VOLTRON LEGENDARY DEFENDER: SEASON 4 REVIEW
Note: this is a mostly spoiler-free review of the fourth season of Voltron: Legendary Defender. I'll avoid getting too deep into plot specifics until the final, spoiler-marked section.
The third season of
Voltron: Legendary Defender may
have been too short for its own good, but the trade-off is that we have another
batch of new episodes a mere two months later. Little has changed in those two
months. Season 4 delivers a trademark blend of stylish action, complex
storylines and goofy humor, proving once again that Voltron is a strong contender
for being Netflix's best original animated series.
Season 4 picks up more or less directly where Season 3 left off, which makes sense considering how much the Season 3 finale felt like an arbitrary ending point. This latest batch of six episodes focuses mainly on Team Voltron's efforts to build an intergalactic resistance to the Galra Empire. Continuing Season 3's increased emphasis on "the other side," these episodes also shed more light on the increasingly tenuous nature of Emperor Zarkon (Neil Kaplan) and Witch Haggar's (Cree Summer) grip on power, as well as the machinations of Prince Lotor (A.J. Locascio) and his team.
Short though it
is, Season 4 manages to push the Voltron/Galra conflict forward in a
significant way. Alliances shift, character motivations evolve and the general
status quo by the end of the finale, "A New Defender," is markedly
different from the one established in the premiere, "Code of Honor."
The sheer variety in these six episodes is also appreciated. The first two
episodes take a more intimate, character-driven focus. The middle two are
generally more comedic in nature. And the final two episodes offer an epic,
Star Wars-esque finish to the season. Better yet, the overall standard of
quality here remains very high.
The closest thing this season has to a weak link is "Code of Honor." And even there, it's less a problem of quality than the questionable direction that episode pushes Keith (Steven Yeun). A major part of Season 3 revolved around Keith's reluctance to take up a leadership role in Shiro's (Josh Keaton) absence and become the new Black Paladin. This episode explores the push-and-pull affecting Keith as he tries to balance his responsibility as team leader to his newfound duties as a member of the Blade of Marmora. I'll get into my specific problems with this episode later, but suffice it to say that I wasn't entirely happy with how this episode handled Keith's dilemma.
Fortunately, the follow-up episode, "Reunion," is far more consistently successful. This episode focuses almost exclusively on Pidge (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and her tragic family history as she continues her quest to find her missing brother. This episode offers strong insight into the character and her reasons for joining the Galaxy Garrison Academy in the first place. The heavily emotional climax stands out in particular, making "Reunion" one of the best episodes in the series to date.
It's just as well the writers take a more lighthearted, palate-cleansing approach after that. There's a running gag involving Allura (Kimberly Brooks) and Coran's (Rhys Darby) newfound love of milkshakes that makes for an amusing subplot. But the real comedic highlight is the fourth episode, "The Voltron Show!," where the paladins are reluctantly tasked with putting on elaborate stage pageants in the hope of wooing more star systems to their cause. Coran's manic behavior in this episode never fails to entertain. In a show with an all-around impressive voice cast, Darby may just be the MVP. And that's to say nothing of Coran's faithful sidekick, Bii-Boh-Bi.
"Begin the Blitz" and "A New Defender" wrap up the short
season on a very strong note. Star Wars really does seem like the best point of
comparison here, as the season's climactic battle features an intrepid band of
rebels waging a desperate battle on multiple fronts. The show's animation has
rarely stood out this much. The sense of scope and energy to these battle
scenes simply runs circles around most of what you'll find on most current
animated shows. The sense of desperation driving these last two episodes also
makes them a great end-cap to the season. In true Return of the Jedi fashion,
what seems like an easy victory for team Voltron quickly morphs into a
desperate bid for survival.
It's also worth noting how much the series continues to benefit from Lotor's presence in Season 4. Unlike his father, Lotor isn't painted as a straightforward antagonist, but more of a free agent with his own goals and desires that don't necessarily align with either side in this intergalactic war. This seasons excels at both establishing Lotor as a dangerous, unpredictable threat and casting him in a more sympathetic light. The same goes for his team, each of whom are forced to evaluate their place in the universe as Lotor begins making his move. I do wish these characters were a more consistent focus across these six episodes, but there's only so much the writers can really cram into six episodes. At least the finale ends on a more satisfying note than some.
Not everything goes Lotor's way in Season 4.
Warning: spoilers for Voltron: Season 4 ahead!
Backtracking to Keith for a minute, I found it disappointing that the character's choice between Team Voltron and the Blade of Marmora was to choose the latter. Keith's reluctance to lead is exactly why his promotion was such a compelling development in Season 3. Likewise, Shiro's struggle to find his purpose after losing ownership of the Black Lion gave him the basis of a strong character arc. Having Keith become a full-time Blade not only served to remove him from the spotlight for much of this season, it brought an abrupt end to both his and Shiro's arcs. We can only hope the writers will find new, different ways of testing these characters in Season 5.
It was interesting to see Pidge's journey take such a sudden shift in the final moments of "Reunion." As well as her emotional breakdown at her brother's gravestone was handled, I would have been perfectly fine had the episode ended right there. Instead, we learned that Matt (Blake Anderson) is alive and still very active in the fight against Zarkon. Their sibling dynamic is charming, as is Matt's instant infatuation with Allura. It's a shame we so little focus on the friction between Matt and Lance (Jeremy Shada) after that initial scene in "Black Site," but that's another area for the series to focus on in Season 5.
Finally, if Keith was annoyingly absent this season, the finale did partly make up for that absence with Keith's heroic near-sacrifice. That would have been a fitting death for the character. Instead, he was saved at the last minute by the last character you'd expect. It's certainly intriguing to see Lotor emerging as more of an ally to Team Voltron than a nemesis, though it's hard to imagine he's doing anything manipulating them to get what he wants. Still it's one more unexpected wrinkle to what was initially a pretty straightforward conflict between the heroic Paladins and the evil Zarkon. And that's to say nothing of the unknown role Lotor's ex-minions have to play going forward.
It'll be interesting to see how that conflict continues to evolve in Season 5 and beyond. We're only at the midway point of Netflix's planned 78-episode run for the series. Yet between Lotor's apparent defection and the decisive blow struck against the Galra here, it would seem that our heroes are well on their way toward overthrowing Zarkon. It's probably safe to assume that Lotor's plan to breach the walls of reality and harness the unlimited quintessence within will become a bigger focus in the second half of the series. There's no telling what directions the series might go once it has an entire multiverse to play with. That's an exciting prospect.
Six episodes isn't a lot to work with, yet somehow the cast and crew of Voltron: Legendary Defender managed to make Season 4 the show's most varied and enjoyable one to date. These episodes offer a satisfying blend of character drama, slapstick comedy and epic, gorgeously rendered space battles. There are issues to be had with a handful of storytelling choices made this season, but that pales in comparison to everything this series is doing right.