Levi, Erwin, and the Decision to Die
I’ve heard some criticism of Levi allowing Erwin to die, and Erwin choosing to die, in Chapter 84. They claim that it was a plot device to allow main-character Armin to survive that went against their characters. To them, I would advise them to reread
the manga the chapter and really take in what’s going on.
Specifically, the flashback sequence.
Isayama didn’t include those to fill up pages, you know. Each one is a crucial memory in Levi’s development which results in the decision he made. The salvation of Armin was very much a character-driven decision, not a plot one - it was made to be Levi’s choice for a reason, and his decision resulted in the perfect resolution to Erwin’s arc and extensive growth to Levi’s.
The first of these flashbacks displays Armin’s motivation. Again, this is by no means an ass-pull; Isayama planned for this all these chapters ago by having Levi listen in on this conversation because it his decision to save Armin is crucial to his development. It’s Armin’s dream which is crucial here. Look at the genuine joy and excitement in his eyes. He really, truly wants to see the ocean for the beauty of it all. But in the next flashback…
…Erwin’s words don’t match his actions. He expresses the same determination as Armin did, but without any of Armin’s fire. Even as Erwin speaks these words his head is downcast, and he even admits that he has no idea what he will do afterwards, whereas for Armin, the idea of seeing the ocean is more of a symbolic gesture for appreciating the freedom outside the walls - one of hope for the future itself.
As an appreciative side note, the parallels between Armin and Erwin continue to be strong, and the fact that both of their fates rely on Bertholdt, their third parallel, ties in the three interconnected worlds of the Warriors, the Survey Corps, and the 104th. It is a decision to save one of three halves of the same self. For Armin, the dream that drives all his actions is to see the ocean; for Erwin, the basement; for Bertholdt, his hometown. Levi doesn’t consider the worth of Bertl’s life in this equation, given his lack of a personal connection to him and Bertl being an enemy, but panels of Bertholdt between flashbacks do, I think, imply his connection to the two.
Anyway getting back on track, Levi hasn’t realised this crucial difference between Armin and Erwin yet. It takes a very important memory to trigger that recognition…
The death of Kenny Ackerman in Chapter 69 is perhaps the definitive moment for Levi’s character development, as well as for the vital theme of Intoxication throughout SNK. In probably my favourite scene of the series, Kenny explains how in this cold, brutal, bloody world, dreams and aspirations are existential drugs to keep the trauma and the pain at bay, and give meaning to the endless slaughter.
But there comes a point where one experiences so much pain, so much loss, that the drug enslaves you. Just like how drug addicts eventually cease to take any pleasure from its consumption yet can’t stop because now they’re addicted, Kenny no longer feels any real longing for power; but after Uri’s death, that’s all he has left. He sets himself a goal to distract himself from the emptiness inside. If he had still truly desired power, he would have taken the titan serum himself. But he doesn’t. His dream was simply the strings animating his lifeless body.
And the same is true of Erwin.
Kenny’s words about Uri echo back to Levi to refer to Erwin. As it should, as Uri and Erwin are the respective receivers of the infamous Ackerbond. He, like Uri, like Kenny, is enslaved by this dream. Erwin practically says it himself in Chapter 80:
The answers are the only thing that drive Erwin. Aside from that, his life is empty, thus his longing to die…but he can’t. Because the addiction still enslaves him.
This is, of course, the long-awaited revelation of the question Erwin asked his father in his flashback in Chapter 55, all those years ago.
“What doesn’t exist” in this scenario specifically refers to the lost records of humanity. revealing that dream at the core of Erwin’s character - to challenge convention and find the truth of what lies beyond. This is the dream. This is the memory that reappears in Erwin’s dying moments because it is the base essence of who he is - it is what plays inside his head with every decision he makes. This question is all he is now.
And here it is, the explicit connection between Erwin and Kenny - the two most important people in Levi’s life. You can see the shock and pain in his eyes as he makes the connection and knows that Erwin was about to make the same choice Kenny had…
…to reject the serum and die. To be free from their intoxication at last. He doesn’t know about Armin’s situation. He’s making this decision because he does not truly want to see the basement anymore. Remember that Erwin is still in a delirious state - the recollection of Levi’s words to Erwin were included to show that here Erwin is not thanking Levi for offering him the serum; he is thanking him for his actions in chapter 80 - what he wanted to say behind his sad smile. By making the decision for him, Levi liberated him from his intoxication at long last.
At this point, Levi knows that the cruellest thing to do to Erwin right now would be to return him to its grasp. The panel showing Armin’s eyes, free from the sadness of Erwin’s, shows that he still posseses the younger dream - the innocent dream of a younger version of Erwin’s self, before it escalates into a life-dominating intoxication. Levi knows that the younger dream is the one that must be preserved.
“Hell” is his addiction, the compulsion that swallowed up his life and caused him so much pain and grief. This is what people who insist that Erwin should have seen the basement before he died don’t understand. Seeing the basement could never be a positive thing for Erwin’s character, because once he saw it, he would have been overcome with despair because it could never have possibly lived up to his expectations. His goal would be complete, but he would still be a broken man, and upon discovering the secrets of the basement he will have no choice but to see those ghosts all the time.
Seeing the basement would not have been the fulfilment of a dream. It would have shattered it. It would have been the fruition of a toxic addiction which had ruined Erwin’s life, and by allowing Erwin to die, Levi gave him the agency to wrest back control of his life from its grasp.
And Erwin, by dying, fulfilled what the dream was back when he was a child, back when it was chaste, before it was the basement and when it was a simple question. With that question, he saw beyond the illusion and defied the powers that be. In accepting death, he in turn saw beyond the drunken haze of the dream and broke free of its control on him.
Erwin Smith died triumphant, and free.