Today marks the start of a little series of reviews of Freeform’s (Netflix if you are not in the US) new show Shadowhunters. I just started watching the show and every week I am going to be reviewing and examining the episodes as I watch them. This also will be the end of introductory type posts, as after this the need for context will be much less urgent.
Let’s get this started with some background information! Shadowhunters is based on the book series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. The series follows a young girl, Clary Fray, on a journey that takes her from a “plain” and “normal” girl to the realization that she is more than that. Her mother has been, her entire life, hiding something from her. The secret is that she is half angel, people like her are called shadowhunters and they fight demons and evil creatures in order to keep the human world save. That’s not it though. Clary is also informed that the Big Bad Man in the shadowhunter world, Valentine, is her father. After her father kidnaps her mother Clary embarks on an adventure with her Nice Guy™ friend Simon and a motley cru of young shadowhunters. Naturally love triangles, arguments, jealously and tears ensue. Sound ridiculous? Don’t worry, it gets better… but really just worse. There are numerous incest storylines (the first one is fake…but then 3 or maybe 4 books later there is another moment of intentional (???????) incest). It has also already been made into a movie which…did not do well.
Additionally, the books author, Cassandra Clare, has a long history of plagiarism and fandom issues that are topics of discussions to this day. If you are interested and have an afternoon to spare, here’s some background information on that: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 [edit: She is being sued for copyright infringement. What perfect timing!]. My blog however is not about her plagiarism, and even if it were it would probably take me years to sift through her work and her interactions with people online. Anyway, full disclosure; these books were not great, and the show is mediocre at best. However, obviously it has something that I enjoyed enough to buy and read 6 books of, and also enough of something that is keeping me interested in the show. I hope with these reviews over the weeks that I can merge enjoying this show as a fun reimagining of the book series, while also discussing the ways they present young girls on the show, and consequences of the gender roles represented. So without further ado here is my recap/review of the episode and a little bit of analysis to wrap it up!
Here we go! Freeform (Netflix internationally) took a gamble and has turned this book series into a television show. Episode 1.01 is titled “The Mortal Cup” and the Netflix description says “Art student Clary Fray’s life is turned upside down when she discovers that she is a shadowhunter and part of a hidden world on the brink of war” (Netflix). The first episode of Shadowhunters begins with a cool flash forward scene of 3 beautiful ambiguously aged young people dressed in fighting garb, hunting some sort of shape shifter in what I think they want you to assume is a New York borough, but what is in reality is the distillery district in Toronto (YAY!). Anyway, after the little enticing opening sequence, the show begins to tell the story of its protagonist, Clary. Clary presents her art to a table of rude art snobs from the Brooklyn Academy of Art. They critique her portfolio work but are interested in weird doodles on the front of her art book. Guess what? Those doodles aren’t just doodles, they’re tied to the secret life her mother has hidden from her.
Clary gets into the art school, tells Nice Guy™ Simon-who is clearly head over heels in love with her-he tweets about it (obviously, because the show has to stay current!) and then because of said tweet, Clary’s mother Jocelyn and her uncle type figure Luke know that she got in when she arrives home. It is also around this time we learn that Clary’s memory has been wiped by a Warlock. Jocelyn acts weird around Clary-a definite sense tension between them-gives Clary a stele (a shadowhunter tool) as a birthday gift then acts even weirder about talking to Clary the next day. Clary is 18 now so the truth about her past has to come out, right? Simon and Clary go to Simon’s band’s show, where his other friend and bandmate Maureen is obviously in love with him. Lovely!!! As the night goes on they end up at a bar named Pandemonium (the entire time they are standing in front of the bar it flashes between Pandemonium and Demon).
