Friday, May 22, 2020

She-Ra season 5 review - both miraculous and inconsistent

Adora, with a broken sword, see's an image of Horde Prime hovering above a destroyed landscape
She-Ra season 5 - 7/10
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power - whole series - 8/10

It's almost impossible to know how to write this review of She-Ra season 5. The show was both miraculous in so many ways and also inconsistent in writing and animation across its episodes (and seasons).

So I think I'm going to start by talking about the incredible and rewarding nature of this series/season before diving into the nit-picking. Please know that the nit-picking is just that, it isn't some pissed-off fan-girl, it's just a discussion about the quality of the writing and animation that should in no way detract from the incredible things this series did. This was a fun, funny, moving series that also added incredible representation in so many ways and layers.

SPOILER ALERT - there is no way for me to discuss this season without spoilers. So you've been warned. This entire review is NOTHING BUT SPOILERS. So stop reading if you haven't watched the season yet.

Just in case you didn't catch that, SPOILERS AHEAD!

First and foremost, this show and this season needs to be praised for its representation of gay characters. It did what so few shows manage to do with gay characters. It made them gay without making it about them being gay. There was no coming-out, there was no social drama, being gay wasn't the plot. Instead, it was the representation of a society that is so OK with people being openly gay that nobody even notices. The show made being gay normal. People just happened to be openly gay, and being in love with people of their same sex, and it was just as normal as any hetero relationships.

If you've been reading me for a while, then you know that in many of my reviews (especially of yuri manga) I am actually critical when being gay is not shown to have social repercussions. The difference between those reviews of blissfully de-contextualized yuri (not actual LGBTQ+ rep) and She-Ra is that those other series ostensibly take place in our world and in our time and She-Ra does not. So to disregard the traumas and stigmas of being LGBTQ+ in those series is to fail to critique the world we live in since that is where they are set. However, because She-Ra takes place somewhere else entirely, it makes it the perfect vehicle to show what a truly accepting society looks like. It critiques OUR world by showing us what is possible when being gay has been normalized. That makes this show incredible and its treatment of LGBTQ+ characters profoundly different than ones set in our current place and time.

Early on in the series we met Bow's two dads and I discussed how no character thinks the least bit...anything...when meeting them. It's just not a thing. Later we meet Netossa and Spinnerella, a married lesbian couple. And they get several on-screen kisses in season 5 and they clearly refer to the other as their wife. Amazing! There's even the non-binary character Double Trouble who uses "they/them" pronouns. Although I don't like that they were somewhat a villain, a trickster, and I talked about how that actually reinforces the view that trans and non-binary people are deceptive, at least it shows the use of gender neutral pronouns in a major budget cartoon, and one ostensibly aimed at children (although I bet the audience skewed adult).

Which takes us to season 5 and the big, BIG, BIIIIIIIG, moment. Again, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Sadly, this was spoiled for me before I finished the series. So I'll come back later to talk about what that did to my perception of it. What I'm talking about of course was Catra telling Adora that she loved her and Adora saying it back and then they kiss! I mean, a real, honest to goodness, passionate romantic kiss between two young women in a major children's cartoon series. And then they clearly become a couple. The lead freakin' characters are gay women in love! In an American Cartoon!!!!!

If this doesn't portend well for the longitudinal fight for acceptance, nothing does. Obviously our political framework is taking many steps back right now, and the packing of the judiciary by conservatives will set back LGBTQ+ rights for at least a generation. But the popular media, and the majority of people in this country, are actually incredibly accepting. Also, its worth noting that this series did what it did and I at least didn't hear much negative about it anywhere. Maybe it's cause we're in a pandemic and the assholes have their hands busy messing up masks and social distancing, but I think the kiss and coupling not making waves shows just how gay relationships at least (maybe not rights for trans people yet) are being normalized more and more.

Now, we also have to give a shout out to all the body positivity and the vast number of POC in this series as well. Glimmer, Mermista, Scorpia, and Spinnerlla were just some of the female characters with normal person body types. Even She-Ra was depicted as tall and muscular, not a Barbie Doll's impossible figure. It's pretty amazing.

It also was interesting how it handled the few male characters in the show. For a female-centric show, rather than vilifying all men and showing masculinity as toxic by default, it actually showed (in both the heroes and villains) a wide variety of men who could express their emotions and still be comfortable with their manliness. This was a show with a strong feminist focus, dominated by female characters, and with female leads. It could have beat men down. But we know that it isn't being a man in the abstract that's the issue, it's how society has crafted many men's psychology that brings out the worst in some of them. So instead of using its platform to beat manhood down, She-Ra was again a model for what could be if society normalized, and valued, the wonderful aspects men are capable of.

