You knew this was coming right? One last chance to talk about the Attack on Titan anime before Season 2 becomes a distant memory.
My non-spoilery review of Attack on Titan: Season 2 will be up at Diabolical Plots later, probably next month, so if you don't want to be spoiled, you check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is the biggest thing I couldn't discuss.
Obviously, there will be anime spoilers, but I will refrain from manga spoilers.
I already talked about the earlier than expected manga flashbacks involving Ymir and Marco, and I still find those out of place.
But what I'd like to talk about here is Reiner and Bertholdt.
This is the season where the two of them become prominent characters. While they have always been around, they weren't part of the main trio of Eren, Armin, and Mikasa. Reiner did have some good moments the first season though, distinguishing himself early on as someone Eren wanted to emulate and being a big brother figure by offering to carry Armin's pack during training. He came out ranked #2 in the 104th Training Corps, and we're reminded of that when he faces the Female Titan during the 57th expedition. (Of course, we know now that it's unlikely Annie was trying to kill Reiner when she caught him.)
Bertholdt is a more passive character, so it's easy to forget that he actually came out ranked #3, so he's quite the capable fighter, but he didn't have any stand out moments in the first season. Most people knew him as Reiner's buddy, and some people (like my brother) figured he was one of those characters hanging around waiting for the appropriate Titan to stop by and eat him.
This season we find out that the two of them are the Armored and Colossal Titans respectively, which means that they are responsible for the loss of thousands of lives caused by the destruction of the gate at Wall Maria. Their arrival five years is the reason that protagonist Eren is on a rampaging path of defeating every Titan in existence.
While the audience was prepared to discover more Titans among the cast after Annie Leonhart was revealed as the Female Titan, Reiner and Bertholdt being the culprits was a surprise. Annie was a loner and we had reason to suspect her due to animation cues and a mistake on her part where she reacts to Eren's nickname, which only other members of the 104th Training Corps would know. She fit the profile we would expect of an enemy agent; capable, a loner, and working her way towards the powerful people in the interior.
Reiner and Bertholdt were meanwhile bleeding along with the rest of the Corps. When we meet them again in Season 2 they're among the unarmed recruits racing to warn villages of the sudden appearance of Titans. They get trapped in Utgard Castle along with their fellow trainees and participate in every way one would expect from an ordinary comrade. Reiner even saves Conny's life and is willing to sacrifice himself for the safety of everyone else.
These aren't the actions of a traitor. And we do get some reasoning for that later.
But the nutshell summary is that despite everything, we learn that Reiner and Bertholdt are not inherently bad people. They are doing, and have done, awful things for which they can never be forgiven, and they know that. Poor Bertholdt's face when his former comrades try to talk him down is heartbreaking. He owns up to everything and doesn't even try to justify his actions.
The two of them (three if you include Annie) have been living undercover for five years. Considering their ages, they have spent their entire teenage lives pretending to be who they weren't, all for the sake of their mission. And for three of those five years they slept in the same barracks as the people they are now betraying. It was impossible for them to not feel a kinship with their fellow trainees.
It's a hell of a burden to be carrying, and I'm not surprised that Reiner eventually breaks beneath it, both in his capacity to delude himself into thinking he really is a soldier and not an invading warrior, and how he eventually tells Eren flat out that he's the Armored Titan and he wants Eren to come with him. From his perspective, wouldn't it be so much easier if Eren voluntarily went with them so he and Bertholdt could stop pretending?
We still don't know what the stakes are for them and why the deaths of thousands is worth it in service of their mission, despite any guilt they might feel, but Season 2 really made me care about these two. You would think that someone willing to condemn thousands to a violent death, being alive by Titans, would be a cruel person, and the series intentionally goes out of the way to make Reiner and Bertholdt sympathetic. I'm fond of good characters who do bad things, and the two of them are prime candidates for that.