[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for season 4 of Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.]
The season 4 finale for Netflix’s animated revival series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ended with a world-changing revelation: the heroic She-Ra was manipulated into a tool by the ancient race of First Ones in order to exploit the planet of Etheria.
When showrunner Noelle Stevenson first took the reins of She-Ra — a revamp of the 1980s series spun off from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — she started forging her own mythos, radically departing from the original He-Man world. In Stevenson’s hands, the heroes and villains alike had more complex motives and deeper, more emotional relationships. The final hammerdrop of season 4, in which hero Adora shattered the magical sword which transformed her into She-Ra, rendering her essentially powerless, altered the existing lore and upended the traditional storylines for Chosen One narratives. The fifth and final season, premiering on Netflix on May 15, interrogates this notion even further, as the heroes are scattered and questioning what they once knew.
“This story really is about free will, and choice versus destiny,” Stevenson tells Polygon. “How subverting that Chosen One destiny is about subverting what the expectations are for you, the destiny that seems inevitable, and how the Chosen One narrative is inherently flawed — it’s inherently flawed in the way the characters relate to it.”
The overarching theme of defying expectations isn’t restricted to Adora and her grandiose destiny. It percolates throughout all the characters’ individual arcs. Teleporting princess Glimmer, for instance, lives in her mother’s shadow and protection, and fears she’ll never be able to be a hero on her own. Horde leader Hordak is revealed to be just a defective clone created by the megalomaniac galactic conqueror Horde Prime.
For Stevenson, every character’s arc comes back to that notion of free will.
“What is our choice? How are we shaped by the environments we’re in? How are we shaped by the people that have authority over us? How are we shaped by what we’re told our destiny is?” she says. “Every single character has a relationship to that. We’ve seen them come up against that question, and I think this last season is really where they start to answer those questions for themselves.”
In direct contrast to Adora’s fate as a Chosen One is her childhood friend-turned-sworn-nemesis Catra. Both of them grow up in the villainous Horde, while Adora was heralded as the favorite of their mentor Shadow Weaver, and Catra was told she was nothing but a troublemaker. Though Adora and Catra shared a special bond, the difference messages about their potential that they got as children drove a wedge in their relationship from the very beginning, a gap that widened sharply when Adora left the Horde.
“She cares so much and has such a huge capacity for feeling — but is raised in an environment where that is a vulnerability,” Stevenson says. “Adora leaving is one more example of that one vulnerability that she allowed herself to have, being thrown back into her face, from her point of view. That is really when she starts to shut down and decide to not only not be vulnerable with anyone else, but also that she is going to control everything about her life.”
Adora and Catra’s respective arcs reflect opposite themes: while Adora joins the princesses rebelling against the Horde, and gains strength from her new friendships, Catra’s rise to power means pushing away anyone who wants to be close to her. Even when big-hearted Horde princess Scorpia offers a hand (or in this case, a claw) in friendship, Catra remembers the last time she allowed herself to be open, and spurns her.
And the ambitious villain spends most of season 4 growing in ambition and power, but alienating possible friends in a bid to maintain her independence, whether that means blaming tech-savvy Entrapta for Catra’s own mistakes, or rejecting Scorpia’s earnest attempts at friendship. The only person she shares some friendly rapport with is scheming Double Trouble, who’s only loyal to Catra for the payment. The connection that Catra simultaneously craves and won’t allow herself seems to emerge when she and Double Trouble exchange mission updates and banter. She admires them and their skill, but she’s always sharply reminded where their loyalties lie when they ask for payment. When Double Trouble inevitably betrays Catra at the end of the fourth season, she winds up completely alone.
“At the end of season 4, [Catra]’s hit rock bottom,” Stevenson says. “She’s lost everybody. She has nothing left. That independence she was striving for so much has ended up just meaning that she’s entirely alone. That was never what she wanted.”
What Catra really longed for, Stevenson tells us, was connection.
“She wanted to be safe, but she wanted to be a part of something with other people and have these personal connections in her life. What has made her strong is that conviction and her determination to strive for more power and for self-individuation. But it has also been for the wrong reasons, and executed in the wrong way, because vulnerability is not a weakness. Those personal relationships make you stronger.”
The theme of friendship being the most powerful force in the universe is a common theme in stories aimed at young girls. Magical girl shows in particular often value the characters’ relationships above anything else. The importance of friendship is threaded throughout She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, but it’s never as simple as “Friendship is magic and will save us from evil!” Much like the Chosen One theme, it was something Stevenson wanted to take at more than face value.
“A lot of times, that story gets a little sanded-down or sanitized — where friendship always saves the day. But in real life, friendship is often very difficult,” explains Stevenson. “It is very hard being open and vulnerable with your friends, and giving as much as you’re taking, or knowing when to draw boundaries and even when to walk away. I really wanted to get into all the nuances and all the messiness of relationships. One of the most important things in life is our connections to each other, if not the most important thing, but it’s also often very painful, and often very scary.”
Throughout the show, relationships aren’t just made; they’re tested, pushed, and sometimes broken. The fourth season sees Adora, Glimmer, and their archery-savvy friend Bow testing their otherwise strong relationship as Glimmer pursues a plan that might save the world, and might cost many lives. Their connection becomes more fractured over the course of season 4, which ultimately split the trio apart.
While the Best Friend Squad (as Adora, Bow, and Glimmer dub themselves) may have to work on repairing bonds after they reunite in the final season, Catra — who wound up on the same remote spaceship as Glimmer — has a different challenge entirely. Closing herself off from possible interpersonal relationships means she has no one to lean on. In this new environment, she’s deeply, truly alone, and moving forward presents her with a new kind of challenge.
“Her unwillingness to be vulnerable around anyone else, or ask for help, or lean on anyone else for support, finished her off long before any of the other factors,” Stevenson says. “She was all alone and had nobody to talk to, nobody to lean on — and would not let herself lean on anybody thinking of it as a weakness. Part of her arc is figuring out again, potentially, how to do that.”
For someone who’s been told all her life that she’s worthless, any attempt to open up to others won’t be easy. All the characters in the final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power will grapple with what they thought they were destined for, and what they actually want. As they band together to thwart their most fearsome foe yet, the cast must remember what’s important. As Stevenson says, “It’s all about how friendships and relationships and love are hard, and scary, and often very painful, but always worth it.”
The fifth and final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power hits Netflix on May 15.
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