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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Retroactive Continuity: Base Raiders

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If you want to get me to throw your book across the room in disgust, quoting Nietzsche on the first page is a great start. His On the Genealogy of Morality remains the only book to which I have actually done this, though I have threatened it to other books. Unless you’re going to pull a Xenosaga and spend the next 100+ hours of gameplay across three games taking the piss out of him, referencing the Ayn Rand of humanities majors is just going to get my guard up from the start.

Base Raiders: Superpowered Dungeon Crawling, a FATE RPG by Ross Payton, starts with just such a quote, and it’s one of the worst ones–the Will to Power. Admittedly, this is in the forward, which is by one Caleb Stokes–but Stokes is also named in the book’s acknowledgments of family, friends, and playtesters, implying he bears least one of those relationships to the author. His description of the philosophy behind Base Raiders can be taken as, if not a direct description of its authors’ views, at least not antithetical to them.

Stokes lays it on thick; the quote is immediately followed by a lament that superheroes–referring to the characters, but implying the genre as well–reject the idea of seeking power over others, and label those who do seek power as villains. He actually notes that superheroes almost never want their power–though he doesn’t go quite as far as to label it as trauma–but then describes this as being “ungrateful.” The point of Base Raiders, he writes, is to present a vision of superheroes for “the generation that stopped being purely ‘human’ twenty years ago and couldn’t be happier about it.* It’s for the people that never met something they didn’t want to hack, customize, remix, or make better, including their own bodies. It’s a vision of superpowers tailor-made for a people that… won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever read something as pure straight white male Silicon Valley technocrat incel nerdbro as self-describing as “a people that won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'” It’s almost beautiful in its pure, disgusting selfishness, the utter lack of self-awareness with which it explains why power fantasies work better as villains, because the fantasy of power is precisely that, fantasizing about no one being able to tell you “no.” The fantasy is to override the consent and wishes of everyone you meet, to act devoid of anything other than compassionless self-interest.

And that fantasy is repeated everywhere in this book. I mentioned above that it’s based on the FATE system, which caught my attention immediately, because FATE is my favorite tabletop RPG. Yes, I’ve played D&D more than it, and BESM more than anything, but FATE is the one which I appreciate aesthetically, the one whose design philosophy seems to align best with how I like to play. I won’t go in-depth into game mechanics here, but the short version is, FATE emphasizes tabletop roleplaying as a form of collaborative storytelling. The rules are relatively simple and highly flexible, and character abilities are deliberately rendered somewhat vaguely, because the assumption is that players will work with the GM and each other to tell an unfolding story about their characters, and thus cooperate on interpreting their characters rather than needing detailed adjudication up front.

So, for example, there is a mechanism by which the GM can tell players to act according to particular aspects of their character previously defined by the player, but must offer the player Fate Points for doing so–points which the player can later spend to reject such an instruction from the GM or make story declarations of their own. FATE quite deliberately has no character flaws or merits; players are encouraged to define aspects in such a way that they can serve both roles, allowing the player to spend FP on an aspect to receive a bonus, or receive FP when the GM uses an aspect against them. The game, in other words, can make aspects flexible, multi-faceted, and highly subject to interpretation because it is assumed that the GM and players are going to work together to make the game enjoyable for all.

Base Raiders retains these aspects–but it adds various forms of merits and flaws. It complicates the skill system enormously to far more carefully define what characters can do, and how hard it is for others to stop them from doing it, and in the process discards that assumption of cooperation. Of course it does! Power inherently cannot cooperate; it is, as Stokes so accidentally eloquently put it, unable to tolerate hearing “no,” unable to negotiate or take turns. It must subjugate or be subjugated, and so to build a game with power as its core value, it is necessary to carefully delineate how to determine who dominates whom and when. The game outright admits this is what it’s doing in the discussion of one of the new mechanics, skill tiers, when it notes that, in a struggle between characters in very different skill tiers, it is impossible for the lower-tier character to succeed, “As it should be.”

The addition of merits and flaws, the increased crunchiness, and even the emphasis on numerical dominance over cooperative roleplay, however, are not where I finally broke down and exasperatedly asked the air, “So why are you even using FATE then?” No, that cry came when I noticed a subtle change in character creation. You see, the Fate Point system is not particularly unusual for more narratively focused RPGs; the flexibility of aspects is slightly more so, but still not by that much. One of the truly unusual features of FATE, however, is the incorporation of character creation into play, and specifically the way in which it’s rendered as collaborative as the rest of the game.

You see, character creation in FATE is done in the group. Players take turns defining aspects, and in the process each tells the story of their character’s origin and first adventure, prior to the game’s start. Then, each player picks another character’s first adventure, and works with that character’s player to describe what role the first player’s character played in their adventure, this role serving to set up their final aspect. Base Raiders, however, changes this subtly: to define their character’s final aspect, the player is instructed to “pick another player character as your associate and incorporate them into the adventure.” This eliminates the collaborative element entirely! Players must no longer work with each other to figure out how to fit their character into someone else’s adventure idea; each acts unilaterally, declaring someone else’s character to have had a role in their own development. The FATE Core rulebook emphasizes that, in this final phase of character creation, the character receiving the aspect is a minor figure in the other character’s prior adventures; Base Raiders instead describes the player taking another’s character for their own “greatest adventure.”

