Tuesday, December 31, 2019

She-Ra Season 4 is tedious, mostly (LGBTQ Cartoon Review)

Catra surrounded by her team including Double Trouble
She-Ra Season 4 - 6/10

I didn't get into She-Ra and the Princesses of Power until it was too late to really review it on this blog. Too many others had written too many great reviews of the first season (and the following ones as well). So before I review season 4, here's a recap of what I would have said, had I reviewed the seasons at the time:

Season 1 - OMG this show is so...OMG!!!! The explicit and implicit queer representation, the body positivity, the racial diversity, the women leading things without needing to "be" men, the overall high ratio of women to men, the crispness of the writing, the art direction, the humor, the intense emotional insight...I could go on and on, I love this season so very much. I was blown away, as were so many other people.

Seasons 2 and 3 - Oh...oh no...it's sort of...boring? blandly written? rehashing the same stuff but not as insightfully? just sort of another action cartoon? confused about where it's going? stuck in too much of a season-long single story that's now at least three seasons long?


I had a hard time pinpointing the exact reasons, but I just didn't care for seasons 2 and 3 as much as season 1. Some of it may have been the shock of awesome newness wore off. My expectations were higher going into season 2 than when I watched season 1 at first. But also, the creator/show-runner Noelle Stevenson (who wrote all the best episodes in season 1) was writing less and less, if at all, of the future seasons. And it showed. The humor wasn't actually funny anymore, it was more like a generic Saturday morning cartoon. The emotional insight wasn't deep anymore, it was basically characters hitting their marks. It just wasn't...well crafted. I still watched them and came back for season 4, but...meh. (Although there were pockets of greatness, and importance - Bow's parents for one!)

So what to make of season 4? Well, from the 6/10 I'm giving it, you can tell that it wasn't much better than "meh." And like seasons 2 and 3, there were some bits that worked, that expanded our understanding of characters, and some characters (like Scorpia) who are just so perfectly written and acted that they are complete universes into themselves (truly amazing on every level). But overall, it was just another long season of the same overall storyline: Hordak and Catra are out to take over Etheria so that Hord Prime will take Hordak back and Catra can prove herself worthy of...someone's...love? at least, I think that's Catra's motivation. Poor thing. She does kind of lose it in this season, and that's actually some nice psychological territory to mine for a cartoon.

Anyway, season 4 opens with a first episode that is pretty much nothing but fighting. Yuck, waste of screen time.  This episode also set up a fairly frantic pace for the rest of the season. It never took its time anywhere, just go go go to the next battle. Maybe some one-off episodes would have helped a little, would have given characters room to breathe. I don't want a four-plus season long war cartoon. There is so much more that She-Ra and the other princesseses could be as people and as a series.

Also, the writing, as I mentioned before, has gone down hill. But a few things really stuck out at me early on this season: In one scene, She-Ra's sword is blocked by a Hord soldier with a simple cattle prod. Like, she cuts through f*ing tanks with it, but it's blocked by a metal pipe with some wires in it. Uh, yeah...I hate this type of super-power inconsistency. In another scene, She-Ra runs from four measly soldiers instead of cutting them down with one swing like anytime else in the series. Classic Super-man writing problems. Can't figure out what to do with a god figure who can win every fight, so the powers wane and wax as needed to keep the action alive.

Also Glimmer routinely uses her ability to transport people, so why hasn't she ever just "glimmered" next to Hordak, grabbed him, and then "glimmered" him into a prison cell and then "unglimmered" (boy-howdy that's a new word!) herself back out? Done, he's trapped, war over! Now that Glimmer is so powerful (as queen), the writers couldn't figure out how to use that power. But any of these characters are more than smart enough to have figured that plan out. Dumb writing. The writing problems go on and on this season (like, "if I touch Swiftwind, we now have new powers that come out of nowhere with no narrative explanation - awesome!!!!!" - [sarcasm])

There are also serious problems with the way the lead characters' emotional stakes are portrayed. I mentioned how I liked that Catra falls apart, and I think it evolves well over the season. But we get a season full of Glimmer and Adora fighting as Glimmer wants to use her new powers to help win the war. For some reason, Adora doesn't want her to. "You can't, Glimmer, you're the queen, you must sit helplessly in the palace" is not something Adora from season 1 would have said and is just being used to create drama artificially by the writers. Their whole conflict felt made up so that the writers would have a very surface level emotional storyline rather than a truly deep intensive, immersive, and internal one.

And speaking of that. So Shadow Weaver is now in Etheria, and even comes to Glimmer's aid. It's possible that she's still plotting something, or its possible she's not. Can't say. Not strong writing. We have strong acting and three seasons of thinking we understand Shadow Weaver, but then she's just sort of left there to be helpful in Season 4 while Adora is still leery of her.

But I don't buy that the writers have a real good plan for her. It certainly didn't manifest in Season 4 if they did. I worry that one of the most complex characters might not be so complex anymore under the current writing staff. Originally she was a mix of a hurt young prideful woman, a mother figure, a scorned 2nd in command, and a master manipulator. She also was a way for the original creator to play with the classic evil witch archetype and bring it somewhere new. But in Season 4, she's just a stock character, doing what she does, but her motivations and psychology are now muddled or dulled. Maybe she'll have a better role in season 5?

