Shiro back in Black is *FORWARD* story development
Thought I’d make a title for once to pique peoples’ interests. I mean, that statement is probably a rare opinion. I’ve seen many individuals comment that they felt Shiro’s return to Black in S4 was a cop-out, “too soon,” convoluted mess, or backwards step in storytelling (especially concerning Keith’s characterization as a Paladin). And while at first I found the writers’ choice weird, I sat back to rewatch S3… and lo and behold everything clicked.
This is actually a really smart move and smooth storytelling point on the writers’ part to put Shiro in Black for S4.
The gap between Seasons 3 and 4 I think have thrown many of us. Though we understand that S3+S4 = the length of S1 alone, many of us have treated these seasons so separately that the broader plot arc of 3 / 4 got passed over. This was passed over also because of the time gap… while waiting for S4 to premiere, our minds got solidified in the current state of S3… thus treating the events of S3 as though they were more permanent, resolute, and long-lasting than they were. I mean, there was so little permanent about 3… it was only seven episodes, after all! And only in five of those did we see Keith in Black.
For I noticed a trend in how people theorized about future Black Paladins. Pre-S4 predictions about the Black leader mainly followed the lines of:
- Keith always stays in Black and the lion switch of S3 is permanent.
- The Paladin team grows in their new lions and learns new lessons. Once they have matured as people, they more or less return to the original configuration.
- And then there are theories about a sixth lion, Paladins constantly swapping depending upon needs per mission, etc.
- If we go with #1, Keith gets a brilliant character arc where he grows into a leader. He is forced into a leadership role and has to become someone great. But Shiro would easily be shafted in this route. It would be very hard to write a satisfactory character arc for Shiro without him returning to Black. It would be hard to get a sense of growth for his character upon permanently leaving as Voltron tream leader. Not to mention… the S2 plot arc of Shiro trying to bond with Black was only just making headway when he disappeared. So #1 shafts Shiro’s characterization.
- If we go with #2, then Keith, Lance, and Allura allegedly would return to their old lions. It again could easily feel like a step back, especially for Keith and Allura. A story introducing Keith as “a leader with potential” cannot have him tossed back to second-in-command and never actualizing as leader. He has to become that leader for the story to make sense.
These theories all have something in common that I only realized with S4 in retrospect. These ideas assumed that the lion switch is what would stimulate Paladin character growth. But with Keith, it’s not simply that piloting Black will characterize him into leadership. Rather, S3-4 suggest there’s also the idea that learning leadership will characterize Keith into piloting Black. We got it swapped!
And Keith isn’t at that point to take such command of Black. Not yet. But because we assumed that Keith being in Black was how he would become actualized as a leader, it felt like a step backward or a reverting to “the original” when Shiro flew Black in S4. It felt like taking away that character growth of how Keith could become leader… something that desperately needs to happen in storytelling.
Lots of people seem to be disjointed by Shiro returning to Black, especially so soon before his psychological struggles are resolved. Lots of people seem disjointed by Keith leaving Black so soon, especially since he only just began to demonstrate any good leadership at all. It seems like a step backwards to undo the little Keith was beginning to do, and to simply default back to what we’re “used to” with Shiro. Overall it can feel the writers took away change and progress.
But no. That’s not the actual arc of S3 / 4. We didn’t take a step backward. We didn’t return to the default Black Paladin in a muddy, useless tangle of plot. We’ll never get back to S1′s status. Instead, the writers did something cool and progressive, moving the plot forward in a neat and linear progression. Check out what’s been happening when we actually look at S3-4 as one unit:
- Season 1: Shiro is the clear, dominant, uncontested leader of Voltron. There’s no question about it and basically nothing to suggest otherwise.
- Season 2: Shiro is still the clear, dominant, uncontested leader of Voltron… but there’s a new suggestion that someone else might have the potential to lead someday. Shiro suggests Keith as a replacement just in case anything goes wrong.
- Season 3 / 4: Keith gets that taste of leading alone, but emotionally doesn’t feel ready, opts out, and the command continues with Shiro. Shiro can still pilot the Black Lion and act as a good Voltron leader, but cracks are developing. He’s no longer the clear, dominant, uncontested leader. Keith is now something that has to be considered because he can pilot Black, too.
