‘She-Ra’ Season 5 Review: On the Edge of Greatness as Darkness Turns to Light

     May 15, 2020

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With today’s arrival of Season 5 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the final season of the acclaimed animated series, so ends one of the most progressive stories on television today. It’s hard to believe that Netflix, DreamWorks Animation, and the creative team under showrunner Noelle Stevenson have packed so much action, adventure, and complicated character dynamics into just 52 episodes over the course of only 18 months. And yet, the series’ greatest achievement after everything is said and done may not be just delivering one of the greatest space-fantasy adventures of the modern era, or even successfully rebooting a nostalgic property formerly stuck squarely in the 1980s, but advancing the ongoing struggle for diversity and representation of minority groups in our fraught sociocultural landscape.

That’s a lot of ten-dollar words to describe what is, on the surface, a kids cartoon. But the landscape of younger-skewing animated series has changed a lot over the last 40 years. Cartoons of the 80s were aimed at kids in order to sell toys, animated series in the 90s pushed the boundaries of what the medium could do by giving viewers more mature storytelling, and 00s toons experienced an explosion in animation styles, psychedelic visuals, drastic changes in narrative structure, and more inclusion of people from underrepresented backgrounds. The 2010s animated series and their increasingly more diverse cast of characters chipped away at social norms and stereotypes by giving gay characters, racial minorities, same-sex partners, and others in the many spectra of the human condition more screentime, getting audiences acquainted with these characters in a meaningful way as more than mere tokenism. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is both the latest example of the changing animation landscape in this regard, building on the foundation laid out before it, and also the perfect title to lead us into the 2020s. The final season, and especially the hopeful, optimistic, and positive series finale, cements this. My mostly spoiler-free review follows:

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Image via Netflix, DreamWorks Animation

After witnessing the final moments of Season 5 and letting the series come to a close, and after allowing my mind a few hours to process all of that, I went back to the beginning of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. It’s clear from the outset that all of the character arcs that are resolved in Season 5, all of the relationship dynamics that reach a resolution in the series finale, they’re set up from the get-go. Hindsight helps to clarify them. So while She-Ra starts out as a balanced animated series that doles out just as much sword-swinging, magic-wielding, arrow-firing action as it does deeply satisfying emotional moments, it’s the introspective side of the story that’s been the heart of the narrative all along. Yes, Adora / She-Ra and the rebellion get their chance to bring the fight to Horde Prime in Season 5, and yes, the basic beats of the hero’s journey are all laid out for a number of characters here, but what’s obviously most important to the writing team is the internal journey of those characters and their emotional well-being at the end of all things. It’s a battle between light and darkness, hope and despair, regeneration and destruction, life and death itself, and this battle plays out in the obvious clash between heroes and villains but is also a visualized representation of inner turmoil, most notably between Adora and Catra.

Something interesting happened to me while watching Season 5. After more than 30 years of watching cartoons, during which I gravitated towards the action-oriented part of the narrative or the lore or the mechanics of the fictional world 99% of the time, I found myself caring less about the “what” and the “how” and the “why” and more about the “who.” That might sound like an obvious thing — to focus on the characters in the story — but that hasn’t always been my experience. I grew up with stories emphasizing the tech, the gadgets, the weapons, the vehicles, ie the toys, not the thoughts and feelings within the characters who were wielding them. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power flipped that script in my head. The iconic sword of She-Ra was literally shattered in Season 4, severing the connection between Adora and not only the First One’s planet-wide tech but the She-Ra lineage as well. The narrative stripped the lead character (and many others along the way in similar fashion) of everything that the toy-sellers would tell us was important, leaving only the raw emotional center for characters and audiences alike to deal with. (A major plot point of Season 5 is literally destroying a tech-based restraint holding the natural magic of Etheria at bay before Horde Prime can use viral tech to obtain that magic for his own devices.) And the writers have been doing this for five seasons. It’s just taken me that long to shake out of my Entrapta-like fascination with the nuts and bolts of the series to focus on the gooey center that’s been the real story all along.

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Image via Netflix, DreamWorks Animation

And that journey was made all the better by the resolution of Season 5. Just about every character gets a meaningful and hopeful resolution to their conflicts, internal and external alike; keep an eye out for my spoiler review for those details soon. Adora’s “Hero’s Journey” gets a much-needed twist to the familiar, classic tale of self-sacrifice above everything else, for the good of all but herself. Stevenson teased as much in our recent chat with her about Season 5 and Adora’s arc. The result is that the hopes and dreams of everyone on Etheria doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of one hero but rather a ragtag team of incredibly diverse individuals who all must pull together in the same direction if life itself is going to have a chance for a future. That’s bold storytelling that you’ll rarely find in the most progressive sci-fi / fantasy books, let alone children’s programming.

Despite some pacing issues that make it feel like She-Ra is racing to the finish line, Season 5 is solid. Ultimately, not every ship might sail the way fans want it to in the end, but the major relationships that have been developed along the way pay off with huge dividends in the final chapter, scripted by Stevenson. It’s clear that the story of She-Ra is a deeply personal tale for all involved, including the millions of viewers around the world, and I’m happy to say that the series and its narrative decisions honor everyone who’s gone along for this journey.

She-Ra sticks the landing in a positive and progressive series finale that’s true to form and hugely satisfying on all levels. Here’s hoping its legacy lives on, as Stevenson herself recently told us:

“[I hope people] remember this show fondly and that it inspires them to create something new. Thank you to everybody who’s come this far with us. It has been the honor of the lifetime to bring this show to you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Rating:

Season 5: A-, Series: A

Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Streaming Content, Animation, Video Games, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD

Television