After five seasons of will-they-won’t-they, epic battles, and saving the world from utter annihilation, She-Ra gave essentially every character both what they wanted and needed. None of it would have been possible were it not for Noelle Stevenson stepping up to the plate and becoming the kind of leader the series’ creative team needed.
When Gizmodo caught up with Stevenson by phone recently to discuss, well, everything that went down, she explained how this last leg of Adora’s adventure runs parallel to her own experience running the show”an experience that put her in the position to learn just what it takes to tell a story like this.
Gizmodo: So, let’s start at the beginning. When we first catch up with Adora this season, you can really see that she’s in this distinct emotional headspace that’s almost as if she’s grieving She-Ra’s death, you know? When you first started mapping out this chunk of her arc, what was it that you really wanted to hammer home?
Noelle Stevenson: Adora’s always gotten purpose and meaning out of her life sort of by being told what to do or told what her destiny was. And so when we first meet her when she’s still a force captain in the Horde, she just kind of believes intrinsically in her mission and in what she’s been told by Hordak and Shadow Weaver. She has this crisis of faith that really shatters her worldview, but at the same time that shattering comes as part of her realising that she has a bigger role to play in how the future’s going to turn out.
Stevenson: I wanted to emphasise that almost immediately, Adora was trading one obedience to a destiny for another, and she’s really grappling with that throughout the entire series in different ways while her friends are constantly reminding her that they’re there for her, and she isn’t in this fight alone having to carry everyone. They’re all trying to let her know that it’s OK to show weakness or asking people for help.
Gizmodo: Do you think she ever really learns that?
Stevenson: Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know that she ever fully internalizes it because she’s always falling back on “This is who I am, this is what I do.” As much stress and anxiety as that brings her, I also think it brings her comfort because on some level she’s confident that she knows what her purpose is, what her job is. Finding out that she’s not only not the kind of hero she expected herself to be, but also that she, as She-Ra, is a living weapon and a source of destruction, again it’s the profound crisis of faith. So at the beginning of season five, she doesn’t know who she is and so she’s grabbing on to whatever she has left, which is like, “Well, I have to save the world and I have to save my friends, that’s all I know, and I’ll keep doubling down on that no matter how much pain it brings me if I can just keep taking every hit.”
Gizmodo: Adora’s evolved into so many different kinds of leaders over the course of the season as various situations have really required her to step out of her comfort zone. What about season five Adora really resonated with you in terms of, like, being a leader that people have had to depend on?
Stevenson: Adora’s journey’s always been so personal to me because, not only the crises of faith, but also entering into a situation and expecting it to be a little more simple and straightforward that it’s actually going to be, and then actually realising what it means to have people who rely on you. For me what they meant was realising that there are these moments where you have to understand that strong as you might think you are, sometimes you don’t necessarily have the skills you thought you did. Sometimes you’re not prepared for how difficult the task at hand is actually going to be.
Gizmodo: Was that how you felt when the show was first starting?
Stevenson: Yeah, when I started showrunning, I was so young and had a lot of faith in my own energy and ability to take hard knocks, but what I didn’t account for was the amount of mediation and management that I would called on to do, and that so many people’s quality of life and career paths were going to be hinging on decisions that I made. That was just so incredibly difficult to deal with at first, and I feel like my journey has been parallel to Adora’s in a lot of ways. The moment when she shatters the sword, it’s a huge step for her and it was for me too, because she’s letting go of the concept of being the perfect person she’s supposed to be and taking the next step to be like “Well, I’m not that person. I can only work with what I have and try to be the best version of myself.”
Gizmodo: But to your point, you can tell that Adora still has a lot of difficulty just accepting that.
Stevenson: Right, and she doesn’t quite acknowledge that it’s a core flaw in her character. She still thinks that it’s always better for her to get hurt than for her friends to get hurt, she’s convinced that it would be better for her to die than for her friends to get hurt, and honestly, she’s kind of been trying to do that for a while. I think when you’re under that kind of pressure, it’s easy to put your own well being last or to offer it up as a sacrifice. But obviously that’s not what people need from her, you know?
Gizmodo: They don’t need her to get hurt.
Stevenson: They love her and want her to be around. They want to help her and they want her to help them. What Adora’s really struggling with is this idea of equity, I think, and honouring the decisions being made by the people around her because yes, they’re all taking risks, but that’s their decision to make, not hers.
Gizmodo: You bringing up the idea of Adora always giving herself over makes me want to pivot to Catra for a second. We’ve seen so many different facets of who Catra is through her actions, but there’s this really interesting way in which that’s played into the larger idea of her not really having a full grasp of her identity. Was that always something you wanted to emphasise about who she is as a person?
Stevenson: Well yeah, Catra’s always been the other side of the coin that Adora is. They’re similar in so many ways, but they’re also just the complete opposite of one another more often than not. While Adora’s always been told that she’s the chosen one and the golden child, Catra’s always been told that she was good for nothing and was never going to succeed in the way that Adora did, so why even try? Season one Catra, that rebellious attitude she had was all her just trying to hide the pain she felt, and then when Adora leaves, she just falls apart.
