Netflix's "She-Ra and the Princesses of Power" Retrospective: Season One
It's SHE-RA WEEK here at the Vundacast. This Friday, the fifth and final season of this absolute treasure of a television show will be hitting Netflix and it promises to be something to behold. If the first four seasons of storytelling, which have all been leading to this, are any indication, we might be talking about She-Ra and the Princesses of Power as one of the greatest children's television shows of all time--if not one of the greatest television shows, period--by the time this final season is all said and done. So, to celebrate, this week at the Vundacast we will be posting season-by-season thematic/narrative retrospectives (season one today, season two & three tomorrow, and season four on Thursday) to reflect back on the journey leading up to this final season and the narratives and themes that have been explored and likely will be continued to be explored and hopefully given proper closure.
We begin today with Season 1...
This is an incredibly rich and layered first season of a television show, which really speaks to the idea that they pretty clearly seemed to have a very clear vision for this show from the very beginning. There are so many pieces put in place and set in motion in this season and rewatching it back is [Entrapta voice] fascinatinggg seeing where so many themes and story arcs began with the knowledge of where they would go from there. Like any great show, so much of the core that holds the show together is the relationships and some of the big ones are established right off the bat. The dynamic between Shadow Weaver and Catra (and, to a lesser extent, Adora) is a huge part of season one and a significant piece of Catra's overall character arc. Glimmer's relationship with her mother, Angella, is a huge part of her journey as well--in fact, in many ways, parental relationships (many of them surrogate parents) are a huge part of She-Ra. However, undeniably the relationship at the very center of the entire series is between Catra and Adora.
|image courtesy of The Mary Sue|
In many ways, Adora's decision to leave the Horde and, by extension, leave Catra behind (however unintentionally), is Adora's "original sin," at least from Catra's perspective. Certainly it's hard to argue that it was the right decision but it's also the breaking point for Catra--who was already dealing with a lot--that sets in motion her journey as a character. This is never more clearly or beautifully illustrated than in Episode 11, "Promise," in which Catra and Adora become trapped in a hallucinatory room in the Crystal Castle that delves deep into both their psyches to confront them with some difficult truths about their relationship growing up in the Horde. Adora finally begins to realize the damage she's done and implores Catra: "I'm sorry for leaving. I couldn't go back to the Fright Zone. Not after I saw what the Horde was really doing. But I never wanted to leave you. You could come with me. You could join the Rebellion. I know you're not a bad person, Catra. You don't belong with the Horde."
But Catra, in her introspection, apparently comes to a very different conclusion (perhaps to protect herself from harder truths about herself, but also with a bit of truth in what she says): Adora never really had her back ("You never protected me. Not in any way that would put you on Shadow Weaver's bad side."), even going so far as to say that Adora has been holding her back all this time, that she was the reason nothing Catra ever did was good enough for Shadow Weaver, that she was always a disappointment to Shadow Weaver and subject to the worst of her abuse for always being second best. She was never the favorite. Adora was. Because Adora was special. Perhaps most poignantly of all, Catra sees a vision of her and Adora as kids:
"You look out for me and I look out for you," Child Adora says. "Nothing really bad could happen as long as we have each other."
"You promise?" Catra says tearfully.
"I promise," Adore swears as adult Catra mouths along with her, unmistakable pain behind her eyes at the promise Adora has broken.
|image courtesy of aminoapps.com|
It's a sibling dynamic that is so universal in fact and fiction, the favorite and the forgotten, the special one and the one that never measured up. But this is a bit of a twist on that sibling dynamic--instead of siblings, they're best friends who are orphaned child soldiers with a surrogate parent who is their commanding officer. One of my favorite themes in She-Ra is the portrayals of orphan child soldier trauma. The brainwashing and indoctrination the Horde's child soldiers go through is made very clear from the beginning as princesses are portrayed as "vicious, violent instigators," a theme that repeats throughout the series. Not only are they abused and traumatized from a young age (Catra most of all by FAR, which seems to push her toward the destructive behaviors she engages in), but they are heavily gaslighted into believing it's for their own good, to make them strong (to the point where Catra internalizes this when she makes her move to supplant Shadow Weaver as Hordak's number two, proudly declaring: "You thought you were punishing me all these years? Wrong. You were training me for this day."), and manipulated into feeling loyalty and love for the Horde--"Hordak says we're doing what's best for Etheria," Adora says in Episode 1, "The Sword Part 1," when confronted with what the Horde is doing to Etheria. "We're trying to make things better, more orderly....The Horde would never do something like this." She tells Glimmer and Bow that the Horde "rescued me when I was a baby and gave me a home. They're my family, you don't know them like I do." But Bow puts things in perspective: "Maybe you don't know them like you think you do." This is just one of the many beautiful themes woven into She-Ra.
|image courtesy of Tumblr|
Another theme that gets explored quite a bit during the formation of the princess alliance throughout season one is that of discovering one's power and the fact that we are stronger together (in particular, women are stronger together as most of the characters in the show are women). It begins early on with Episode 4, "Flowers for She-Ra," which introduces us to the first princess other than She-Ra or Glimmer: Perfuma. Even before the Best Friends Squad embarks on their first mission to Plumeria, Glimmer gives us a glimpse into the history of the original, ill-fated princess alliance: "The Rebellion had a big defeat years ago and most of the old princesses gave up. Now all the kingdoms keep to themselves and the new princesses do the same." (the latter of which is already revealed to Adora by Madame Razz in Episode 3, "Razz") When they arrive in Plumeria, they find a very fearful citizenry whom immediately put all their hope in She-Ra saving them. When the trio try to convince them to join the fight themselves, Perfuma's response is perfect: "This is my power. I make plants. We're not strong enough to go up against the Horde." What chance do simple, fragile things have in a world of steel and lasers? But She-Ra, Glimmer, and Bow fight for them and it inspires Perfuma and she leads them into battle and saves our beloved trio. In Episode 6, "System Failure," even regular people such as Entrapta's servants are inspired by Bow's leadership to find and harness their own power, their own abilities, even if they're not magical. "The Rebellion needs regular people more than ever," Bow says, and it's so true on so many levels both in the show and in our lives.
