Rylan Schaeffer

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10 April 2021

Why the ending of Shinjeki no Kyojin was abysmal (Part One)

by {"name"=>"Rylan Schaeffer", "email"=>"rylanschaeffer@gmail.com", "twitter"=>"RylanSchaeffer"}

The final chapter of Shingeki no Kyojin was released last week. I had been very disappointed with the last few chapters, but I promised to withhold judgement until the final chapter, trusting Isayama to masterfully end the story. Instead, in my opinion, the writing crashed and burned. I want to explain why I felt like (almost) every character and the story were butchered. In this Part One, I’ll start with Zeke.

Warning: Major plot spoilers below for Shingeki no Kyojin.

Zeke

At the end of Chapter 136, our heroes are surrounded, Armin is captured and everything seems hopeless. In the alternative Paths dimension, Armin sits down next to Zeke. Unless Armin can persuade Zeke to aid our heroes, everyone will die. The stakes could not be higher.

The conversation that transpires ruins Zeke’s character. To understand why, let’s refresh our memories of who Zeke is. At a young age, Zeke was forced to betray his parents to save himself and his grandparents. He was raised by Tom Ksaver, and together they hatched a plan to end the Eldian race by rendering every Eldian infertile. To execute this plan, Zeke converted an entire village of civilians into mindless titans, killed dozens (probably more) of Scouts including Erwin, then betrayed Marley (and later Paradis) to execute his plan. In Chapter 110, he describes to Levi in vivid detail how he converted the peaceful villagers into titans. Levi replies, “I can see you don’t carry a speck of guilt”. Just two chapters later, Zeke converts Levi’s remaining comrades to mindless titans and goads Levi while fleeing. Why is Zeke so utterly ruthless? Because to him, there is only one solution to the Eldian curse. There is no other option. His mission matters so much to him that in Chapter 114, he detonates a thunder spear in the hope of escaping. This is a man so committed to his plan that he would choose death over failure. What could Armin say to change Zeke’s mind?

Armin shares with Zeke four small memories. He tells Zeke that their ability to remember happy past events, pregnant with emotional weight, shows the value of life. If the sole purpose is to multiply, Armin argues, then there’s no need to remember events like these. Armin reasons that because we do have these memories, life must have more meaning than just propagating itself. Zeke is immediately convinced. He returns to the world, offers himself to Levi and reflects on the beauty of life before being executed.

This is a pathetic treatment of Zeke’s character for three reasons:

  1. Setting aside Armin’s argument, Zeke shows zero commitment to the core belief that defines him. He throws away his euthanasia plan that he came up with, that he followed for his entire life, that he committed so many atrocities in the pursuit of achieving, faster than I can make toast. Regardless of Armin’s arguments, humans rarely change their minds and convincing someone to change their mind requires considerable time and energy.

  2. Armin’s argument is terrible. Why do social animals have warm memories of their family and friends? Because those memories forge social cohesion, increasing the chance that the tribe survives. Armin’s argument feeds into Zeke’s rage against life. Our most cherished memories are not even our own; it’s just an evolutionary adaptation to improve our fitness. I can’t buy that Zeke would find Armin’s argument a compelling one. As one redditor pointed out, “Since the Eldians’ memories can be manipulated, they really can’t be sure their memories are their own… which is a whole other layer for that.”

  3. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that that Armin’s argument is indeed persuasive to Zeke. We’re forced to ask: how deeply has Zeke evaluated the philosophy at the core of his identity, if Armin’s argument is new to him? The answer must be that in order for Zeke to accept Armin’s argument, the reader must buy that Zeke has never reflected on his own thoughts. Zeke’s acceptance of Armin’s argument tells us that Zeke never once asked himself, “Is the reason why I’m killing all these people a good reason? Does it stand up to the most basic scrutiny?” This is especially hard to believe because we’re repeatedly shown that Zeke is one of the cleverest characters, and yet we’re supposed to buy that he apparently is too stupid to reflect on his own beliefs. To make clear how absurd this conversation is, imagine someone asks an atheist, “How can there be no god if the universe exists?” and the atheist immediately replies, “Oh my goodness. That is such a good argument. I have never thought of that. You’re right. There must be a god.”

I don’t have a problem with Isayama choosing to have Armin talk with Zeke. I think that done correctly, these conversations can be memorable and moving e.g. Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre’s conversation on Mars. But this immediate persuasion with a terrible reason (aka talk no jutsu is an unbefitting end to Zeke’s otherwise complex and interesting character.

tags: 2021 - book-summaries - random