This is where superheroes-as-power-fantasy leads: the fantasy of being so much more powerful than anyone else that you can impose your will on them. The fantasy of ignoring consent, compassion, and community to be a lone figure, “free” at the expense of the freedom of everyone else around them. It is the fantasy of people who want nothing more than to violate the boundaries of every person they meet; which is to say, the fantasy of people who can’t tolerate being told “no.”

What other word can there be for people like that, besides “villain”?

*No, I have no clue what technofetishist nonsense this is referring to, either.

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Assuming his girlfriend (Mad Love)

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After the beginning, the end.

Nothing profound about that, of course. It is the one and only absolute certainty in life, that for every beginning, there is a corresponding end. For a new Batman to rise, the old must step aside.

It is fitting that it does so with more beginnings.

It’s still January 16, 1999. On TV, we have the end of an era that began seven years and four volumes ago: Batman: The Animated Series is ending with the final episode of The New Batman Adventures, “Mad Love,” an adaptation of the Batman Adventures comic of the same name. We’ve already discussed the main difference between the two versions, a sequence in which Batman gives an account of the pre-Arkham life of Harleen Quinzel that makes no sense whatsoever, and tied it to both the indelible contribution of Arleen Sorkin to the character and her erasure from almost all discussion thereof.

We won’t rehash that discussion here. Instead, we will focus on the choice for the one DCAU series* that does not start with an origin story to instead end with one–because of course that’s what “Mad Love” is, an unusually robust framing device around a core of Harley Quinn’s origin story.

It’s a familiar structure–a present-day adventure in which someone known to the audience as a joke character is depicted instead as a tragic figure who turns to crime for love and loses painfully, in the process letting the audience see how they came to this state in the first place. That’s exactly how “Heart of Ice” functioned, and while not the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series to be made or to air, it was the first episode that was recognizably part of a groundbreaking, award-winning, genre-transforming work of art. It was, in short, where BTAS earned that “The” in its title. Of course we end in the same kind of story. Of course we take the subgenre that BTAS so uniquely excels at, the sympathetic villain story, and apply it to the one villain who most deserves and needs it, who happens also to be the single best original character to come out of BTAS.

Who could it be but Harley?** And what a gut-punch it is. “Harley and Ivy” already gave us a stunning depiction of a woman who escaped her abusive partner into the arms of a far better match, only to return to the familiar suffering of being with her former partner. “Mad Love” takes that further, keeping the focus throughout on Harley’s feelings and desires. We see how the Joker tricked and seduced her, how he played to her expectations and fantasies. At first he seemed to be reaching out to her for support, flattering her ego and making her feel powerful and special at the vulnerable moment of first embarking on a new career. Then he used her burgeoning Nightingale syndrome to make her increasingly dependent on him, and finally a well-timed escape to make her realize that dependency could only be fed by freeing him and becoming truly dependent on him as his sidekick.

In her state of dependency, all she can do is try to please him and hope he gives her the attention and care she desperately needs–attention and care she deserves from someone who will actually treat her well. But she can’t see that, can’t see any way out. She blew up a world to make her own a little less dark, to make a tiny window of space in which maybe a tiny bit of queerness could be allowed–but she herself remains as trapped as ever.

Because although he is the guard and chief torturer in Harley’s dungeon, and creator of her prison, it’s not made of him–it’s made of her. She casts blame anywhere and everywhere she can–on Batman for “getting in the way,” on herself because she “didn’t get the joke”–but it’s the Joker’s fault, the Joker’s doing, the Joker who hits her right after commenting about taking blows from people who didn’t take the joke. He’s the one who’s humorless, and cruel, and neglectful, and not good enough.

Because as we’ve seen again and again, Harley is smarter than him, tougher than him, funnier than him, more chaotic than him. She, not the Joker, captures Batman near-effortlessly here, and she, not the Joker, makes him laugh. She even, as Batman acknowledges, comes closer to killing him than the Joker ever did. She is the most magical, transformative, powerful character in the DCAU to date, the wielder of the Magic Batte and destroyer of Krypton.

And this is where she ends. Oh, she’ll show up here and there, including one last appearance as Poison Ivy’s partner, but in her other appearances she’ll just be an echo of the Joker, his sidekick, the grandmother of Dee and Dee. She goes back to him, again and again, as abuse victims so often do, because he has persuaded her she needs him. That is her tragedy: bringer of the apocalypse, the revolution, the new art style, the one world she cannot transform is her own. She remains, forever and always, in the prison that is Harley Quinn.

And yet there is always that glimmer of hope. That moment just before she sees the flower in the vase–the same flower and vase that started her on the journey down into misery–when she is able to clearly see the Joker for what he is and the harm that is done to her. She returns to her prison again and again, but there is always hope that one day she will transform, and walk free.

Which is yet another reason why it has to end with her. Because as we’ve seen with so many other sympathetic villains–Two-Face especially–the person who most needs to believe that villains can change, that they can heal and grow and eventually leave their prisons, is Batman. If anyone else in this show lives in a prison built by someone else but made from their own selves, it’s him.

