Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra S2E5-6

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As She-Ra‘s second season nears its end, it continues to feel more like it’s late in the second half of the season than nearly to the season finale, just as we’d expect if the second and third season were initially planned as one. Episodes 5 and 6 aren’t so much interested in ramping up tension or laying down groundwork for a big reveal, as they are about exploring characters–first by drawing out parallels between them and putting them into unfamiliar groupings, and second by giving us new insights into where one of the previously less-explored characters is coming from.

“White Out” takes advantage of an old writer’s trick, namely that characters are most interesting in pairs. Trios and larger groups allow for more complicated dynamics, but when you get two people alone together–especially when they’re people who don’t know each other well but have something to emote about to each other–the result is very often new insights into both. The Best Friend Squad might be more stable than the Catra-Adora friendship (by rather a lot), but it’s the latter that gives us the strongest emotional beats.

What “White Out” does, however, is take Adora off the table. Thanks to reinfection by the First Ones virus, she is unable to interact as herself, instead being either a violent berserker or obliviously drunk-like. In the former state, she isn’t so much a character to interact with as something for the other characters to emote about. In the latter state, she is easily ignored, so other than the brief period in which she and Scorpia are alone together, she doesn’t disrupt pair dynamics by being the third in the scene. As a result, for most of the episode we have an even number of characters–six, to be precise–which the show quickly separates into three pairs.

Glimmer and Bow are a bit obvious of a pair to produce anything interesting, but Scorpia and Sea Hawk have barely interacted before, and turn out to have much in common. Entrapta and Catra, by contrast, have actually spent quite a bit of time together, but very little of it without Scorpia around to act as a buffer. From them, we get two allies clashing, setting up Catra’s betrayal of Entrapta at the end of next season; the ostensible enemies, meanwhile, turn out to have much in common.

Of course, both pairs involve Scorpia, whose general affability helps quite a bit. She and Adora bond over what they have in common, including being in the closet–which is a deliciously pointed gag. Scorpia and Sea Hawk, meanwhile, are able to bond over being unappreciated by people they care about. This sets up Catra and Mermista as parallel characters, which hasn’t really been hinted at in the show before, but implies that Mermista’s cranky exterior may, like Catra, be the performative defensiveness of a tsundere, which in turn helps settle the ambiguity over whether Sea Hawk is actually Mermista’s off-again on-again boyfriend or just a stalker; it’s probably the former.

Even though they interact less than usual for episodes in which they occupy the same space, this episode also draws some new parallels between Catra and Adora–or more accurately, between Catra and infected Adora. Specifically, one of the main symptoms of the infection seems to be an inability to distinguish friend from foe. As berserk She-Ra, she sees everyone as a foe; as drunk Adora, she calls Scorpia and Sea Hawk her “best friends.” Catra has a similar problem, constantly seeking the approval of people who use and abuse her like Hordak and Shadow Weaver, and rejecting the people who offer her genuine acceptance and caring, like Scorpia (unconditionally) and Adora (if she leaves the Horde).

Implied is that Catra has an infection of her own in a sense, something inside of her that causes her to behave destructively and self-destructively–something which will, quite a bit later in the show, manifest not all that differently from the First Ones virus. Nonetheless, at the end of the episode, she seems to get it a little bit, allowing Scorpia to care for her by sharing a blanket.

But by the next episode, she’s reverted back to old behaviors. In “Light Spinner,” Shadow Weaver is able to easily manipulate Catra by preying on her desperation for approval from her caregiver. But her lies are only as effective as they are because they’re true: she probably does see herself in Catra, because they are very similar. They’re both power hungry, both ambitious, both scornful of authority (which is a good attitude to have) and unable to distinguish it from experience (which is not), and deeply suspicious of both their own feelings of attachment to others, and others’ feelings of attachment to them, making them badly isolated even when there are people willing to be close to them. Neither is able to accept that someone else wants to be their friend, and so both see not friends or allies, but tools–Micah and, later, Adora and Catra for Shadow Weaver, Scorpia and Entrapta for Catra.

Mostly, though, this episode is focused on Shadow Weaver’s fall from grace. Intriguingly, her hunger for power was originally focused not on her own status, but fear of the Horde. Driven by that fear, she uses magic to tap into dark powers–and that’s where this episode starts to feel a little off in the context of the show. Generally speaking, the metaphor the show has used for magic is that it’s a hyper-advanced technology. Ghosts are ancient recordings projected as holograms, spirit advisors are holographic AIs, and elemental magic is people with administrative access to the mainframe of an artificial planet–princesses–tapping into its environmental controls. In that context, other sorcerers seem most analogous to power users–they know how to make the system do what they want it to, but they don’t have the unfettered access to alter it that princesses do.

But in that context, what is “dark magic”? There’s at least two ways to read it. The much less appealing one is that it’s serving the same role it does in most fiction, namely that it signposts its users as Other–“corrupting” their bodies and behavior because they stepped over the accepted social bounds of magic. This is, to say the least, problematic in a show that tries as hard as She-Ra to appeal to queer and female audiences, which is to say people whose bodies and behaviors are constantly being othered by the larger society.

