This Attack on Titan review contains spoilers.
Attack on Titan Season 3 Episode 11
“The story of my past…as a mere bystander.”
Attack on Titan has been offered a welcome period of reflection now that all of the big Reiss Family chaos is over. The show still moves forward and it’s not as if there’s no danger in the lives of Eren and company, but concise storytelling allows for some time to dig into the past and play with some gooey character development.
Last episode opened things up with a deep look into the past of Kenny and Levi and this episode does very much the same thing, but with Grisha Jaeger, albeit told through the perspective of Keith “Bystander” Sadies. What’s especially engrossing about this idea is that right from the start the episode makes it clear that Commander Sadies is essentially useless. He’s a supporting player in this story that doesn’t actively accomplish anything, but the point of this story is to highlight the futility of feeling useless.
“Bystander” begins with a two-month time jump since the crowning of the “Cattle Farming Goddess” and the first half of the installment revels in how the new government has settled in and the wheels of progress that are in full effect.
The military has been facing a tough lot since there has been poor turnaround in the Survey Corps as a result of so many of the formerly corrupt military police are now detained. That means a lot of green, inexperienced fighters taking up the Titan cause. Bodies for battle are useless if they don’t properly understand what they’re up against. In spite of this tactical setback, there are still been plenty of hopeful developments since Historia took control. For instance, the general quality of life for citizens has skyrocketed due to how the shining ore from Reiss’ chapel provides a constant source of light for the public.
During this time Eren has also been refining his hardening ability to help out the community (although the line, “I hear your hardening experiments are going well,” sounds like the opening dialogue from some Attack on Titan slash fiction…). Hange has been instrumental with his progress, but she’s a little worried about the fact that the more that Eren practices his Titan skills the more pain his body experiences. Hange doesn’t know how much he’ll be able to endure. Levi even hypothesizes that the human body may have a finite amount of times that it can activate this skill and suggests that they slow down with their plan.
Eren has a hard time accepting this, especially when he’s had months to get his fighting spirit up. He’s more determined to finish the cause then to come out of the other side all right. Mikasa is sure to play nurse and have his back whenever he needs it (and even when he doesn’t).
Accordingly, these hardening skills have been fundamental in the assembly of a sufficiently badass Titan killing apparatus. It’s a giant battering ram-guillotine hybrid that’s cleverly hidden into one of the walls at Trost and can cleanly eliminate a Titan when he pops in to investigate. Not only that, but it allows for them to kill Titans without a single soldier needing to fight and put themselves in danger. Gamechanger.
When discussing the future, Eren experiences a rather serendipitous thought about their former instructor, Keith Sadies, who may have answers about his dad. This inspires Eren and his fellow Scouts to talk to the man about who his father really was and what he was up to. The results dominate the second half of the episode as Keith not only explores the significance of Grisha Jaeger to Shiganshina, but also Keith’s curious friendship with the man.
Keith originally found Grisha twenty years ago when he was wandering outside of Wall Maria with absolutely no memories of who he was. Keith takes sympathy on the man, welcomes him within the Walls, and helps him build his new life. Grisha would go on to become a prestigious doctor in the community and take a wife named Carla who would go on to birth Eren. In fact, the news that at one point Grisha saved Shiganshina from a plague is actually something that Hannes briefly eludes to in the series’ very first episode! One of the most satisfying aspects of “Bystander” is how it so effectively fills in these gaps and plays into old knowledge that’s never had a chance to be previously developed.
Keith’s story goes on to chronicle his rise to become leader of the Survey Corps and a brief period in his life where he erroneously thought that he was important and some inspired agent of change against the Titan epidemic. Tides quickly turn and a defeated Keith resigns his position in favor of Erwin years later after he accepts that he’s “normal” in this life. Keith’s reckless, scared decisions eventually meet up with the moment that kicked off the start of the series when Eren transforms into a Titan in the forest and Grisha “disappears.” All of this amounts to a very compelling way to fill in past details from the show’s history, but “Bystander” also works hard so that this still surprises the audience, whether it’s through old events that are seen in a new light or with how emotional Keith’s relationship is with both Grisha and Carla.
During Carla’s final moments, she tells Keith that she finally understands that some people need to be special and feel important, but that this shouldn’t be true in Eren’s case. She doesn’t need him to save the world or do anything special. He’s already special for simply being born in this world and surviving.
Curiously, Eren more or less concurs with Keith’s assessment that he wasn’t special back then. Sure, he’s turned into a strong, pivotal fighter now, but three years ago he was a nobody who happened to have a special father. He was only important in the context of his dad and Eren understands that that’s the lone reason he was giving his Titan powers in the first place. It’s helpful for Eren to finally get some closure on his past and who he used to be. All of this will surely inspire and push him harder as he moves forward in the coming battle.
Keith’s crisis of conscience over what to do with Eren comes to a head in some rather really brilliant dot connecting that charts back to a moment in the show’s very first season when Eren begins his training to become a Scout. During his training, his maneuvering equipment malfunctions, but he still manages to maintain control of it. We learn that Keith actually sabotaged Eren’s belt so he wouldn’t fulfill his training and never go outside the walls. He feels that if Eren heard his mother’s final words, then he would never want to be on the Survey Corps in the first place. However, when he sees just how determined Eren is to make this happen, he decides to let him go on with his life. In the present, Keith finally does relay Carla’s words to Eren and honestly they carry more impact now than if he had told him three years ago.
“Bystander” may lose some viewers due to the characters that it decides to focus on for this story, but there’s a real beauty in the parallels that this episode addresses between the past and the present. Years ago, Keith was a bystander to Eren’s extreme will and passion when he overcomes his broken vertical maneuvering equipment belt, just like he himself was back during Grisha’s machinations and decisions. In spite of how so much has changed, Keith realizes that he’s still just as lost as he’s always been and that this story is not about him. “Bystander” provides satisfying answers to questions that not everyone may have been asking, but it helps further flesh this world out and repositions Eren to properly kick some ass in the show’s upcoming arc.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.
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