Batman has almost never been at the center of his own show. He is a creature of the shadows, and that is where he usually remains–in the shadows at the periphery of the narrative. It is entirely fitting that he should spend the last episode of his show there, too–and that the person at its center be the one character who perhaps most perfectly reflects him, trapped in a tortured persona whose suffering she cannot let end. She, here at the end, is the apocalypse-light, all red and black, that casts the shadows in which he lurks.

And neither of them will ever get that joke.

*Counting Justice League Unlimited as part of Justice League, The Batman and Robin Adventures and The New Batman Adventures as part of Batman: The Animated Series, and the Batman Beyond episode “Zeta” as the first episode of The Zeta Project, all of which seem reasonable enough choices to me.

**I checked. That really sounds like the title of a song from the 1930s, possibly in an obscure stage musical, but it’s not.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E3-4 “Signals” and “Roll With It”

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Given the short season–if it can even be called a season (see my last Retroactive Continuity on the show)–She-Ra needs to transition swiftly from resolving threads from last season to setting up threads for this season. One of those threads is introduced in this pair of episodes, first with the Horde, and then with the Princesses: characters feeling inadequate in the face of tasks that seem impossible to do alone, and seeking out (or begrudgingly accepting) help from others to complete them. Bow’s repeated “deaths” in “Roll With It” are a silly but obvious example; his admission in “Signals” that he doesn’t think he can live up to Entrapta’s technological skill and know-how is a better one. And he’s right, he can’t do that alone–he will need his parents’ help by season’s end. Catra likewise realizes she can’t run the Horde army singlehandedly and turns to Shadow Weaver for aid–foolishly, given Shadow Weaver’s penchant for treachery and manipulation and the fact that Scorpia is right there. Likewise, Scorpia can’t take on five princesses and Bow alone any more than Adora can take on total responsibility for the entire Rebellion alone, and Hordak can’t create a working portal alone.

That last brings up something else that’s happening in these two episodes, which is that the show is trying to bring up potentially romantic character pairs other than Catra and Adora, because Catra and Adora are increasingly going to be depicted as an extremely unhealthy relationship. So, we get Scorpia very obviously head-over-heels for Catra, and an extended imaginary sequence in which Glimmer’s image of Catra is the most sexualized any character in the show has ever been. Most of all, we get Entrapta and Hordak working closely together and appreciating one another, with Hordak trusting Entrapta with more information about his plans than he ever trusted Shadow Weaver or Catra, and Entrapta commenting on him being her first “lab partner.”

Entrapta has come up quite a few times in this discussion already, which is fitting, because she’s also being used to open up another theme for this season, and it seems likely the show going forward: the convergence of magic and science. Consider her unusual status: she appears to be the only named, recurring princess who has no magical abilities at all. Not all princesses have the massive elemental powers of Glimmer or Mermista, but Spinerella and Netossa definitely have their own kind of magic. What, then, of Entrapta? This question is answered by another: why is her technological prowess treated as not just above Bow, but unattainably above him, impossible for him to reach on his own? How is it that a self-taught inventor from a “backwater planet” can seemingly surpass the work of Hordak, who as we will learn has scientific and engineering skills from a vastly more technologically advanced civilization?

The answer is simple: she isn’t the only princess without powers. Technology is her magical gift, her element if you will. Bow says it himself early in “Signals”: “Magic and tech aren’t totally separate things. Entrapta is one of the only people who really understands that.”

And he’s right. Magic is, after all, just symbolic manipulation in an effort to similarly manipulate reality. We all to some degree believe in it; that’s why we yell at technology that doesn’t work or call out for lost objects. It makes sense that we should believe in it, because using symbols to express what we want to happen is generally the most effective way to get it to happen what it involves other people, which is most of the time; add in that sometimes the car does start right after we yell at it, and of course it’s our go-to solution! The history of science, looked at closely, is not a rejection of magic but an evolution of magic. Look at two of the oldest sciences, astronomy and chemistry. People started out looking at the stars, noticing the regularity of their motion, and surmised that they reflected or even influenced the motion of objects on Earth. Eventually, after careful study, it was found that it doesn’t work like that–but by that time we had a carefully crafted system of symbols by which the movement of the stars could be predicted, which we call astronomy. The same thing happened with alchemy–after centuries of mixing this and melting that and writing down what happened and guesses as to why, eventually we worked out patterns and rules for how it worked, finding ways to manipulate substances to get what we wanted, and called that chemistry.

As it turns out, the rules that work are more mathematical than poetic, and machines aren’t actually very much like people at all, but it’s all still manipulating symbols. Press a key, labeled with a particular letter, on the keyboard and that letter appears on the screen–you have manipulated a symbol to effect change in the material world. Entrapta’s gift, her power, is that she’s one of the few people who really understands that.

