I’m still reeling from the whirlwind of ’s final season. But even in a season full of excitement and warfare, what sticks with me about the show isn’t the big, dramatic setpieces. It’s how well the show understands what it means to grow.
The character arc that sticks out to me the most might be Shadow Weaver (Lorraine Toussaint). The most striking thing about Shadow Weaver is that she doesn’t change, not really. Even at the final moment, when she sacrifices herself to protect Catra (AJ Michalka) and Adora (Aimee Carrero), when she says the one kind thing Catra has waited her entire life to hear, it’s not exactly redemption. Shadow Weaver is positioning herself in the role she, in one way or another, has sought her entire life. Powerful, important, a force to be reckoned with. Unlike her surrogate daughters, she doesn’t live long enough to really answer for her mistakes. As showrunner Noelle Stevenson herself has pointed out in interviews, one sacrifice doesn’t a hero make.
Shadow Weaver’s journey from villain to mostly villain isn’t the first lesson the show wants to teach about character growth, but it’s one of the most important. To understand how people grow, you have to understand that some people won’t. Redemption is hard-earned, and it’s not a journey everyone’s willing to take. Some people are villainous in mundane, casual ways, and they’ll stay that way forever.
That point is important because redemption arcs — stories where villainous characters who have done wrong turn to the side of good — can be an uncomfortable subject for some people. In a lot of stories, redemption is a lazy way out, a way to put a neat satisfying bow on a story that hasn’t earned it. It can also be a way of weakening a story by making it feel emotionally dishonest, by offering redemption to characters whose crimes seem too large to atone for, whose evils would realistically not be easily forgiven by those around them. It’s not fair to expect stories, even kids’ stories, to be simplistic morality tales — it’s ok and interesting to sympathise and engage with “bad people” in fiction. But we want stories to communicate something true, emotionally if not literally. Bad redemption stories don’t resonate with our sense of what’s true about people.
Shadow Weaver’s complex half-redemption feels like a gesture toward that dissatisfaction redemption stories often create, an admission that growth is extremely complicated. It’s an admission that opens the path for She-Ra to fully enjoy the slow, messy redemption of Catra.
Maybe redemption is the wrong word. For Catra, it feels more like maturation. Catra begins the story lonely, under the yoke of a terrible mother figure and suddenly bereft of the only person who she thinks has ever cared about her. Her story is one of coping with trauma, terribly, until, finally, at her very last opportunity, she decides to try to do it right. All of the awful things she does in between those two moments — losing Adora in season one and trying to save her in season five — are an attempt to mollify her own sense of rejection, to justify her own suffering. When I’m in charge, Catra seems to think, no one will be able to hurt me again. This will all, somehow, have been worth it. Her serious of villainous successes and near-misses throughout most of the series serve, in her story, largely as mounting evidence that no amount of victory in the world can undo her hurt. That takes a different kind of work; reconciliation, compassion, love.
What I love about Catra’s storyline in She-Ra, and the way it culminates in the last season, is how hard the show works to make you understand, if not sympathise, with Catra’s point of view. Stevenson and her writing team have a deft understanding of trauma and the way it manifests in the lives of their characters, in the way Adora and Catra both are, in fundamental ways, shaped by the same terrible experiences, and how that shared history bonds them and also makes it incredibly difficult for them to finally, really connect.
Catra, for a long time, absolutely sucks. She almost kills people she loves. She alienates the few people actually on her side. At one point, she nearly eradicates reality out of spite. None of that is easy to sympathise with. But despite the fantastical circumstances and the big, ugly gestures they allow (most of us will never have the chance to send our ex through a maelstrom of collapsing space-time), Catra’s behaviour is grounded in the mundane reality of the traumatic experiences she went through.
Catra’s grounding is important, I think, because good redemption stories are always about the perspective in which they’re told. Fundamentally, stories about characters undergoing moral struggle — trying to figure out and do the right thing, the healthy thing — are stories we tell about ourselves. When we connect to those stories, it’s about us seeing the successes and failures of the characters in our own moral struggles. Characters like Shadow Weaver and Catra resonate because they tell us about ourselves.
Shadow Weaver is ultimately just a metaphor: the bad, abusive mentor who lives on in your memories and in that ugly voice in the back of your head, whispering awful untrue things. And Catra is a personal dramatization of the struggle to try to make more and better out of what we’ve been given. She-Ra gets its character growth right because it understands that, ultimately, one of those things deserves to be honoured and saved. And for the other, maybe the best fate is to just end.