The fourth and final season of She-Ra and The Princesses of Power premiered May 15, 2020 on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
The following will spoil the entirety of the series.
She-Ra is ostensibly a show for children. I am very much not its target audience. You wouldn’t know that considering how many middle-aged men have spent the past couple years in collective hysteria over its existence. The first I heard of its existence were the videos of deeply unhygienic men screaming at the top of their lungs over their webcams about the show existing. I knew nothing of She-Ra other than she was a supporting character for He-Man? Something about the honor of Grayskull? I never paid much attention to 1980s cartoons, I was very much a Pokemon sort of person myself. Nothing other than what I had absorbed through cultural osmosis and not much more. I imagined the unhygienic asshats roughly the same age as my father screaming into the webcams had enjoyed He-Man growing up and felt very threatened that something that belonged to them was being “taken” from them. They felt an ownership over a character I had almost nothing to do with. I suppose this is why you don’t see many people my age throwing similar temper tantrums, we’ve more or less understood pretty early on that media doesn’t belong to anyone other than the corporate entities who own them. We haven’t gotten the chance for that kind of possessiveness.
I have consumed this entire series sort of passively. Contrasting my reaction to it to the scores of little kids excitedly singing along to the admittedly catchy theme song, there’s a ton of enthusiasm for this show that simply does not exist for any other Dreamworks property at the current moment. Sure, Shrek will and always will be a huge meme, but Dreamworks has never had something like this on their hands. The How To Train Your Dragon movies has its fans, sure, but to think Dreamworks of all companies would have something held up as the highest possible standard for children’s cartoons, to the extent that it’s developed a massive audience of adults as well, that’s sort of stunning in its own right. She-Ra may not be a phenomenon on the level of a Marvel or a Star Wars, it’ll never be that ubiquitous, but comparing its original status as a spin-off, She-Ra is now more widely known than He-Man. And thanks to the contributions of Noelle Stevenson and a host of deeply talented animators and writers, it’s probably going to remain that way. Imagine a world where Robin is a bigger success than Batman and this is what has happened here. The best efforts of Kevin Smith, at the helm of his own upcoming He-Man anime (seriously), will probably not prevail. Granted, that’s also releasing on Netflix in an entirely separate continuity, that’s exactly how much they have to compete with now. And it’s all thanks to the efforts of a comic book writer best known for self-published webcomics like Lumberjanes and Nimona who created this show and finished it before the age of 30. That is not even remotely intended as anything other than the highest of praise.
And then, on top of everything else, what will surely make them angrier than ever, is the big elephant in the room that was finally outright confirmed upon the final season’s release: She-Ra, canonically, is a lesbian.
I did a cursory search to figure out if the main character of a cartoon series has ever been gay before, and I found nothing but a smattering of supporting roles in various programs. It’s not given a whole lot of explicit attention before the very last episode of the entire series, though She-Ra (the mystical hero that the former Horde soldier Adora transforms into with a magical sword and a catchphrase that no longer makes sense since Grayskull no longer exists either) is very distinctly never given a male romantic interest. Her closest male companion is called Bow, and he’s also despised by the middle-aged men for being somewhat effeminate (a fan theory posits that he’s trans but the show never confirms one way or the other) and emotionally invested in her. The two of them are very distinctly surrogate siblings to one another, again, while noting this is a show for children. What makes matters worse is the show’s constant teasing of romantic tension between her and the show’s original antagonist-turned-antihero, a fellow Horde soldier called Catra. The two are hated enemies in the original series, Catra very much her equivalent of a Lex Luthor or Joker, but here Adora is constantly trying to get her to see how she’s being manipulated and abused by her superiors. And it didn’t help matters that every time the release of a season was met with criticism for “the gay agenda,” they’d up the ante in subsequent seasons, calling the bluff of their biggest detractors every single time. Again, why said middle-aged men care about a show for children so much, albeit one as well-made as this, asks a lot of uncomfortable questions about their ethical values.
