Monday, July 15, 2024

She-Ra Is Making Catra and the Audience Earn Her Fate

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I know, I know, most She-Ra fans are still reeling after the recently released third season. It was an emotionally tough season unlike the more the pleasant tone of the first two. One of the main reasons for this devastation is the path Catra’s character takes. She-Ra fans love Catra. They root for Catra. Her relationship with Adora became an immediate favorite of wlw shippers everywhere. When she and Adora split in season 1, we rooted for this to change by the end of the season. Then we rooted for redemption by the end of the second season. Here we are now, the third season. Surely this time she will reform? Catra will at least begin coming back from her bad choices, right?

Warning! Spoilers for the 3rd season below.

Sorry, no can do. Catra is worse than ever.

While response to She-Ra’s third season has been vastly positive, you’ll find some disappointment and frustration even among the happy. Catradora (the ship name for Catra and Adora) fans are especially upset. The chances of such a relationship becoming reality are farther away than ever. Adora seems to have given up on helping her friend, at least for now. And for good reason; Catra’s decisions should have killed Adora and everyone she cared about. 

Redemption for Catra has never seemed further away. Adora has given up. Many fans have given up. It just looks too difficult at this point. How can Catra possibly come back from nearly destroying existence itself out of anger and jealousy? She’s nearly impossible to support. She’s nearly impossible to still believe in.

Which is entirely the point, and the reason her arc works so well. Season 3 was the best thing to happen to Catra moving forward, for better or worse. I know we all wanted Adora to save Catra. At the very last, we wanted her to shake Catra out of this self-destructive spiral she’s riding. If not Adora, maybe Scorpia could do the job. Instead Catra is all alone.

That’s exactly how it has to be.

Whatever happens moving forward belongs to Catra, and Catra alone. It takes so much more effort than if she could simply attach herself to someone else and base her “goodness” on them. In a way, Adora “saving” Catra, or Catra using their friendship as the reason she sides against the Horde, changes nothing about her life. She still bases her entire identity on Adora or whoever she decides to base it on. 

Catra almost certainly had this realization when she decided to side with the Horde over Adora. While anger towards Adora and unresolved maternal feelings still motivate her, there’s also a desire to separate herself from Adora and make her own decisions for once. Unfortunately, she just replaces Adora with her longing for validation from Shadow Weaver and Hordak.

All of Catra’s decisions since have been part of a long process of discovery. She is trying to become her own person for the first time in her life. Now, so far she has been an absolute disaster. I don’t question that. It still belongs to her. Her life is her own. Every flaw and every mistake. The story is making her earn her fate. It’s making the audience, and everyone who sympathizes with Catra, earn her fate right alongside her. There’s something honest and rewarding about this effort.

She-Ra has done a tremendous job developing Catra’s arc. They’ve kept it rooted in the very traits and flaws evident since the very first episode. I would understand the frustration more if she was being kept on the side of evil for poor, contrived reasons. That’s not at all what is happening. 

In fact, I doubt the people so desperately hoping for her redemption arc would care so much if it the show was simply stringing Catra’s villainy along without effective motivation. That fans care so much speaks to how good a job She-Ra has done.

Catra’s motivations tend not to be particularly evil. She does not want to rule the world or kill a specific people. Those may be the goals given by others or a consequence she didn’t think through, but such evil never drives her. Her rivalry with Adora, born of what she considers her friend’s betrayal, is what drives her. Her abuse at Shadow Weaver’s hands cause her to act the way she does. She’s a struggling abuse victim lashing out at the world with the methods her abusers taught her. 

When she leaves what could have been a happier existence in the Crimson Waste, she does not leave out of loyalty to the Horde. Shadow Weaver going to Adora does it. Shadow Weaver has again let her down as a mother figure and she reacts with anger. She reacts to the rivalry.

When she pulls the portal lever that throws reality out of whack in season 3, her motivations have nothing to do with helping Hordak or ending the world. We see exactly what her motivations were in the fake reality giving everyone what they wanted. Catra’s ideal existence was the dream she spent her life expecting, with Adora rising through the Horde’s ranks with Catra by her side, and a supportive Shadow Weaver encouraging them. She feels alone and desperately does not want to.

