On paper, Freeform’s Shadowhunters reads like a typical young adult fantasy book-to-screen adaption: girl hits her eighteenth birthday, clues into the supernatural weirdness around her, and gets told she’s a half human, half angel hybrid who also happens to be the key to an ageless struggle between good and evil. We’ve also seen enough of these adaptions to get an idea of what to expect. Good looking cast, special effects, maybe a couple of sequels (or seasons), and if it’s pulled together well, some quality entertainment.
Beyond Clary Fray’s romantically charged Jace-centric point of view, Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series had a built-in endgame developing in the background regarding the Shadow World’s multiple Downworld races and the divide between them and the Shadowhunters. It was an ongoing problem throughout the series, one that is still continued within her latest published works, and in Tuesday’s episode “Rise Up”, this was highlighted as a big plot point going forth in the television series. However, the divide of racism isn’t the only issue the show is tackling.
Having inherited their power and abilities through their angelic blood ties, the righteous Shadowhunters walk heads and shoulders above the rest of the world’s population with a pretty big hero complex. Being raised with heavenly purpose as Nephilim within their own society for generations upon generations, keeping to themselves and refusing to fraternise with other races, makes them both ignorant and arrogant to anyone that exists exterior to their world. Jace Wayland and Alec Lightwood specifically display disdain for the human race they’re sworn to protect, regarding them as little more than nuisances. Where general mythology depicts Angels as loving guides and protectors to humankind, Shadowhunters treat Mundanes like headless morons. Calling the humans Mundane is in itself an insult, and one Jace and Alec in particular use with full meaning.
It’s upon Clary entering their world and seeing this divide that things begin to start shifting. She’s a born Shadowhunter, but she’s been raised a Mundane, and despite Jace and Isabelle’s insistence that she is one of them, she’s holding onto her Mundane upbringing with an iron grip – and forcing her fellow Shadowhunters to take a hard look at the way they conduct themselves. It’s still early days and it won’t happen overnight, but this new generation of Shadowhunters is going to start breaking away from the mold they’ve been made in.
Downworlders are the minorities of the show, made to dwell in their own separate territories and adhere not only to their own set rules but the Laws of which the Shadowhunters wield to keep them in line. Being of mixed blood – and mostly of demonic origin – Vampires, Seelies, Werewolves, and Warlocks aren’t considered all that important to the Shadowhunters despite their power, strength and ability to fight the good fight if they so choose. In fact, the Shadowhunters utilize their talents where they see fit, but that does nothing in the way of making them remotely equal. Even their signed peace treaty, the Accords, is a document of rules each race will abide by in order to retain civility between them, and even then it’s overseen by the Clave, which puts the Shadowhunters as high as the Law.
However, the Lightwood family in particular, isn’t adverse to Downworlder allies, though getting romantically involved with them brings unwanted scrutiny from the Clave. Isabelle’s dalliances with Meliorn of the Seelies gives her a bad rep among her people, and Meliorn continually reminds her of the inequality between their species, but it doesn’t deter her feelings for him. Alec, too, as acting head of the Institute has trusting alliances with both Luke, the leader of the New York Werewolf pack, and Magnus, the High Warlock of Brooklyn – though the latter has more to do with his growing personal affections.
There’s also the age-old enemy dispute between Vampires and Werewolves, as seen this week when both clans reluctantly put aside their differences and worked together to stop the Shadowhunters from fulfilling a bad call by the Clave. One relationship in particular that will help thwart this divide is the camaraderie between Luke and Simon. Both were friends before and after Simon learned Luke was a Werewolf, and with Simon having transitioned into a Vampire, Luke continues to treat him as he always has – there is no race that separates the two; they’re friends, and that’s what matters. Clary also holds no grudge against Downworlders, purely because she wasn’t raised with the same intolerance as typical Shadowhunters, and those she knows – like Luke, Magnus, and now Simon – have looked out for her throughout her life. These individual ties are only going to strengthen and play into the overall Clave Vs Downworlders storyline.