It’s no accident that we’re introduced to Hordak’s interdimensional portal and holographic “ghosts” in the same episode, because they’re both technowank excuses to have fantasy phenomena, just as is the notion of elemental magic being characters tapping into an artificial planet’s environmental control systems. They come at it from opposite ends, of course: ghosts sound magic and holograms sound technological, while an interdimensional portal sounds technological from the start. But it’s really just the old fantasy notion of the magic door, a gateway to Faerie or the underworld, given a sci-fi makeover. (As is much of science fiction, for that matter. The distinction between science fiction, fantasy, and pulp adventure is often just surface aesthetics.)

This approach to magic can be seen as somewhat reductionist. If science and technology are just magic that works, is the rest of magic just failed science? Well, yes. But flip it around: there is magic that works. That’s not reductionist, that’s astounding. We live in a universe in which magic works, in which human minds and hands are capable of constructing and manipulating symbols which tap into cosmic forces to do whatever we can imagine and figure out how to do! How terrific is that?

And, as the end of “Signals” ominously looms, how terrifying?

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Light makes him lose his powers (Absolute Power)

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It’s January 16, 1999, and the charts are largely unchanged from last time, with only the order different–Brandy is on top at the moment with “Have You Ever?” Varsity Blues opens at number one in theaters. And in the news, earlier this month the euro was launched, as was the Mars Polar Lander, the latter at least to end in failure–it will eventually crashland on Mars.

On TV, “Absolute Power,” a fairly forgettable Superman: The Animated Series episode notable mostly for being a couple of second-and-lasts–the second and last episode narrated in flashback, and the second and last appearance of Mala and Jax-Ur. The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to the famous line by John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Acton was an English baron and marquess who strongly opposed centralized authority, a fan of U.S.-style federalism who vocally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War on states’ rights grounds. Knowing that, it’s worth reading his most famous quote a little more closely: “Power tends to corrupt.” In other words, it doesn’t always corrupt, just often does, while “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The repeated word “absolute” is here being used in two subtly different sentences: “absolute power” of course refers to the maximum possible amount of power, power which cannot be resisted or denied, but “corrupts absolutely” is constructed in opposition to “tends to corrupt,” and therefore reads as guaranteed corruption, not maximal corruption.

This is an important distinction to make, because again, the speaker here is an aristocrat who opposed any power above his own but supported slavery, just like the bulk of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution–no wonder he was a fan! In other words, someone who believed his own power as an aristocrat did not corrupt him, but rather that any higher level of power was necessarily corrupting–power which could be used to interfere with his exercise of his power over those subject to it. He’s basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day right-libertarian.

This is important, because despite the title, the episode isn’t built around his quote, but actually a saying (usually attributed to Edmund Burke) which arguably opposes the Acton quote: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The opposition comes in when one realizes the implication that absolute power is not guaranteed to corrupt if “good men” do something, though arguably preventing the consolidation of absolute power in the first place could be the something done.

Either way, the probably-not-actually-Burke quote is the closer to true of the two, despite the emptiness of the category “good men”: we live in an amoral, and therefore immoral, universe, and have invented morality out of our own capacity for agency and judgment. If we wish it to exist in the world, rather than merely our imaginations, we must build and rebuild it constantly. And not just in the world, but in ourselves–to decide that one is, once and for all, good is to lose the capacity for self-correction, and thereby guarantee failure.

This episode is thus actually a crucial one to understanding Superman, because it shows that he is capable of error, and more importantly that he knows he is capable of error. He has, as many critics and commentators have noted over the years, a nigh-impossible balancing act to perform: on the one hand, given his great capacity to do what others cannot, him doing nothing gives evil a far greater chance to triumph than most; on the other, if he does too much to protect–which is to say, control–others, he becomes a tyrant. Mala and Jax-Ur choose to go much too much to the latter extreme, becoming dictators as a means of bringing “peace” and “order” to the divided planet they conquer, but initially Superman goes too far to the former, leaving their rule intact because he fears the consequences to the planet if he fights them.

Ultimately, however, he is Superman. He finds a way to stop them without it turning into a planet-busting kaiju fight, though they help by taking him out into space to throw him into a black hole. He finds a way to protect almost everyone, by fighting Mala and Jax-Ur in incredibly dangerous space until they slip up and die. He even saves their head of security/police, Alterus, over the protests of the rebel Cetea.

It’s an interesting choice, because although Alterus has a last-second change of heart to rescue Superman and Cetea from execution by black hole, he is still depicted as Mala and Jax-Ur’s second-in-command. He is doubtless responsible for executing many of the atrocities they are implied to have masterminded in their conquest of the planet, doubtless including actual executions. He’s also shown being sexually assaulted by Mala, which certainly makes him more sympathetic, but also provides a possible ulterior motive for turning against the regime.

What he is, in short, is a reminder that it isn’t actually necessary for “good men” to do anything to prevent the triumph of evil, which is good since people aren’t actions and therefore can’t be meaningfully assigned moral value. Apparent “bad men” can do it too, by taking good action.

This is not, in itself, redemption. Alterus does not really have a redemption arc; he’s barely a character. “Redemption” is a fuzzy concept when you’ve rejected the concept that a person can be good or evil, anyway; it’s connected to forgiveness, but forgiveness lies entirely in the free choice of one’s victims. Mostly it’s the realization of one’s own prior evil actions, acceptance of one’s capacity to do such things, and choice to start doing better, which certainly could be what’s going on with Alterus, but on the other hand he could just be taking advantage of an opportunity to rid himself of his abuser and take over the planet himself in the process. He could, in other words, just be upset about power greater than his own, and not see anything wrong with his own power over others, or he could be genuinely recognizing that power must be broken.

