She-Ra’s Promise Episode Remains A Masterstroke Of Emotional Storytelling

Promises hold a lot of weight. They’re a clear declaration of intent, an emotional bond of trust and intimacy that you only ever make with someone you’d give your entire self to. We don’t treat them lightly, because a consequence of breaking such delicate words is a way to lose someone forever. Whether it’s to pay somebody back, reunite after years of turmoil or protect them from a world so determined to dole out hurt – promises are everything.

For Adora and Catra in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, breaking a promise was the beginning of the end. The two girls grew up together in The Horde, vowing to climb the ranks and call the shots far above their abusive guardians, who bred them to be little more than weapons for a dystopian war machine. Society could beat them down into a miserable pulp, and they’d still stand up to fight another day, all because they had each other. Hardship was worth enduring knowing that eventually the two would be ruling above it all, but this ultimatum wasn’t meant to be. A promise was broken, and the stage was set for betrayal.

Promise is the first season at its best. It assembles all the pieces destined to fall in the battles to come. Previous episodes were spent introducing supporting characters before we witnessed the first real confrontation between both sides of the war. There’s a tinsy bit of filler, but almost everything has been focused on character development and world building before the stakes are well and truly raised. Adora and Catra must confront their personal demons throughout Promise, the duo finding themselves locked away in a First One’s temple and forced to reconcile a past that has long been left behind. It’s dark, heartbreaking, and tragic how the tables are turned with seemingly no way of turning back the clock.

Adora has always been The Horde’s favourite. From a young age, she was recognised by Shadow Weaver as a being harbouring immense power. She was smart, strong, talented, and had the potential to rule the world if given the right guidance. Conversely, Catra was always viewed as a burden, a distraction that kept Adora from achieving greatness. Even as a young child, she was burdened with tattered clothes and parental indifference, often subject to harsh punishment in Adora’s place for no reason beyond Shadow Weaver’s disgusting prejudice.

She is seen terrified, rooted to the spot as a corrupt magic delves into her mind and teaches her never to once disobey a command or step out of line. Catra is raised on a foundation of distrust, taught to disobey authority and reject personal relationships because she knows that in the end she isn’t worthy of such things. Adora is, and Catra will always be in her best friend’s shadow so long as she lives. But that’s okay, so long as they’re together, that power is a shared triumph, a sign that their bond is stronger than everything else.

Yet when that bond is severed, and the promise is broken, the two are torn apart, and whatever could have been is thrown asunder. All that remains are ashes, faint embers of a bond that was once destined to blossom into something more. Now, Adora must walk a path of destiny that has been etched out without her consent, engineered by ancient beings who believe the only way to achieve salvation is to put unwilling princesses through the same vicious cycle of ignorant regret. Adora eventually breaks that mould, but not until the First Ones do everything they can to shape her into an obedient tool of unknowable power.

What breaks my heart most in Promise is how the memories shown have been made with a distinct purpose. To drive Adora and Catra apart through carefully planted seeds that burst into misunderstood lies that would make enemies out of anyone. Of course their relationship was already in tatters, but we glimpse slivers of closeness throughout the episode, whether it be playful comments or flashbacks that suddenly return to the present day as the two girls hold hands, laughing as they’re torn away from snapshots of the past that helped define them.

Cracks could have been paved over here, but like so much of their lives, a higher power hopes to push them away in favour of its own goals. Happiness doesn’t matter to The Horde or the First Ones, nothing does except results and a misguided obsession with power under the false pretence of righteousness. Nate Stevenson expresses an intimate knowledge of the structures that imprison our characters, most of which they are utterly oblivious to.

Neither of them know the First One’s true goal, and how Adora is groomed into being a disposable pawn that must master her place as She-Ra even if it means discarding those closest to her. No distractions. No emotions. No risk of damaging the weapon she is deemed to be. Yet she’s also a human being. A person with goals, relationships, feelings, and flaws that everyone is much too enamoured with destiny to see. It’s all so unfair, with Promise slicing away our heartstrings until there is nothing left but tragedy, a point of no return for Catra and Adora that, at the time, fans were convinced would separate them forever.

This is the episode where She-Ra and the Princesses of Power finds its footing. Pivotal themes of love, betrayal, and self-worth are brought to the forefront and explored through two characters with so much potential, but their own existence is railroaded as every single piece of personal agency is snuffed out in favour of serving a wider purpose. It’s tragic, and could have been avoided if Etheria wasn’t such a heartless place bound by traditions that Adora and Catra would soon come to subvert. Things must crumble away before the bigger picture can be pieced back together again, and to know the final destination and watch these characters suffer through it all again breaks my heart.

Yet there’s a silver lining. Adora might have walked away from Catra in service of the greater good, leaving her at mercy of Shadow Weaver and to destroy herself in fear of continued rejection, but in a roundabout way, she also kept that promise. Adora was always there for Catra, even if she achieved this from afar or through thoughts her own insecurity forced her to bury deep down until the moment was right. It all culminated in a happy ending, with the remnants of failed promises teaching all the right lessons until all that remained was love.

I’m in the process of a rewatch, so please indulge me as I explore a few of the show’s pivotal episodes over the next few weeks. Much like The Owl House and Amphibia, She-Ra is one of the strongest animated shows in recent years, and it deserves the spotlight. That, and maybe I will somehow catch the attention of Dreamworks and get a feature film rolling.

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