’s Back to the Future moment leads, eventually, to genocide.

Time-travel paradoxes can be plenty of fun in films like Looper or even weepily compelling in one like Interstellar, but this one feels literally created ex nihilo, or “out of nothing,” a phrase that comes up a lot when you read about paradoxes. Though it is foreshadowed in season three that a form of time travel (or, in this case, a kind of time omnipresence) will take place, making Eren responsible for both the start of his arc and his ultimate turn to villainy robs the evolution of its meaning, leaving behind an empty void for both Eren and the viewer. It feels like a moment out of Albert Camus’s play Caligula, in which Caligula is crushed by his own nihilism. As the Roman emperor chokes Caesonia, his words echo Eren’s state of mind: “I live, I kill, I exercise the rapturous power of a destroyer, compared with which the power of a creator is merest child’s play.”

It’s not that Eren’s rage isn’t justified. In “From You, 2,000 Years Ago,” we are shown the backstory of Ymir, the first Titan child, who lived 2,000 years before the events of the series. Her subjugation is horrifying; despite the fact that she became a military asset for the early Eldians, nothing could save her from being dehumanized in life and condemned to an eternity of servitude in death or save her descendants from centuries of pain. But rather than use his power to mete out some strategic advantage for his comrades or broker a peace compromise with the nations of the world, Eren would rather succumb to the hate, watch the rest burn, and make enemies of his loved ones.

There’s a whiplash to this. Narratively, arcs like those of Caligula, Daenerys, and Eren are more satisfying as cautionary tales. No one with a conscience roots for mass murder. But as Game of Thrones’ finale showed us, once you’ve let an audience fall in love with reprehensible characters, dramatizing their deaths often isn’t enough. If you spend season after season valorizing characters only to rip the mask off at the end, audiences will crave a cogent, well-established reasoning for it, a counterargument for the time and sympathy they’ve invested. The characters’ nihilism, ironically, needs to say something concrete. As audiences judged Game of Thrones, over time we’ll ultimately judge Attack on Titan — not by the onscreen cruelty it portrayed but by what it said about that cruelty once the dust is settled.

Attack on Titan Echoes Game of Thrones’ Death Rattle