Best Episodes Ever: The Twist
So, week three, and it’s time we really blew our minds with a good twist. Nothing beats a twist when it’s pulled off with real panache: I wrote about this in a previous post regarding How to Get Away with Murder last year, but great twists are hard to come by, difficult to pull off, and yet every show you watch is likely frantically trying to conjure up something from that elusive alchemy that’s going to get everyone talking. Sometimes, as The Walking Dead proved last year, commitment to a bad twist can all but derail your entire show and leave your viewer base feeling cheated and disillusioned. But a good twist, done right, can change the course of a show for the better – and I think there’s no better example of that than Attack on Titan – season one, episode five, First Battle: The Struggle for Trost, Part One. I feel like it goes without saying, but there are obviously spoilers ahead for the first season of AoT, a show which is worth going into spoiler-free if you haven’t seen it already.
The most significant thing that makes a twist work is the groundwork that’s gone into building to this moment. Setting up the status quo is just as important as dismantling it – I mean, sure, Game of Thrones could end with me strolling into Westereos and shooting Jon Snow in the face with a .22 calibre and taking the Iron Throne for myself, but obviously that would be insane because none of the groundwork of the show has led up to that as a climax (upsettingly, since there is little more in the world I would like to do than rid it of Jon fucking Snow). Of course a show can pull a twist completely out of it’s rear end, and yeah, coming up with something literally completely impossible to predict would function as a twist of sorts, but it’s also cheating. The reason Agatha Christie’s mysteries are so satisfying is because she doesn’t cheat, laying out the clues for you to pick up on and trace back the ending from when you get there: likewise, good twists aren’t just “AND NOW THIS!”. They’re built to, logically, over a series of storylines and episodes, so when they come you go “Of course” instead of “wait, what?”.
And Attack on Titan is committed to building that status quo. I’m going to try and keep the introductions to this show as brief as possible, but bear with me here as the mythos is pretty dense: in an alternate-history setting, the human race has been whittled down to those that remain inside a giant castle built to keep out the mysterious Titans, beings that hunt and kill humans for fun. The first four episodes of the series follow Eren Jaeger, along with his sister Mikasa and his best friend Armen, as they train to join the armed forces built to keep the Titans at bay. After a five-year break in attacks (the last of which saw Jaeger’s mother eaten by a Titan in front of him), the Titans return just as the class we’ve been following through military training graduate to the front lines. We get a really significant amount of time to get to know this class, beyond just our lead characters – to know their struggles, their relationships with each other, their hopes and dreams and reasons for joining the force. This isn’t just a hand-waved montage sequence. This is a concentrated effort to invest us in these characters and their stories, and it makes the eventual twist even harder when it lands.
But this slow build to the first real action sequence of a very action-driven show is put in place, too, to underline the seriousness of the threat of the Titans. Aside from seeing the Titans munch down on Eren’s mother in the first episode, Attack on Titan puts a huge amount of effort into reminding us, over and over again, how devastating a Titan attack is on what remains of the human race. We see what these things are capable of, and, even in this episode, we witness the utter terror these creatures have instilled in the remaining humans – one of the cadets is shown repeatedly vomiting in terror before they go out to fight, and others are nearly comatose as they prepare. Armen, in near-meltdown mode as he readies his equipment, gets a monologue about the devastation the Titans can and will wreak. This episode spends a good half of it’s runtime reminding us, over and over again, that this is bad. This is really, really bad.
And what we’re expecting is for our heroes, those people the show has gone out of its way to invest us in these last few weeks, to go out there and put up a good fight in the face of the oncoming threat. Right up until moments before the fight begins, our protagonists are laughing and joking about who’s going to kill the most Titans. They leap into battle – and all promptly get horribly killed.
To call it a fight would be an overstatement. The show goes to great lengths to show us these people getting killed in the most horrendous ways imaginable. Eaten, torn apart, smashed into the ground – within two minutes, Attack on Titan goes from “exciting high-stakes battle” to “everyone you like is now a bloody pulp on the street”. I’m going to slap in the sequence here for you to watch, not least because it’s a fucking brilliant action scene, just so you can see how quickly it takes a turn:
The episode climaxes as our leading character, Eren Jaeger, is eaten in the midst of rescuing his traumatised best friend Armen. That’s the main man, apparently dead, at the end of episode five. The episode closes out on his best friend screaming, as his sister (and later love interest, but the less said about that the better) looks over the ruined remains on the city.
It’s jaw-dropping stuff – but the reason it works is because the show built so carefully to this moment. There are two status quos in place in Attack on Titan till this point: our leading characters and how much investment the show has in them, and the fact that the Titans are an unassailable threat to humanity who have never been stopped properly before. While this episode comes as a shock, it actually would have been a cop-out if they’d done anything else. It always had to end this way – similar to the recent Infinity War, Attack on Titan couldn’t build these incredible villains up only to have them dealt with in twenty minutes. This episode right here is the perfect example of a twist because, looking back, this is the only way this plot could ever have played out and yet it still comes as a surprise. AoT built two status quos and smashed them together, the twist born from the fact that the one we didn’t expect to win – and perhaps didn’t want to – takes control.
Tune in next week, as I take a look at Bojack Horseman and the flashback episode! If you enjoyed this series and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon for access to exclusive articles or check out my other site No But Listen for my movie-related writing with another pop culture blogger. You can catch up on the rest of the Best Episodes Ever series here.
(header image courtesy of Youtube)