Netflix’s animated reboot She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is notable for having a cast of surprisingly lovable villains. Some, like friendly Scorpia, don’t even feel like bad guys, while others, like the wily Shadow Weaver, elicit brief moments of sympathy.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.]
But the final season’s villain, intergalactic conqueror Horde Prime, was specifically engineered to have few redeeming qualities. Not only does he want to take over planets for power, he also believes that the entire world should be exactly like him. He speaks in lofty terms about the levels of harmony, light, and acceptance that will overtake the universe, if everyone just complies to his will.
“We love the villains so much on this show that we end up getting really into their characters and liking them a lot for who they are,” explains showrunner Noelle Stevenson. “I really wanted with Horde Prime someone who was just gross, just evil and nasty, but not in a shallow way.”
In an interview with Polygon, Stevenson recounts brainstorming and trying to draw on real life to find the people she considered to be the most evil. The answer: cult leaders.
“Specifically suicide-cult leaders,” she says. “People who have this element of control over everybody, who thinks they are the beginning and end of everything, and [their followers] are completely dependent on them.”
So the language Horde Prime uses doesn’t speak of blood and conquest. It’s subtler, coaxing his followers into believing he’s a harbinger of good. He uses his followers — all part of a hive mind — and his army of drones to essentially see and be everywhere at once, by using their gazes as vantage points and sometimes inhabiting their bodies. His followers speak of his greatness, but also the peace he shows them, which rings eerily, given their lack of free will.
At one point, while brainwashed, sympathetic series villain Catra reaches out to her estranged friend Adora, saying that Horde Prime has given her something Adora never could.
“Prime has given me peace,” she says in a chilling monotone. “You broke my heart. He’s made it whole again.”
Many of the phrases Horde Prime’s subjugates use to extol him feel like they’re lifted straight out of religious sermons and songs, specifically Fundamentalist Christian language. (Stevenson says her crew specifically looked at how megachurches are laid out when they were designing Horde Prime’s spaceship.) Horde Prime’s imperialist conquest of the galaxy lends itself easily to the religious overtones in his grand speeches. His devotees believe he will bring stability to the galaxy, and end their suffering.
“Even if he claims that there’s true peace in order, he’s incredibly violent and dehumanizing,” Stevenson says. “As he’s exerting control over the other characters, he takes everything away from them, he takes away the personalities, he takes away their free will. That’s what the scariest people in real life are to me, [those] where everything comes back to their own ego, and they see the world as just an extension of themselves. Once they actually have the power to enact that, I think that it is the most dangerous and destructive force that humans are capable of.”
Horde Prime was designed to be irredeemable, but his followers have the opportunity to break away from the hive mind. As one of Horde Prime’s clones comes to realize, it’s possible for them to choose paths for themselves.
The mini-arc of his redemption ties into the show’s greater themes about breaking out of cycles and escaping predetermined destinies. By the end of the show, many of the former villains have chosen to ally with the princesses, or turned away from selfish motivations for one final act. That doesn’t mean all of them were redeemed fully, but they still make their own choices. Horde Prime is the root of that entire cycle. Each of the series’ previous villains were trapped in attempts to prove themselves worthy to one another, starting with Hordak desperately trying to prove himself to Horde Prime. They’re only able to defeat him when one finally breaks free of that cycle of living for each other’s approval, and away from the cult of ego ruled by Horde Prime.
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