Reviewing the first season of Attack on Titan, I described it as an anime version of Game of Thrones. What with the brutality, the gore, the staggering body count and all. I also focused on the series’ use of “plot armour” – the sense that certain characters were immune from harm despite the scale of destruction otherwise on display. Four years ago – which, Jesus, is how much time has passed since that review – that seemed like a pertinent point of difference between Titan and Thrones.
Now, not so much. Game of Thrones has since discarded its readiness to kill off major characters, tilting decidedly towards fanservice in its back end as we trod towards the inevitable Jon-and-Daenerys endgame. The tightrope that a series like Game of Thrones has to walk is to create the sense that its critical characters could die any moment, even if its audience is aware that that’s no longer true. The penultimate series of George R.R. Martin’s series failed in that regard; it could learn some lessons from the second season of Attack on Titan.
The Blu-Ray packaging for that season boasts that, this time, “the mystery of the titans [will be] revealed!” That’s not an entirely inaccurate claim; after these dozen episodes have concluded, we do have a much deeper understanding of what the titans are. But while that tagline suggests a season more interested in unravelling backstory and unpicking plot threads than tone, what’s truly impressive about Attack on Titan’s second season is how it simultaneously reinforces the aforementioned plot armour – by revealing the major players in this showdown between humanity and their monstrous nemeses – while maintaining the uneasy sense of impending devastation that elevated season one. Sure, it’s a good deal younger than Game of Thrones, but it maintains the high stakes balance that show has been unable to sustain.
The idea of unpacking the titular titans’ mysteries is a tricky one. Much of the terrifying appeal of these creatures is their weird – and I mean weird – unknowability. The best horror antagonists can be ruined by clumsy attempts at backstory; you would think the same would be true of these ungainly, eldritch monsters. Except – inexplicably, incredibly – Attack on Titan makes its explanations work by opening up more questions. That’s true both because there are still ambiguities (there’s going to be a third season, naturally) and because of the complications suggested by the answers themselves.
Beyond its plotting, Attack on Titan’s second seasons impresses with the scale and creativity of its animation. There’s still the visible joins between 3D animation and hand-drawn work here and there, but it’s compensated for by the awe-inspiring framing: the way the show evokes immensity and even challenges convention. The most memorable moment for me was – in a season built around flashbacks and flashforwards colliding with the present day – a Funny Games-esque rewinding that shocks the system. This is a series that commands interest even if you’re not across all the particulars of the plot.
Like Game of Thrones, Attack on Titan is a huge success. But where I once looked forward to new episodes of the former with genuine excitement, I can’t help but regard its latest season with trepidation, waiting for it to undo its carefully-wrought foundation. Attack on Titan, though? After season two, I can’t wait for its third season.