“She-Ra” and “Avatar” spoilers will abound immediately. You have been warned.
I’m not going to lie to you, I loved the ending of “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” (from here on, “She-Ra”). I came into the show under the impression that it was going to be very good and very gay. I was not disappointed.
In fact, the show’s climax is a kiss between two women: It is the thing that saves Adora and thus allows the world — nay, the universe — to be saved. I wanted to be fully delighted by the way Catra held Adora, by the way they walked off into the sunset together at the end, eager to find adventures and never again be apart.
Yet, there’s a part of me that can’t just be happy for them.
The fact is, for the vast majority of the show, Catra is a villain, and while the kiss is meant to show us that Catra now acts out of love rather than hurt, I just don’t know that it’s enough. There are countless moments when Adora begs her to let go of her anger and join her. In fact, Catra’s motivation in the entire show up until the final few episodes is that she feels she has been abandoned by Adora so she wants to hurt her. That “abandonment” is tempered on several occasions by Adora’s explicit declarations of her love for Catra and invitations for Catra to join her, but Catra refuses to see them as genuine.
Now, I know it’s more complicated than that. There is Catra’s traumatic childhood to consider, the fact that all she knows is the Horde and that the Horde has drilled into her mind from infancy that the princesses are evil and manipulative. There is a point, however, when Catra stops acting for the Horde and for what she understands to be the betterment of the planet and instead, starts consciously acting in line with the true motivation of the Horde: world domination at any and all cost, eventually escalating to conquering the universe.
And after watching the show through the end and wanting to be happy for Adora and Catra, I found that I kept thinking about another show — the show that was actually the reason “She-Ra” was recommended to me in the first place: “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (from here on, “Avatar”).
The similarities between the two are striking. Both follow a gang of teenagers who view themselves as rebels against a fast-encroaching imperial force that only seeks conquest through any means necessary. There is also a group of teenagers within said imperial force who view themselves as “good guys” or who have motivations that they feel are worth immense sacrifice. In the case of “Avatar,” we have Zuko and, in my opinion, more interestingly, Azula.
When first processing the end of “She-Ra”, I first dwelt primarily on Zuko. His is, after all, the redemption narrative in “Avatar”: he felt abandoned by his mother (and by his present father), and at first, he is a villain in the rebels’ narrative. He wants to capture Aang, the protagonist, and deliver him to the leader of the imperial enemy, which will most definitely lead to Aang’s destruction, but that doesn’t matter to Zuko because he is only interested in regaining his honor.
Where the comparison starts to fail for me is when looking at Zuko’s actions. Zuko undoubtedly made mistakes, but he was not interested in anything larger than capturing Aang. Sure, he went to some great extremes to do so, many of which, if successful, would have resulted in destruction, injuries and possibly the deaths of Aang’s friends and any civilians who happen to be near them. Most notably, Zuko hired an assassin, known throughout the show as “Combustion Man,” who had the explicit intention to destroy Aang and his friends. However, none of Zuko’s attempts were successful, and “Combustion Man,” while definitely extreme and destructive, failed relatively quickly, appearing in only a few episodes.
Azula, on the other hand, viewed each of the individual tasks her father entrusted to her as a step in the path toward world domination. When Zuko failed to retrieve Aang, Azula was entrusted with retrieving Zuko and Iroh. Along the way, she conquered the cities of Omashu and Ba Sing Se, effectively for kicks, and it is she who suggests using Sozin’s Comet to conquer the rest of the world.
That being said, what makes Azula an interesting character is how the show builds a backstory of resentment toward her mother for what she sees as favoritism toward Zuko. What’s more, Azula was then raised by her father, who is cast as the stereotypical “bad guy” and who indoctrinates her from a very young age to believe that the Fire Nation is the superior nation and that world conquest is an honorable goal.
Which brings us back to Catra. Catra is motivated by Adora’s abandonment primarily, but there is also a strong throughline regarding Shadow Weaver, a high-up in the Horde who was also responsible for raising and training the orphans of the Horde, thus making her a mother figure to many of the children there, including Adora and Catra. Shadow Weaver openly treats Adora as her favorite, even going so far as to continue to task Catra with rescue missions well after Adora has made it clear she does not want to be rescued and even after Hordak, leader of the Horde, specifically commands that she let Adora be.