Not to mention, the show explicitly makes its throughline about how Adora begins the series as one of the bad guys, though she’s a particularly skilled grunt instead of an enemy leader. Through a series of comical mishaps, this Horde soldier discovers the weapon of an ancient group of extraterrestrial beings called The First Ones and is now able to transform into She-Ra, giving her superpowered strength and able to fire energy blasts out of her sword and all the mainstays of “magical girl shows.” She then turns against her former cohorts in the interest of liberating the people of the planet Etheria from the rule of the evil fascist dictator Hordak. Various misadventures are had as a result, following the format of many a children’s show, even as Stevenson and company often cheekily subvert what you’d expect from this particular format. Enemies become allies and allies become enemies, but often for more subtle reasons than you might expect, often born out of very pragmatic goals that aren’t as clear cut as just evil for evil’s sake.
For example, a technologically minded princess called Entrapta temporarily assists the Horde not because she’s interested in ruling the world, but only because she’s so obsessed with the enemy’s technology that she wants to be able to run as many tests as possible, and feeling as though she’s been underestimated and mistreated all the time because she has so much trouble socializing at times. I identified with Entrapta a great deal, who creates her own friends out of the tech that she finds, terrified of connecting with other people at her core. This is how she goes from reprogramming a robot she names Emily, to an entire spaceship called Darla, to even a clone of the show’s main antagonist she names Wrong Hordak. Watching Entrapta slowly develop a menagerie of misfit toys, so to speak, is one of the little running gags the show is able to execute that feels nothing but charming and wholesome at its core.
There’s also fan favorite Scorpia, the Force Captain with a humongous and unrequited crush on Catra, completely defining her initial motivations by how she can convince her superior to go on a date with her. Other shows would engage in a lot of cringey humor regarding this sort of character and turn her into a creep, but Scorpia has more dimensions than that. For someone allied with the group that’s clearly the bad guys, she’s nothing if not an empathetic type with a penchant for hugging the closest person to her too tightly for them to breathe. Catra, constantly beaten and psychologically manipulated by her own superiors, is too nasty to her for them to ever forge a true connection, and Scorpia is ironically the one who eventually asserts her own values and switches sides, realizing that her feelings for her are never going to be returned and she values being treated kindly too much for anything else.
If this all sounds like something out of a prestige drama rather than a show for kids, you wouldn’t be surprised. Something like Avatar: The Last Airbender is normally held up as the pinnacle of the kinds of complex relationship dynamics children aren’t often given the opportunity to vicariously experience. It’s a shame that more shows don’t treat these characters with the kind of dynamic ebb and flow that shows like this do, and it’s a symptom of most children’s television writers believing kids to be too stupid to be able to process anything like this. You get the feeling that Star Wars: The Clone Wars was only ever allowed to do it because of the singular influence of Dave Filoni, himself having developed his writing chops on Avatar: The Last Airbender. This one, primarily created by someone who had never worked in television before, itself feels almost miraculous that it can explore cycles of violent abuse and trauma in ways that are both accessible to children without being off-putting to adults or insulting anyone’s intelligence. Most of the show’s dynamics works in this way, never excusing or justifying anyone, but explaining how they rationalize their behavior, even when characters are spouting off the traditional monologues about the power of friendship and love and so on. And because the show is never afraid to go to those darker places in deep respect of a child’s capacity to understand, it never feels quite as condescending or contrived when Stevenson and her team writes those monologues in.
That’s a tough thing to do without positing that people who aren’t very loved and sociable in reality don’t deserve those things (a narrative pitfall the Harry Potter series fell into at every conceivable opportunity), measuring out people’s values by their capacity to be extroverted and popular. She-Ra avoids this by making sure the dynamics are clearly understood and nobody can confuse its messages of universal love and care to only be in traditional formats. It very much posits that platonic love is as valuable as romantic love, if not more so. The relationship between Adora, Bow and Glimmer, as corny as it can often be (the show is nothing if not relentlessly optimistic and cheerful in spite of the darker themes), is as important and valuable as the budding romance between Adora and Catra that makes up the core of the show. Even with their “will they, won’t they” dynamic being the dramatic core of the program, it’s also very careful to specify that one person can’t satisfy all of a person’s emotional needs, nor is that even remotely healthy.
