She-Ra showrunner and stars break down Adora and Catra's connection
This post contains spoilers about the final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
From the moment it first premiered on Netflix in 2018 through the launch of its final season this past weekend, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power has portrayed a sci-fi/fantasy saga with epic scope. Over the course of its first four seasons, the titular sword-wielding hero encountered mechanized armies, wasteland bandits, and sea pirates — and that was before a techno-organic hivemind showed up. But this grand story was always built on a core intimacy. The first few minutes of the first episode of She-Ra introduced us to Adora (Aimee Carrero) and Catra (A.J. Michalka), whose connection formed the emotional core of the show from then until the heartwarming finale.
Adora and Catra were both orphans raised to be foot soldiers of the Horde, a menacing military force intent on conquering the planet Etheria. But the Horde was all they knew; Adora and Catra were taught that they’re the good guys. It was only once Adora discovered the magic She-Ra sword, unlocking her ability to transform into a legendary hero, that she rejected the Horde and took up arms with the Rebellion. Spurned by what she interpreted as the latest in a lifetime of betrayals, Catra took the opposite tack. She worked her way up the ranks of the Horde with the aim of destroying the Rebellion and humiliating her old friend. Adora and Catra’s transition from friends to enemies became the dramatic thrust of the show.
Fans (and She-Ra has many passionate ones) suspected there might be more to it. A master of psychological manipulation, Catra would occasionally flirt with Adora in order to mess with her head — most overtly in the season 1 episode “Princess Prom,” where Catra put on a suit to dance with Adora. Michalka’s teasing delivery of Catra’s trademark “Hey, Adora” taunt would also inflame shippers’ imaginations. But showrunner Noelle Stevenson kept her cards close to her vest. Only with the final season have she and the rest of the show’s creative team revealed their hand. In the final 10 minutes of the series, with Etheria about to crumble beneath the overwhelming might of Horde Prime (Keston John), Catra finally says those magic words: “I love you.” When Adora responds in kind, she finally unlocks the full power of She-Ra and saves their world with magic and love.
“This moment of confession is the climax of the show. It is everything we’ve been building to,” Stevenson tells EW. "But we didn't always know, 'Are we going to be able to end the show in this textual way? Are we gonna do this thing we’ve been wanting to do for so long?' I’m really grateful that we we were able to, and have that literally be the protagonist: She-Ra, Princess of Power. I wanted their romance to be the central arc of the entire show. I hope that now that it is clear that this is textual, it reveals how that arc has been built over the last few seasons."
In Stevenson's words, it was "not a sure bet" that she and her team would be able to make Catra's and Adora's romance canonical, given that various partners on the show had "right of refusal" on plot developments. Although there have been great strides for representation of LGBTQ characters in animated shows over the past few years, it's been a series of small steps (along with accompanying frustrations and setbacks). The Legend of Korra waited until its final moments to have its two female leads hold hands and walk off into the sunset together (setting up sequel comics that more fully explored their romance). Adventure Time had several flirty scenes between Marceline the Vampire Queen and Princess Bubblegum, but they didn't actually kiss until the series finale. Steven Universe had more success with openly queer characters, but the struggle to represent different kinds of relationships in such shows is clearly ongoing.
She-Ra had an additional problem when it came to exploring Catra and Adora's romance: Namely, Catra's role as primary antagonist for the first few seasons of the show. As the conflict between the Rebellion and the Horde went on, Catra became more desperate for victory, and got cruel as a result. By the end of season 3, she had exiled another former friend, Entrapta (Christine Woods) to the hellish prison known as Beast Island, and came close to destroying space and time in an effort to defeat Adora.
"I think telling her story and playing her as so villainous and dark in some of these seasons was a really fun challenge for me as an actor because I've never played a villain before," Michalka says. "It's like the exact opposite of what I play [in Schooled] on ABC. But it's exciting when you can play a character that literally goes through the ups and downs as big as she does. She was totally lost in the beginning, had no idea what she wanted, and was really seeing red at one point because all she wanted was to have control, and didn't care what it would take to get there. This sounds kind of weird, but I was worried for her. I was like, she's about to lose everything. Like she loses Scorpia [Lauren Ash], she loses her friends in the Horde, and she has no one. Shadow Weaver made this horrible, bizarre upbringing for her, and I think that's stayed with her for years. She's really scarred from that. For a while I was like, I don't know how she's going to see the other side. I think it's really beautiful the way they wrote it out."
Season 5 is a wake-up call for Catra, because Horde Prime is a threat beyond any she has encountered. He can't be charmed or reasoned with, and his desire to turn the whole universe into his own identical drones is a horrible match for Catra's one-of-a-kind personality. So she teams up with Adora and the Rebellion, and for several episodes leading up to that magical kiss we get to see Catra reconnect with other characters. She reveals that she has an extremely cute sneeze, and bonds with a magical cat companion named Meelog.
Stevenson wanted to prove that female villains are just as capable of redemption as male ones, but also wanted to explore the unique catharsis of female rage. Part of what's so vibrant about the Catra/Adora romance is that Stevenson drew on her own real-life experiences.
"There’s something I find so cathartic about female villains," Stevenson says. "I love male villains too, I love almost every villain, but with female villains there’s a catharsis to their anger and rage. It holds an extra meaning to me because I think almost all women have that core of anger in them that is never ever appropriate to express. For some people it comes out, but for many it doesn’t and it simmers. It affects your actions in different ways. I really wanted to explore that because it felt like something that a lot of people were going to relate if it was uncomfortable. I think Adora has her own version of that, too; Adora struggles with her anger and stress and the burden of the role that’s been assigned to her. But having Catra go pretty far down that path of villainy, and not in a way where we could always justify what she’s doing, was to take a hard look at that and not sand those edges down."
Stevenson continues, "It’s obviously exaggerated. I’ve never tried to destroy space and time. But looking at the past and relationships where I behaved badly and lashed out and hurt people, the question is, what do you do when you’ve hurt people? It’s other people’s decision to forgive you, that’s not a given, but also there are ways for you to fix what’s broken. You have to work hard to prove yourself again, you have to actually actively fix what’s done, it’s not as simple as a sacrifice. That was the story I really was fascinated by. It has its roots in things I've experienced. Even getting together with my wife, there were times where it seemed like the relationship was not viable or a healthy outlet for either of us. But because of that pull that we had to each other, we worked really hard to get to a place where it worked. That's not a relationship I've seen from two female characters who are the main characters of the story. I love the soft and sweet relationships that are more realistic or healthy, but I’m also fascinated by the dark side and the messiness that exists between two passionate and dynamic individuals. That’s why I wanted to explore that in addition to other relationships."
And so, after five seasons of epic battles and emotional turmoil, Catra and Adora are finally together. What's next for them after the show is over? Nothing but boring bliss, Carrero hopes.
"This is actually the story of two people that are meant to be, but they had to go off on their own to deal with their own individual toxicity and also learn who they are before being able to come together," Carrero says. "So Adora needed to learn many, many lessons, especially about her hero complex and her sacrificial complex. And then also Catra needed to deal with her abandonment issues. So it isn't until they do all that hard work separately that they're able to come together and have what I am assuming and hoping is going to be a totally boring, domestic bliss-filled relationship that nobody wants to write a story about because it's so uninteresting."
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is now streaming in its entirety on Netflix. Anyone looking for more Catra/Adora content should be sure to check out Stevenson's Twitter page and the many, many retweets of fan art now that she can talk about this romance openly.