*Spoilers! Go watch Attack on Titan first! Thank you!*
Hot take incoming: this season is better than season one. As is the OP.
To briefly recap my season one review: the first season had a very strong presentation to it, but the narrative was lacking. It hooked you in immediately, yes, but it relied more on the spectacle of the action and the titans rather than the actual plot and characters. Enjoyable, but somewhat forgettable.
Season two is the exact opposite. The spectacle takes a back seat, instead letting the narrative finally take center stage. It spends a great deal of time developing the cast, getting you to truly and genuinely care about these characters. At the same time, it presents you with a mystery that is equal parts intriguing and horrifying, then hits you with one of the most interestingly executed twists I’ve ever seen in anime.
Taking place right where season one left off, we find the people of the walls (those who survived Eren and Annie’s titan-form showdown) gaping up at the titans hidden within the walls. Before the Scout Regiment can begin investigating, however, disaster strikes. There are titans in the walls again! Now our heroes must find the breach and seal it before the walls are once again overrun!
And by ‘our heroes’ I mean ‘everyone except the guys you remember’.
Eren? Gone. Levi? Injured and out of action. Mikasa and Armin? Stuck to Eren like glue. Hange and Erwin? Too busy dealing with other shit. So who takes the starring role?
Reiner, Bertohldt, Christa, Connie, Sasha, and Ymir. You know! Those characters that you don’t remember form the first season!
I love this approach. It kills two birds with one stone! Because let’s be honest: at this point, Eren really isn’t a very compelling character. In fact, he’s the most boring member of the cast. At the same time, the side characters desperately needed to get some development. What better way to accomplish that than to put Eren on the backburner and focus on them?
So, how does it do this? Simple! It places them all in an incredibly interesting and terrifying situation. The kids are left alone, titans all around, with no ODM gear to help them out. What do they do? How do they react? How do they treat each other in the situation? And most importantly: what personal secrets will they unveil to survive?
Not only does it do well in developing the characters, it also puts fear back into the titans. Because, again: Eren isn’t there. Ever since Protagonist-kun gained his titan-shifting powers, all the normal titans started feeling really weak. Here? Even the smallest titan is a massive threat to our characters! They have no way to defend themselves, so even one just slightly larger than they are can murder them.
It certainly helps that they end up in a dark tower in the middle of the night. A classic setting for horror.
But it isn’t executed perfectly. This season is very fond of flashbacks. So much so that it’ll have flashbacks during flashbacks (bit of writing advice: never do that). These are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they develop the characters and their relationships with one another very nicely. On the other, why would they be thinking about the time they went on a walk together in the winter when they’re about to be eaten? I’m pretty sure my last date wouldn’t be on my mind if a giant monster were about to make me its dinner.
Now, Eren doesn’t just sit the entire season out. He shows up eventually, when all the stakes start to drop. And when he does, we get one of the most important scenes in the entire series.
When I first saw this scene, my jaw hit the floor. Not because the twist was shocking; I already had it spoiled for me. But because of how… casual it is!
Normally, during a twist like this, it’d be the center focus. The camera zooms in, the music gets dramatic, our character looks shocked, then shit goes down. But… well, look at it! The three characters at the forefront of the scene are way off to the side, not even near the center of the shot. It’s an extreme wide shot, giving us plenty of breathing room. It treats the reveal like it’s no big deal at all.
Because… well, it isn’t. Let’s face it: at this point in the story, the identity of the Armored Titan and Colossal Titan aren’t really important. They’re not the biggest mystery in the show. If they tried to make a big dramatic thing of it, it would’ve just been disappointing. Instead, they make it incredibly simple and straight-forward. So much so that the camera straight-up pans away.
Which immediately puts the audience on edge. They sit up and lean in, going “Wait, what’re you doing?! Go back! The important stuff is back there!”
This creates a fantastic sense of tension. Rather than the reveal being the storm itself, it’s treated as the calm before the storm. So, as events start to build and the scene continues, you get this slow building sense of terror. You can tell that something big is about to go down.
And boy howdy, does it!
From this point, the show goes right back to the spectacle that we all knew and loved from the first season. The animation, which was consistently good throughout the season, skyrockets into ‘holy fuck, my eyes are having an orgasm!’ levels of good. Not to mention that the soundtrack goes absolutely insane!! The transformation scene has the best AOT track!
At this point, the show becomes truly amazing. Every episode sucks you in. You truly have no idea what’s gonna happen next!
Then it ends. Twelve episodes in.
Yeah, that’s another problem: this season is short. Its only half the length of all the other seasons of the show. Now, it’s a very good short season! But my point still stands: it’s too short. Especially after the long-ass wait we all had to go through between the first and second seasons. Thankfully, the existence of seasons three and four have alleviated that suffering.
All in all, it’s hard to deny the quality of Attack on Titan’s second season. It doesn’t have all the flare and spectacle that the first season had (although the little we got was incredible). But the narrative elements are such a huge improvement that it more than makes up for it. This is where AoT stopped being a spectacle and became a truly great story.
Then season three comes around and says “Buckle the fuck up, kid, cause it’s only gonna get better from here!”