Between the Panels: #TeamJean – Choosing Mercy

Disclaimer: COLOSSAL SPOILERS BELOW! (See what I did there?)

If you have only watched the Attack on Titan anime and are not caught up to the current manga, please turn away now and save yourself some suffering.

Given the events of Attack on Titan chapter 83, I’m surprised some Etsy opportunist hasn’t already capitalized on Team Eren VS Team Levi memorabilia. In traditional (read: sadistic) fashion, Isayama has succeeded in turning his most popular characters against each other, with the fandom caught blindsided in the middle.

One titan serum. Two mortally wounded men. And only one can live.

While Levi and Eren’s sudden opposing stances have got fans (and forums) buzzing, Jean’s actions have drawn much more unified frustration from the community. As Hanji prepares to end Reiner’s life, Jean stops her, resulting in the captive’s eventual escape, à la Beast Titan.

Cue increased threat levels and lamented opportunities.

At a glance, Jean’s mercy seems foolish, but I see great courage in it. It’s a rare virtue in a world where the only law is “kill or be killed.” Ignorance breeds fear, and fear turns the greedy and needy into criminals driven only by their survival instincts. While others talk of “evil means to a better future” and “fighting fire with fire,” Jean (perhaps emboldened by his rebelliousness against authority; read: “inferiority complex”) is the only voice that dares to say: “If it’s that easy for the fight to turn us all into monsters, then maybe we don’t deserve to win.”

Eren fights like a literal monster—it’s the only way he knows. Levi fights according to his conscience—something he considers the ultimate moral law. But Jean fights with his heart on his sleeve, and that takes guts.

It’s Jean who playacts executioner to convince the team that Marlo is trustworthy (likely because he fears anyone else might take the role literally). It’s Jean who hesitates to pull the trigger on a peer and is nearly killed for it. And even while he insists he’s “just looking out for #1,” it’s clear that’s nothing more than a cool man’s passing remark.

As Marco so iconically said, Jean’s weakness is his greatest strength. He’s a character who, first-and-foremost, looks at the consequences his actions will have, not only on his own humanity, but also on the humanity of others. Facing life-or-death situations, watching his friends be devoured, and—most crucially—losing Marco, has brought Jean to point of great humility about his own existence, which he knows could be violently snuffed out without warning.

That humility is the source of Jean’s mercy. In recognizing that he is too weak to stand on his own—in visualizing himself on the other end of the titan’s teeth, or the musket, or the sword—Jean acknowledges the mere fact that he is still alive to be a great mercy of providence. In extending that mercy, Jean feels he is paying back—or perhaps paying forward—a debt he could never fulfill. Perhaps, more powerfully, his actions show faith (cynical faith, perhaps, but faith none-the-less) in providence itself.

But does the world of Attack on Titan make room for such providence? Is there, in fact, a great narrator behind-the-scenes, guiding its battle-weary cast to victory? In a world where street preachers proclaim the titans to be humanity’s divine punishment, and God seems apathetically absent or non-existent, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.” But a closer look reveals at least one omniscient man behind-the-scenes—Eren’s father, who sends his son on a quest and grants him the power necessary to fulfill it (perhaps Eren’s parallels to Christ aren’t so coincidental).

Loose plot threads also seem to indicate that consequences will be meted at appointed times—times, perhaps, that will be life-and-limb saving for the remainder of the cast. Time and again, lives are turned around and unlikely allies are made in ways far too scripted to be considered mere “chance.”

Perhaps, then, the fandom would be wise to get off of Jean’s back for giving Reiner a second chance. This isn’t exactly the first time a member of the “Titan Trio” has been spared by an act of mercy.

Season one’s climatic fight with Annie Leonhardt could have ended with her becoming Eren’s dinner—the logical course of action for a titan. But, instead, Eren acts on his humanity and spares her, which has left her crystalized ever since. While fans await the day she’ll return to the series (anime-only’s will have to wait even longer, it would seem), I expect Annie will return at the most opportune time possible, and perhaps Eren’s act of mercy towards her will have her emerge from her crystalline cocoon as an ally to his cause.

Ultimately, Titan Shifters are monsters with the hearts and minds of humans, and most all of them are burdened by guilt and hopelessness (the worst kind of hopelessness which insists, “I have no choice”). Reiner’s actions ultimately led to Marco’s death—a pivotal moment that sent his mind into self-defensive, DID-mode. It’s clear that Reiner’s heart isn’t in what he does, and he goes so far as to face off with the Beast Titan to prove it. Death might be a mercy to him. I think that if the Scout’s parrying blades don’t get to him first, his own guilt-complex will.

Perhaps mercy is the lifeline that these Titan Shifters need. Annie needed it. Reiner needs it. Bertholdt needs it, though, in his fragility, he has hardened himself against it.

To quote Tolkien: “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Reiner’s future role in the story is veiled in mystery, but I’d be remiss to say that Jean’s sparing him was a mistake. It’s Jean who Reiner feels most indebted to—not because Jean spared his life, but because Reiner was responsible for the death of Jean’s closest friend Marco. Returning that favor by intervening in Eren and Levi’s blood-feud, perhaps even being the key to saving both Armin and Erwin, is what I currently theorize as Reiner’s ultimate role. If nothing else, it’s clear that providence still needs Reiner alive in order to tell its story.