We have characters like Bow, obviously. He's smart, emotionally in-tune, sensitive, but also strong, creative, and with great leadership skills. There's also Rogelio and Kyle, both of whom are not your typical "alpha males." And of course, in season 5, we also get to see them as a couple, and adopting a baby no less (according to Noelle Stevenson, but I think it looks exactly like a cross between the two, so I imagine they figured out a way to make a baby!) Also in season 5, we finally meet Glimmer's father. He's interesting in many ways, and I didn't always love the way he was written, but still, he is a strong leader, smart and talented, but also awkward and genuine and open to his feelings. When things finally calm down, he has this beautifully awkward moment of introducing himself to Glimmer that speaks so much to his good character.

There's also "Wrong Hordak" - which BTW is the funniest name ever! - he goes through an existential crisis, learns how to access his feelings, forms friendships, develops a sense of humor, etc... And how could we not mention Sea Hawk. Oh Sea Hawk. At first, I just didn't know what to do with him. But the truth is, he's hilarious, both strong and silly, he's not afraid to be himself and he isn't really trying to prove anything to anyone. In fact, he's the one that succeeds in emotionally opening up Mermista (she has some of the best character change, and her falling for him is handled so sweetly and with so much kind fun throughout the series). He sings, but he also looks overly "male." He's actually pretty complex and fairly fully realized for being a small character in the series.

And finally, there's Hordak. What an amazing storyline with Entrapta. Not only is she likely on the autism spectrum and those aspects of her are handled so well (more on that in a moment), but the way she bonds with Hordak and how that slowly affects him and changes him, so much so that he realizes his worth is not tied to pleasing Horde Prime, but that he has intrinsic worth. It shows that even the most stock male villain actually has deep emotional potential and that growth is possible.

So let's talk Entrapta for a moment. I've talked during past seasons about how shitty people from the rebellion treated her, abandoning her twice instead of going back for her. But putting that aside, and focusing on her, she is an amazing character. I do think that she represents someone on the autism spectrum. I have spent the past 12 years working with adults and children with autism and I'm not trying to diagnose her, but I do think she provides representation.

And here's what I like about that representation so much. There is a misconception that people with ASD are incapable and uninterested in forming interpersonal relationships. I've found that to be completely wrong. I spent many years working with students who were profoundly autistic, non-verbal, with serious sensory and behavioral needs, and it is very clear that they not only are capable of relationships, but they desire them. What is different is how they express those needs, how they interact with people, and what types of interactions with others are personally meaningful. It's not that they don't want those relationships, it's just that the relationships may look different and we may miss the signs and signals of what's really there.

So what I loved about Entrapta, is that for all her social obliviousness, the writers also made very clear that she was interested in relationships and was capable of forming close relationships. But it also showed that it might look different and people might miss all of that if they aren't more aware. And what a shame for people to miss out on what people with ASD have to offer as friends or more. I thought her overall portrayal was a very complex and sensitive look at a different way of being in the world, and validated that way of being very well.

Whew! That was a lot.

In this next part of the review, I want to talk about some minor things that didn't work as well for me in both the series and the final season. When I was mentioning a critique I had, my wife asked me why I couldn't just watch and enjoy. I had to explain to her that analyzing the craft was part of how I derive enjoyment. I certainly can look at the bigger picture and I really really enjoyed the show overall. But as a creator myself, part of how I learn is by analyzing other people's works and trying to understand their craft.

Therefore, the nitpicking I'm about to do is not about being critical or disparaging She-Ra, it's about me trying to understand what did and didn't work for me so that I can learn from it and apply it to my own craft. Also, it's okay to admit that something you like isn't perfect and discuss those flaws. Just because something isn't perfect, doesn't mean it's not enjoyable, and She-Ra was awesome! So don't go all fan-boy/fan-girl on me just because I have some critiques. Please feel free to add your own perspectives in the comments, but just because some things didn't work for me, doesn't mean I'm hating on this show. I love this show.

First, both this season and the series suffered from a lot of writing inconsistency between episodes. The first season was by far the strongest and the creator, Noelle Stevenson wrote more episodes that season than in others. In fact, her episodes, across all the seasons, were clearly the best written from both a plot standpoint but also featured the best dialogue. She had all the best lines in the series. What a gifted writer. I can only wonder what the series would have been like if she had written every episode. Yes, it would have taken decades, but imagine if her writing pervaded every episode!

If I had to offer a summary of where the other writers didn't rise to her level, it was that many of their episodes were both plot heavy and had boring dialogue. The characters were flatter in those episodes, the episodes were more perfunctory. They didn't zing the way Noelle's did.