In the end, his redemption or lack thereof isn’t important. What is important is that it demonstrates for us that someone can serve a tyrannical regime in its conquest of a divided planet, then turn against that regime’s leaders. Doing so isn’t redemption in itself, but it’s better than not doing it, and that’s a start.

But surely we won’t see this precise sequence of events with a character we know much better at the end of this season, right?

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If I have a bat problem (Rebirth)

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It’s January 10, 1999, about six weeks since “Little Big Head Man.” The bizarre duo of R. Kelly and Celine Dion top the charts, with “I’m Your Angel.” Deborah Cox, Brandy, and Britney Spears also chart, the last with her first big hit, “…Baby One More Time.” The top movie is A Civil Action, which managed the rare feat of jumping up 44 places between weekends. Also in the top ten are Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams, You’ve Got Mail, animated classic The Prince of Egypt and semi-classic A Bug’s Life, Shakespeare in Love, and cult horror favorite The Faculty.

And on TV, Batman dies the way he always had to: some punk with a gun. 20 years on from The New Batman Adventures, fighting to save what’s implied to be Veronica Vreeland’s teen daughter from a random gang of kidnappers, he suffers a heart attack and is nearly killed by one of the kidnappers. Desperate, he picks up a gun and threatens the man with it. Remember, he lives in a world of archetypes. For Batman, every night is The Night, and every gun is The Gun. Holding it, menacing someone with it, makes him The Punk and allows all the survivor’s guilt he feels about his parents, the guilt he made the Bat to keep at bay, to rush in at once. The Bat is dead, and with it, the Batman.

Bruce Wayne, however, is not free. He will never not be trapped in The Night, never not be that frightened, helpless eight-year-old boy, and now he is the murderer of his parents to boot. He shuts himself away from the world, cuts off his ties with others, retreats into solitude. The Punk, unleashed, flows into Gotham, and goes cyber.

Cue dead-television sky.

Terry McGinnis is an angry young man. We’re not given a clear reason for his anger–there’s some implication it’s his parents’ divorce, but it equally well could be the natural consequent of the dim world in which he lives. Certainly he seems to take his anger out primarily on manifestations of The Punk, starting the episode in a brawl with a member of the Jokerz street gang. This is not Bruce Wayne’s anger, however; that was cold, and he wore it like armor. Terry’s is hot, and it wears him.

At least until he steals the batsuit, anyway. He quickly finds it a way to channel his anger into righteous violence, which as uses for hot anger go is probably the most constructive one. He takes obvious joy in using the suit, a pleasure, almost playfulness, that we never saw in Bruce Wayne, though there were perhaps hints of it in Tim Drake. In all though, Terry is something new, neither the brooding darkness of Bruce Wayne nor the shining paragon that is Superman. He’s yet a third kind of hero: someone who never had power, only anger, and on receiving it, chooses to use it not for his own gain, but to fight against those who abuse power (and killed his dad, admittedly).

He is, in other words, a hero who is very nearly a villain, but not in the trite Dark Age of Comics sense of a “hero” who shoots lots of guns indiscriminately in service of some authority or ideal. Rather, he is a hero who is not entirely on the side of power, because this is cyberpunk and power–in the form of the unsubtly named Derek Powers–is suspect and corrupt.

And beside that, he has one key advantage over Bruce Wayne: he can take the suit off. Unlike Wayne, he has family who don’t know that he’s Batman, and genuine friends in his “civilian” persona. He has a life, and while that will create conflict down the line, it also creates opportunity: he can heal in a way Bruce Wayne never could. Ironically, the boy who now has the Bat doesn’t really need it. He is hurt and angry, but he has the support he’ll need to recover, in time.

I say “has the Bat,” but the Bat isn’t really something you have. It’s something you are, or are not–and Terry is not. The episode title is a misnomer: the Bat is dead and remains such. Instead we have something more interesting: a boy who isn’t substantially different between civilian and heroic personae, who seems to deliberately resist fragmenting his identity as so many superheroes do. This isn’t a rebirth of something we’ve seen before; this is, fittingly for an episode revolving around a destructive mutagen, an evolution. Rebirth implies on some level a return to where we’ve been, but that’s not where we’re going; we’re going Beyond.

And as for McGinnis, a Batperson who can take the suit off and be just a person? We’ve seen that before, in a previous partner of Bruce Wayne: Batgirl. Of course she was his partner in more ways than one, but then so will Terry be, albeit in a very different way.

We’ll be meeting her next episode.

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Retroactive Continuity: Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Sucked into the game. I’ve always hated that premise. I hated it in Tron and Captain N and the countless 80s cartoons that used it to for a one-off episode when I was a kid. I hated it in Reboot when I was a teen, and I hate it in the glut of isekai anime now. If I’d known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon–acknowledged by writer Kieron Gillen as one of Die‘s major inspirations–when it was on the air, I would doubtless have hated the premise there.

