I first started watching the new She-Ra show in 2018 partially because I’d heard that Noelle Stevenson was going to be the show-runner, and I was a big fan of Nimona, and partially because there was a dumb controversy about how the character redesigns were “too masculine” and the show was a plot to destroy Traditional Femininity or Spread the Gay Agenda or something. I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected, which I wrote about here. The first season was a really fun, well-done cartoon that sucked me in and got me invested. The four seasons following it have built on that, taking a good premise and turning it into what honestly may well be one of my favorite TV shows? You guys I loved this so much. I had become emotionally invested enough in She-Ra that I was genuinely nervous about watching the final season, worried that it wouldn’t give the characters the ending I thought they deserved. It was so much better than I had even dared hope. Let’s talk about why:
1. In my original review, I said that the plot was just “OK”. It’s pretty formulaic after the initial set-up, with pretty conventional storylines and heavy-handed morals. Man, did they raise their game. Over the course of the entire show, the worldbuilding and setting are amazingly dynamic, never settling into a status quo but constantly raising the stakes, changing the ground rules, expanding the universe. There’s a willingness to play the long game that I really admire, with the writers setting up character arcs and plot threads that take multiple seasons to unwind. This all reaches perfection in the final season, when Etheria is pulled out of the sealed-off pocket dimension it’s always resided in, enters the main Universe, and the story just becomes a full-on space opera, with fleets of spaceships, teleporters, galactic empires, etc. It’s delightful. She-Ra stabs some spaceships with a sword. Amazing.
2. There’s also some really clever subversion of the original premise, espechially the lore surrounding the First Ones. The planet Etheria is covered in the ancient ruins and technology of the mysterious “First Ones”, the original inhabitants of the planet, who’s civilizational exploits have never been matched. In the first season, we learn that She-Ra’s sword was created by them to tap into the planet’s magic, and Adora is instructed by a holographic teacher created by them that her destiny is to “balance the planet”, a task failed in by Mara, the last She-Ra, who went insane a thousand years ago. But in Season 4, we discover the truth: The First Ones were brutal conquerors who settled the planet in order to loot it’s magical resources and turn them into a weapon. “Balancing the planet” isn’t some mythical process about bringing peace and harmony back, it’s about aligning the magical runestones properly so that She-Ra can be used as a living weapon to destroy the enemies of the First Ones, and Mara had died stopping her superiors from enacting their plan a millennium ago. This is a great twist and also a really clever subversion of everything we’ve seen so far, with some not-particularly-subtle commentary on colonialism. And there’s some interesting subtext in having the She-Ra, both Mara and Adora, defy and turn against the nameless “superiors” and hierarchies that seek to control them.
3. The core of the show to me has always been the extremely strong character relationships, and Catra and Adora’s arc has always been what I’ve cared about the most. Essentially, Adora and Catra grew up together as best friends in the Horde, Adora eventually discovered that she was the mythological warrior-hero She-Ra and defected to fight for the side of Good, and Catra took this as a personal betrayal. This worked so well all the way back in Season 1 because it’s so well rooted in both their characters. Adora is a kind person who wants to help everyone, even in the Horde, she looked out for all her friends–like Catra. Catra though, grew up abused and threatened by her terrible mother Shadow Weaver. She’s never had the luxury of illusions or ideals, and the only friend she’s ever had is Adora. When Adora leaves her, it breaks her. Now, I am a dedicated member of #TeamCatra, which made a lot of this show very rough. Because Catra’s arc for most of the middle three seasons is just her making every possible wrong choice. Every time she’s given a chance to redeem herself or start to pull herself together, she chooses to sink deeper into the darkness. She’s lonely and scared and she tries to compensate for this by manipulating and controlling everyone around her—but all she does is drive away everyone else who cares about her. Something I’ve talked about on this blog before is “the importance of using cruelty well”. Torturing your characters is all well and good, but it has to have a narrative payoff or purpose. She-Ra delivers. We spend four seasons watching Catra fall apart, but it’s worth it, because in the final season, we see her hit rock bottom and start to pull herself up again, to put the pieces of her battered psyche back together. I cannot express to you how gosh-darned emotional it was to see Catra, after years of reacting with rage and jealousy to the idea of Adora having any other friends, be willing to sacrifice herself to save Glimmer because she just wants to do one good thing in her life before the end.
