Part 2 of Attack on Titan Season 3 has been a bumpy ride so far, but “Perfect Game” finally manages to capture the near-perfect balance of grim spectacle and bloody horror that made the franchise famous in the first place. This is the kind of chapter that focuses more on mood and raw emotion over advancing the plot, where we zero in on that terribly familiar fallout that comes when our heroes realize that all of their options are bad, and the odds of their survival border on zero. Bertholdt isn’t holding back as the Colossal Titan, and the Beast Titan is making quick work of the remaining recruits from a distance. Armin is already questioning his ability to lead his friends into battle, Eren is given little choice but to try and use brute force to stop Bertholdt (you can guess how well that goes), and Erwin is left along with Levi to figure out which path the survivors should take: the one that leads them to certain annihilation, or the one that only ends with most of them dying horribly so that a scant few can have a chance.

This is the Attack on Titan I love the most, the one that gets down and dirty in the trenches with its soldiers. The production values are much more consistent now than they were last week, but the true success of “Perfect Game” is in how it proves that AoT doesn’t need amazing visuals to get the most out of its story, provided that creative framing can make up the difference. Take the Beast Titan’s assault on the rookies, for instance. This giant bastard is standing hundreds of yards away from the wall, crushing boulders in his hands and flinging them into the city like the world’s largest shotgun pellets. The result is positively brutal, and the episode definitely gets some mileage out of all the gory spectacle, but what really sells this scene are the peripheral details. The Beast Titan winds up his pitch as if he were a literal pitcher in the middle of a baseball game (which begs the question of whether or not the sport exists in this universe). Erwin and Levi stand stone-still and calmly work out the details of their impending doom as the younger scouts are losing their minds just a few feet away, with the shrapnel from the Beast Titan’s missiles whizzing by constantly.

It’s funny, terrifying, and mundane in equal measure, which perfectly describes the different experiences soldiers have when coping with war. My father was an Army Ranger, and one story that I’ve never forgotten is of the time his unit was taking sniper fire, and it wasn’t until hours later that my dad noticed a hole in his pack, which led to discovering a single can of corn with a flattened bullet jammed inside of it. It was funny to him even back then, in the middle of the war, but when I was a kid, I could only feel queasy at the thought of mere inches being the difference between whether or not my dad’s life (and my own future) could have been snuffed out in an instant.

This gets to the heart of Erwin’s struggle this week, when he realizes that he’s not going to make it to that basement after all. Despite Armin and Jean’s best efforts to distract Bertholdt, Eren gets punted into the wall and knocked out of commission, which leaves the rest of the scouts one choice out of two terrible options. Even Levi is willing to bank on a full retreat, seeing as none of them are bound to survive either way, but Erwin knows he can rally the recruits and buy Levi the opportunity he needs to kill the Beast Titan, but it will only work if Erwin himself is the one to lead the charge. He’s ordering the men out on a suicide run anyway, and without a leader’s coordination, there’s no chance in hell that they’ll stay in formation long enough for Levi to reach the Beast. So even after climbing that mountain of bodies and fighting tooth and nail to discover the truth that lies in the Jaeger basement, Erwin has to admit that his time is up.

One of the especially shaky recruits makes the point that, if death is certain either way, there’s no difference between dying like a hero on the battlefield or deserting, and Erwin absolutely agrees. Of course it doesn’t matter whether you fight or run when you’re about to be torn to shred by rocks from all directions. But on a spiritual level, that harsh reality is also the furthest thing from the truth. Throughout the episode, the dead whose bodies have paved the path back to Shiganshina haunt Erwin, and giving in to empty fatalism now would mean admitting that every single one of those lost lives was a waste. This is an impossibility for Erwin, so he rallies his men one last time and reminds them that it will be the responsibility of the living to make meaning out of their own accepted ends.

There’s a certain level of questionable romanticism in that line of thinking that I’ve never been able to reconcile, but Attack on Titan has always gotten around this by making its conflict one of literal survival – even with the Titans’ story becoming more and more complicated, the stakes for humankind have just been survival from the beginning. Putting the potentially messy revelations of future chapters aside, this makes AoT’s allegory easy to go along with for me. Right now, the battle lines are still clear. Sympathetic or not, the Titans are the enemy who need to be stopped, and the sacrifice Erwin and his men make is all the nobler for its clarity of purpose. When Levi made his leap toward the Beast Titan just before the credits rolled, I was on the edge of my seat, and I’m dying to see how things play out next week. This all made for a thrilling and emotional episode of Attack on Titan, proof that the show hasn’t lost its mojo yet, even if it might not be as consistent as I’d like.

Still, I can’t help but think of my dad’s story about the bullet in the can. I was barely old enough to understand why the Gulf War was even a thing in the first place, and the next twenty years only further complicated my understanding of the means and ends through which wars are waged. I’m wondering whether or not Erwin got lucky, because for all of his grief over not making it to Grisha Jaeger’s basement, Erwin’s presumable death is still a prototypical hero’s end. I don’t know what’s down in that basement, but I have enough hunches to guess that it will only make the lines of the Human/Titan War messier, and what should happen to our surviving heroes then? When the conflict becomes so morally grey that it becomes impossible to convince the soldiers on the front lines that all of this carnage has a greater purpose, then the moral certainty that’s been used to justify everything has been lost. In most wars, the men and women on the front lines aren’t guaranteed a narratively satisfying arc to conclude their lives. Sometimes death comes in a final desperate gambit for a hard-won victory, and sometimes you get to live because you happened to pack the right vegetables that morning.


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