WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Season 4, Episode 9 of Attack on Titan, "Brave Volunteers," now streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, Amazon Prime and Hulu.
Something that the Attack on Titan anime has always excelled at is its ability to condense its source material down without losing any of the finer details. Even after passing from Wit to MAPPA between Seasons 3 and 4, fans should be relieved to discover that this process hasn't changed one bit. Episode 9 of Season 4, "Brave Volunteers," is a glowing example of this -- upping the pace in terms of story coverage while never skimping on the key details.
Viewers were somewhat disoriented by the anime's first couple of episodes, which took us from one side of the ocean, where we left Eren and the Scouts at the end of Season 3, to the other -- Marley's shores, the source of Paradis Island's struggle against the Titans. At first, the story appeared to be progressing, for some, at a frustratingly leisurely pace, with one episode being almost entirely full of dialogue and little else. The episodes following Eren exposing himself to Reiner and triggering the raid on Liberio were worth viewers' patience, however. From there, Attack on Titan returned to what it made a name for itself doing: delivering a spectacular battle that also brought the much-missed Scout unit back into the mix alongside the rebellious Eren.
Barely a shred of the Shifter battle went to waste over these episodes, and though Episode 9 might feel like one big exposition dump compared to the slower-moving speed of previous installments, anime-only fans can rest assured that any fat-trimming doesn't detract from the overall product. If anything, the adapted version makes things even clearer than its source by putting certain scenes in chronological order that aren't in the manga.
Having taken us not only into alien territory at Season 4's start but also four years into the future, Attack on Titan brings us three years into the past to explain how the seeds of Zeke's extraction plan from Marley were sown: sending his "Anti-Marleyan Volunteers" to the Island as a gesture of good faith. Over a series of flashbacks, the episode details succinctly but effectively how these Marleyan captives helped open the Islanders eyes to everything from technology to cuisine to racial diversity.
These last two inclusions may seem like trivial things to leave in at the expense of perhaps more expositionary information that has been cut (such as a particular scene at the Port from the manga). But they're a lot more crucial than they appear. The Corps' (now) infamous "Why are you Black?" question to Onyankopon, while extremely clumsy, speaks to just how isolated they've been. Their reaction to him, while bordering on the offensive for its stupidity, is taken very well by the Eldian sympathizer who understands their unique circumstances and gives them an equally compassionate answer: all beings were made by God, even Titans, and therefore humanity's differences are purposeful, divine and to be celebrated.
Meanwhile, the focus on Niccolo's relationship with Sasha -- the perfect marriage of a budding chef and a forever-hungry patron -- makes the beloved Scouts' recent death all the more gut-wrenching, while his extending an olive branch via the thing she loved most in the world to her grieving family imbues that death with political purpose, as well as a glimmer of hope for Eldia and Marley's future. Things like this matter because Attack on Titan, while loved for its action and plot twists, isn't actually defined by them. It's defined by its themes.
Just like Wit, MAPPA understands that Attack on Titan is more than just a standard shonen battle series. These smaller moments are tiny ripples that will fan out to create larger waves in the future; defining how Hajime Isayama's story is interpreted and valued in the long-run. And though deeply flawed in regard to some of its imperial messaging and racial analogies, Attack on Titan is far too dense and complex to be categorized as definitively one thing or another.