WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Chapter #139 of Attack on Titan, "Toward the Tree on That Hill," by Hajime Isayama, Dezy Sienty and Alex Ko Ransom, available in English now from Kodansha.
Attack on Titan fans are still chewing over the manga's recent conclusion, one that has predictably divided opinion with its final twists and turns. While the ethics of Eren Jeager's world-changing decisions and whether his fate was untimely or predestined are at the forefront of these discussions, it's also worth looking back and deciphering how the answer to the Titan riddle reshapes what came before. Endings give retrospective meaning to the stories that proceeded them, and as strange as it is to say about a series so devoid of romance, eternal love is the theme of the final chapter. Consequently, that theme can be said to define much of the series as a whole now, for better and worse.
As it turns out, Titans continued to exist because of one woman's undying love: Ymir Fritz's complicated devotion to her husband, King Karl Fritz. Previously, the Founder of all Titans' curse -- the undefined 'magic' that kept her from truly dying for 2,000 years -- was assumed to be rooted in her status as a slave to the King, first as a laborer and then as his wife when she was granted a second life by acquiring the power of a Titan from a mysterious, primordial lifeform. The King used her as both an heir-maker and a tool to conquer much of the world, establishing the Eldian Empire and Titans as an oppressive evil.
When Zeke Jeager recounted some of this history to Armin Alert during the Battle of Heaven and Earth, he spoke of his frustration to understand the Founder's motives. Ymir "died" for a second time protecting her husband from an assassination attempt, after which he commanded their children to consume her remains so that her Titan powers wouldn't go to waste, lacing an entire race of people with the genetic potential to become Titans thereafter.
In the final chapter, Eren fills in more of the blanks to Armin, adding that Ymir Fritz was physically abused by Karl, and, of course, he was the one who commanded she be hunted to death for a minor misdemeanor in the first place. So when he also reveals that Ymir truly loved her husband and that that love was what chained her soul and, by extension, her Titan 'children' to this world, Armin's shock mirrors our own.
Previously, Ymir's spiritual binding could have been assumed broken by Eren persuading her to lend him the full power of the Founding Titan, offering her liberation in exchange. In truth, Eren knew, thanks to the Attack Titan's foresight being activated at the medal ceremony, that his actions wouldn't directly free her -- but they would open a path for Ymir's real savior to tread. That savior is revealed to be Mikasa, whose choice to kill Eren at the end of the penultimate chapter finally released Ymir, for reasons only she knew.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of an abused young woman being voluntarily enslaved by her love for her abuser has been poorly received by some readers. It's also unclear how young Ymir was when the King took her as his wife, and the possible defense of 'historical accuracy' where child brides in medieval fantasy fiction are concerned is a weak one. Attack on Titan is no stranger to controversy: its references to Japanese imperialism, accusations of a fascist subtext and its misguided Jewish analog in the Subjects of Ymir cast a shadow over its legacy, but it would be unfair to not point out its nuances.
The fact that the King's abuses of his wife are referred to on the same page as the revelation of Ymir's unwavering love for him makes it clear that Hajime Isayama is not selling Ymir's story as a romance for the ages. It's the very opposite -- Eren characterizes even her feelings as "agonizing." Freeing Ymir from hatred for the King would have been far easier than freeing her from love for him, even if she evidently understood how wrong those feelings were. It's something we can recognize all too well from real-life instances of people becoming trapped in abusive relationships, in which the logical urge to leave an abuser conflict with an unwanted but unshiftable emotional connection to them. The curse of Ymir is a love story, but it's neither romantic nor romanticized.
Instead, Eren and Mikasa's 'will they, won't they' dynamic remains the manga's longest-serving romantic throughline, even if it ends unrequited. In one last emotional outburst to Armin, Eren finally confirms that his motivations always were rooted in his romantic love for Mikasa, and in his familial love for his other friends. It was a love so felt so fiercely, he quite literally watched the world burn for it. This doesn't make Eren's genocidal devotion to his single-minded cause morally justifiable; it merely humanizes and complicates him as a dark idealist in a world of cold cynicism.
Perhaps the most unproblematic representation of love the final chapter offers are the ghostly apparitions of Erwin, Hange, Sasha and other departed Corps members. As Ymir's curse lifts, these vestiges appear to bid Levi, Jean and Connie one final goodbye, assuring them, silently, that they no longer died in vain. No matter how Eren manipulated their efforts from the shadows, the inhabitants of Paradis Island fought simply for their right to exist, and for the freedoms of those they loved.
In terms of the lingering mystery as to why Mikasa, of all people, was Ymir's chosen champion, love is again the clearest answer. Much like the Founder, Mikasa was a woman devoted, against her better judgment, to a man who carried out hideous atrocities -- the key difference between them being that Mikasa was willing to sacrifice that love to save the world. For this reason, it becomes apparent that the "You" in the first chapter's title, "To You, 2,000 Years from Now," was always Mikasa, whom Ymir sought both commonality and strength in; perhaps even self-actualization.
To say that Attack on Titan is a twisted love story doesn't make it any less of a horror one, and perhaps the greatest horror of all is knowing now that Titans, shaped and sent by Ymir to ravage a world she couldn't escape from, were the earthly manifestations of all her self-pitying agony. Love trapped her, but eventually, love liberated her.