Nothing is ever going to return to the old S1 standard. Keith versus Shiro flying Black is a problem with much more development to come. S4 contributes rather than degrades the development of the situation, in fact, by throwing in the detail both can pilot Black. That’s a lot more complicated with more questions than just, “Oh, now we have a different pilot: it’s Keith.”
See the progression that’s happening? It’s like there’s a slow gradient of black to white. We started in black, then slowly have transitioned to dark grey, then a more average grey. Slowly, the story is building cracks into the idea of Shiro being the one, dominant Paladin of Black. Slowly, the story is building Keith into the idea he can be leader of Voltron. It’s not by shoving Keith into the Black position that he becomes leader… but by growing him into the position to pilot Black.
We have to have this starting point of Keith’s first time in Black… where he’s not ready and leaves… where it still feels as though Shiro is “it”… but where we are starting to see the questions…
By having Keith get a taste of Black but not ultimately take Black on permanently in S3 / 4, we fall into the grey zone between black and white. We show the first glimpses of what it can be like as Keith in Black. The story doesn’t just close up that concept of him flying Black then and there in S3, and then we say, “Keith’s in Black, done deal, he has to learn, Shiro has to cope.” We didn’t just snap one Paladin into another Lion, done deal, black to white with no gray in between. Instead, the idea of who is the rightful Paladin of Black becomes a growing, morphing, black to grey to white gradient storytelling point with more nuance, development, and smooth direction. That’s pretty cool and will make for fascinating storytelling, character moments, and more.
Season 3 isn’t meant to feel as solidly “Keith is Black” as it should be. It’s meant to initially fool you because Shiro is gone, but it’s not meant to have this feeling Keith is solidly there because, really, he’s not - he goes in and out of Black quickly. But because we had that big time gap from 3-4, Keith further growing into the role of Black Paladin got solidified in our heads, making it feel all the weirder to see Shiro return “so soon.” But again, if you watch 3 directly into 4, you might see… it’s just that Keith is getting a taste, and the story is slowly building to ask the question of who should rightfully lead Voltron.
Because that’s obviously not a topic that’s done with, between Keith saying Shiro is the rightful Paladin, Shiro saying Keith is the rightful Paladin, yet Keith leaving and Shiro taking position without complaint. Yeah, issue totally not done.
And in this sort of storytelling format, we avoid the awkwardness I mentioned in #1 and #2. We won’t have Shiro’s characterization arc fall flat because he got shafted and put to the side. It won’t feel like this character just disappeared and poof wasn’t a leader and poof wasn’t cool anymore and poof wasn’t progressing anymore with his connection to the Black Lion. And it won’t have Keith’s arc fall flat at all… because this means that Keith will have a long, nuanced, gradual, inclining development into someone who can be a great leader. In fact Shiro returning to Black makes Keith’s characterization into a leader all the richer.
For we see Keith go from someone who isn’t a leader, to someone who is suggested to be a leader, to someone who gets a taste of leadership and rejects it. We create more nuance and steps this way, than just by having a plot where first he’s recommended to be leader, then lo and behold he is leader, and now he learns how to be leader while being leader. The writers are building more. Keith is learning both how to become leader and how to accept being leader this canon way. Keith is progressing just as much about how to become a leader than if he stayed in Black. Furthermore, rejecting leadership and leaving it and seeing Shiro still lead is a cool stage for Keith’s growth! Because S3 / 4 gave Keith the taste of being leader but ultimately not becoming leader, we show that Keith still has so much further to go. We show that there’s an interesting avenue that he might be headed towards… but we still have to wait eagerly to see actualized. We’ve got to get this whole growth going for Keith to learn how to accept leadership - even leadership as a Paladin of Voltron - before we really see him frequently back in action in Black.
And indeed, S4 shows that idea progressing forward of Keith learning leadership and Shiro increasingly being shown not to be the irrevocable leader of Voltron. Shiro makes a big mistake this season. Keith leaves, but learns some responsibility with the Blade of Marmora (rallying back-up? that’s new for him!)… and likely, he’ll continue learning. It might seem like a big, tangled, directionless mess when we focus just on the microcosm that is S4′s six tiny episodes… but looking at the larger plot arc, I am pleased. I think they’ve got great potential to develop this, for Shiro, for especially Keith, and for VLD as a whole.