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Dragon Prince’s heroes are fighting the same battles as the fans

Season 3 of the animated series is about toxic manipulation and how to escape gaslighting

In early November, The Dragon Prince fandom was rocked by allegations from several women that showrunner Aaron Ehasz had created an abusive environment for women on the Netflix animated show and in his previous position at notoriously hostile-to-women video game developer Riot Games. The claims that he ignored, belittled, and gaslit his female employees, leading some of them to quit or be fired, were especially jarring to a community that strongly supports the show and his previous venture, Avatar: The Last Airbender, in part because of their empowering stories about women. Ehasz’s tepid Twitter response hasn’t done much to resolve the conflict. The news has cast a shadow over the show’s third season, which debuts on Netflix on Nov. 22.

While fans may be justified in abandoning the show out of solidarity with the accusers, it would be a tragedy for one man’s actions to undo all the excellent work happening at Wonderstorm, The Dragon Prince’s studio. The show’s writers are continuing to deliver a dramatic, nuanced story featuring a cast of well-developed characters, and stressing ethnic diversity and LGBTQ representation. Ironically, though, many of the characters in season 3 of The Dragon Prince are grappling with the same questions as the show’s fans: How do you respond to wrongdoing by people you love? This season acknowledges that sometimes the healthiest, bravest, and best thing people can do is leave poisonous parts of their lives behind and find better ways to move forward.

Photo: Netflix

Like Avatar, The Dragon Prince has always been about young heroes trying to improve a war-torn world. But season 3 of The Dragon Prince heavily foregrounds the show’s focus on intergenerational conflict, as its cast of children and teenagers must confront the violence perpetrated by their parents and parental figures, and try to build a better future together.

That burden is acutely felt by the young prince Ezran (Sasha Rojen), who returns to the human kingdom of Katolis to inherit the crown of his father, Harrow. While parts of his new role are played for laughs — he no longer has to sneak into the palace bakery if he wants some jelly tarts — he faces a heavy burden of trying to end hostilities with the magical realm of Xadia.

That conflict is embodied by Prince Kasef (Vincent Tong), who has assumed leadership of his own kingdom, Neolandia, after his father was killed by Xadian assassins. Kasef is everything Ezran isn’t: a confident, strong young man who commands his people’s loyalty. He’s also vengeful, and he demands that Ezran join his march to war, calling the child prince naïve for his hopes that the generations-long conflict between the human kingdoms and Xadia can be ended by returning the titular dragon prince, Azymondias, to the Dragon Queen. King Harrow’s loyal advisers suggest that Ezran name a regent to make the hard decisions for him, with the implication that they’ll continue the cycle of violence but allow him to remain innocent.

Being a bit older doesn’t soften this conflict for Ezran’s half-brother Callum (Jack DeSena), who this season finally arrives in Xadia with Zym the baby dragon and the Moonshadow Elf assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows). During his travels, he comes to understand what the enemies of humanity have been fighting to protect. Rayla is also torn between wanting to redeem her parents, who failed in their duties to protect Zym’s egg, and feeling like she betrayed her surrogate father Runaan (Jonathan Holmes) by undermining his assassination mission.

callum excitedly looks around at magical things in Xadia, while little dragon Zym is perched on his shoulders Wonderstorm/Netflix

All of these conflicts have strong echoes in current politics, as young environmental and gun-control activists express their exasperation at the grown-ups who tell them they don’t understand why the world works the way it does, even as it seems to grow progressively worse. It’s also a fascinating inversion of classic fantasy tropes centering on children in humble circumstances who learn they’re secretly of noble blood and have some great destiny. Here, the heroes start out as nobles, but have to fight the destiny they’ve inherited, in part by realizing the parents they loved and respected could be terribly wrong.

As the personal drama and stakes ramp up, The Dragon Prince’s animators have also continued to improve the show’s visuals. Xadia is a marvel, filled with wondrous creatures that would be right at home in The Dark Crystal or Spirited Away. Part of the season takes place in a Sunfire Elf city reminiscent of Black Panther’s homeland of Wakanda — if it were also on fire. And the space isn’t just a gorgeous set-piece; it’s a location for some fascinating world-building and the budding of a sweet new queer romance. As the conflict ramps up, the animators deliver battle scenes on the scale of Lord of the Rings.

The spectacle and the show’s goofy sense of humor combine to make the heavier themes bearable and more powerful. Seeking solitude to contemplate the hard choices before him, Ezran wonders if he could get his cranky glow-toad companion Bait to assume the throne. Then he sighs and gives the animal a belly rub, acknowledging, “You’d be a tyrant.” When Rayla leads Callum to her village, he insists on donning an elf disguise that’s every bit as embarrassing and awkward as Rayla’s previous attempts at pretending to be human. The silly callback provides dramatic tonal dissonance in a beautiful, bittersweet episode about the difficulty of going home again.

the dragon prince gang hugs each other Photo: Netflix

While there’s no evidence that The Dragon Prince’s writers were reacting to the abuses reported at Wonderstorm when they were writing this season, these plots feel especially relevant now that those things have come to light. The show argues that people are complicated, and that their failings can sometimes be accepted if they’re largely good, well-intentioned people. But it also acknowledges that sometimes it’s necessary to entirely cut toxic people from your life. This season, the young dark mage Claudia (Racquel Belmonte) and her dim-witted knight brother Soren (Jesse Inocalla) are forced to decide which kind of man their father Viren (Jason Simpson) is.

Viren has been a particularly nuanced antagonist throughout the series, seeking to use his powerful magic to protect Harrow and humanity, but also showing deep cruelty, with a tendency toward manipulation and gaslighting. This season, he gets a taste of his own medicine from the Startouch Elf Aarvos (Erik Todd Dellums), who preys on Viren’s ambition and desperation to fulfill his own mysterious, malevolent goals. Anyone who refers to his ally as “my vessel” probably isn’t fostering a positive relationship of equals.

But The Dragon Prince’s story doesn’t guarantee any type of karmic justice. Various plots this season show how selfish people can be defended by compassionate ones, who will become worse in the process. The power-hungry can manipulate the emotions of the people around them, encouraging them to give in to their worst influences, then leaving their victims to face the consequences alone.

Photo: Netflix

Noble intentions weren’t enough to save Harrow, and the worst mistake some of the characters in season 3 make is having so much faith in their goodness and purity that they underestimate the evils other people can do. At a time when a whistleblower is challenging the president of the United States and women are taking personal and professional risks to share stories about harassment and abuse, The Dragon Prince’s call to definitive action feels especially poignant. It speaks to both the larger social climate and the specific problems happening at the studio where the show was written.

The writers argue that it takes courage and strength to take a stand, whether it’s advocating for pacifism or gaining distance from an abuser. Powerful people don’t always use their power justly, and both in Katolis and the real world, their subordinates must sometimes overcome a sense of loyalty and defy their demands. Some mistakes can be forgiven, but if consistent patterns of bad behavior aren’t acknowledged and punished, the people who tolerate them become complicit. Dragon Prince fans will need to decide for themselves how to internalize the message the show is currently offering, and how relevant it is to what’s going on behind the scenes.

Season 3 of The Dragon Prince will debut on Netflix on November 22.

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