Regardless of where Jean’s act of mercy leads, though, I can only hope to emulate it—to look at others and see their humanity before anything else, to not let my own anger or self-righteousness lead to my own dehumanization, or to cause me to lash out at others based on superficial assumptions. Christ certainly set that standard high; and while His mercy is tempered by perfect justice, it is His mercy that most often causes me to pause in awe.

Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful ~ Luke 6:36

When I consider God’s providence, I more fully grasp that every single person on the planet is hand-crafted by God to tell His grand story. Equally, I realize my role is that of an agent—to manifest God’s presence to those around me; and I believe the key to that is Christ-like empathy and mercy.

In about one week, we’ll be another chapter closer to that ever-allusive basement and smack-dab in the middle of Attack on Titan: Civil War. If we’ve got to choose sides, though, I’ll stick with #TeamJean. He’s an “alert and sympathetic” leader who wields mercy with narrative force, and, given a bit of hindsight, I’m sure the positive consequences of his actions will be as obvious as the horse on his face.

2 thoughts on “Between the Panels: #TeamJean – Choosing Mercy

    1. Thank you. Jean is a favorite of mine–largely for his vulnerability that clashes with the worldviews around him. The last few chapters have certain put us on a wild ride of revelation. I don’t have a formal article written up for them, but a peer recently asked my thoughts on the latest chapter #86, which came out last month. I’ll paste that response here for you to read as you will:

      *******************************

      First things first: Attack on Titan chapter 86 suffers heavily (and intentionally) from unreliable narrator’s syndrome. In other words, the person telling us the information (Grisha) may not quite have all the facts right himself. (We’ll talk about that in a bit.)

      We’re introduced to a rather Holocaust-esque, WWII-era time period, where the Marley empire has subjugated and oppressed the Eldians, of which Grisha and his family are part. We get some on-the-nose references to the Nazi’s treatment of Jewish people here, with armbands, ghettos, blockades, checkpoints, attack dogs, general feelings of oppression, and even a Hindenburg-styled airship. We also learn in this chapter that the Eldians are descendants of the original “Titan,” which fuels the revolutionaries’ efforts in seeing themselves as “God’s chosen people.” Again, very Jewish allusion at play here.

      I’m not sure what the deliberate references to WWII/Holocaust are intended to do, exactly. Germanic culture, names, and architecture have been this series’ stand-out point since its opening chapter, so it’s certainly not out-of-the-blue to suddenly include references like this. What seems off here is that the author is deliberately tying this story, which I have thus-far assumed to be (at best) alternative universe fiction, and begun playing it very close to home. Flip a map of Paradis (where the three walls are located and the original Eldian king fled) upside-down, and there’s an uncanny resemblance to Madagascar, for instance (http://attackontitan.wikia.com/wiki/Paradis…). That’s especially significant because of this little bit of WWII history… (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madagascar_Plan).

      What is Isayama going for? An alternative-universe/parallel-universe history? Is he simply venturing too close to real-world history in a cheap attempt at resonating with realism? Clearly, this is a piece of his story that he’s thought out since the beginning, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

      Back to Grisha. We unsurprisingly get two variations of the story behind the Eldian/Marley conflict. One, told by Grisha’s brow-beaten father, paints the Eldians in the wrong, claiming that their ancestor, Ymir Fritz (yep, that name’s familiar), made a deal with the “devil” (who is the origin of all titan shifters) and gained its power in return. After Ymir died, her soul split among the “Nine Titans,” who created the Empire Eldia, which annihilated the Marley Empire. After that, the people of Eldia, the “Subjects of Ymir,” began to persecute other tribes they considered “inferior,” and began a wave of ethnic cleansing that lasted for 1,700 years. However, Marley began to conspire against the Eldians, and were able to overthrow them after 80 years of war by taking control of seven of the Nine Great Titans. The Eldian ruler, Fritz, built three Walls on Eldia’s only remaining land, Paradis, to protect his people. However, some Eldians, including the Yeager family, were left behind. The Marley Empire was generous enough not to kill the Eldians left behind, and instead gave them land to live on.

      Several years later, after joining the Eldian resistance against their Marley overlords, Grisha would find historical documents about the Eldian origins that would contradict what he had been taught as a boy. Namely, that the Eldians’ ancestor did in fact obtain the Titan’s power, but that she had used it to bring prosperity to the world as a whole.

      The Fritz royal family also splits at this point, with King Fritz retreating non-violently behind the three-walled city that we all know and love, while his descendent, Dina Fritz, choses to stay behind with the left-behind Eldoins and help liberate them. Grisha learns that King Fritz has the all-powerful “Progenitor Titan” ability, which allows him to control all other titans under his will with ease. Grisha decides to attempt to take back the power from the “cowardly” king and use it to liberate his scattered people. Of course, the Marley government catches onto that, too, and they decide they want to get their hands on the titan-controller power first. So the Marley falsify a declaration of war, supposedly sent by King Fritz, but truly nothing more than a fabrication to justify an attack on Paradis. Fritz, hearing the news, warns that if anyone ever attacked his people, he would loose the millions of titans in stasis beneath the walls and unleash them on the world. Deciding outright war would obviously be a bad idea, the Marley decide infiltration is the better option. They decree that 7 Eldian children between ages five and seven will be chosen to inherent the powers of the 7 “titan shifters” currently in their control, promising their families will be granted honorary citizenship in the Marley Empire in exchange.