At each turn, just like Azula, Catra proves she is willing to go further to hurt the people who abandoned her.
Ultimately, Shadow Weaver leaves the Horde, manipulating Catra into helping her escape, and goes immediately to Bright Moon where she knows Adora is. Catra learns of this and, in addition to her feelings of having been used by Shadow Weaver, feels that once again Shadow Weaver has abandoned her to go to Adora. Here we see a mirroring Azula watching her mother leave Zuko’s room and never again returning.
At each turn, just like Azula, Catra proves she is willing to go further to hurt the people who abandoned her. She kidnaps Bow and Glimmer to try and force the Queen to surrender Bright Moon. As second-in-command, Catra makes the most progress in conquering all of Etheria as anyone in the Horde ever has. She activates a portal when she knew doing so would result in ripping the planet from the fabric of time and space, destroying everything. However, Catra quickly shows that destroying the planet is not the furthest she will go to hurt Adora when she reveals to Horde Prime, leader of an intergalactic imperial army bent on conquering the universe at any cost, that Etheria contains a super weapon that can be used to destroy the universe. When we compare the scopes of their actions, it is clear that Azula is a better comparison for Catra than Zuko.
By the end of season four, I was quite sure that Catra couldn’t come back from that. I mean, she was willing to sacrifice the entire universe in order to hurt Adora. Yet, over the course of season five, she does just that.
This is where the comparison to Azula fails and where I am most interested. Catra’s actions are definitely more destructive than Azula’s, if only because both were willing to go as far as they needed to achieve their ends and Catra lives in a universe with infinitely more destructive technology. Yet, Catra is redeemed and Azula is not.
Of course, Azula does not want to be redeemed, but then, at first, neither does Catra. She traps Glimmer with Horde Prime but stops Horde Prime from killing her. For a brief moment, she seemed to be turning a corner, until it is revealed that she saved Glimmer so that she can be used as part of a weapon that will destroy the universe. Over time on the ship, however, Catra grows bored, lonely and scared, realizing she’ll be killed when she ceases to be useful. She spends more and more time with Glimmer to try and evade the loneliness, and Glimmer, realizing why Catra continues to visit her despite express orders not to, eventually comments that Catra should “do something good for once in her life.”
Catra is moved by this and helps Glimmer escape, at the cost of her own freedom, telling Glimmer she understands this but does not want to go back even if she could because she’s only caused trouble. Of course, Adora can never leave Catra behind no matter how badly she’s acted, so the rebels go back to rescue her, and she begins the long and difficult road to redemption.
With that aside, I’m left to wonder: Why do I want Catra to be redeemed?
Azula never experiences a turning point like this. In fact, at the end of the series when she faces Zuko and Katara, instead of expressing any regret, she is cast as descending into madness. This is the end of her plotline on the show.
With that aside, I’m left to wonder: Why do I want Catra to be redeemed? Why should the people she has betrayed or, more importantly, the audience be content with her happy ending after everything she has done?
The answer lies in empathy. Azula only gets a single episode where she is given the space to express why she acts the way she does. She explains the resentment she feels toward her mother and the way that she has tried to earn favor with her father to make up for it, thus trying zealously to complete his mission of world domination. Where Azula gets one episode to curry empathy, Catra gets countless. In addition to quite a few episodes focused entirely on her, she is trapped with Adora more than once in the Crystal Castle that reflects one’s memories, showing both Adora and the viewers that the good times Adora remembers from her early years in the Fright Zone were often traumatic for Catra. With Azula, we wonder how someone could be so cruel. With Catra, we marvel that she’s as kind as she is given her upbringing.
Yes, she does want to be redeemed and she makes different decisions in the final season than she had in the previous four, which at times show her to be willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good and for the people she loves. However, I don’t know that any of that would matter if we as the viewer hadn’t already had the chance to love Catra and to sympathize with her for the difficult life she has led.
At the end of the day, in my most honest state, I do love Catra. I love that she and Adora are together at the end, off fighting for justice across the universe together. I love that her kiss saves Adora and thus is the key to saving everyone else.
However, I can’t shake the feeling that if Azula were given the same space to show her trauma, if Azula had one moment of anything even remotely resembling selflessness, then I might want to redeem her too, and if that is the case, what else could I excuse on the basis of empathy?
And that scares me more than any Horde army ever could.