Her arc has been consistent from beginning to end, to the point that I can’t see how else it could have satisfyingly played out. Not without compromising whatever story She-Ra wants to tell.

To compare her to another famous redemption arc, one widely considered the best redemption arc in animated history and one of the best in any story, Catra is not so far off from Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Zuko goes through this same process. His early motivations are based purely around his father. His “reform” in season 2 relies completely on his Uncle Iroh. It fails at the end of the season for that reason. Zuko never chose for himself. Even his choice to side with Azula isn’t about him so much as pleasing his father and returning home.

Not until he chooses for himself does Zuko stick with a direction for his life. He has to decide who he wants to be, not what others want him to be. That’s what makes his redemption so good and feel so real and memorable.

Catra has a chance for a comparable arc because She-Ra’s creators are making her do the same thing, and it is making the audience experience every bit of the difficulty she’s experiencing.

On the other hand, Catra arguably resembles Zuko’s sister Azula more. Like Azula, she has been conditioned down a bad path. She continues the cycle of abuse rather than ending it. We see minor glimpses of the better person Azula can be, but all the while she makes bad choice after bad choice that ultimately result in her downfall.

A significant part of what makes Catra so interesting a character, especially throughout season 3, is how we can recognize past character arcs from other shows in her and see so many potential futures. Catra feels like the latest evolution of something amazing we’ve seen before. That potential is exciting. She presents a fresh take on the familiar and we can’t be sure which direction she will go.

Would a hero Catra really feel as satisfying a character to follow and root for if she so easily joined Adora in season 1? Would her villain arc feel worth it if she didn’t follow through in season 3? We’ve seen that before. Catra’s continued villainy is just investing people more in her character, regardless of how you feel about her eventually redeeming or not. Our emotional involvement grows deeper with each new disastrous choice. 

When that moment comes where she makes her choice, it will stick with everyone who cared. It will stick forever. Fans rooting for redemption will feel either the deepest gratification or the most intense sorrow. We’ll have experienced her arc as deeply as Catra herself. She-Ra is making it hard for us to continue believing in her and rooting for her, as hard for us to believe Catra can still come back from her mistakes, as is it for Catra herself to believe.

Right now, many fans feel like Adora does at the end of season 3. We’re ready to give up on Catra. She has made her choices and she must live with them. She must decide, by herself, whether this is truly what she wants. I don’t expect it to be easy for her. Many may think we’ve seen rock bottom for Catra but I don’t think so. Season 4 will likely be even harder for Catra than season 3 was. For the first time, no one will believe in her. No one will be on her side. She will be lost in a way she has never felt lost in her life. 

I don’t think the stakes of her decisions truly hit Catra until that moment when She-Ra stares her down. Only then does she realize the magnitude of her mistakes. Before that, I think she simply played a series of escalating games, ones she never really realized the stakes for. 

If you look at her attitude during every confrontation with Adora, it never really differs from that first training simulation in the first episode of the series. She teases and jokes and treats it all like a silly rivalry. Not once did it seem to cross her mind that there was a point of no return. Her reaction to Adora’s hostility in the finale was one of surprise. As if, only then, Catra realized how far things had come and the consequences of everything she did. 

This realization will hit her hard. It will also force her to truly think about what she has done. By the end of season 4 (or season 5, if we continue with these shortened seasons), I think we’ll have our first real idea of the path Catra wants to take. And make no mistake, it will be *her* path. She will walk it alone. She will know that no one else will trust her enough to help.

Where she goes from here depends on what she’s willing to earn. How much effort she’s willing to put in, and towards what goal. She can no longer just side with someone else and rely on them.

And we as an audience will know the same thing. We’ll have earned it every bit as much as she has. Come what may. That effort on the part of both the character and the audience is what makes said character truly memorable. Catra very well could go down as one of the most memorable antagonists in animated history.

I trust the creators of She-Ra to pull this off. Everything they’ve done so far tells me they know exactly what they’re doing.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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