There is an innate struggle in supernatural shows, particularly those that skew younger, in that the threats these characters are facing are so large that any deviation from the mission of defeating feels a tad hollow. Teen Wolf had this problem. The Vampire Diaries had this problem. Hell, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer had this problem. Who honestly has time to for sex or dating when there's a crazy monster or madman threatening to destroy the city - or even the world? Yes, these are characters with urges, wants, and needs, and having them do “normal” things can often enrich the narrative, but is it always necessary?
After this week’s episode of Shadowhunters, “How Are Thou Fallen,” the show might be tumbling into a similar pitfall. There’s a huge axe hanging over the characters by way of the villain Valentine (Alan Van Sprang), but you’d be hard pressed to truly felt that because there are so many narrative distractions. What's most bothersome about this is that the show is actually pretty good and has made significant improvements after a really uneasy first season, but it’s struggling mightily to balance the ships and its bigger threat.
Valentine Morgenstern, father of Jace (Dominic Sherwood) and Clary (Katherine McNamara), is currently in possession of the Mortal Cup and the Soul Sword, two of the three Mortal Instruments that Angel Raziel gave to Jonathan Shadowhunter, the first nephilim and founder of the Shadowhunters. The Soul Sword is used as a tool of judgment in this world, but apparently has some other dark powers that have yet to be unlocked. The Mortal Cup is an instrument that can turn mundanes (humans) into Shadowhunters. Valentine acquired the Mortal Cup at the end of season one and created a massive army. The third sacred implement has yet to appear on the show, but Shadowhunters has shown how powerful the first two are, and at the rate Valentine is going, it won’t be long until he has it.
Knowing this, one would surmise that this was a war season - all hands on deck to stop Valentine however possible. For better or worse, it has been anything but. After this seventh episode of season 2A, it seems the show is at a crossroads when it comes to the question of how to handle its romantic pairings in the midst of Valentine’s chaos.
It’s one thing to focus on characters, but quite another to dole out character moments and beats that detract from the core storyline. Valentine, sometime between the last time we saw him on the show and Monday's episode found time to capture an angel. How he did it we don’t know, and it’s an action so impossible it’s rarely been attempted, but the main villain of the show did attempt it, and it worked! For most shows this would be a key moment to show, but instead it happened offscreen while Shadowhunters found time to service its characters relationships. This would be fine for the Downworlders (like Simon (Alberto Rosende) and Maia (Alisha Wainwright) - a vampire and werewolf, respectively) but for the main Shadowhunters it actually undermines them as characters. It’s hard not to watch this show and yell at the screen “Come on guys, we don’t have time for this!” - because so often the characters are doing things that seem ridiculous in the face of the threat they are under.
Bearing the brunt of most of this recently is Malec, the pairing of Magnus (Harry Shum, Jr.), a 400 year old High Warlock of Brooklyn, and Alec (Matthew Daddario), a Shadowhunter from the prestigious Lightwood family. Malec is arguably the show's most popular ship and by virtue of that, has gotten many of the biggest moments in season 2A. However, Malec is somewhat undercutting the narrative right now. Over the past three weeks, each trailer has hinted at significant happenings with this pairing: a first date, mentions of wanting to have sex, and (for next week) a potential suicide attempt. However, after watching the episode one comes to notice that that’s all there is to these moments. Play back the trailers and you will be entirely caught up on what’s happening with Magnus and Alex. The trailers get viewers hyped about what will happen, but the show fails to deliver on that hype.
This week was particularly glaring because a sequence in “How Are Thou Fallen" strongly indicates that Magnus and Alec have sex, a week after we found out that Alec is a virgin and Magnus has slept with 17,000 people over his 400+ years on the earth. How in the span of one calendar week (maybe a couple of days of show time) did they get to having sex? And why at this point in the story? Shadowhunters seems less concerned with those details, and more concerned with big sweeping moments.
With this being Alec’s first time, and Magnus' expressed misgivings about having sex swept aside rather briskly, Shadowhunters missed an opportunity for a powerful character moment. While showrunner Darren Swimmer has addressed fan concerns about consent issues in the scene, there was a bigger issue in that scene that went unaddressed.
The Alec Lightwood that the show has presented to us is a man so driven by duty that he was ready to put his personal interest in Magnus aside and marry Lydia Branwell (Stephanie Bennett), just to get the Lightwoods out of hot water. Now, in season 2, he’s exploring taking time for himself and doing things he wants to do. This is all fine, except that even with the addition of a boyfriend, Alec should still be alarmed at how rapidly the world went to hell around them. In an episode that saw Clary and Jace having to literally rescue an angel, having Alec not involved in continuing to track Valentine down seems woefully out of character.
More than just not meeting expectations, Malec, and the other "ships" in Shadowhunters edge out vital storytelling beats away from the show, and it’s starting to weigh on the episodes. Malec is easy to single out; everything with these two is monumental because it’s a relationship neither have them have had before, but it’s only getting what feels like five minutes of screen time each week. The audience is continually being short-changed, and if you aren’t going to give something the full attention it needs, it would be best if the show slowed it down or put it to the side altogether. Yes, a show needs to have meaningful character relationships, but there’s a balance that should be struck.
Shadowhunters would do well to remember that, regardless of being able to portal to and fro with warlock boyfriends or how attractive the cast is, the Shadowhunters have a job to do. This was the same problem season 1 had with regards to Clary and Jace. We had to watch those two characters cause problems for other people but never really deal with the consequences of their actions. Shadowhunters then pulled the rug out from underneath us by revealing that they were brother and sister, meaning that much of that was arguably wasted time.
Clary, now free of Jace’s influence, has been a revelation this season, growing into her abilities. Does she deserve a love interest? Sure. But it’s much more fun to watch her set up a plan solely by the fact that Cleophus called her Clarissa or create new runes than it is to watch her pine after boys (which will apparently happen next week). Makeouts and sex scenes are fun to watch, but they shouldn’t compromise the logic of the show or undermine its characters.
Hopefully Shadowhunters will take a more subtle approach to its romantic pairings, and figure out how to blend those moments into them figuring out how to defeat Valentine, rather than having them stand against the story.