”You wouldn't make the world your enemy unless you knew you could win.”
I'm going to sound awfully fickle in saying this, especially since I've spent the better part of a month loudly complaining that MAPPA ought to announce the plans for how they were going to adapt the remaining chapters of Attack on Titan, but I kind of wish I hadn't found out about The Final Season Part 2 before watching “Above and Below.” It is perhaps unfair to hold the series accountable for the unpredictable tides of production plans and broadcast schedules, but “Above and Below” is just the kind of table-setting chapter that suffers a bit knowing that we might need to wait nearly a full year in order to see how all of this setup will pay off. It isn't a bad episode by any means, but it isn't a terribly satisfying one, either – which isn't exactly where you want a show like AoT to be on the cusp of its year-long hiatus.
Take the pre-credits scene, for instance, wherein we see Zeke lying in pieces just after he pulled the cord that Levi had affixed to that Thunder Spear. It's a pretty little sequence, and appropriately melancholy as Zeke contemplates his imminent death, but then an engorged-looking Titan crawls up to Zeke, tears open its belly, and stuff him inside Tauntaun-style. This probably means Zeke is going to live, after all, but who arranged this? What happened to Levi? What is going to become of Hange and the others who were nearby?
Seeing as Zeke's part of the story is never brought up again this week, we'll have to wait until Winter 2021-22 to get any of those answers, and their impact will certainly be dulled by the passing of time until then. The brevity of Zeke's screen time is further compounded by the way the episode decides to spend much of its remaining time simply getting all of the characters caught up to speed on what the audience is already mostly clued in on. Pyxis' debriefing with Yelena simply confirms that he was only made aware of the spinal-fluid plot and the Jeagerists demands, but he was not in cahoots with them. He isn't even told about Zeke's Eldian Euthanization plan, as Yelena has decided that he and the other leaders have wasted their chance to avoid the wrath of Zeke and Eren, who Yelena holds up as gods.
Then we catch up with the crew that got locked up in the dungeon, because they also need to have the details of Eren's heel turn and Zeke's grand scheme filled in for them. This scene fulfills the typical moment of downtime you get in stories like these where the characters engage in the philosophical debates that the audience has been having on the other side of the fourth wall, and while it is well done, we don't cover any new or interesting ground. Conny has written Eren off as a “piece of shit” that abandoned the ones who loved him the most, while Jean is the one who wonders if Eren doesn't have some hidden motives that could justify his actions. There isn't much in “Above and Below” that could illuminate either side of the argument, though, so the speculation remains in the same place it's been for weeks now.
Yelena shows up again to explain stuff, and I will admit that this exchange was helpful simply because it clarified some points that I'd been iffy on myself. Namely, that she is indeed in on whatever went down with Historia's pregnancy, because they will need to maintain the royal bloodline for a little while beyond the rest of the Eldians for their Euthanization plan to work, so the Rumbling can be exploited as a deterrent long enough to protect the last vestiges of the Eldian race from meeting violent ends at the hands of their enemies. Useful information to be sure, but that mechanical, routine feeling to all of this dialogue kept me at arm's length throughout the episode.
The bit where Yelena casually executes Greiz for being super racist against Sasha was a fine (if somewhat cliché) way to demonstrate that she really does believe that Zeke's goals are ultimately virtuous towards his people, but when Jean and the others start pushing back against the fact that the Euthanization plan is kinda, you know, genocidal, the show's follow-through is weak. I was especially ambivalent about Armin getting straight-up weepy over how touching Yelena's explanations are, which came across as out-of-character for the guy who's supposed to be the smartest person in the room at any given moment.
The best material in “Above and Below” is probably the stuff between Eren, Gabi, and Pieck, because it is at least engaging with the themes of the show with slightly more depth, rather than just serving to grease the gears of the plot machine. It wasn't all that surprising that Pieck ended up staying loyal to her Marleyan allies after-all, because even though she gave a pretty convincing speech to Eren and Gabi about why it's clear now that Marley will doom the Eldians one way or the other, we simply didn't know enough about Pieck up until now for such a drastic shift in allegiance to properly work in a dramatic sense. Because the audience can already largely guess at least the thread's two most likely resolutions, it simply becomes a matter of waiting for the script to get us there.
Still, I appreciated having a loyal Marleyan at least out-and-out acknowledge the truth of their station, and the way that Pieck is specifically siding with her brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, and not the government of Marley itself, is very much in keeping with the show's usual skepticism towards nationalism. It's a shame that Gabi remained stuck in her state of nauseous bemusement the whole episode, though; I'm eager to know how the shoe is going to drop for her character arc once everything goes well and truly to hell.
At the end of the day, most of “Above and Below” was simply setting the stage for the final shots of the episode, when Reiner, Galliard, and the other Marleyans finally arrive at Paradis, and AoT leaves us on the agonizing cliffhanger that we're just going to have to stew with for the next 7-10 months. This mid-season finale does its job in that regard, and it is going to take a herculean amount of willpower on my part to avoid simply finishing the Attack on Titan manga while we wait for The Final Season Part 2.
Really, the issues I have with this episode are almost unavoidable given how much the conflict has escalated. Yelena isn't exactly wrong when she describes Zeke and Eren as mythic figures, given all of the power they wield. The movers and shakers of Attack on Titan's story not only wield the power of gods, but they wield godlike ambitions as well. That makes the humans around them feel more and more insignificant, as they (and we) can do little but stand in awe of their power, and helpless to do anything but wait and see what form the end of the world will take.