4. Because this post is just going to be #AllCatraAllTheTime, I want to delve more into her redemption arc. I read this post, by a culture writer I generally admire, arguing that the show excuses and justifies abusive relationships by rewarding Catra’s years of, uhhh, to be frank, pretty awful behavior with her getting Adora back anyways. Now, to a certain extent, this is highly subjective. Whether any character has “earned” their redemption is always going to be a matter of opinion. But the author, Abigail Nussbaum, makes some arguments that really don’t seem supported the text, and I think unpacking them is a good way of explaining why I thought this arc worked so well. She claims that Catra’s redemption only happens because she fails in her various plots. “I think we all know that if Catra had gotten a position of power from Horde Prime, she would have felt no loyalty towards Adora and Etheria, and helped him to conquer them.” But a common theme for a while now has been that Catra seizes power and then doesn’t enjoy it. All the way back in Season 2, when she’s given an opportunity to kill Shadow Weaver, the person she hates most in the world…..she can’t do it. Not only can she not, but Shadow Weaver manipulates her incredibly easily, just by showing her a tiny amount of the kindness that Catra is desperate for. Catra’s entire arc in Season 4 is her winning. She comes to the brink of conquering the planet, and then…..has a nervous breakdown because she’s driven all her friends away and nothing makes her happy anymore. Also Hordak Prime does offer her a position of power? And she turns it down to save Adora! Catra’s choices aren’t arbitrary, they’re the result of a character arc that has been running pretty consistently for the entire show. The post complains about Catra having a “parachuted-in personality transplant”, which really didn’t ring true for me. We spend multiple episodes watching Catra try and adapt to being a new and better person, and we see that it’s not easy for her. Catra teleporting Glimmer off of Horde Prime’s station in a blaze of self-destructive glory, hoping to atone for her failures with one selfless act, is my favorite scene, probably in the entire series. But the scene four or five episodes later, when she starts to shout at her new friends and then mutters through gritted teeth “I’m sorry—I get angry—It’s something I’m working on” is just as important for her character development.
5. I actually agree with Nussbaum’s statement that, to put it into Avatar: The Last Airbender Terms terms, Catra isn’t Zuko. “Catra is Azula – obsessed with power, possessed of very little compassion for others, and, most importantly, seriously emotionally unbalanced.” Like Azula, Catra reacted to loneliness and fear by trying to manipulate everyone around her, but the key difference is that where Azula seems to have burned out all of her compassion by age five or so, this is clearly never true for Catra. She suppresses it, she does terrible things in spite of it, but her plot arc for the entire show involves her struggling with it. The reason I love Catra so much is precisely because she’s such a mess. She’s not a well person, she’s not an easy person to get along with, she’s a terrible friend. When But She-Ra doesn’t so much excuse that as it does spend four seasons having her slowly come to realize that dominating and controlling everyone will never make her happy. I found her transformation and redemption in the last season so believable because it so well based on her character so far. Catra was driven into evil by love, because she’s a broken person who’s bad at expressing feelings. And I believed that when she finally realizes how empty she feels, that same love would lead her to try and make things right. Catra’s not a sparkly princess like the other main characters—she’s messed up and miserable and full of self-loathing. In physical terms, she’s depicted as half-animal, not totally human. And I love so much that the show (and Adora) ends by affirming that she still deserves love. She still matters.
6. Considering that it is a show for tiny children about the power of friendship, I actually thought that She-Ra did a shockingly good job of showing how messy and uncomfortable and toxic friendships and relationships can be, and how much work you have to put into them. Part of the reason I was so annoyed at the idea that show justifies abuse is that the importance of standing up to your friends is so key. For example, Scorpia loves Catra, and constantly enables her terrible behavior for much of the show, despite the fact that Catra is awful to her. A pivotal moment for both their characters is when Scorpia finally just tells her “You’re a bad friend”, and leaves her. It’s important for Scorpia to gain self-confidence and some backbone, but it’s also vital for Catra. Catra has been using Scorpia for emotional support while giving nothing back, she can’t start rebuilding herself until she realizes how far gone she is, and that can’t happen unless people like Scorpia are honest with her. Another example is Glimmer. In Season 4, Glimmer becomes Queen of Bright Moon after the death of her mother, and becomes obsessed with living up to her legacy. This alienates her from her friends, and ends with her accidentally almost blowing up the planet and enabling the Emperor of the Known Universe to conquer them. Whoops. The whole thing is really ugly—Glimmer, Adora, and Bow are all convinced that they’re right, and the stakes are too high for anyone to back down, but, once again, it’s all based on preexisting character motivations and histories. None of it feels arbitrary or forced. And despite Bow and Glimmer being best friends, his anger at her for, y’know, the planet-blowing-up thing, is framed as totally valid and understandable.