The animation was also pretty inconsistent throughout the series and this season. There were moments of really high quality animation, but there was also a lot of looseness throughout much of it. For a quick example, in the final episode, when Adora is unconscious and Catra is holding her, Adora's shield pops up. I watched this scene multiple times, and I still can't exactly figure out why the shield was needed. I think that energy or something was going to come down and strike the two of them and the shield stopped it, but there isn't ever an actual moment depicted where we see the shield block anything. It's strange, it's like there is a couple frames missing that would make the connection that the shield came out to protect both of them even though Adora was unconscious (and that she could still hear Catra). It just didn't actually show the energy striking the shield. In fact, the shield is shown forming after the energy is gone. It was weird. There are lots of these little animation misses, along with sloppy anatomy and lose motion, and other things, throughout the series.

 I don't know how much that was just a budget thing, where to get out 52 episodes at this pace, it just meant that not as much care could have been taken with the animation. But overall, while there were some really nice moments, the animation quality throughout the series hurt it a bit in my opinion. I do love the character designs (although I liked She-Ra's outfit in the first four seasons better than the season 5 version) and especially the multitude of body shapes and sizes, so that was a plus.

Moving on to nitpicking some character stuff.

Let's talk Glimmer and Bow for a second. I'm going to admit that my gay bias (pro-gay that is) came out and I assumed, through the whole show, that Bow was also gay. But apparently, he is romantically interested in Glimmer. I always sensed that Glimmer romantically loved Bow, but I never picked that up from Bow. It seems that the decision to make it romantic came right down to the final voice recording of their love confession (according to Noelle Stevenson). But honestly, I'm not sure I buy it. Not that I'm unhappy for them, but I think it would have been incredible for Glimmer to confess her feelings and Bow to admit that he's attracted to men and not into her that way. It wouldn't have been the neat little happy bow to tie up their part of the series, but some melancholy wouldn't have been bad either, especially with all the other happy reunions and coupling.

I think Shadow Weaver was also a bit lost in this season although she had a big part in the end, with quite the reveal. I think her motivations have been a little confusing throughout the series and the way she was used in the last part of season 4 and the first part of season 5 were a bit underwhelming. I thought her final resolution was powerful though, so that helps. Maybe there were just too many characters by seasons 4 and 5 to do complete justice to everyone. Season 5 also added a bunch more characters that probably weren't needed tbh.

And let's talk about how Horde Prime has two opportunities to just kill Adora and doesn't. Instead, he talks and talks, with endless exposition explaining his plan. I am just so tired of this type of villain speechifying. It defies logic. But I guess it'd be a shorter series if he just offed Adora! I think though there are other ways of writing these scenes.

I also felt that the plot points about Adora having trouble summoning She-Ra due to her emotional imbalance were not clearly written. Certainly we get a scene where Shadow Weaver talks about it, but overall, She-Ra, and Adora's ability to summon her, seem to come and go without clear rhyme or reason based solely on plot need. I would have liked a more consistent and clearly delineated understanding of where the blockage was coming from because otherwise it seems like She-Ra was there when there was no other way to write out of a scene, and not there when they needed Adora to be vulnerable. It felt like weak writing.

Now, let's return to the Adora/Catra storyline. Firstly, that their relationship was central to so much throughout the entire five seasons, and that the resolution of their conflict was also central to the resolution of the big world-saving plot was awesome and beautiful and handled very well narratively. The show consistently kept a focus on their interpersonal conflict and that common thread was fully realized in the finale.

Unfortunately, the penultimate kiss was spoiled for me (thanks a lot internet!) before I could finish the season. So instead of seeing it happen organically, I kept watching the episodes and analyzing whether they were appropriately setting up the characters for that moment. Overall, I'm happy to say that the writers did a good job setting the stage for that amazing moment. But it wasn't perfect as I'll explore momentarily.

I want to give a shout-out to the way Catra's emotions come flooding out once she leaves Horde Prime. She's a wreck. Once the flood-gates open and she starts letting herself feel things, she's a complete mess. Her emotions are labile and she's trying new things and fighting with her old patterns. Watching her growth process over the final half of the season was incredible. Just wonderful writing and voice acting.

So when she finally confesses her feelings to Adora, we've been given not only the first four seasons to explore their complex friendship/frenemy status, but season 5 really allows us to watch Catra's progression towards understanding what her true feelings for Adora are. I think Catra's journey in this final season absolutely set the stage for a believable confession of feelings for Adora. (Here is an interview with Noelle Stevenson about the Adora/Catra arc).

However, and many will hate me for saying this, I'm not sure that Adora's romantic feelings for Catra were as well foreshadowed. Where we could see Catra reevaluating Adora and her relationship with Adora and how Adora makes her feel, I don't think we got that depth from the writing of Adora in season 5.

Now, the argument to be made, and even Adora admits this, is that the only way she knows to express feelings is by "punching them out." She's definitely a slightly emotionally oblivious person, she's definitely an action-first sort of girl, so she really might not have been aware of what was going on under the surface of her relationship with Catra. Or she might have known and been feeling it all along and just keeping it totally buttoned up. But I still would have liked to see just a bit more of that develop clearly as she and Catra were patching things up in season 5.

