Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the Attack on Titan anime finale.
The Big Picture
- Attack on Titan’s finale stays true to the cynical and destructive tone that has been maintained throughout the series, emphasizing humanity’s capacity for destruction and the repetition of its worst impulses.
- Eren’s character arc showcases his traumatizing experience as a boy and his desire to seek vengeance against the Titans. His morally binary view of the world and inability to see shades of gray contribute to his transformation into a villain.
- Eren’s descent into villainy is marked by his alienation from friends, and quest for power. But, his connection with Mikasa acknowledges that even the most horrific individuals can have loved ones and be important to them.
After a decade of being on-air and the dust has settled, Attack on Titan is finally over. The long-running anime based on the genre-defining manga by Hajime Isayama has been completed, finishing the story of Eren Yaeger and his lifelong quest for freedom. The anime stuck to its guns and remained mostly faithful to the controversial ending that Isayama used to wrap up this saga, and it’s an ending that perfectly sticks to the tone that he has maintained throughout the series: one of cynical empathy, fully embracing humanity’s capability for destruction, and that humanity is perhaps doomed to repeat its worst impulses. That cynical empathy is key to how Isayama perfected a story idea that has been attempted many times before, but never to this devastating an effect: the villain origin story.
Attack On Titan
After his hometown is destroyed and his mother is killed, young Eren Jaeger vows to cleanse the earth of the giant humanoid Titans that have brought humanity to the brink of extinction.
- Release Date
- September 28, 2013
- Marina Inoue, Hiro Shimono, Takehito Koyasu, Yûki Kaji, Josh Grelle, Bryce Papenbrook
How Did Isayama Introduce Us to Eren?
One of the fundamental truths of storytelling is the importance of how we’re introduced to a character, as it can change our relationship with said character and how we’re supposed to feel about them. When we first meet Eren, he’s a young boy with dreams of seeing the world beyond the walls that surround his hometown of Eldia, getting to see the glorious blue ocean that he’s only seen in pictures courtesy of his best friend, Armin Arlet. Nobody in town ever leaves the walls because of the dangerous Titans that roam the lands, and the town is led to believe that they’re the last of humankind. Eren is a stubborn hothead, who will throw himself into any and all conflict, if it means protecting his loved ones or his ideals. Eren’s life changes when the Titans break through the walls and destroy his city, and in the middle of the attack, a Smiling Titan eats Eren’s mother. This permanently traumatizes him for life, filling him with an insatiable need to kill all Titans and do whatever it takes to ensure the freedom of him and his people.
This is an impeccably realized beginning point for Eren’s arc, knowing how it will end. No matter where Eren goes, and no matter how far his sense of morality changes, we will always remember him as this scared young boy crying for his mother. It’s a scenario that’s impossible to not feel some level of empathy for, and it puts the audience on his side in the early majority of the story, where he’s genuinely trying to stop who he thinks are terrible people for the people he considers to be good and worthy. One of the great flaws of Eren’s character is his morally binary view of the world and how hard he tries to force all of his experiences into that binary, as he has difficulty grappling with the idea of their being areas of gray when it comes to human nature. On the one hand, he views himself and his allies as virtuously on the right side of history, no matter how many people they kill or innocent people they put in harm’s way. On the other hand, he can only view his enemies as bloodthirsty monsters, even after getting to know some of these “monsters” as actual people.
Eren Forces the World To Make Sense to Him
This binary view of the world gets its greatest test when Eren befriends people like Reiner Braun and Annie Leonhart, who he initially considers to be friends that he fights with in the military; that is, until he learns that they are both Titan shifters who instigated the attack on the city that killed his mother, albeit for a noble purpose. As you can imagine, Eren doesn’t take kindly to this, and he throws all of their previous experiences away, in favor of the idea that they couldn’t possibly be well-meaning humans with an actual goal in mind. This isn’t helped any when Eren and his friends learn the full scope of what has really been going on. Eren and his people are not the last of humanity, but are descendants of a girl named Ymir, the first person to gain Titan powers. Her husband, the King of Eldia, manipulated her into using her Titan powers to conquer the land of Marley, and then used her body to ensure she would have multiple powered offspring in the future. This lasted until one descendant, Karl Fritz, grew disgusted with the Eldian tyranny, and struck a deal with the Marleyan government; this deal was that all Eldians would have their memories wiped and be forced onto an island for the rest of their lives, forever prejudiced against by Marley.
