WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Attack on Titan Season 4, Episode 24, “Pride,” which is now streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu.
As a dark fantasy action series set in a post-apocalyptic world, Attack the titans is not strange when it comes to delivering tragedies. With each passing season, the death toll rises parallel to the presence of grief and pain as familiar faces disappear one after another, often horribly. Living among great devastation often raises the existential question: what did they die for?
This issue has been explored before in Attack the titans, specifically by Erwin Smith, who, in the heated battle to reclaim Maria’s Wall, exclaims to his soldiers that it is they -the living- who give meaning to the death of their companions. The hopes and dreams of these fallen soldiers live on, fueling the strength and motivations of those left behind to carry on. That said, an early death still affects the Scouts seasons later – especially Jean Kirstein.
Attack on Titan: The Fastest Titan Shifters, Ranked By Speed
Attack on Titan: All 9 Titan Changers (And The Worst Things They Did)
In the 24th episode of the fourth season, Jean is offered everything she has ever wanted, to live a relatively safe and easy life, joining the Jaegers. He debates this decision before deciding to join Floch Forster, but at the end of the episode Jean betrays them and sides with his friends. In doing so, he has thrown away his previous ideals and embarked on the impossible, joining this new team of Eldians and Marleyans who are willing to risk everything to take on Eren Jaeger. When asked why, Jean mentions the ash bones, a clear reference to an old friend and former cadet, Marco Bodt.
Marco was a member of the 104th Instructional Corps and was initially thought to be another casualty of the war. A skilled soldier who graduated as the seventh-ranking apprentice in his class, Marco is remembered for being intuitive and possessing the natural qualities of a leader, including a habit of boosting the morale of his companions. His idealistic personality was in direct contrast to his best friend Jean, who was portrayed as impulsive and brash, but they balanced each other out. It was Marco who saw through Jean’s flaws and recognized that he had the capabilities to be a strong and reliable leader – even better than Marco himself – and encouraged Jean to be more than he is.
After Marco’s death in Attack the titansJean takes her friend’s words to heart. Instead of enlisting in the Military Police Brigade, as he had planned, he joins the Inspection Corps despite being terrified to the core. Jean changes his selfishness when the memory of Marco motivates him to continue fighting, even in the midst of the horrors and devastation that surround humanity.
The full circumstances of Marco’s death are not revealed until a flashback in season three. During the Battle of Trost, Reiner Braun and Bertholdt Hoover discuss their Titan forms and how they have broken through the walls twice. From their discussion, he discovers that there are other humans besides Eren who can become Titans and that these traitors are hiding in plain sight and working against Paradis. Reiner attacks, but unable to leave Marco alive after discovering his secret, his fellow titan shifter Annie Leonhart strips Marco of the ODM gear, leaving him defenseless against the titans and begging for a chance to speak as he is eaten alive.
However, indirectly murdering your friend is not without consequences. Horrified by the situation, Annie hesitates, clearly reluctant to participate, but relents after Reiner’s excessive prodding. She contemplates her death with tears and continues to be haunted by her through nightmares. This event probably contributed to her mental breakdown at the end of the first season of Attack the titans.
This is also the point where Reiner’s understanding of his identity fragments, wondering why he eats Marco despite having left him for dead moments ago. This problem persists as Reiner’s mental health drastically deteriorates over time, often becoming confused as to whether he is a Marleyan warrior or a scout soldier. It is clear that Marco’s death does not weigh only on Jean.
Marco’s influence lives on through Jean, who exclaims that if he had chosen to stay with the Jaegers or even lock himself in his room, Marco would never have forgiven him. Now, Jean continues to rise above the easy way of life despite his own fears. His betrayal of the Jaegers is directly attributed to his friendship with Marco, which allowed him to save Yelena and Onyankopon, buy time for Mikasa Ackerman and company to escape, and gain the trust of Pieck Finger and Theo Magath. In turn, Marco has influenced the entire series, as Jean’s actions mark a major turning point for the explorers. And just as Erwin proclaimed, Jean has ensured that Marco’s death was not in vain.