[This is a review of Shadowhunters season 1, episode 13. There will be SPOILERS.]
Freeform (formerly known as ABC Family) has found success in the past by adapting young adult novels to the silver screen. The network’s most successful series, Pretty Little Liars, is an adaptation of a young adult book series, and now one of Freeform’s newest show, Shadowhunters, was inspired by The Mortal Instruments book series by Cassandra Clare.
With Ed Decter (In Plain Sight, Helix) acting as showrunner and McG (Chuck, Supernatural) on board as executive producer and the director of the pilot, ‘The Mortal Cup’, it seemed Shadowhunters was set to be an exciting YA television adaptation – one that would improve upon the unsuccessful film adaptation of the novels, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Season 1 of Shadowhunters follows Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) as she’s introduced the the world of supernatural beings, including demons, vampires, werewolves, and warlocks.
Throughout season 1, Clary attempts to rescue her mother, Jocelyn (Maxim Roy), with the help of her newfound Shadowhunter friends: Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood), Alec Lightwood (Matthew Daddario), and Izzy Lightwood (Emeraude Toubia). Along the way, Clary’s best friend Simon (Alberto Rosende) is turned into a vampire, she learns her mother’s friend Luke (Isaiah Mustafa) is a werewolf, and she is tasked with finding the Mortal Cup – an ancient artifact that can create new Shadowhunters – that was hidden by her mother. The season finale, ‘Morning Star’ – written by Peter Binswanger and directed by J. Miles Dale – picks up right where the previous episode left off, with Valentine’s (Alan van Sprang) agent within the Institute, Hodge (Jon Cor), taking control of the Cup. Once the others realize the betrayal, Jace goes after Hodge and Valentine despite his conflicted feelings about both, while Clary attempts to wake Jocelyn.
‘Morning Star’ largely puts Jace at the emotional core, as he continues to deal with the revelation that Clary’s father Valentine is also his biological father who raised him before he was taken in by the Lightwoods. Because of his parentage, Jace worries that Valentine’s influence on his early childhood has created a darkness within himself. Unfortunately, this particular storyline is too melodramatic and cliched to offer much in the way of an emotional anchor for the episode, and the lackluster character development of the season failed to earn the abrupt turnaround in Jace’s character from a rebellious hero to someone flirting with joining the dark side.
But the parallels between Shadowhunters and Star Wars don’t end there; previously in the season when it was revealed that Jace and Clary are brother and sister, both were forced to reconcile that fact with their feelings for each other. To the credit of Decter and McG, these particular story developments and character progressions were clunky and vapid in both the books and film before being adapted to TV. But, on the third time around – for those who read the book and saw the movie – the revelation that Jace and Clary are siblings, and Jace’s subsequent devolution to the side of evil, still fail to land in any meaningful way.
Instead, in ‘Morning Star’, Sherwood is tasked with developing this darkness in Jace, largely with clunky exchanges of dialogue, all of which end with Jace saying, “You don’t get it” to whoever he was talking to and stomping off. The result, unfortunately, is that Jace comes off more as a spoiled brat isolating himself from his friends and family. So, when he goes off on a mission to kill his father – and settling for cutting off the hand of his father-like teacher figure – it all predictably goes wrong and he winds up at his father’s side in an attempt to save the people from which he isolated himself. The predictability of the ending largely sucks out whatever emotional depth the show and Sherwood attempted to imbue in Jace and his character development in ‘Morning Star’.
As for the other story beats in ‘Morning Star’, Clary is tasked with finding the Book of the White, a spellbook that Magnus Bane (Harry Shum Jr.) requires in order to wake up Jocelyn. To obtain the book, Clary and Simon must find the vampire Camille (Kaitlyn Leeb) who is being held by fellow vampire Raphael (David Castro). When Simon betrays Raphael to help Camille, he and Clary sever their tentative alliance with the vampires – though the consequences of this are left to future episodes as Clary and Simon use Camille to find the book. Similar to Sherwood with Jace, McNamara is given little help in making this storyline dynamic with lines of dialogue like, “It’s not just me that needs my mom, it’s all of us.”
Throughout season 1, the politics of Raphael’s vampire clan and Simon’s transition into a fully-fledged vampire have provided a compelling story thread running counter to Clary’s own training and acclimation to the world of Shadowhunters. Additionally, it positioned Simon as an important go-between for Clary’s Shadowhunters, Raphael’s vampires, and Luke’s werewolf pack – a necessary piece in bringing these supernatural beings together while Simon also acted as the audience’s entry point to the mythology.
Although the series premiere was tasked with establishing the basics of the Nephilim and the Downworlders (seelies, werewolves, vampires, and warlocks), the show has attempted to delve more into both the political society of the Shadowhunters as well as they complicated relations amongst the Downworlders throughout the season. However, the series largely fails to paint any kind of comprehensive picture of the Shadowhunter society outside the broad strokes of a rigid and backward world that doesn’t believe in romance between Shadowhunters and Downworlders – as evidenced in ‘Morning Star’ by the conversation with Alec and his parents about his relationship with Magnus. The vampires, in contrast, hold Raphael up as their leader despite the fact that he usurped Camille and held her captive, which sounds like a society much more rife with compelling drama.
All in all, Shadowhunters‘ first season had some brief high points and some very low points, while the majority of the latter can be additionally categorized as most of the character or plot development adapted from Clare’s novels. Where Shadowhunters strayed from the main narrative of the first novel of The Mortal Instruments, such as developing the vampires, the show managed to mine the large supernatural world for more compelling and better developed drama. That becomes especially apparent in ‘Morning Star’, which forces the development of Jace’s dark side while Clary spends much of the episode chasing down a book and proclaiming how much she needs her mother.
Certainly, Shadowhunters has likely won over many fans of The Mortal Instruments series by staying true to the novels on which it’s based. But, the more unimaginative revelations and developments of season 1 are a good argument for why YA television shows should be given the freedom to craft a new – and hopefully more compelling – narrative that draws inspiration from its source but isn’t shackled to it. Perhaps then Shadowhunters could be given the leeway to evolve into a show that entertains both book fans and those who have never read The Mortal Instruments without being forced to adapt the more baffling choices of the source material.
Shadowhunters will return for season 2 on Freeform.