Gizmodo: And she does get close to leaving the Horde herself.
Stevenson: But then she gets that little piece of recognition that I don’t think she’d ever had before, and that was the beginning of her really going down this dark path where she connected her feelings of inadequacy with Adora”and in Catra’s mind, Adora becomes the source of all that trauma.
She’s so hung up on the opinions of others and what she never got, but she’s not actually thinking about what she wants. She’s not pursuing what she wants because she’s so reactive, in a way. But she’s not being honest or true to herself. She’s embracing this idea that she’s bad and she’s like “I’m just going to be the best villain you ever saw. I’m going to run with this and everyone who ever doubted me is going to be under my command and I’m going to be the top cat in all of Etheria and no one will ever be able to look down at me or hurt me again.”
Gizmodo: There are so many different forms of love that shape everyone’s arcs this season, and I’m curious to hear what kinds of conversations you had with Aimee [Carrero] and AJ [Michalka] about Adora and Catra specifically. Everyone kind of knew from the jump that the pair of them weren’t just going to be friends, but what was really important to you all about what needed to define their dynamic this season?
Stevenson: When it comes to Aimee and AJ, it’s always been their chemistry with one another that made it so easy to connect with Adora and Catra, I think. Every time we’ve gotten to record them together, it was like fireworks because they were tapping into something that was so raw and powerful. There were episodes where I really wanted to have them together, but the scheduling didn’t work out so we couldn’t. But somehow, the chemistry between the two of them was still just palpable. Truly, that’s always been the show’s secret weapon and we’ve known that we can’t overuse that energy because every time they’re together, they just dominate every scene.
By the time we reached the last season, it’d become very clear to the crew what we were working towards and what our endgame was going to be, and I expressed that to Aimee and AJ at some point. But I don’t know that it quite sunk in for them just what was about to happen with Catra and Adora, and I was interested whether learning that was going to change the way they’d always naturally played the characters.
Gizmodo: Did you want the revelation to sort of work its way into their performances?
Stevenson: Well it’s a journey that Catra and Adora have to go through, and I think that’s part of why I didn’t want to tell AJ and Aimee right away because the characters aren’t really open with each other or themselves about what it is they’re feeling. That tension’s such an important part of their story because it’s the feeling they’re most comfortable with as opposed to asking themselves the deep questions like “We have this intense pull towards each other, what is it? Who are we to one another?”
But the moment when I told them, it just clicked. The emotion that came from them both was so intense, which is what’s made working with them so fantastic. The moment it really jumped out I think was that first time that Catra says “I love you,” and that’s when, you know, it’s obvious that we were just going for it. I remember recording the last two episodes and we got to the kiss, and they were like “Should…we kiss now?” And I’m like “What? No! Stop messing with me!”
Gizmodo: Before I let you go, I wanted to talk about Shadow Weaver for a second. So much of Catra’s and Adora’s relationship with her has always felt familial in a sense, but in a way that was very unhealthy and traumatic for all of them in distinct ways. Thinking back on that final scene where Shadow Weaver finally tries to do right by the two of them, what resonated with you?
Stevenson: Shadow Weaver’s such an interesting character because on the one hand she’s very complex, you know? But at the same time, she’s also someone…I think her brand of evil hits harder than Hordak or Horde Prime’s because it’s so mundane. It’s so common. I think everybody has or has had a Shadow Weaver in their life at some point. It might be a parent or an aunt or grandmother or neighbour or a teacher. They’re these people who have power over us and the way that they view the world and themselves allows them to inflict that trauma onto us. The weird thing about those characters and people is as much as they might have ruined us at ages when we didn’t have any real kind of defences against them, it doesn’t mean you don’t care about those people.
Like, a teacher is someone whose favourite you want to be, you want them to tell you that you’re doing well even if that person is taking advantage of the power they have over you.
Stevenson: Really that last scene, I don’t think we’d ever seen Shadow Weaver truly trying to be selfless that way because I don’t know that she’s ever been able to see Catra and Adora as people she truly does love, but it was clear that Catra and Adora did feel that way about her at some point. They wanted to impress her and for her to praise them. They have to move past her because she’s been such a toxic presence in their lives, and as soon as she enters the story again, you can see those emotional cracks being stressed.
Adora and Catra…the three of them can’t be in a room together, it just won’t work. But their relationship isn’t something they can all just pretend isn’t real. So that moment of sacrifice, I think part of was still selfish because she’s operating on the idea that now they have to forgive Shadow Weaver because she’s doing this noble thing. It brings everything full circle and I don’t think that either Catra or Adora would have been satisfied if things didn’t go down the way they did. It had to come to a head like that and Adora and Catra had to finally talk about what Shadow Weaver did to them, and creating that space for it was Shadow Weaver’s last gift to them, whether or not her intentions were pure, because they deeply needed to leave her in the past and move forward together.
The complete She-Ra is now streaming on Netflix.