The defining feature of Attack on Titan is how utterly human all of its characters are. Some of this is a function of the sheer power that the titans exude, which frames everything the characters do as ultimately futile. The majority of this realism, however, comes from the actions the characters take themselves. All of the characters deal with themes like loyalty and honor, and are forced to reconcile them with their ultimate mortality—the simple fact that their flesh and bones can be consumed in an instant by any one of the marauding titans. This theme of a conflict between human realities and its ideals reaches its apex in this episode.
After Eren unsuccessfully tries to take down the colossal titan (during which he comes to the realization that the titan has intelligence), the soldiers all regroup at their headquarters, and are given a basic battle plan. Just about everybody realizes that this mission is suicidal; we even get shots of a couple saying their goodbyes. A particularly poignant scene is when Armin is unable to screw two pipes together, as his hands are quivering with pure fear. Armin tells us explicitly the fears that are going through everyone’s head: they have no way of fixing the hole, the city is going to be abandoned just like five years ago, and ultimately, it is only a matter of time before the titans decide to kill them all. The only person who seems to have any faith in humanity is Eren, and his pep talks are the only thing keeping those around him from becoming absolutely paralyzed with fear.
The next scene shows a local lord, Lord Balto, playing a game of chess with the general of the region, stuffing his face with pastries, and generally being a member of the hopelessly out-of-touch upper class. When news of the attack reaches him, he begs the general to stay and defend his own territory instead of defending Trost, again showing how in many ways the most terrifying opponent of humanity is humanity itself. The general, Pixis, seems to understand how pathetic Balto’s actions and motivations are, and simply brushes them aside before going to Trost to lead the battle against the Titans.
We then cut back to the soldiers, and once again the sheer futility of the mission they are about to embark on is impressed upon them. This time, we get more disturbing scenes of people realizing they are heading straight into the (literal) jaws of death: one person is seen vomiting and another is curled up in the fetal position, repeating “Iyada!” (“I won’t!”) over and over again. With this acting as the background, we get a confrontation between Jean and Eren, with Jean taking the same emotion that Armin grappled with earlier—raw fear—and directing into his anger at Eren, claiming that he has an irrational death-wish. Eren gives his standard pep talk, to which Jean simply replies, “Kuso”. When Mikasa expresses similar fear (she redirects it into fear for Eren’s life, instead of her own), Eren says that she has a duty to fulfill and that no one cares about her personal desires or fears—a decidedly harsher message than the one he gave Jean seconds ago. Mikasa asks Eren to make sure he doesn’t die, and Eren mentally concurs, with the reasoning that he has much to learn about the world he lives in (this segues into an info-dump on what very little humanity knows about the titans).
As Eren, Armin, and the others are on the roof preparing for battle, we witness something uniquely human: bantering and joking about how this battle has already been won, and how it’ll be a competition to see who can kill the most titans. This joking under stress is a very common thing for soldiers (and humans) to do; before battles, before tests, before sports games, before challenges of any sort, humans have a desire to hype themselves up and boost their self-confidence, even when they are quivering with fear on the inside. All these romantic notions are abruptly shattered when the battle begins, and everyone begins dying indiscriminately. This leads directly to the climax of the episode, when Armin looks at the world around him as a Titan picks him up and drops him into his gaping mouth during which time Eren has a flashback to the time when he and Armin were children and Armin gave him that passionate spark to explore the outside world which acts as a catalyst for Eren giving him the resolve he needs to dive into the Titan’s mouth and pull Armin out and throw him back into the world and hold open the Titan’s mouth as he reaches out to Armin and promises to see the outside world, and then dies.
Yes, the Main Character died. The show’s over, folks. 5 episodes in. Whoop-de-doo. What made you think the Main Character was any less human than the rest of them? His foolhardy goal of exterminating every single titan? His experiences with Armin, Mikasa, and watching his own mother die in front of him? The fact that the camera-man chose to follow him around instead of Jean or any of the other characters in the show? Eren is a human, he is made of flesh and bones. And when faced with the overwhelming might of a titan, he dies.
Actually, since this is Anime, he’ll probably revive himself a lá Gandalf, more badass than ever before. Still, it’s an amazing way to end an episode, and was a perfect way to hammer in the theme of the conflict between the ideals of the individual and the individual’s sheer physicality. Hats off to the Production I.G. crew and Tetsurou Araki for this one; it’s almost enough to make up for Guilty Crown.