Warning: some spoilers ahead for season 1 of The Dragon Prince.
In “Half Moon Lies,” the second episode of season 2 of Netflix’s animated fantasy show The Dragon Prince, the writers set up a pretty classic rom-com conflict. The elf assassin Rayla (Paula Burrows) has a crush on the bookish prince Callum (Jack De Sena), and hasn’t told him that she knows his stepfather, King Harrow (Luc Roderique), is dead. She resolves to finally break the bad news, but Callum’s crush, the dark mage Claudia (Racquel Belmonte) beats her to it. The predictable outcome would be for Callum and Rayla to have a huge fight over the way she hid the information from him. There would be plenty of drama in a conflict that hurts their relationship and drives Callum further toward Claudia.
But that isn’t what happens. Callum doesn’t lash out at Rayla. Instead, he only thinks about how he’ll share the grim news with his young animal-loving half-brother Ezran (Sasha Rojen). When Callum goes to talk to Ezran about growing up and facing hard truths, a monologue with an emotional significance that deepens through later reveals, Callum realizes he doesn’t have the courage to tell the truth, either.
The Dragon Prince’s second season is filled with these kinds of wonderful surprises. The first season of the show from Avatar: The Last Airbender head writer Aaron Ehasz and veteran video game developer Justin Richmond showed promise, but was underwhelming compared to Ehasz’s previous work. It’s clear now that season was burdened by the weight of an immense amount of setup, introducing the world, its magic systems, and its characters. Season 2 is nonstop payoff.
In its new season, The Dragon Prince becomes both a deeply satisfying fantasy story and a deconstruction of fantasy tropes, including the ones Avatar: The Last Airbender was guilty of itself. This is a world divided between the human kingdoms and the magical realm of Xadia, where elves and dragons wield elemental magic. Humans like Claudia and her father Viren (Jason Simpson) can only cast spells by stealing power from magical creatures, or using special magic items. Callum stole one of the latter in the show’s first season, allowing him to use sky magic, but he had to give it up to save the life of the show’s title character. He wants to use magic again without the crutch of a magical device, but a powerful elf tells him that his humanity makes that impossible. Meanwhile, Claudia tempts him to try dark magic, by pointing out its egalitarian nature.
That’s a fascinating conflict, and it touches on the plot of the first season of the Avatar spinoff The Legend of Korra, where the villain tries to foment rebellion against “benders,” people with the innate ability to manipulate the elements. The same idea extends to a lot of fantasy stories involving hereditary power, from Game of Thrones to The Lion King to the Star Wars franchise — too often in this genre, power is tied to the circumstances of a character’s birth, or to some inborn special power that isn’t available to most people.
But like many of Dragon Prince’s characters, Callum refuses to accept his apparent limitations. The writers have placed a huge emphasis on diverse representation in this series, with major plot arcs revolving around a deaf general who communicates with sign language, a kingdom ruled by an interracial lesbian couple, and a blind sea captain who navigates through his understanding of the wind, with the help of a seeing-eye parrot. In an extremely powerful speech, King Harrow describes his desire to build a kingdom according to the philosophical principle of the veil of ignorance, where the laws are fair for everyone, regardless of their class, race, or gender. While so much fantasy is based around characters with great destinies, Harrow urges Callum to ignore any imagined constraints on his fate and forge his own path.
That conflict also brings depth to the show’s villains. In season 1, Viren tasked his son, the good-natured, mildly dim knight Soren (Jesse Inocalla) with murdering King Harrow’s sons, but an extended flashback in season 2 shows Viren’s genuine love for Harrow. Viren has done indisputably terrible things with his dark magic, but he’s also used it as a practical solution to prevent tragedy. The same flashback sequence again questions the nature of fantasy’s emphasis on heroic quests, as Viren and Harrow agree to lead an expedition into Xadia to slay a magma titan whose heart can be used to prevent famine. “We kill one monster to save 100,000 people,” Harrow tells his queen, Sarai (Kazumi Evans), as they spar with sword and spear. “Is it intelligent? Does it think? Does it feel? Does it have a family?” she asks. “You said you want to build a better world, to really change things. That’s going to take decades of work. There’s no monster you can slay and solve all your problems. There’s no shortcut.”
That’s a powerful message for a kid-friendly cartoon, cutting to the core of the escapism critique of fantasy. The Dragon Prince is packed with beautiful action sequences, which look even better this season, thanks to improvements in the show’s computer-generated animation. There’s a breathless intensity to the sequences of human soldiers doing battle against a Sunfire elf with a blade that can cut through anything, or Soren and Claudia trying to use ballistae to shoot down a fire-breathing dragon. But the show is often at its best in quiet scenes that just emphasize the humanity of its characters, and the impossible pressures life has placed on them. It teaches that there are no easy solutions, and that people need to question the wisdom of their elders, and learn to admit fault and forgive mistakes.
Cutting through the heavy material is the same goofy sense of humor that made Avatar so charming. The wordless rivalry for Ezran’s attention between the glow-toad Bait and the doglike dragon Azymondias is endlessly entertaining, and the dialogue is punctuated by references to influential pop culture like The Simpsons and The Lord of the Rings. There’s even a nod to Avatar itself, as Soren struggles to come up with a good haiku, while Claudia checks his work by counting syllables on her fingers.
Season 2 is a huge improvement over season 1, and it sets up a new spate of fascinating plots to come. Most notable is the introduction of the Startouch elf mage Aaravos, voiced by Erik Dellums with the same unctuousness that he brought to the face-stealing spirit Koh in Avatar. “Why should I trust you?” Viren asks him, as they begin an arcane collaboration with terrifying potential. “You shouldn’t,” Aaravos replies.
That ominous line might come off as cliché in another work, but Ehasz and Richmond have shown a powerful ability to defy expectations for what an all-ages fantasy show should be. What started off as a pleasant worldbuilding exercise with cute kids on an adventure is growing into an epic with nuanced characters and a philosophical approach to storytelling. If it can continue surprising audiences with these kinds of heartfelt social scenes and heart-pounding action sequences, The Dragon Prince may well grow into a new all-time classic.
The nine-episode second season of The Dragon Prince launches on Netflix on February 15th, 2019.