And for the biggie. The one that's been hanging over us for four damn seasons. Everyone keeps treating poor Entrapta, our probably neurodivergent princess, like crap. She gets constantly abandoned and left behind (knowingly - despite how occasionally this is retconned when characters say they didn't know she was alive [like Bow does in this season] - but come on, you didn't even go back to look for her. They're asswipe friends, seriously. No wonder Entrapta liked Hordak). Anyway. We think Catra sent Entrapta to beast island at the end of season three, and we get all the way to the end of Season 4 before Entrapta is even really mentioned again in any serious way. I won't spoil this part of the season, but again, I'm really really not feeling the way she's being treated or used by this series. Entrapta is and remains a complex character and the series has stopped doing her justice a long time ago.

Okay, so lets talk some gay shit. Like, the reason we really watch this show (cause we don't need another sword fighting saturday morning cartoon tbh). The new character this season is Double Trouble. They use they/them pronouns and everyone refers to them with they/them pronouns and that use is never explicitly talked about. Like in a good way. We get a non-binary coded character that everyone uses they/them pronouns for and is just part of life. Cool rep.

The only downside, is that our first explicitly non-binary character is also a bad character, or at least a character out to serve themselves and manipulate others on either side to get their way. This falls right into the writing trap of how so many non-binary and trans characters have been written over the centuries. It also falls right into the transphobic narratives from contemporary life, where trans people, trans women especially, are seen as deceitful ("trap") simply for being who they are. And not only is this character written that way, they also are a shape shifter, so the writers have double coded the message of  'trans people are out to get you and trick you' with both Double Trouble's personality and abilities.

Basically, I wasn't pleased that the first non-binary character in the show was a bad person, didn't love that they were crazy explicitly queer coded with their speech patterns and mannerisms (pretty cliche'd and ham-fistedly if you ask me), and really really didn't like that their whole personality was based on tricking other people (by shapeshifting regardless of gender no less). I have nothing against shape-shifting characters as plot devices - its just that when the only non-binary character in the whole show (that we know of) is written almost completely with negative transphobic stereotypes, it's just not good representation. So points for non-binary rep, but lots of negative points for its execution.

On to other gay news: episode two brought Huntara back and if I'm reading it right, gave her and Perfuma a little something between them. I totally ship them. Done, over, wait for the wedding invitations.

And then there's Scorpia. Everyone's (and my) favorite softy butch lesbian. If ever there was a more perfectly created and written character, I wouldn't believe it. She's a true gem in this series. At one point, we are forced to wonder with her ongoing attachment to Catra if she's an optimist or a doormat, but Scorpia reaches her breaking point in this season. That opens up new space to explore her character and keeps her arc moving forward. She continues to be the most consistently written character, the one whose actions are based on deep psychology and not on which plot point they need to hit next (although it works in the plot as well). Her writing and voice acting are superb. And she has an interesting role in this season. Thank goodness. I love every minute she's on screen. (And she gets her own killer musical themes in episode 6).

Two final tidbit thoughts that I don't know where else to stick in this review: 1) why does Mara (our brown skinned and brown haired former She-Ra) get blonde hair when she transforms into She-Ra? You know writers, it's okay to have a brown-haired She-Ra, don't you! ESPECIALLY IF SHE HAS BROWN SKIN. BROWN SKIN IS BEAUTIFUL DON'T GO FUCKING IT UP BY INSISTING THAT ALL SHE-RAS MUST BE BLONDES. ARGHHHHH!!!!!!!

And...(LIGHT SPOILER AHEAD).........you've been warned....don't read the next paragraph....

Hordak cries. I mean, really. In the most beautifully written way. If these writers were daring, they would let this be the start of a Hordak redemption arc. (And do something more meaningful with Shadow Weaver - who used to be my favorite character because of her inner complexity). He's shown a huge range, particularly with his time with Entrapta, and has a deep wound he's working through with Horde Prime. There could be something here, but I don't get the sense they'd know how to pull it off.

(SPOILERS OVER)

The season ends, and I won't say how, in a way that sets up a much bigger, more intense next season with higher stakes. But is that necessarily a good thing? As I said at the beginning, the seasons are going more and more away from intimate interpersonal writing and towards generic Saturday morning cartoon writing. I fear that season 5 will only escalate that. I also continue to feel that when they attempt to write emotions, the writers can only manage superficial simple emotions anymore: I'm mad, I'm sad...and can't manage the nuance that Noelle Stevenson did in season 1.

There's also the problem with the way the non-binary character is written plus a general lack of open queerness compared to earlier seasons. Also, there's too many boys starting to show up. I won't give away all of whom they are, but unless they all end up gay or trans or something, I just don't really want them around. Sorry dudes, you've had your time in cartoons for the last century.

So season 4 was a very mixed bag. It only superficially is the same series as what we got with Season 1 and ends up continuing the trend away from that gifted writing through seasons 2 and 3. It's not that the show is bad. It's better than most crap. It's still led by women, there are still open and closeted (and coded) queer characters, there is still diverse skin and bodies to be found. But that's all more like window dressing now rather than the intimate core of what the show is. That's really too bad. She-Ra Season 4 gets a 6/10 for wasted opportunity.

*UPDATE 12/31/19 12:40pm: Here's a link to an article with Noelle Stevensen discussing this season. I posted it because it gives good insight into what they were going for and I can definitely see all these elements at play in Season 4, and appreciate them, even though I still find the season flawed. It's a good additional perspective.
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