Redemption through sacrifice is an old motif that has gotten more attention in recent popular media. Redemption arcs are powerful when done correctly, but they are also difficult to execute and require specific story structures to support them. Writers who want the powerful singular moment of redemption with less of the work required to earn it often use sacrifice as a shortcut. When a character’s life ends in the service of the people they have wronged, it can seem like the ultimate return payment for the harm they have caused, but can also be emotionally cheap. Without an effort to actually make right the wrongs of one’s past, a redemptive sacrifice can seem like an effort to suffer enough that some cosmic scale is balanced, a retributive impulse turned inward rather than a restorative one aimed outward. Worse, destroying oneself in a sacrificial blaze can also seem like an effort to escape accountability and prevent an honest reckoning with one’s legacy. For these reasons, I have grown to resent the idea of characters experiencing redemption through destroying themselves.
But one piece of media managed this difficult task with impossible grace, and that is She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. The story of Shadow Weaver might be the only time in my conscious memory that I have seen a redemptive sacrifice work. And to understand why, we have to go through Shadow Weaver’s story.
Spoilers for She-Ra and the Princesses of Power follow.
Before Shadow Weaver took the name, she was Light Spinner, unusually gifted among the sorcerers of Mystacor but similar to them in the kind and scale of power she could wield. She was ambitious and above all power-hungry, resentful of the comparative ease with which Etheria’s princesses could access the world’s magic through their runestones. The Horde’s invasion provided an excuse for her to seize even greater power, but the other sorcerers refused her, and she had to perform the Spell of Obtainment in secret. When she did, everything changed, even her name.
The Spell of Obtainment served, as Chief Sorcerer Norwyn warned, to make its caster into a magical parasite, dependent on whatever magic she could siphon from the world rather than wielding a store of her own power. Even attempting it, let alone the partial success Light Spinner achieved, was enough for the other sorcerers to turn on her, and for her to use her initial batch of stolen power to fight them and escape. But her hunger was no longer metaphorical, and her new life as a magical parasite made her remaining choices stark. However sincere she might have been in her stated desire to defeat the invading Horde, if she had to choose between gaining power and continuing to fight them, she would choose the former. After all, they had just captured a runestone she could borrow.
This level of scheming extended to the two daughters Shadow Weaver adopted while with the Horde: Adora and Catra. Her treatment of these two fits the narcissistic abuser playbook almost too well, a natural outgrowth of her power-hungry nature. Much like the other narcissistic abuser of recent media attention, Shadow Weaver showed blatant favoritism to one daughter and harshness toward the other, while telling both that neither would amount to anything without her. One, she groomed to live out her desires for her, the other she resented for merely existing. Her lies and manipulations set the scene for both of their lives and would require an essay of their own to properly explore. The symmetry of a magical parasite also being this kind of siphon for emotional energy is too beautiful to leave unspoken.
While serving the Horde, whether Shadow Weaver was limited to being barely able to defend herself or remained one of the most dangerous people in Etheria depended entirely on whether she had access to the Horde’s captured runestone. She could rapidly exhaust herself to the point of collapse if she exceeded her reserve of runestone magic or tried to use magic that didn’t depend on this stolen power. These attempts often seemed contingent on having some sort of magical powder or other component to expend, something other Etherian magic-users typically needed only for more complex or idiosyncratic spells. Shadow Weaver did her best to hide these limitations, but those close to her had enough information to puzzle them out. Shadow Weaver’s weakness was so debilitating that, once the Horde started denying her access to the Fright Zone’s runestone, it was able to keep her shackled in a cell, confinement another sorcerer could have trivially escaped, until she manipulated Catra into providing the components of a teleportation spell.
It is in this near-powerless state that she returns to the fight against the Horde. The other characters rightly fear and hate her, not for her power, but for everything else: her toxic, manipulative, abusive personality, which never stops scheming or finding new targets; her deep well of knowledge about how Etherian magic works; their knowledge of what she has already done in the name of her disturbing ambition; and the flexibility of her status as a magical parasite, which makes her specific abilities hard to understand. She serves them as a teacher and a source of information, but she remains one of the most reprehensible people in the entire cast and they do not trust her.
So when Shadow Weaver initially sits out both halves of the final battle against Horde Prime, it is at least partly because everyone else knows she does not have much she can realistically contribute, in addition to their not-unfounded fears that bringing her to the Heart of Etheria, the nexus of Etheria’s magic, might lead to her trying to claim its power. And when Catra browbeats her into teleporting the two of them near the Heart, it is with at least some knowledge that Shadow Weaver’s weakened state afterward was to be expected.
And when Shadow Weaver used high-level sorcery, the sort of magic she would have used back in her days as Light Spinner, against the giant security robot that Horde Prime had suborned, Adora and Catra both knew that, even if she won, she was destroying herself. No deceptions, no tricks: just the vulnerability she had spent almost her entire screen time concealing, at last unmasked. It is no surprise that these two survivors were overcome with horrified grief when she entered the fight. Maybe Castaspella, Glimmer, or Micah could have survived, but not Shadow Weaver. Not the final dregs of that bottomless pit for other people’s energy, steadily broken down and deprived until nothing was left but this sacrifice.
She was, in a moment too poetic to overstate, for perhaps the first time in the entire series, fighting for others instead of her own twisted desire for power and revenge, but she was also, just as uniquely in the show’s run, crushingly alone. She was undertaking one brief flicker of righteousness after a life spent in iniquity, saving the universe from a level of danger she had severely underestimated when she served the Horde and saving her two unloved daughters from immediate danger, and she had long since driven away all who could have stood with her. She could watch everyone, literally everyone, around her become bigger, better, more powerful versions of themselves because they could rely on each other, build each other up, and lean on each other when they faltered, but not her. Shadow Weaver burned every one of those bridges and she would stand alone on their ashes and die for that mistake, briefly heroic but eternally unmourned.
Even as Adora and Catra watched her die, neither dares to utter the platitudes that a lesser show would have forced. Shadow Weaver was a blight on her interpersonal landscape from beginning to end and they both know it. She saved them and destroyed herself in the process, after making no attempt to reckon with the legacy of broken children and wartime casualties she left behind, and the show does not ask us to pretend otherwise. She escapes the far harder challenge of actually becoming a better person or making things right with those she has hurt by giving the two people she has hurt most the only gift she has left: the privilege of living the rest of their lives without her. It is precisely because she is not redeemed, and the story is making no attempt to redeem her, that this sacrifice works.
In this, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power takes its central message to its darkest low, and makes the heights on either side of it so much higher.