She-Ra Said Gay Rights! A Spoiler-Filled Chat with Creator Noelle Stevenson on the Final Season

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<i>She-Ra</i> Said Gay Rights! A Spoiler-Filled Chat with Creator Noelle Stevenson on the Final Season

Late last Thursday night, Netflix dropped the fifth and final season of Dreamworks’ extremely fun, occasionally harrowing She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.

In terms of the series’ epic battle between good (Etheria’s quirky, magic-wielding Princesses) and evil (the immortal Horde Prime and his clone/robot horde army), the season had a lot of ground to cover—so much, in fact, that it extended all the way into space. (Yes, that’s right: SHE-RA … IN SPACE is very real, and not just a fever dream you had when you first read about Netflix planning to reboot such a wild ‘80s property for a contemporary audience.) The last we saw our heroes, Catra (AJ Michalka) and Glimmer (Karen Fukuhara) had been kidnapped by Horde Prime (Keston John); Adora (Aimee Carrero) had discovered She-Ra had never been more than a magical nuclear weapon waiting to go off, and had destroyed the sword that connected her to the mythic hero before she could be used to destroy the universe; and Bow (Marcus Scribner) and the rest of the Princesses had been left behind to pick up what pieces they could to defend an ever-shrinking Etheria from total obliteration.

More importantly, though, Catra and Adora had spent the last four seasons pacing around each other with such crackling (and often murderous) intensity that if #Catradora didn’t happen by the end of Season 5 … well, let’s just say Seahawk’s (Jordan Fisher) ship-burning tendencies would look like child’s play by comparison.

With the rainbow-solid queer credentials brought to the table by creator Noelle Stevenson (Lumberjanes, Nimona, The Fire Never Goes Out) and her team, and with the equally sparkling queer representation present in the series from the very beginning (Bow’s nerdy dads, thirtysomething Princess couple Spinerella and Netossa, Scorpia’s whole Scorpianess), fans needn’t have worried that their favorite friends-to-enemies lesbian ‘ship would right itself in the end. Still, when the frenemies’ long-awaited admission of love gave Adora enough strength to stop that apocalyptic countdown in the final minutes of “Heart Part 2,” you could almost feel the internet breathe a collective sigh of relieved joy.

Part of that collective, it turns out, was Stevenson herself, who stayed up until midnight on Thursday to see the season hit Netflix live, and then stayed up many hours more to binge it in a single sitting, in real time, with fans. (“Even though I’ve seen each episode however many times, to get to watch them all back to back, alongside everyone else, it was just so much fun.”) The consummate professional she is, she nevertheless got on the phone with Paste later on Friday afternoon to break down the biggest moments of the final season, and to talk about the journey from Day One to the big, victorious end.

Note: The conversation that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and concision. It has not been edited for feels.

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Paste: Okay, obviously we have to start with the finale—talk to us about those tiny, tiny chin hairs on Adora’s dream future version of Bow.

Noelle Stevenson: Ha! You know, I think Bow’s always been so envious of other characters’ facial hair, like, he always imagines himself with this beautiful, curly mustache like Seahawk’s. So I think that his little soul patch is his way of finally growing his own facial hair.

Paste: We do appreciate that Adora would give her dream version of him at least that much. (But also not, you know, that much.)

Stevenson: It’s tough, Bow, but you can do it!

Paste: Kidding aside, the BIG THING in the finale, of course, is that Catra and Adora’s love story finally becomes canon. Given the slow-burn between the two over the last four seasons, it seems like that ending had to have been in the cards the whole time, but still, we’d love to have you talk a bit about what the journey looked like from Day One.

Stevenson: Day One, for Catra and Adora—one of the very first things I knew about the show, from working with my [Dreamworks] development exec, Beth Cannon, who had been a huge fan of the original She-Ra, was that she had always felt this kind of dissatisfaction that, even though Adora and Catra must have known each other, and must have grown up together in the Horde, they never seemed to have any kind of emotional connection. So she made it very clear that in this reboot, she really wanted me to get to the heart of what their relationship must have been. And honestly, that’s entirely my bag. That is everything that I love to write, that’s my favorite kind of relationship to explore—like, friends who find themselves on opposite sides of a war, and who still care about each other, but who also feel a lot of hurt and betrayal towards each other. And with the show’s themes of good and evil, the questions of who and what you want to be, and how you are going to transform into the person you need to become, with Catra and Adora, they approach those questions in such different ways, they’ve more or less been dual protagonists from the start.

