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.