The "stronger together" narrative comes up again and again--Frosta being especially resistant to breaking her protectionism and isolationism until she realizes the Kingdom of Snows is much more vulnerable to the Horde than she realizes--before reaching an impasse in Episode 9, "No Princess Left Behind," when the newly-reformed alliance launches its first mission--to infiltrate the Fright Zone and rescue Bow and Glimmer from the Horde after Catra kidnapped them at Princess Prom--and ends up (through no fault of their own, it needs to be said) leaving Entrapta behind. (Side note: season one also does an amazing job of setting up Entrapta as this fascinating character-based exploration of the tension between science and ethics but this theme is explored much more deeply in season two and three so I'll leave it for tomorrow.) Their faith is shaken as all the old fears about the princess alliance resurface. "This only happened because we were all together," Mermista says. "Mermista's right," Perfuma adds. "Being together makes us vulnerable." For a while, they retreat back to their kingdoms until the Horde tries to use a rune stone to hack the other rune stones and drain their power. In response to this threat, the princess alliance reunites for the Battle of Bright Moon, and by fighting together, form a synergistic relationship that heightens their power...WITH RAINBOW MAGIC!!!!!
|image courtesy of swimluva02.blogspot.com|
Oh, yeah. In case you didn't know, this show is G-A-Y with a capital GAY. All the things this show is able to do with color and cinematography are absolutely breathtaking but there's no mistaking the very intentional decision to ascribe tremendous power to rainbows. The main source of this is when we see Adora's full transformation into She-Ra. The entire transformation is basically made of rainbows. They're everywhere and it is glorious. But the symbolism truly hits home when princess alliance unites in battle together and become powered up by RAINBOW POWER to enable them to defeat the Horde in the Battle of Bright Moon. And the theme is even larger still--not just in terms of straight up queerness but also in a broader sense of an overarching soft, sweet, gentle nature of so many of the characters. Characters constantly share the sweetest, most adorable affections and bouts of silliness with one another and, specifically, one thing I noticed right away about this show is how much it normalizes big emotions and even tears. She-Ra does an amazing job of consistently showing its audience--many of whom are children--that it's okay to cry and that is just so beautiful to me.
And even this wealth of big feelings and emotions goes deeper as Adora begins her training. There are so many parallels to be made between She-Ra and Star Wars (many of them opportunities that Star Wars never took full advantage of while She-Ra definitely does: the Jedi as child soldiers, the importance of power that comes from within, of finding place and purpose and grappling with destiny and prophecy) but one of the biggest ones is this: as Adora goes through her training, Light Hope tries to convince her that she needs to "let go." "You are distracted by your attachments," Light Hope tells Adora, comparing her to "one before you who could not let go": Mara, the last She-Ra before Adora, 1,000 years ago, who broke the line of She-Ra and stranded Etheria in the empty dimension of Despondos. Unlike Star Wars, where the dogmatic non-attachment of the Jedi is never really reckoned with, Adora resists Light Hope's counsel. "I'm not Mara," Adora says. "I'm not the She-Ras of the past. I didn't do this to fulfill some destiny. I became She-Ra to help others. My attachments, my friends, are part of who I am."
|image courtesy of reelhoney.com|
Which brings us around to other other tent-pole theme of the show: destiny, prophecy, and finding one's purpose and place in the world. While several characters go through similar journeys, this theme is exemplified by Adora's journey. From the very first episode of the series, we begin seeing visions through Adora's eyes of her past or perhaps her destiny, calls from Light Hope and the Crystal Castle. From the first episode, Adora's journey is all about finding place and purpose: "I want to figure out what's happening to me," she says in Episode 2, "The Sword Part 2," "and if I go back to the Fright Zone, then I'll never know. I never knew where I came from or who my family was. Shadow Weaver said it doesn't matter who I was before, that I was nothing before Hordak took me in. There's always been a part of me that I just don't know anything about and all of this feels familiar somehow. I don't know how else to explain it." When Adora eventually begins speaking with Light Hope and training with her, she learns more about what her destiny may have in store for her from Light Hope: "The time has come show you your destiny....You are She-Ra, Etheria's champion, appointed by the First Ones to protect and unite our planet. There have been many before you but the line was broken. You are the first She-Ra in 1,000 years....Everything on Etheria is connected. The princesses are granted power over the elements through their rune stones. As She-Ra, it is your duty to bring the princesses together. Only then can balance be restored to Etheria." She finds meaning in being She-Ra for a time but as the series goes on, we see her continue to wrestle with the tension between destiny and choice. Season one just scratches the surface.
And this is just the big stuff; there's more: in-depth power analysis and exploration of power dynamics; the importance of not letting fear control you and hold you back ("WE MUST BE BRAVE!"); understanding one's limitations and struggling with the fear of failure and of not meeting people's expectations of you; the search for sweet acceptance (and with whom you find it); there's even some awesome pagan-influenced magic and moon ritual stuff. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power may well be one of the deepest and most profound children's shows that has ever existed. And season one is just the tip of the iceberg!