So for me, it’s always been about the two of them. But I don’t think it was always a given that we would be able to make their relationship textually romantic! I know that early on, like with “Princess Prom” (1.08), I got in trouble actually for The Dip, which was, you know… not how some of the executives had visualized their relationship. And while it was something that I really, really fought for, it wasn’t something that was really clear if I was going to be able to incorporate into the story or not. You never really have a clear shot of just, like, yes, you are absolutely going to be supported in these things, so it had to be more of a long game. It was just like, I am going to keep laying the groundwork, I’m going to keep waiting, I’m going to wait for the temperature to be right … and then I’m going to try again. And if I’ve done my job correctly, if I’ve built everything up the way it needs to be, then it will feel like the right thing—it will actually feel like the only thing that can happen.

And then when we reached that final arc for those characters, and I went back to my executives to get their approval, I got the support from them that I’d been looking for. At this point, the first season of the show was out, we were getting this positive reception, and it was clear that this was always the thing that had needed to happen. People had picked up on all of the you know moments between them, subtle and otherwise, that led to this moment where [the textual romance] just needed to happen in the story. And I was just really grateful, and felt really, really lucky to have gotten to work with the people that I worked with, and that I got the support from them in that moment. Like, to have them throw their support behind this prominent, iconic character, and a central romantic gay subplot with her? That was never a given! It was never something that I took for granted that I’d be able to do. So, you know, seeing people react to it, and seeing that it’s just out there in the world now—that is so, so meaningful to me.

Paste: What was the point where you did feel that their endgame was a given?

Stevenson: In the final season, the one plot point we knew was that Adora and Catra were going to come back together, but the question remained as to what that would actually look like. I had placed some, I guess, almost like Trojan horse moments, in early episodes of Season 1, because I wanted to see how the fans would react to the relationship, because [if it was positive] that would be like additional ammunition for the long-game thing I was trying to do. And so, even before Season 1 came out, I think, a marketing still of just Catra and Adora sitting next to each other was released, and people immediately picked up the tension in their relationship. They’re not even looking at each other in that picture, but fans were on it right away. And that was the evidence that I needed, that what we had been trying to do was working. And not only that, but I could actually take that as evidence and show it to my higher-ups and say, Look, people are responding to this, we’re getting like this public public reaction. This is where we are now, but this is also where the story’s always been going, whether it was textual or not, so now we have the opportunity to really take it home.

So it was really a game of biding my time, waiting for the moment when it felt like everything was in the right place. And that ended up being, I think, right before we really launched into the production of Season 5, so we were able to start seeding different things into the construction of that final arc to make it feel like this [romantic] moment between Adora and Catra is inevitable, and that it’s earned, and that it is like truly the climax of the show.

Paste: Pulling back to talk about the final season as a whole, SHE-RA…IN SPACE sure sounds on paper like a web series parody about a beloved cult fandom show jumping the shark, but Season 5 takes the whole thing really seriously. What was it like, moving such a terrestrial (Etherial?) story to space?

Stevenson: What was always really compelling to me about the world of the original She-Ra is the way it combines science fiction and fantasy in a way that seems almost like a clash of genres—like, it’s basically this magical fairy planet, but it’s being taken over, it’s being threatened, by this very hard sci-fi evil empire that just wants to mulch everything with machines and tear down everything that doesn’t fit within its concept of a very industrialized, monotone world. And so there’s always been that kind of tension on Etheria, but I think once we get a sense of Horde Prime and the broader universe, we see that even though Hordak’s version of the Horde was about bending Etheria to his will and getting rid of things that he found weird or threatening, like the Princesses and their magic, individuality still kind of got a chance to thrive.

So we spent the first four seasons on Etheria, in these kind of personal struggles, but then the moment Adora and her friends realize there’s this universe outside of them that’s so huge, and that there’s this war that’s been waged for hundreds of years that they’ve had no idea about, they’re thrown just really, really out of their depth. Even Entrapta, who’s super technologically focused, has no idea what to make of the technology she’s encountering. So for our core magical characters, it was fun to see their reaction to a bigger, more sci-fi world. And also, I like the idea of magic being almost like a natural resource in this broader universe, and having that be a part of our characters’ strength—the fact that they are so magical being what ultimately allows them to get the drop on Horde Prime, because he doesn’t understand what makes them tick. Really, it was just about bringing out an additional shade to the world that we’re creating, and the way our characters interact with that world.

Paste: Plus, not for nothing, we got to see Bow in his heart-adorned spacesuit, and Catra in her cat-ears helmet. Like, you have no time, you’ve got an enemy hot on your spaceship heels, but let’s make sure we get these fits in!