      This is, of course, where Reiner, Annie, Bertholdt, and Marcel (who is later eaten by Ymir) are selected. Ultimately, they are brainwashed kids forced to fight against their own people. This was something I had called long in advance, especially with the chapter involving Marco’s death, where we had Reiner mocking Annie for still “considering herself human.” Flashbacks in the anime to Annie’s father definitely reinforce this foreshadowing, too.

      Anyyyywaaayyy…

      Grisha has married Dina Fritz during this time, and they have a son named Zeke. Grisha has the brilliant idea to plant Zeke among the chosen Eldian children and have him work as a double-agent, stealing the “titan power” from the king and ultimately giving it back to the Eldians instead of the Marley he would pretend to be loyal to. But then Zeke sells his parents out, buying into Marley ideology (or perhaps even the truth—we don’t know enough to say at this point).

      Grisha and his rebels are captured and turned into titans. This is where we get the gut-punch that his wife, Dina, later becomes the “smiling titan” that would eat Eren’s mother—aka Grisha’s second wife.

      Ouch.

      Look at the faces of the revolutionaries, and you’ll see several that are sported by feral titans that break into the walls during the first arc.

      At this point, there’s still a lot of mystery to resolve. How is Ymir connected to THE Ymir Fritz? They clearly aren’t the same person, but obviously Ymir has a more important role to play than the story is willing to tell at this point.

      We also know that only 8 of the original 9 titan shifters remain. Grisha must have devoured one while running feral outside of the walls in order to regain his sanity and human form (much like Ymir did). Later, Grisha would also eat Frida Reiss, absorbing her shifter and combining two of the original 9 shifters into one. Eren would later eat his father and inherit these two titans. That leaves Reiner (Armored Titan), Annie (Female Titan), Bertholdt—now Armin (Colossal Titan), Zeke (Beast Titan), Ymir—who ate Reiner’s friend Marcel (Dancing Titan), and two others who are unknown. Many suspect the four-legged titan is a shifter of some kind, since it shows levels of intelligence.

      On a final note, we see why Grisha was enlightened about Eren’s constitution and chose to entrust him with the titan serum—because Eren held the same frustration with the “way things were” that Grisha himself did as a boy. The parallels are intentionally there, and they are uncanny.

      There are a lot of open questions left. We aren’t sure which side of the war-torn conflict to believe. We only know that Zeke is convinced the Marley are right and that Grisha and the Eldians are wrong (and Zeke believes he needs to save Eren from the same “delusions” his father had). How is Ymir related to the original Ymir? (Where even is Ymir anyway?) Who are the other two titan shifters still unaccounted for? Is AoT set in some parallel WWII universe? How do the Ackermans and Asians tie into all this? Is there a titan shifter among the Ackermans?

      I don’t dislike the new developments. Not at all. But I hope to see them connect satisfactorily. For now, I’ll have to bide my time while Isayama continues to troll away.

      Which is okay. I’m going to need the rest of the year to come to terms with Erwin’s death, anyway. It was perfect. It just wasn’t something I was ready for. My favorite character always gets the ax. (To be quite fair, though, nobody could thwart death in this series like he could.)

      Come to think of it, I find the parallels between Erwin and his father VS Zeke and his father quite interesting. Both were children who ultimately did their parent in (one on accident, the other intentionally). Yet there’s a distinct contrast made between Daddy Smith, who clearly sought the truth for the betterment of the world and his son, and Grisha, who might as well have been a “Holy Knight” on a self-righteous mission that “god” never requested. Grisha is painted in tragic strokes—as someone blinded by his own perspective (it’s deliberately stated that he never finished reading the historical documents about his ancestors—just saw enough “injustice” on their pages to fuel him into reckless action). He also uses his own child to get what he personally believes to be best. Zeke becomes a victim of his father’s agenda, unlike Erwin, whose father only ever enlightened him to possibilities and encouraged him to think for himself about the world around him.

      In the end, we see a classic story of Isaac and Ishmael unfolding. Grisha, acting on his own best interest (“leaning unto his own understanding,” we Christians might say) uses his first-born child to fight his battle for him—ultimately making Grisha no different than the cruel Marley who abused the Eldian children (and Grisha’s own sister) for their own gain. And Zeke betrays him. But Grisha, at least, seems to learn something from the experience, when his youngest son—the son of promise, as it were—Eren is born. And he entrusts Eren with everything, giving him only the simplest instructions. Perhaps Eren’s multiple parallels to Christ aren’t so unintentional (http://thegodabovegod.com/gnostic-jesus-attack-titan/)

      We’ll see what conclusions Eren comes to in the end.

      Like

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