If there’s a lot I’m not going over, it’s because the show is unbelievably dense with its lore for a children’s program, positing entire civilizations, planets, star systems, and a fully functional language belonging to the alien civilization that gave Adora her powers (one that she’s eventually revealed to be the sole survivor of, Superman style). Yet this civilization itself, despite its own pre-canon conflict with the Horde, itself had malicious intentions, and one of the big twists of the show was Adora willingly giving up the power of She-Ra in order to prevent its artificial intelligence from activating a superweapon that would destroy all of reality. The sides are never as clear-cut as in other programs.
Probably one of the show’s two biggest strengths overall is in how frequently its able to engage in the infamous redemption arc without it feeling forced or excusing the actions of the people engaging in these arcs. Whereas a character like Kylo Ren had his redemption as instantaneous (and instantly forgiven for his years of torture and mass genocide), characters like Catra, Scorpia and Shadow Weaver are reminded of the effects of their actions over and over again, and not immediately forgiven (or never in some cases), meaning such redemptions are actually seen as meaningful rather than writers falling over themselves to rehab fan favorite characters. Shadow Weaver is an interesting case of this considering she’s never once trusted once she switches sides considering how viciously she abused both Adora and Catra under her care when they were children serving the Horde. She sacrifices herself in the end having never been forgiven by any other character in the show, even as Adora and Catra can’t help but grieve her death in spite of their hatred for her. As far as Catra is concerned (almost a foregone conclusion after how suddenly she was embraced by the show’s fandom in a way that only Prince Zuko really has been before or since), she never goes nearly as far as that, and the shift is taken so slowly that by the time she takes action, you’re more than ready to narratively accept it. A redemption is not instantly done, and the reasons for them can be purely self-motivated, in the case of Shadow Weaver, or out of no longer being able to deny that you’re only fighting your worst enemy because you were secretly in love with her the entire time. Yeah, it’s 100% sentimental as all hell, but it works because of the time and care taken to make sure it’s pulled off.
The other big one is the way in which the show gradually but decisively makes the point that self-sacrifice is one of the most pointless attributes a person can have, contradicting the numerous forms of media that posit such things as the most noble action a person can take. Adora’s biggest weakness as a person is her near suicidal obsession with sacrificing herself at every given opportunity for whatever cause she’s fighting for, and it bites her in the ass every single time. The fact that the show ends with Adora once again trying to go out in a suicidal blaze of glory only to have Catra stopping her just in time, that says more than anything else. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t put yourself in danger for those you care for, but it’s also eviscerating a longterm trope that often does a lot more harm than good in execution. Self-sacrifice, especially in Adora’s case, as each conflict brings her closer to physical and mental collapse, can be its own form of self-harm, and that you can give of yourself to the cause of your choice without burning out as a result. Sometimes, sustaining your own strength and resting can be far more valuable than flaming out in a traditionally heroic manner. Adora doesn’t end up saving the day normally, she saves the day by being more willing to feel and defer to her allies, traits that are almost never associated with traditionally heroic characters as we know them. Harry Potter stops Voldemort by literally letting him kill him in the middle of a fight (and is magically revived by a deus ex machina), Adora ends up destroying the Horde by living long enough to activate the failsafe in a superweapon that she absorbed into her own body. Maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi shouldn’t have let Darth Vader kill him in the Death Star, as it’s started an awful trend.
Much like The Clone Wars, which feels like its direct predecessor in a lot of ways in the ways similar themes are handled and genres explored within the realm of science fantasy (both thread the needle very close in many respects), She-Ra doesn’t try to make things so simple as a binary concept of good and evil. While the vaguely named Rebellion has mostly good intentions, the First Ones that Adora belonged to are discovered to have been just as genocidal as the Horde, and were the direct inspiration for Horde Prime himself. The fourth season ends with an extended conflict between Adora and the last remnant of her civilization, an artificial intelligence called Light Hope. Using Adora’s own genetic marker as a First One, it plans to activate a superweapon called the Heart of Etheria, using the entire planet’s surface to wipe out every bit of life in the known universe. What it doesn’t expect is Adora to willingly give up the power of She-Ra in order to prevent this, to have absorbed more Etherian values having been raised as one of them. The season goes on to show how Light Hope connected with a previous She-Ra called Mara (herself a minor character from The New Adventures of He-Man, one of the many ways this show ties in to its source material with running gags and references) and how Mara eventually sacrifices herself in order to prevent the weapon’s activation. A goodhearted gesture, but in a show where self-sacrifice is always shown to be impulsive and useless, only prolonged the inevitable and forces the burden onto Adora. It’s to Adora’s credit that she’s able to find a longer-lasting solution to destroying the superweapon, even if it takes her till the show’s fifth and final season to figure out exactly how. Light Hope, in spite of being programmed by the First Ones to kill every other lifeform in the universe, declaring all life outside of themselves to be “impure,” grew fond of Mara, and its last moments involve begging Adora to destroy it so Mara won’t be ashamed of it.