Stevenson: Yes! And the fact that it was Entrapta who made the spacesuits feels especially important to me, because she’s having her own journey of trying to relate more to people, of paying more attention to people and trying to connect with them. So the fact that she makes these spacesuits and tailors them to her everyone’s specific tastes? She’s like, “Well, Bow likes to show his stomach, so he needs a little tummy window, and Adora needs her ponytail to stick out of her helmet, obviously.” She’s making these decisions for them based on what she thinks they’ll like, and I think [even that] is a neat little moment of character for her as well, like, she really is paying attention to the people around her. She’s trying!

Paste: Speaking of characters who aren’t Adora or Catra, we know the your list of favorite final season character moments is probably too long to go into in full, but are there one or two that you’re maybe especially proud of having pulled off?

Stevenson: I think Catra and Adora’s story, and their individual redemptions, are so much at the forefront of the season, but there’s almost a subtler mirror to that in Bow and Glimmer, who are two characters who, in a very similar way to Catra and Adora, have been best friends practically their whole lives, and who really rely on each other, but who had small cracks in their relationship that finally caused their friendship to fracture in Season 4. I mean, we’re thought theirs was a steadfast relationship that could never be broken, but I don’t think they were ever entirely equals. Like, we’ve see that Glimmer is maybe a little overly possessive of Bow—she really needs to be the #1 person in his life, but because she’s so like Catra in the way that she can be so inwardly focused on her own wants and needs, and because Bow is such a natural caretaker and mediator, I think she at times ends up taking advantage of him. And what I love about Bow [this season] is that even though he’s outwardly this lovely, kind, generous person, he’s always had this vein of anger and frustration. In my experience, the people I’ve known who have that same kind of giving personality, they try really, really hard to be that way. They work at it so hard, and you sometimes see this layer of frustration when they’re not getting the same amount of effort back from the people that they’re working so hard to care for. And I think for Bow, that came to a head in Season 4, when Glimmer just didn’t listen to him in a moment when he really really needed her to. She betrayed his trust.

And so seeing him wrestle with his anger towards her this season—of being so eager to get her back from Horde Prime, of being so worried about her, but then as soon as they’re back together, he can’t even look her in the eye, he’s just so angry and betrayed—and so I think that, much in the same way that Catra is rebuilding herself this season and learning to be a better person and a better friend, Glimmer ends up doing the same. She’s trying to learn how to be a little bit more like Bow, trying to become the glue of the friend group, trying to become more nurturing, and more of a leader who really inspires people and brings them together in a way that she’s struggled with before. Even just little moments, like cooking for her friends, or giving them an inspiring speech. I just think she works really hard at becoming the person Bow needs her to be, and for me, it’s a much more subtle arc than what we see from Catra and Adora—it’s less angsty, it’s a little more low-key—but I find it really rewarding to see the way they both grow and change and are able to come back together with what they’ve learned to help each other grow and change even more.

Paste: In terms of growing and changing, we couldn’t get off this call without talking about She-Ra’s new look. What were some of the inspirations behind the redesign? We know some eagle-eyed fans have already noticed the phantom overlay of Catra’s headpiece on top of She-Ra’s real one, but just from looking at Adora’s She-Ra standing next to Mara’s in the Heart of Etheria hologram, we know there are lots of other changes that must have some meaning.

Stevenson: When Adora first turns into She-Ra in Season 1, there is a lot about that design that she finds very uncomfortable, because she finds the mantle of She-Ra to be uncomfortable. So, there are elements in that design of her being very buttoned up, from her militaristic background, but also I think feminine elements that she’s not quite comfortable with—also it’s a little more youthful, it makes her feel younger. It’s something, I think, that never quite fits her right, like she’s always trying to fit into this body that she’s inhabiting, but I don’t think she’s ever that convincing about it.

So when she breaks the sword [in Season 4], when she severs her connection to She-Ra, and then many episodes later discovers the She-Ra inside of her—we really wanted that version of She-Ra to be one that came from Adora’s own heart. So there are more aspects of Adora’s personality in the new design, but also, like you said, there are elements of her friends’ designs in it, too. It’s not just Catra’s headpiece—she also has a heart on her chest for Bow, and she has wings on her feet for Glimmer, and her outfit even resembles Mara’s much more than it did before. So it really is a more honest She-Ra that is tailored more to Adora. Like, even the fact that she gets to keep her own ponytail, which is clearly so important to her! You just know it comes from a more mature place of love; this is a She-Ra that is unlocked through love and connection.

All five seasons of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power are streaming now on Netflix.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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