While Jace is considered one of the most talented Shadowhunters of his generation and Alec is the active head of the Institute in his parents’ absence, there’s actually a refreshing lack of sexism in the show with women in places of power, courage and intelligence throughout. Jocelyn Fairchild, the one who started it all by stopping Valentine’s plans for world decimation; Camille, former leader of the New York Vampires; Maryse Lightwood, the head of the New York Institute; Lydia Branwell, a high-ranking Clave member sent to reinstate the Clave’s power within said Institute, and the series’ protagonist herself, Clary, who will be the one to stop the destruction that will inevitably be on it’s way. Perhaps the most surprising and exciting show of superiority in the series so far has been Isabelle Lightwood, who has become more than the simple sex kitten we were all originally introduced to. While some fans started off shaking their heads at her choice in clothes and the way she conducted herself, her brothers Alec and Jace and her father Robert saw her and respected her for the Shadowhunter she is. All stated in their own ways that she is who she is, without judgement, and left it at that, and while Robert alluded to her intelligence in Analytics, Jace and Alec let us know that Isabelle is the best Forensic Pathologist in the state of New York – which also happens to be something Isabelle thoroughly enjoys.
The latest mission for the group consisted of rallying New York’s Vampire and Werewolf clans together to stop the Clave-ordered Shadowhunters from taking Meliorn to the City of Bones; a mission that was conceived and executed by Isabelle and Clary. A lot of men jumped on board to help make it happen, taking their cues from the young women in charge – a flip on a typical trope. Also going against trope is the arranged marriage storyline. Where women are usually the ones being married off into strong, prestigious families in typical storytelling, in this particular story, it is a man.
Aside from Isabelle’s complete control over her body, her sexuality and what she wants, depicting the subject of sexual orientation is always a tricky one, as it nearly always ends up either brushed under the rug or spotlighted as a token character with little identity outside of their attraction spectrum.
Magnus Bane is a Warlock who has been in power for centuries now, aiding his own people as well as other Downworld races and Shadowhunters throughout his years. He’s wise, wary, distrusting but also enjoys experiencing the finer, more extravagant things in life. He has a taste for the exquisite and likes to change things up lest he become bored, and he’s deeply compassionate of others and their woes – when he likes them. Alec Lightwood on the other hand, is a militant Shadowhunter man who holds Clave Law and family allegiance as his highest priority. He’s been groomed to lead, which is a responsibility he takes seriously, and he fiercely protects those he loves in any way he can.
Both of these men are queer – Magnus is canonically described in the books as a ‘free-wheeling bisexual’, and Alec is a closeted gay man trying to hide that part of himself from others, maybe not so much out of fear as it is that his sexuality simply has no place in his ability to do his job. The show, however, does not label either of them. In fact, the terms bisexual and gay have not yet been used. For all intents and purposes, they are treated like any other character on the show. Just like Clary and Jace’s unlabelled attraction to each other, Magnus is depicted openly and honestly as a man who has had both male and female lovers, and Alec’s secret one-sided love for his Parabatai and his growing kinship with Magnus is the only indication of who he is away from the heavy familial burdens on his shoulders. Alec’s struggle with his sexuality and Magnus’ gentle guidance of him is a main storyline of the show’s first season, but their individual portrayals are not restricted by their sexuality. While everyone may be eagerly awaiting their love story to finally bear fruit, Alec and Magnus are far from being the ‘token LGBT characters’.
For a typical young adult fantasy book-to-screen adaption aimed at a specific demographic, Shadowhunters is sinking its metaphoric teeth into some pretty solid stuff. On top of being wildly entertaining, it’s also making us think and relate and sympathize in ways that may not necessarily be about ourselves – and dare I say it, that makes this typical book-to-screen adaption anything but typical.
Shadowhunters airs Tuesdays at 9pm/8c on Freeform, and Wednesdays internationally on Netflix.