Much like The Clone Wars, this show saves its best for last, as its most recent season (premiering on May 15th) is able to pretty soundly wrap up the majority of loose threads and even find a way to make the “love conquers all” trope bungled so badly in properties like The Fifth Element (knowing what we know about its filmmaker now…yikes) feel if not necessarily fresh, at least very wholesome. All the numerous factions we’ve come to know get turned on its head by the series’ overarching villain, an intergalactic being of almost infinite power called Horde Prime, who is so scarily effective compared to those that came before him that the Rebellion is destroyed within mere days of his appearance. I actually like that a show is so willing to upend its status quo (early episodes have Adora-as-She-Ra as almost invincible). Horde Prime is fascinating because he feels like the character Emperor Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker should have been. Cold, calculating, fully self-aware, with his own army of clones who sacrifice their own bodily fluids to keep him alive in one of the series’ most disturbing scenes. Horde Prime feeds off of life and absorbs it into himself, and is so utterly narcissistic that he wants to be the only form of life still existing. He makes for the best possible foil for Adora, herself the last survivor of a species that also considered itself the only pure lifeform. Despite being able to be She-Ra, Adora never views herself as above anyone else, and is fully aware of her limitations, and gleefully embraces life in all its messiness through the factions she gets to know. As She-Ra wins more and more of her former enemies to her side, Horde Prime keeps losing allies and never appreciating those losses till its far too late. As far as Horde Prime is concerned, he interestingly describes She-Ra and her allies as “the darkness” and himself as “the light,” and is staged and designed the opposite way you expect villains to be drawn. With his followers chanting that suffering is purity and having existential crises upon being exposed to human emotion for the first time, it becomes painfully obvious what Horde Prime and his cronies are supposed to be representing. He’s so all-encompassing that it forces all the remaining Horde factions to join the Rebellion just to ensure their own survival, having realized they’ve all been fooled at once.
I was really nervous that the show would end with a “you’re not so different, you and I” speech and Horde Prime also being redeemed, one more villain who didn’t deserve it being given chances that no one else got. But someone so terrified of losing control (and therefore, of death itself) gets exactly what he asked for. She-Ra ultimately is able to absorb the superweapon into her body the way he’d always wanted, believing it gave him power over reality itself, and of course she willingly gives up said power to restore life to the planet and to destroy him at the molecular level. Horde Prime is prone to possessing other bodies on a whim, and there’s an excellent fakeout where he’s believed dead and suddenly takes over the body of his longtime clone Hordak, the original ruler of the Horde. As Horde Prime is destroyed in a hysterical yell and Hordak is given back his consciousness, there’s a brief reveal showing how he was the one who found She-Ra when the First Ones abandoned her, and until Horde Prime influenced him, was quite fond of the child. Considering how these two had spent four seasons at each other’s throats, it’s a sudden reversal and a really sad moment to realize that these two archenemies were programmed into despising one another.
It’s a lot to take in, but I don’t think it’s so overwhelming that younger audiences would be put off by it, if the show’s reception is any indication. Hopefully more shows have openly queer characters (no less both main characters of the entire series, almost unheard of even in today’s climate) considering how hard shows like this and Steven Universe (which I haven’t seen) have had its creators apparently fighting with studio executives to be able to include said representation. Noelle Stevenson and Rebecca Sugar will hopefully be the first of many, and hopefully whoever comes after will be able to do more.
So even if you’re not a kid any longer, and you haven’t seen it yet, if you’ve got a Netflix account, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look (even if you’ve ignored the spoiler warning at the beginning of this article). It’s wholesome and it’s pure, and it’s the last show I ever expected to like as much as I did, but here we are. This is the show the He-Man property could never properly be, and I’m not sure He-Man will ever be able to properly compete.