Needless to say, this is a lot for an edgy boy like Eren to take in. Keep in mind, he’s already been fully used to using his Attack Titan form, so he’s already long given up any attempt at true introspection in the vein of “hey, maybe Titan users aren’t all bad,” even now knowing that most of the Titans he and his friends have killed have been essentially innocent victims. He used this power, and his connection to Historia, the Queen of the island, to put the military in charge of the country; this allows him the privilege to finally explore outside the walls with Armin and Mikasa Ackermann, his unrequited love. After so long, he’s finally reached the sea, and they all enjoy the sight. But, his childhood dream coming true wasn’t enough for him, as once he got what he wanted, he immediately moved the goalpost. Now knowing that there’s an entire country of people that want Eldians dead, he decides they must be taken out, as they will only be safe when they have no more enemies. He wanted a world full of nothing but the ocean and no people, and that’s what he would get.
Eren Only Saw Violence As the Solution
With this goal in mind, Eren masterminded a scheme where he truly descended into full-blown villainy. He alienated himself from his friends, and he used his Titan power to travel in the past via his family memories to ensure that he would gain his Titan power and even ensured his mother would be killed by the Smiling Titan, all to guarantee that he would have the motivation needed to live a life of angry vengeance. Then, he travels to a special dimension where the spirit of Ymir lives, and convinces her to give him power over all Titans, appealing to her lifetime of being held captive by those who want to control her, empowering her with the notion that she can finally choose something for herself. This is genius manipulation, as she’s effectively still serving the wishes of someone else, but Eren uses his empathy to convince her that they are actually similar, and frames her actions in a way that she will see as a free choice. She accepts, and he becomes the Founding Titan, launching an entire wave of Titans to demolish Marley and all Marleyan people. No matter that he’s gotten firsthand experience with some Marleyans being decent human beings with no prejudices against Eldians, his conviction in his beliefs is so strong that he cannot be swayed. His desire to throw the babies out with the bathwater forced his former allies’ hands, and it was ultimately Mikasa’s burden to kill Eren and save the world.
What makes Eren’s trajectory as a villain so effective is that, despite all that he’s gone through in his life, he’s ultimately the same person at his core. This is brilliantly underlined by how his vow to kill all Marleyans is worded in exactly the same way he vowed to kill all Titans, a referendum on how Eren is still a petty child primarily serving his egotistical sense of revenge. As anybody who’s a fan of shows like Smallville or Supernatural knows, most stories of protagonists going “bad” involve some kind of external motivation pushing the hero, like mind control, possession, or continuous brainwashing from a third party. It’s a cheat that ensures the audience doesn’t have to fully grapple with the implications of the actions, because it’s the “other” controlling them. Eren never has that excuse; he has always been defined by his need for violence and asserting his “freedom” over others, and he was proven to be impervious to all external manipulation to the very end. As a character in the show once said, “everyone had to be drunk on something to keep pushing on”, and Eren was always drunk on freedom, and that drove his primal want for violence.
Eren Shares a Lot in Common With the Best Villains
An overview of some of the best villains in recent memory can be boiled down to deeply damaged adults who were incapable of moving past their childhood trauma. The Star Wars prequel trilogy showed how Darth Vader came from an innocent child who lost his mother and forever promised none of his loved ones would die again, even if that promise ultimately killed the love of his life. In Black Panther, Killmonger’s drive for genocidal black liberation comes from seeing his father murdered and having a childhood stolen from him in the name of the political future of Wakanda. Elphaba from Wicked only wanted people to love and understand her, and was met with a cruel world that punished her for her appearance and desires. Eren follows in the tradition of these villains, dooming the world to carnage because of his disappointment that the world at large didn’t measure up to a picture he saw as a child. He died a monster convinced of his righteous heroism, believing that saving his loved ones was worth the lives of millions of innocents.
That said, what truly underlines his story as the best villain origin story of all time is how it never fully forsakes his humanity. One of the penultimate scenes of the finale is Mikasa honoring her connection with Eren at his grave, under the tree they played around as kids. Mikasa, who killed him precisely because of her love and respect for him, finally lets Eren go, moving on with the rest of her life. This is essential because it shows that even the most horrific of people, people who have done unforgivable actions, have loved ones that they were kind and important to. Mikasa knows that Eren became different from who she fell in unrequited love with, but she is honest enough to still acknowledge how important he was to her. Perhaps she can be seen as a stand-in for the audience, reckoning with how our relationship to Eren Yaeger has changed over the years. This sentiment is a perfect encapsulation of the overarching theme of Attack on Titan: that the contradictions of humanity can make monsters of anyone.
Attack on Titan is available to watch now on Crunchyroll in the U.S.