As they are talking the beautiful blonde boy from the initial sequence runs into Clary and they have a little conversation about it. He seems to think it is weird that she can see him, and as she is talking to him Simon and Maureen look on in shock because they see her talking to thin air. Naturally, she follows the beautiful boy into the club and then witnesses the blonde guy and his friends kill a bunch of people. She gets in the way, runs screaming, and then at her apartment her mother quickly tells her she is in danger and her whole life as been a lie. Jocelyn’s former husband Valentine is a psychotic shadowhunter who has a cult following him and they are in search of the Mortal Cup (a chalice that makes new shadowhunters), and he has finally found Jocelyn and because of this Clary is in danger. Jocelyn is kidnapped by Valentine’s men and Clary is left alone. She tries to go see Luke but she overhears him talking to some scary guys about how he doesn’t care about Jocelyn and Clary, so of course she runs back to her apartment. The blonde guy comes back and saves her. His name is Jace Wayland, his friends/adopted family are Alec and Isabelle Lightwood. They take care of her (reluctantly on Alec’s part), and she wakes up with a weird tattoo on her neck. The weird tattoo, Jace explains, is a rune. A rune is a shadowhunter’s source of protection and power, and they are also very dangerous if given to humans. The episode ends with Jace the hot shadowhunter guy and Simon, her life long nerdy friend standing beside, both pleading her to come with them. Literally (in the blocking) and figuratively laying the ground work for the love triangle present throughout this season.
Does that seem like a crazy amount of things to happen in one episode???? Well you’re right. The series premiere of Shadowhunters packs quite the punch in terms of content for its first episode. The inclusion of so much information however, resulted mostly in the feeling of being overwhelmed. Which is slightly ridiculous because I have read the books I know exactly where the major plot points and story arcs are going. This is all besides the point however. Though McG (creator and director) uses Toronto beautifully as a backdrop for this story set in NYC, and the CGI and technical shots are better than I would have assumed, something is missing. None of this seemed to matter in terms of ratings, however. As it pulled some of the highest series opening ratings that Freeform has ever seen! Though the ratings have dropped from the series premiere, the potential for building from this somewhat clumsy first episode is present. It also is clear based on the novels popularity and the fact that a movie series was attempted (I wholeheartedly believe this series is better suited for television) that there is something drawing young people to this series. Where this episode faltered was 1) pacing, 2) acting (sadly the two leads-Kat McNamara as Clary and Dominic Sherwood as Jace Wayland-are slightly wooden and don’t seem comfortable on screen yet. I hope this changes) and 3) writing (the script is bland, the lines don’t seem normal yet). I am hopeful however that all of these problems are all consequences of it being a first episode. Pilot’s often have this problem, and I think because of many story lines the show can explore and also expand on, there is potential for it to thrive on Freeform and with a teen audience.
Episode Grade: C+
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Since this is just the first episode of the series, “The Mortal Cup” does not offer us many in depth glances at any of the female characters (young or old). However, what it does do is lay the ground work for what roles the girls are going to fill, and how they will interact with each other. Clary is presented to us in this episode as a doe eyed, plain but talented ingénue type. Her curiosity in this episode result in her having to rely on Jace to save her, which is interesting, but for the time being she is not a shadowhunter like him or the Lightwood’s so her role is at this point is going to involve being unable to fight off the creatures hunting her.
Isabelle however, from the very first scene is presented as smart (she makes a joke about Shakespeare, and there is a line hinting that if given a sample of blood she can analyze it, also she keeps up with the boys and fits seamlessly into their conversation), and extremely comfortable with herself and her body. It is clear from the first episode that she will not apologize for anything, fighting, being sexual, dressing the way she likes. In the books there is tension between the two girls, as a result of the numerous love triangles playing out. So the potential for conflict between Clary and Isabelle is possible, but from the first episode the tension seems to be minimal at best between the two girls. Isabelle seems open to the idea that Clary is a shadowhunter and she is willing to help her. Additionally, I would argue Clary feels comfortable having a female presence while being whisked away into a new life suddenly. I’m not sure this episode would pass the Bechdel Test, and to be honest I would be surprised if the show does in any early episodes or first season. Despite that however, I do see lots of potential for a healthy female friendship to blossom and for both of the girls to coexist without petty arguments around boys being the focus of their interactions.
Hopefully the next episodes stick closer to a plot A, B and C format for the rest of the season, and take more time explaining the mythology, because the amount of crucial information this episode provided the audience was too intense and hard to follow, even for someone who already knows the mythology. As the show edges forward, I am predicting I will be able to spend less time explaining mythology and more time discussing the ways the show treats gender and its young characters.
Bless you for sticking with this for the whole post! Keep your eyes peeled!
Saturday: Killing off women only to further male character stories. Gross, right? Get ready for me to discuss this trope (it has a name and everything)!