Binge watching. It’s fun, but there’s a dark side. Netflix has become dependent on creating shows designed to be binge-watched, and the shows suffer for it. The cure for that comes from an unexpected place: Voltron: Legendary Defender.
After dropping its first two seasons in the standard 13-episode format we’re used to, the team behind the show (also responsible for work on The Legend of Korra, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and other great Cartoon Network shows) decided to start working in smaller batches. Bringing us short seasons more quickly keeps the Paladins of Voltron at the front of fans’ minds, and puts the show at the top of Netflix’s marquee that much more often.
With this latest season, Voltron makes perhaps its best case yet for these shorter seasons, offering a tight six episodes that set up some fascinating dominoes while letting crucial characters blossom.
Prepare for some spoilers for Voltron: Legendary Defender.
When a show sets up future storylines, it can feel like it’s on hold, waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for something to happen. Voltron doesn’t feel like that at all. The entire six-episode run of the fifth season is full of memorable moments that change the game as Team Voltron moves ahead.
Take Prince Lotor, the heir apparent of the Galran empire. In the original Voltron: Defender of the Universe show from 1984, Lotor isn’t much more than a cackling villain with designs on the pretty pink princess Allura. He was an obsessive character cut from the same mold as Mario’s Bowser, the Smurfs’ Gargamel, and other ridiculous villains.
This time around, he’s a comparatively complex, nuanced character. We watched him last season as a focused military genius, scheming not to capture a princess but to take power from his aging father. With his schemes exposed, though, Lotor is forced to reorient his efforts, leading him to work with, rather than against, Voltron. He’s harder to read, here. His goals match with those of the team, and his information has lead them to great successes, including a happy ending to Pidge’s storyline.
There are moments where cracks in his facade seem to show, though. Consider a scene where it’s tough to tell whether he’s leading Princess Allura along to a conclusion that would help him, or whether he’s genuinely interested in the knowledge the two are seeking. The knowledge ends up with Allura, rather than Lotor, though, and there’s never a moment where he shakes his fist at those darn kids. If he is indeed scheming against team Voltron, he’s doing it in secret, working with the team to set up their own eventual fall.
At the same time, though, Lotor is afforded opportunities to develop on his own. When his own heritage is laid out before him – heritage we learned of in previous seasons – he seems genuinely disturbed by the mere notion and dismisses it out of hand.
Lotor is the center of this season, pushing Team Voltron and inciting action by the Galra empire. He’s even present in one of the season’s most entertaining action setpieces. With his father, King Zarkon, finally back in fighting condition, the King looks to take down his son and put an end to his meddling. The two come to blows on a dusty planet surface while Pidge, Shiro, and others try to right a crashing ship in an equally exciting sequence above them. Both sequences are exciting, dynamic, and full of fluid movement.
But it’s not all about Lotor, either.
The blue paladin, Lance, and black paladin, Shiro, grow in tandem. Lance was probably always destined to take a bigger role than his goofy ladies-man schtick just because he’s voiced by Jeremy Shada, Adventure Time‘s Finn, who has proven over that show’s long run that he can hold a show up almost entirely on his own when he needs to, while still working well with an ensemble cast. In Voltron, that’s also happening with his character, but organically.
Since almost the beginning of the show, Shiro’s dependability as a leader has been in question. One of his arms is built from Galran technology that no one in Team Voltron really understands, This season, we’re starting to see Shiro disintegrate as a leader, becoming more erratic and impulsive. Meanwhile, Lance is standing up more, defending his views better. The latter manifests when Lance is practicing alone and wills his Bayard – the shape-changing weapon each paladin wields – into a broadsword form that Princess Allura suggests hints that the traits of a leader hide within him.
This is brought together by a moment early on in the season when Team Voltron is trapped and forced to commune in Voltron’s mystical power. For a moment, Shiro and Lance are left there together, with Shiro trying to warn Lance about… something. A subconscious part of Shiro knows something is wrong, and he sees the fast-maturing Lance as the person to reach out to.
While all this is happening, the team is bringing about a power change in the Galra empire, the witch Haggar is spying and planning, and people affected by the millennia-long reign of the Galra try to rebuild with the help of Voltron.
The whole season feels compact, and nothing about it is left hanging. It’s full, from end to end, with meaningful changes for just about every major character in the cast. Now that Pidge’s story has had all its threads tied off satisfactorily, I do wonder what will happen with the character. At the same time, I look forward to seeing how Shiro’s relationship to the team changes, how Lance and Keith grow, and how Lotor and Princess Allura navigate their places of absurd power as the possibility of betrayal lurks in the background. We don’t have half a season dangling like we did with Luke Cage, or storylines that felt like they could’ve been edited out completely, as with Stranger Things second season.
Voltron: Legendary Defender has been an exercise in tinkering with nostalgia from the beginning. The beast we know and love from 1984 is two shows stitched together and heavily edited, with characters changed and combined in ways unrecognizable from the original. This new take on the series continues to show how the team behind it is respecting both our memory of the show and its Japanese origin at the same time, while finding ways to keep the story from being a simple rehash.
But while they do balance nostalgia and modern storytelling, they’re not force-feeding us in huge batches of episodes that we wait so long for that we’ve forgotten what’s happened. Seasons are coming, well, seasonally, and it’s working. The original Voltron series might’ve been an editing-room nightmare, but this new one should act as a lesson to other Netflix shows. Sometimes, indeed, less is more.