She-Ra is hardly the first kids cartoon in recent years to find a way to capture the brightly-coloured essence of cartoon adventures and deliver some genuinely engaging plots but it is currently a shining example.
As with the previous seasons a lot of time is devoted to charming and silly sub-plots, occasional sea shanties and simple humour. It is a show that not only will not apologise for the source material but delights in the absurdity of the original 1980s cartoon while adopting its own visual style.
However through the previous three seasons (sort of more like two seasons with one split in half) there has been a broader story arc connecting the characters and the planet on which they live, Etheria. Season 3 increased the pace of the story arc finishing with an emotionally powerful finale and some substantial consequences for all of the major characters.
If the standard theme of a She-Ra episode is the power of friendship, the broader arc’s theme is betrayal. Throughout season 4 characters deal with the idea of betrayal in multiple ways. There are simple instances with evil characters up to no good, including the new addition to the baddies of the shape shifting Double Trouble. Yet it is the more complex idea of feeling betrayed by friends when your interests or actions diverge that takes centre stage.
That theme of friends becoming enemies has always been central to the tensions between Adora (aka She-Ra) and Catra. Raised together to be soldiers of The Horde, Catra’s feelings of abandonment have driven her further into seeking power over others. However, it is Catra’s relationship with the naive Scorpia that shapes events in Season 4. Not all friends are good friends and sometimes you have to walk away from people who do not treat you with the respect that friends should give each other, is a powerful message in a kid’s cartoon but it is also an excellent basis for an engaging character driven plot.
But there are other deeper betrayals going on. One in particular is a major twist in the whole premise of the show and hence I won’t reveal it. It fuels a series of events that make episodes 9 to 13 particularly stand out if you want to watch a frankly excellent science-fantasy story that coincidentally is set in a rainbow hued kid’s cartoon world with a flying unicorn horse.
There is a lot of talk about the current golden age of television but looking back I can see how from the 1990’s forward there was a deep and continuing shift in children’s television. Not every show, obviously, but multiple shows for over thirty years now that pulled at the conventions of television and did weird and wonderful things with them. Where kid’s TV has an advantage over many prestige television shows is that it avoids self-indulgence and self-importance. Shows like She-Ra get that their core audience will be unmoved by critical accolades (although parental gatekeepers might be) but also that their audience can have both simple and complex interests simultaneously.