Fortunately, Die hates that premise, too.

And it deserves that hatred. (Of course I think so, why else would I hate it?) In college, I read an essay about games whose title and author I no longer remember, but a key point stuck with me. The essay discussed, in its introduction, a child trying to learn to play chess, but who kept losing because they refused to do anything to put the queen’s-side knight in danger. They had developed an emotional attachment to that piece, embued it personality as children sometimes do, and could not set that feeling aside to play the game. Part of what makes games games, the essay argued, is that they don’t really have stakes. Oh, we may wager something on the outcome of the game–money, pride, advancement in a tournament–but the individual actions and moves, the actual playing, has no stakes. Nobody is tortured when a pawn is captured, no fields razed when a football team loses ground. We do not care about the queen’s-side knight, or empathize with the pain our marker feels when devoured by snakes in its effort to climb to the top of the ladder.

But this begins to complexify in the latter half of the twentieth century, as various new genres–interactive books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, video games, roleplaying games–begin incorporating gamelike elements into fiction or using games as a storytelling medium. Now we do care about our gamepieces, because now they are characters, and become emotionally invested in characters–though never in quite the same way as real people. Much of what is interesting about games as storytelling media arises from this tension between ludic elements and narrative, the knowledge that an errant roll of a d20 could spell the difference between a dramatic rescue and a tragicomic fumble, that our own button-pressing skill is all that stands between the brave hero taking a stand against evil and annihilation.

Or you can just abandon all that and use a traditional medium for a story about a bunch of characters sucked into a game, which accomplishes nothing except giving you an excuse to have characters make pop culture references in a fantasy world.

Die takes a different approach. It recognizes that fantasy worlds and games alike are frequently rife with violence, death, and suffering, and that most people have lives to which they feel some degree of attachment, so being sucked into the fantasy world of a game is a fucking nightmare. And, too, that if the worlds evoked by narrative games are in any sense real–as the geek-default “suspension of disbelief”/secondary creation school of narrative engagement insists on treating them–players are monsters, and game creators even more so.

Being sucked into a game is a horror premise, and for once Die actually treats it as such, briefly exploring how having been sucked into a game as teens warped the lives of a quintet of fortysomethings, and perhaps more importantly how it didn’t–for all their trauma, most of them actually lead pretty normative lives of marriage, children, employment–before flinging them back into the game once more. Bad enough having to live your fantasies; how much worse having to live the fantasies of the immature, overwrought teen you once were?

It helps, too, that the story acknowledges one of my longheld critiques of D&D-style fantasy, namely that people are nowhere near frightened enough of bards and enchanters. A powerful necromancer may send a zombie horde to enslave the kingdom, but a powerful bard can make them happy to be enslaved–and that is essentially the main character’s power, to tell others what to feel. (Intriguingly, they are also to all appearances a het man in the real world and a het woman in the game world. When asked about this by other characters, we are privy to their thoughts that they feel more free as Lady Ash, but they change the subject before we can learn much. Mind control is an extremely common fantasy among trans women, almost to the point of being an ingroup stereotype, I’m just saying.)

And yet despite all of that, there are still people who think they want to go to a fantasy world. Enough of them to keep isekai the latest obnoxiously big thing in anime, anyway. And in Die, we see them too: ultimately, the characters split between those who wish to escape the nightmare world of fantasy and those who, whether out of a sense of duty or because they’ve bought into the power fantasy aspect, want to stay longer.


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Of the Future (Recapitulation)

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The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

-William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

What the famous opening line of Gibson’s cyberpunk classic describes is not a Metropolis-blue sky, though that is the color of a dead channel today. Nor is it the apocalypse-red sky of Gotham with which our first opening began, at the very beginning of near-apocalypse. No, Gibson’s sky is a dead television in 1984, and that means the mottled, ever-shifting grays of static.

(No, not him. He’s later.)

Static has retained a curious power as a signifier, despite its relatively brief presence in actual life. It is an acutely analogue phenomenon, near-vanished in a digital world, and equally unknown to our pre-electronic great grandparents. Even in 1999, it was increasingly uncommon.

But nonetheless, it remains in our collective visual memory. In Neuromancer, of course, it refers to a dense layer of gray clouds, and so here in our new opening it does as well: we open with a burst of static, and then pan up over gray ocean to gray looming city and gray industrial kanji-flecked towers looming over that, with, yes, patches of gray sky visible between a few buildings.

Static is so many things. It denotes something lost, a gap, a place where the message is missing, a flickering discontinuity. A sky of static offers no hope and betides no apocalypse; it speaks nothing. But too, it is noise, speaking too much for anything to be made out but a sibilant hiss. Inundated with information, we retain nothing; that is the future, and how can we respond but with apathy?

But the apathy predates the static. The first frame of this opening is not the gray sky of the city; it is a brief flash of an image seen more fully later, a lurid spiral centered on a hand holding an eye, quickly vanishing into the static. This is not a difficult image to interpret, especially associated with the static of a dead television: it is at once lurid and hypnotic, a vision given to us by an unseen hand. It is television itself, entertainment masquerading as information, propagandized news that sells itself as entertainment, all in the service of power, corruption, and greed. The word “Apathy” itself flickers past soon after, followed by images of our main characters, mired as they are in apathy at the start of this story: elderly Bruce Wayne, and young Terry McGinnis, standing in a graveyard, the quick flickering between them suggesting that they are standing together in that graveyard, and yet they are not both on the screen at once.

