This Attack on Titan review contains spoilers.
Attack on Titan Season 3 Episode 19
“Eren, when I get home I’ll show you what’s in the basement that I’ve been keeping secret all this time.”
Series that revolve around one central mystery are a hell of a tightrope walk to properly maneuver. When they work, it’s unreal, but there’s so much, arguably too much, riding on what that big reveal will be. There are other situations like Lost (or even How I Met Your Mother), where the broad endgame of the series is known, but not the finer details along the way. This can result in the show actively changing story beats in order to mesh with that overarching original vision, which may ultimately satisfy, but can also hemorrhage viewers as it tries to get to that point.
Attack on Titan isn’t purely about the mystery of the Jaeger basement, but it’s something that’s been present from the very start, and every single episode has Eren wearing that pivotal key around his neck. Attack on Titan dangled this question from the very first episode and after six years of waiting, not only are there finally answers, but they’re really good answers. Like really good answers that make this excruciating wait absolutely worthwhile and also something which completely redefines the entire series at the same time. But we’ll get to what’s in that basement in a minute.
“The Basement” opens with a lethargic first half that feels like it intentionally takes its time and allows for pregnant pauses and lengthy character beats to properly breathe, if only to playfully get under the audience’s skin. Attack on Titan knows you want answers and “The Basement” has fun at several points where it feels like perhaps the series will continue to withhold the good stuff, only to finally give in. Accordingly, the first half of the episode is largely inconsequential and mostly reframes the mission at hand as the surviving members of the Survey Corps march through Shiganshina District to reach the Jaeger basement.
Armin’s new Titan status, the fact that he consumed Bertholdt, and that he now has a lot more responsibility on his plate is quickly reinforced, but this installment is much more interested in how Eren comes to terms with seismic news, not Armin. It’s alarming how quickly it feels like the clock is about to run out during this episode, but once their destination is reached, “The Basement” fits an impressive, satisfying amount in its final ten minutes. This giant news never feels rushed and it gets to properly take its time to sink in.
“The Basement” continues to mess with everyone when Eren and company finally reach their destination. My heart sank when Eren’s key didn’t even fit the basement door, but then Levi perfectly defuses the situation and acts as the frustrated audience surrogate when he just gets the door open with brute force. It’s a very effective fake out and the episode even resorts to it once more when Eren’s key opens a drawer in the basement, only for it to be completely empty. That is, until Levi realizes the drawer has a false bottom.
Grisha’s drawer contains three books and it’s appreciated to see how much anxiety there is towards opening them. This is a big deal and to give Eren a second to appreciate the enormity of the situation is a nice touch. It’s also really freaking sweet that Eren and Mikasa open the book up together and it nicely encapsulates how far they’ve come from their childhoods together. The episode effectively reminds everyone that Grisha was an important father figure for Mikasa, too. There’s some really fantastic music by Sawano Hiroyuki here, as well as during the scene when everyone’s heading to the basement and time slips back and forth with their childhood memories. It helps these big moments feel even bigger.
I had always thought that the basement would confirm that Grisha was performing Titan experiments on his family or that he may even be responsible for their creation in the first place. What follows is instead much more of a mindfuck. Zeke had warned Eren in the previous episode that Grisha wasn’t entirely truthful to his son, but the scope of which he was hiding information from not only his son, but all of Shiganshina District and beyond, is much crazier than anyone could imagine. Up until now, there’s been the assumption that Attack on Titan takes place in some alternate version of history that’s set in the “past” and is without many of the customs and luxuries of modern life. What’s learned in “The Basement,” is that apparently the communities within the Walls are displaced from modernity, but the rest of the world has continued to evolve. The people that live within the Walls have been fed a lie where their world of hardships is the norm, but in fact they’re just being kept in an echo chamber of deception.
This is partly learned when Eren and company discover a photograph that shows Grisha with an entirely different family, something that hits much harder because nobody even knows what a photograph is. It’s sometimes easy to forget just how pedestrian the technology is within these Walls, which makes the news that humanity is not extinct and actually prospering elsewhere even more colossal. It’s also extremely interesting to learn that Grisha seems to come from this booming economy full of technology and dirigibles and then later relocated within the Walls and helped perpetuate this lie for some unknown reason.
This whole “the world’s luddite, but not really” twist has been played with in similar ways with a certain M. Night Shyamalan film and a very recent anime that’s currently airing on Adult Swim, but Attack on Titan’s take is the most effect of the lot. Much like with Eren and company, the audience has also been in the dark and had a radically different view of the series’ world up until this point. In those other examples, the news that the world is much bigger and different than originally imagined is still a gamechanger, but now Attack on Titan has the rest of its series to introduce and comprehend these changes. There’s still a lot more to figure out about all of this, but the following episode appears to heavily feature flashbacks to Grisha’s youth outside of the Walls, which will surely provide some answers to this major bombshell.
“The Basement” is a seriously thrilling episode of Attack on Titan that forever changes the course of the series. The payoff in the basement is extremely gratifying and unexpected, yet the episode still allows for Armin and Hange to start to process Erwin’s death and the personal changes that await them as a result. There are also only nine surviving members of the Survey Corps, which is just insane. This really feels like the end of an era for the series and the triumphant victory reel that plays over the end credits further hammers this in. This would have made for a great place to end the season, but thankfully there are still three more episodes of this magic. There’s a whole lot that can happen in that time, like a very awkward estranged family reunion, for instance.
Welcome to reality, everyone.