7. In the interests of talking about characters who aren’t Catra: Adora’s arc in the last two seasons of rebelling against her “destiny” and the intended purpose of She-Ra is really good, pushing back on the cliche of prophecies and “chosen ones”. Adora is only She-Ra because a computer program still running a thousand years after it was relevant decided to manipulate time and space to bring her to Etheria so that she could be a living weapon—and she turned her back on it, broke the Sword, and reclaimed the mantle of She-Ra to protect those she loved, regardless of what she was told to do by the powerful. Entrapta’s unceasing joy at “cold, crushing void of space” is an endless delight, as is her romance/friendship with Original Hordak, which is not something I thought they could make work. We get to see a lot more Netossa and Spinnerella this season, which is nice. I think Glimmer’s arc about having to assume the mantle of queen in Season 4 is quite good, especially because she fails. She fails catastrophically, and then she gets right back to work trying to make things right. This is just my interpretation, but I think the reason Glimmer is so willing to forgive Catra, even though Catra was responsible for her mother’s death, is because by Season 5 Glimmer has also screwed up monumentally because she was angry at her friends. Her entire planet was conquered by an intergalactic warlord because of her! So she understands. Bow has a really interesting evolution, as he grows from the “friendly guy who always tries to keep everyone else happy” into a more developed, complex character. He’s still a very friendly guy who tries to keep his friends happy, but he becomes more self-confident, more willing to speak up on his own behalf and stand up for what he believes in. Shadow Weaver’s death was extremely well-done, giving the Worst Character a shot at redemption while still staying true to her general awfulness. Sea Hawk is, as always, great, but they should’ve let him sing some more ballads.
8. Something I thought was really interesting was the aesthetics of Horde Prime and his empire, which are all focused on “light” and “purity” and “peace”. The original Hordak dresses in black and lives in a fortress called “The Fright Zone”. Everything is always colored dark green, black, and grey. But the primary colors of the Galactic Horde are white and silver, as a character, he’s soft-spoken and dignified. His epithets and pronouncements are always about “bringing light to the darkness” and “purifying the unclean” or “casting out the shadows”. You can see it as a vision of evil as pure sterility, the absence of anything but Horde Prime’s overweening ego. A friend of mine saw it as a metaphor about Evangelical Christianity, and the demand for conformity and submission masked under a promise of peace and serenity, something that makes a lot of sense when you watch the scene where one of the queer characters is brainwashed by Horde Prime and told that her feelings for the girl she loves are merely causing her “pain, suffering, and discord”, and that only by “accepting the Light of Prime” can she find peace. I think however you interpret it, it’s a really cool choice.
9. When I reviewed the first season I said that there weren’t a lot of romances in general but it had some “queer subtext”. Reader, I am so happy to report that this show turned out to be GAY AS ALL HECK. I’m so happy!!! There’s a character without a clear gender who’s referred to with they-pronouns, there’s four gay secondary characters, including Bow’s delightful librarian dads, and most importantly, they MADE CATDORA CANON!!! I’M SO HAPPY!! Like, going all the way back to the first season, there’s been a lot of romantic subtext in Catra and Adora’s relationship. I mean, they danced at a prom where Catra wore a very dapper tuxedo, it ain’t subtle. But I never dreamed that they would be allowed to make it explicit. And they do!! The climax of the show is them telling each other “I love you” and kissing and then THAT LOVE SAVING THE UNIVERSE. It’s a remarkable achievement for a children’s show, which have only started to feature explicitly gay characters in the last few years, and Noelle Stevenson has talked about how difficult it was to get this approved by the studio. But it’s also lovely within the context of the show. I’m not a very good culture writer because I’m not very analytical, I’m very sentimental. And I really liked all of these characters and I really wanted them to be happy and I’m just .
10. Something else I talked about in my original review was that I really liked how the show never directly addresses sexism or feminism, instead simply presenting a predominantly female cast interacting with their male costars without any indication of gender-based inequity. Instead of assuming that the audience needs to be taught that She-Ra can be a hero, or that they need a Very Special Episode about how Girls Can Do Anything Guys Can, it just trusts the audience to understand that, and then presents a world where everybody else seems to too. She-Ra takes the same approach to it’s queer characters. There’s no controversy or discussion about them; everybody just takes it for granted that Bow has two dads or that Netossa and Spinnerella are married. I think this is so important, especially in a children’s show. It normalizes it in the best possible way.
11. In Season 1 of She-Ra, the eponymous character’s noble steed, Swift Wind the flying unicorn, was leading an Equine Revolution against the humocentric power structure. The phrase “Liberty, Equality, and Free Hay!” is uttered. Sadly, Swift Wind seems to have been seduced away from his prolaterian roots and come to identify with the Aristocracy, for the Revolution is no longer being mentioned. This is a shame.