Brave New World: How Shadowhunters Navigates Alec Lightwood’s Story In a Storm of Subtext

“I love you too, Alec.”

These words, uttered by Shadowhunters’ Jace Lightwood only five episodes into the first season, were all I needed to confirm what I thought was happening.

I’m not surprised that the Freeform network’s Mortal Instruments adaptation is addressing the complicated relationship between two of its most prominent shadowhunters. That plot comes directly from the show’s source material. What I wasn’t expecting was for the series to throw itself head first into homoerotic subtext.

Shadowhunters follows Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), a young woman who’s just discovered she’s a shadowhunter — half human, half angel — born to protect the world from demons. After Clary’s mother is taken by Valentine (Alan Van Sprang), a dangerous shadowhunting dissenter, the fight to save her lands Clary in the middle of a war. She navigates the Shadowhunters universe with the help of her friend Simon (Alberto Rosende), a powerful warlock named Magnus Bane (Harry Shum Jr.), and a few well-trained warrior angels who go by the names of Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Alec (Matthew Daddario) and Isabelle Lightwood (Emeraude Toubia).

Those familiar with the books know that the love triangle between Clary, Jace and Simon is at the forefront of the narrative. However, the show is fleshing out another triangle in the way the books never quite did. It’s a relationship that centers Alec, a stoic shadowhunter who happens to be gay. On one hand he’s locked into a lifetime and inimitable parabatai warrior bond with his adoptive brother Jace. On the other, Alec’s desire for bisexual warlock Magnus is rapidly developing into his first legitimate love.

The writing clearly intends to further Alec’s personal character development through the triangle, in addition to raising the show’s emotional stakes. That’s because Alec, still very much in the closet about his homosexuality, has feelings for the very straight Jace.

In the large scheme of things, it makes sense that Alec struggles with his sexuality. He’s the quintessential masculine warrior. Logical, adept and valiant, this angelic leader — towering, lithe, of striking appearance — is plagued by fears of inadequacy and a desire for control. Alec’s dedication to the shadowhunter cause and its demands serves as a driving force behind his sexual repression.

During the first couple of episodes his attraction manifests as awkward pauses and glances lasting a second too long. Meanwhile, his sister Isabelle delivers a decent share of double entendres and allusions about her brother’s sexuality. Under the guise of trust issues, Jace and Alec quibble back and forth, mostly about Clary. Alec senses Jace’s feelings towards her, and distrusts her recently uncovered connection to their biggest enemy. To Alec, Clary threatens the world he holds dear and the people he loves most.

Alec and Magnus
(Freeform/John Medland)
MATTHEW DADDARIO, HARRY SHUM JR.

Though the series has only aired six episodes, the show writers’ use of homoerotic subtext has already been shockingly blunt. For starters, when Clary questions whether Alec’s aggressive distrust of her will affect his allegiance to Jace, viewers are presented with an emotionally loaded description of their unusual relationship.

“We’re parabatai,” Jace explains. “There’s no human bond that compares to what Alec and I have. We’re bound together for life. Bound to fight together. To protect each other. In battle, our hearts beat as one. If one of us were to die, part of the other would die inside as well.”

The show hasn’t yet revealed the rituals behind this rare connection. But according to the book series it’s based on, the bonding between two shadowhunters involves rings and vows, as well as promises to be buried next to one another. Once the connection has been forged the relationship is as Jace described, including heightened emotions like those searing feelings of loss — both of a partner and of part of themselves — upon death. In a nutshell, it’s an institutionally recognized partnership: til death do the parabatai part.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like marriage. Except that shadowhunter law prohibits any romance between two parabatai. Knowing this makes Alec’s reluctance to share his feelings all the more understandable, and the bubbling homoerotic tension between him and Jace so much more compelling when it surfaces. Which literally happens within episode four as the group works to uncover the location of a powerful relic.

The young shadowhunters draw out Magnus, a powerful ancient warlock, to help find that mysterious item. Using Magnus’ magic they successfully call up a memory demon to retrieve information on its whereabouts, but getting answers comes at a cost. The members of the summoning circle must surrender a memory of the one each loves the most.

I know what you’re thinking, because I know what I was thinking. Alec’s memory is obviously about Jace, but the show isn’t going to go there because that’s way too overt. Overt, however, is an understatement in Shadowhunters: Jace’s face appears as the demon’s offering from Alec’s memory.

The reveal is a loaded one. The memory demon encounter has risked a major relationship for Alec. Not to mention, it’s revealed that a member of a prominent shadowhunter family has broken a serious cultural law. Add to this that the show has seemingly outed its main gay character, in the midst of a mission which ultimately falls apart. As a result, character relationships grow far more complicated as the person for whom Alec holds the most affection now presumably knows his true feelings.

As Alec’s sexuality is exposed, so is that homoerotic tension between him and Jace. In fact, the scene catapults the show’s subtext to the surface so forcefully that when Jace turns to Alec in shock, viewers perceive Jace’s reaction as realization. It isn’t until we reexamine the scene from Jace’s point of view that we understand his feelings come from a different place. Furthermore, we don’t get to see who Jace would have chosen, since Alec breaks the circle’s bond before the demon gets to Jace. It’s another major ambiguity that dangles their parabatai tension in front of viewers.

The full feature first appeared at ScreenSpy on Feb. 19, 2016.

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