But all of this is buried in the first second, nigh-subliminal, and fittingly is soon after buried in the liminal image of the sea. It is only after we see the city and its dead-television sky that we get a fuller view of the hand, eye, and spiral, animated now to make it clear that the hand is giving the eye to us–and then, flickering long enough to read and associate with that image, the word “Apathy” once more.

The image flickers again: people in futuristic armor with futuristic guns, again in lurid colors, and a young woman screaming, all in shades of gray. She is not pure light, it seems, a victim but not no innocent, while the armored people are blood and darkness against a backdrop of fire, unquestionably an image of menace and evil. This, we are told, is “Greed.” That, after all, is what comes after apathy: if we no longer care, then what else is there but to selfishly pursue our own desires?

The images accelerate. Briefly, we see police cars, and then the word “Corruption.” Enough said; we know where the greed of the powerful leads. Wayne, alone once more; his word is “Power,” followed immediately by that image of Terry in the graveyard and “Hope.” The progression continues: greed and corruption intensify power and encourage the continued apathy of the powerful, while placing their hope in another, a heroic figure perhaps, gives the powerless a reason to continue to be apathetic, abetting the cycle anew.

But then something cuts through all that. There is another direction hope can go: not hope that we will be rescued, but hope that we can find a way out ourselves, an encouragement to action rather than apathy. A swarm of bats flies past to reveal a figure standing atop a roof, at once familiar and new, while a distorted but familiar melody shrieks out over what was until now a driving but directionless bassline: the notes are different lengths and the key has changed, but the progression of intervals remains, so that with only a little effort we can recognize that we are hearing a version of the Elfman-Walker Batman theme.

Briefly, we see what he sees, a thick, hunched figure with a gun, a silhouette much like the ones we saw in the Batman: The Animated Series opening. Hazy images of the city flicker past, forming a name we know: Batman, of course, and then in a white flash a new word appears over it: Beyond.

But beyond what? What lies between the sharp, noir contrasts of Gotham and the neo-noir cyberpunk grays and neon of New Gotham? It will be quite a few episodes before the show gives us an answer, but it is one we have been anticipating since the beginning of this project: the near-apocalypse of ’09 happened. We never find out the details of this event, but we know what it is–a near-apocalypse. And we know what its aftermath, its consequent is: a dingy world of smog and darkness, corporate greed and biological horrors, a world where all the problems of the present have continued and metastasized into the pustulant growth that is this world of power and greed, apathy and corruption.

More images flicker past, a sequence bookended by images denoting Terry’s enemies: an ace of spades pierced by a bullet for the Royal Flush Gang, a feminine silhouette in swirling blues for Inque. In between, two images: the “blind justice” statue in a jumbled sea of words, looming menacingly closer, followed by “Courage,” and Terry’s classmates dancing energetically against a background of writhing, flickering figures, followed by a brief focus on his girlfriend Dana and the word “Honor.” Dana, from whom Terry consistently keeps the truth throughout the series, to whom he constantly lies–that is who receives “Honor”? A choice as bitterly ironic as assigning “Courage” to the symbol of the justice system, institutional violence wielded by the powerful from a position of safety to keep themselves safe. This is cyberpunk: our heroes and their allies are light gray in a dark gray world, at best. Look at what comes next: images of violence in the street, but now it’s Batman doing it at Bruce’s instruction, and so it gets the word “Justice.” Precious little of that here; just superheroics.

Because, outside the show, we know what near-apocalypse is. Apocalypse is just revolution seen from above; near-apocalypse is failed or aborted revolution. It’s a vision of justice that consists solely of protecting the status quo from those who would upset it, whether for their own gain or in an effort to accomplish something better. It is the same old stagnation and decay, because we fear toppling the structures might be worse. It’s what superheroes do, and thus that is what this future is Beyond: it is beyond the choice not to take the risk and try for something better. It is beyond the decision to stay safe, to indulge our protector fantasies.

It is a world of political corruption, corporate greed, public apathy, and environmental decay. It is, in short, the world we chose.

The pilot opens in 2019.

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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E1-2

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It’s April 26, 2019. I don’t always bother with a date for these Retroactive Continuity posts, but this time it matters, because today is Lesbian Visibility Day, and Netflix just happens to suddenly drop several episodes of She-Ra–a show the central relationships of which are all, to put it in sober, clinical terms, gay as fuck.

And actually, that would be completely believable as a coincidence, if not for three facts: first, this is much faster than new seasons of Netflix shows typically drop, barely six months since Season 1. Second, the episode count is much lower, a mere seven to Season 1’s thirteen. And third, this doesn’t feel like a complete season, but more like half of one.