I would go so far as to suggest that even a slight dialogue change in the penultimate kissing scene might have done enough. Here's the original dialogue:

Catra: "I love you, I always have. So please, just this once stay. Stay."

Adora: "You love me?"

Catra: "You're such an idiot."

Adora: "I love you too."

In this version, there's the hint with the word "idiot" that Catra is indicating that Adora has always been oblivious to feelings - Catra's and maybe her own. But I think making it clearer would have helped some. Maybe something like this instead (forgive my bad writing):

Catra: "I love you, I always have. So please, just this once stay. Stay."

Adora: " love me?"

Catra: "God, you've always been so dense."

Adora: "But, I love you too?"

Here's why I think a change like that might have helped. First, Adora needs to be a bit more questioning when she replies to Catra's confession, the extra stutter on "you" would have made Catra's confession feel like more of a revelation to Adora. Then instead of Catra calling Adora an"idiot," using something like "dense" or "oblivious" would have made it clearer that Adora always had the feelings and that Catra always loved her, but Adora wasn't aware of either. Then with the added "But" and the questioning tone in the final line, it would have shown Adora realizing her feelings for sure in that moment. Then when Catra leans in to kiss her and Adora closes her eyes, it makes the kiss just slightly richer in meaning - it's another step for Adora, not just a culmination. Instead, in the original version, it comes across as if Adora has always known she loved Catra romantically, even though there was never any hint of that from her in the series (Catra on the other hand, we could definitely feel glimpses of her love for Adora throughout the show).

This is just a small example of how a change might have been made that would have helped us understand Adora's love for Catra better. I still feel that Catra's feelings are totally believable and well foreshadowed. I just didn't feel the same for Adora's. That being said, I totally buy Adora as a lesbian and totally ship the two of them and I'm so happy that their relationship was made visible on screen, so this is only a minor complaint. I just wanted to highlight how I felt that there were many moments throughout the series, just like with the animation, where the writing could have been a bit crisper.

On to some final good stuff, now that the nitpicking over inconsistent writing and animation is over.

There were some absolutely great lines in this season, so here's a bunch of my favorites, completely de-contextualized:

  • "Everything seems really complicated with you." - new characters commenting to Adora as she tries to explain the last five seasons.
  • "Be as mad at me for as long as you need to be, but I'm not going anywhere" - Glimmer to Bow as she honors his feelings while also affirming her commitment to him.
  • "Wrong Hordak"
  • "I always hated that guy, along with all the other guys I hit on the way in"
  • "There's amniotic fluid in there."      "???"       "No, that was a joke."
  • "You have an arrow that turns into a magnifying glass? I can't believe we were losing to you guys."
  • "We don't throw tanks at our friends!"
  • "Thanks bird horse."
  • "Your imperfections are beautiful."
  • "Adora doesn't want me...not like I want her." (OMG!!!!!)
  • "You're worth more than you can give to other people."
  • "So we're all just like okay with this?" - Mermista asking about letting Entrapta be friends with Hordak after he's freed.
  • Mermista set a boat on fire just to "see what it was like" was the cutest thing ever, Sea Hawk finally knows that Mermista really does love him!
And finally, Catra's short haircut after getting away from Horde Prime is the most adorable thing ever! I am so gay for Catra now. I was always gay for She-Ra, but Catra stole my heart with that haircut!
Two older teen women hugging
Catra is sooooooo cute!!!!!
Three young women and one young man stand looking at a tablet display
Yup, super cute!

Okay, so anyway, this show was really good, if not perfect. It was also really important for normalizing gay relationships and characters. There were lots of POC, including in lead rolls, and there was a ton of body positivity with diverse character sizes and shapes. It was also female-centric without being anti-man and showed what is possible for a more equitable society. There was romance, action, comedy, feelings, plot, the complete package. So for all its many small flaws and inconsistency, it was great on all the big important areas. This was an important, nearly miraculous, series and one that I think will age well. Season 5 gets a 7/10 and the whole series gets a collective 8/10 for its incredible accomplishments.

I'm so very thankful that this series exists. As an example of my love for this series, after more than 5 years of not changing my desktop background, I loved She-Ra so much that I actually changed my background to this:

Two young women embrace in a vibrant landscape with rainbows and sparkles


Please legitimately purchase or borrow manga and anime. Never read scanlations or watch fansubs. Those rob the creators of the income they need to survive and reduce the chance of manga and anime being legitimately released in English.

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Remember: please talk about the work, and offer counter points to others' analyses but DO NOT ATTACK THE PERSON whose analysis you are countering. (no ad hominem comments) Thanks! <3