Fortunately, “White Out” gives us a better read, or at least one that is both more interesting and less troubling. We can’t actually say for sure which read is stronger until we see what effect Glimmer’s use of dark magic in late Season 3 had, which presumably will be addressed in Season 4. Regardless, we’ve already seen the basis of this read: Shadow Weaver is much like Catra, and Shadow Weaver was driven by fear to ultimately betray the other mages and join the Horde. Fear is why she lost the ability to distinguish friend from foe and joined the very people she was afraid of; fear of attachment is why she abuses the children in her care. We have a name for the disease that infects her, and which she passed on to Catra–and thus we also have a read for the dark magic: it’s exploiting a virus in the planetary network, and just as the princess’ magic seems tied to their friendships, the virus is tied to the fear that severs friendships–just as it did for Shadow Weaver, and Catra, and even the Princess Alliance in Season 1, albeit temporarily.

And Shadow Weaver passes the virus on to Catra finally and completely in this episode. There is a straight line from her betrayal here to Catra’s unhinged behavior in the Season 3 finale.

Time and Season 4 will tell whether, like Adora in “White Out,” they can be healed–or if, as seems sadly likely, they are too far gone to even accept the help.

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On you from all sides (Black Out)

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It’s January 30, 1999. Britney Spears tops the charts with “…Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which definitely won’t be stuck in my head for the next two decades; Brandy, Deborah Cox, and Third Eye Blind also chart. The top movie is She’s All That; there’s not much else new in the box office. In the two weeks since Batman Beyond‘s premiere episode, on the 20th China issued new restrictions on Internet use, and on the 25th an earthquake in Colombia killed nearly 2,000 people.

On TV, our first new supervillain for the new Batman, Inque. (Powers doesn’t count–he is still on the road to becoming a supervillain.) She’s an intriguing figure; given almost no characterization, she just flows into and through the narrative, an amorphous entity that lurks in shadows and slips into the tiniest of cracks. She is very nearly literally her namesake, a black viscous liquid that can become an image of almost anything.

She also looks a lot like another character who hasn’t had much focus, Terry’s girlfriend Dana. This, of course, is because of the Dini style, as we’ve already discussed: they are both slender young women and therefore have the same body and face, with only coloration and hairstyle differing–and they both have dark hair and eyes. Elderly Barbara Gordon, whom we see near the episode, looks astoundingly like Dr. Leslie Thompkins from Batman: The Animated Series; it doesn’t imply a diegetic connection.

What’s more interesting is the role Dana plays, questioning the fairness and appropriateness of Terry’s relationship with Bruce Wayne. This is a role she’ll be playing a lot; likewise, Barbara Gordon expresses mild concern that Terry doesn’t understand what he’s getting into, and will express more serious concern later in the series. In between these two scenes, Inque invades the Batcave, the private sanctum of Terry and Wayne, and wreaks havoc.

Three women, and all three, in their own ways, seek to disrupt the newly forged friendship between two men–three women who map annoyingly neatly onto one of my least favorite archetypes, the Triple Goddess: Dana the Maiden, who wants her man to stay with her; Barbara the Mother, who chides gently and tries to protect the boy; Inque the Other,* who seeks to destroy both men. Together they try to put barriers between two men who just want to bond over their shared love of dressing up like bats and going out to get into fights; and they are, in order, the current lover of one of the men, the past lover of the other man, and someone who tries to forcibly penetrate the first man in a scene just a few sound effects away from tentacle hentai.

Nothing psychosexual to see here, folks. Also, the plant monster in “Pretty Poison” was just a plant.

Inque, notably, is going to be the series’ most frequently recurring villain, even beating out Powers/Blight. She makes clear in this episode what role she’s auditioning for when she, in rapid succession, slivers past a giant Joker playing card, smashes the display case containing Harley Quinn’s costume, and shreds it. She really is ink, which outlines every image in the series; just as Joker introduced himself to BTAS by claiming the medium of TV itself in an attempt to usurp control over the series in “Christmas with the Joker,” Inque seeks to claim the other half of animation: drawing.

Her mere presence threatens narrative collapse; it’s only the third episode and she enters the Batcave, nearly kills Terry, nearly sees Bruce Wayne’s face, and nearly finds the connection between the Batcave and Wayne Manor. Success at any one of those would upend the entire series, either by exploding the secret identity of the old Batman (and given Terry’s visibility as Wayne’s new assistant, the identity of the new Batman would shortly follow) or by killing the new Batman one episode after his debut. She is unquestionably a powerful figure.

But a mysterious one. Again, we get no characterization for her here. Her abilities are handwaved as the product of “mutagenic” experiments, implying she was created in a lab, and now she works as a saboteur for hire. That’s all we know, and all we really need to know: her role in this episode isn’t to be sympathetic or tell us who she is, but rather to tell us what this show is.

Of course we know what this show is: it’s a show about Batman. But is it? Batman: The Animated Series was rarely actually about Batman; he was often a liminal figure, lurking in the shadows on the edges of the narrative except to swoop in and fight someone, much the role Inque plays here. But look at our threefold antagonist–yes, antagonist, as all three are ultimately presented as obstacles for the protagonist, even though only one is actually villainous–and what they have in common. All three are set up in opposition or as a threat to Terry and Bruce’s relationship.

Because that’s what this show is, and what it means to be Beyond (the old conception of) Batman. Batman isn’t a person anymore. Terry goes out in the suit and fights, but when he ignores Bruce’s warnings early in the episode, he’s nearly killed by Inque. Bruce is still a vital part; they are Batman together, another triple being: the boy who’s dating the Maiden, the paternal old man who used to be the Mother’s partner, and the Bat who fights the Other.

That’s what this show is. No longer a Boy and his Bat; now they are a Boy, his Bat, and Bruce, and that will make all the difference.

*Traditionally, the Crone. In modern versions, most often the Temptress, the Monster, or both.

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