Fully unpacking that statement is easier now that Season 3 has dropped–four months after Season 2, meaning that the two together came out 10 months after Season 1, a much more reasonable time span between Netflix seasons. In addition, Season 3 is six episodes, meaning the two seasons combined have the same episode count as Season 1. And finally, Season 2 has a premiere, but then just sort of… stops, not ending with any kind of final spectacle but simply a cliffhanger on an otherwise cute-but-inconsequential episode. Season 3, by contrast, doesn’t so much have a premiere as just start, but it ends in a massive spectacle.

In other words, despite statements to the contrary from showrunner Noelle Stevenson, it seems very likely that Seasons 2 and 3 were planned and written as a single season that was later divided in two–and finishing in time to release on Lesbian Visibility Day seems as likely an explanation as any. Of course, Netflix also seems to be moving toward more frequent releases with smaller episode counts, so it’s plausible the split was made for that reason–but even so, the release’s timing is probably not coincidental.

In  “The Frozen Forest,” the focus is on cleaning up after the finale, in a  couple of senses. Most literally, the magic forest that protects Bright  Moon was severely damaged by Entrapta’s hacking of the Black Garnet  Runestone and the Horde army led by Catra, so the titular Princesses of  Power (plus Bow) are holding off Horde robots while seeking a way to  restore the forest. At the same time, individual characters deal with  the repercussions of the events of and around the finale, most notably  Adora training alone to better control the powers of She-Ra while the  Princesses deal with interpersonal conflicts in their still-new team.  Most overtly, this involves Glimmer adapting to a leadership role and  dealing with Frosta, who behaves (as Glimmer eventually acknowledges)  much like Glimmer did in the first season. However, the team as a whole  also show issues coordinating, stepping on each other’s attacks and  sniping at one another verbally.

Once  they put these issues aside and fight cooperatively, however, the  rainbow glow they shared at the climax of “The Battle of Bright Moon”  returns and restores the forest to life. As in the finale, this is a manifestation of that cartoon classic, the “power of friendship.” But much of what these two episodes are doing is exploring exactly what that means, and perhaps just as importantly, what it doesn’t. In “The Frozen Forest,” the initial conflict, followed by cooperation, of the largely egalitarian rebels is contrasted with the hierarchy and enforced unity of the Horde. Even though Catra, Scorpia, and Entrapta are developing into a parallel trio to the “Best Friends Squad” of Adora, Glimmer, and Bow, they remain at odds, each too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice the others. Even Scorpia is oblivious to Catra’s indifference and hostility, while Entrapta is too wrapped up in her work to really acknowledge others, and Catra is, well, indifferent and hostile. What holds the Horde together is obedience to hierarchy and discipline that keeps everyone working to the same goals, which is not friendship at all.

By contrast, the two examples of the power of friendship we get in these episodes–the aforementioned rainbow glow and the “sacred bond” of She-Ra and Swift Wind–are both examples of people initially at loggerheads (Glimmer and Frosta, She-Ra and Swift Wind) recognizing both the common traits that make empathizing and connecting with one another possible, and the differences that make it worthwhile. They see each other, including where they are different, and choose to embrace that difference rather than being annoyed by it or seeking to stamp it out.

That last–dealing with being annoyed by others–is a recurring theme throughout the episodes. Already mentioned are Glimmer’s frustration with Frosta’s overeagerness and tendency to act without thinking, and Adora’s frustration with Swift Wind seemingly not taking their mission seriously. But there are also two other instances of characters having to deal with a nuisance, and how they play out is telling. First, in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is exasperated by Entrapta and Scorpia as usual, most notably when they treat the fight between the ELS bots and the Princesses as a game or show; second, when Glitter and Bow capture Catra in “The Ties That Bind,” Catra spends their entire journey needling Glitter and trying to get her to exhaust her powers.

Neither of these conflicts is resolved by characters talking it out and coming to an understanding, which is how both the Glimmer/Frosta and Adora/Swift Wind conflicts play out. Instead, Catra remains exasperated with Scorpia and Entrapta while they remain oblivious to her exasperation, while Glimmer and Catra ultimately fight, inconclusively (though Glimmer does demonstrate she is not as easily manipulated as Catra thinks). Notably, it is the conflicts in which Catra is involved that do not end well, because, as Adora and Light Hope discuss early in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is “mean”: she doesn’t accept the foibles of others, their difference, as anything other than levers by which they can be manipulated, and therefore she cannot connect with anyone, and no conflict with her can ever truly be resolved.

The final bit of “cleanup” from the finale is the loose end that the Rebellion don’t know Entrapta has defected to the Horde. By the end of “The Ties That Bind,” Bow and Glimmer learn the truth, and the episode closes with them about to reveal that Entrapta has “fallen,” as it were. Unlike them, we saw the circumstances of Entrapta’s fall, and understand that, ultimately, it was because she felt (rightly or wrongly) that there were things she needed to do that were worth the risk of destabilizing the planet. In this, she serves as foreshadowing for the other “fallen” woman in “The Ties That Bind,” Mara, who (as we are reminded) cared about “the wrong things” in Light Hope’s view and attacked Etheria. Like Entrapta, as we will learn, she did what seemed right to her, and seriously damaged the planet–and understanding what she did and why will drive much of the rest of this and the next season.

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