This article discusses the full first season of The Promised Neverland from an anime-only perspective. Spoilers abound.
Norman stood along the wall, staring out into the forest and smiled. And then he looked down, and the cliff edge terrified him. Yet still the trees beyond beckoned him, and so his determination was sealed. The greatest trick this first season of The Promised Neverland pulls, in amongst many great thriller achievements, is inciting that same mixture of trepidation and tantalisation in the audience. Bringing us to the same place as Norman; bringing us to that wall. And the primary reason for that successful channelling of emotion and investment is thanks to Isabella and her finely threaded exercise in villainy.
The moment I finished the finale, recovering my slightly jangled nerves and letting my fizzing heart settle, I reflected on why I found it and the season as a whole so very satisfying. Perhaps it was the sheer cathartic relief of seeing the children escape. Perhaps it was the impact of having kept the geography of the setting so contained to the perimeter walls finally broken open, an induced claustrophobia finally released. No, what really impressed and satisfied me was how The Promised Neverland charted the character of Isabella, at once unravelling her sympathetically and maintaining the potency of her evil.
That potency begins with the anime’s direction. The directing of The Promised Neverland regularly maintains something akin to a visual third-person limited perspective for the first few episodes, occasionally switching to first-person point-of-view. Crucially though, save for the brief moment at the end of the very first episode with Isabella’s widening eyes and freakish close-up, the series keeps the perspective bound to the children and their limited information. In doing so, it exacerbates the image of Isabella as an omnipresent monster able to track down her children, raising and sacrificing them without mercy, as a willing ally of the demons. Her supposed love an incorrigible façade. It makes her an easy villain to despise, and the incremental successes by the children in outwitting her genuinely exciting while always tinged with fear.
Then Krone arrives as a rival seeking to usurp Isabella, and the perspectives open up to reveal Krone’s story. Krone’s purpose is ultimately functional, as a hurdle and then asset for the children. That in itself is a poor device by using a black character only to further the story of another character—problematic territory only compounded by the frequent use of retrogressive exaggerated features. As final insult to Krone and tired storytelling, only as she is about to die does the audience see her struggle for survival and avoiding death in rising through the ranks to join the Mother programme.
Yet, regarding Isabella, Krone serves her function well on two counts. Firstly, Isabella manages to outplay Krone, her foil, reinforcing the former’s status as a competent antagonist just as the children are gaining a foothold. Secondly, Krone’s tragedy implies that perhaps Isabella too became a Mother for the sake of her own survival. Isabella’s facile evil transforms into one of bureaucracy and complicity, balancing the understanding of her desire to live with the upholding of a demonic institution.
This is a far pettier and more horrific evil because it is one repeated throughout our own human history. To draw an obvious parallel given the nature of the farms, one of the most harrowing elements of Jewish persecution during the Third Reich was the systematic ease with which the reinterpretation of the German Civil Code came about, precipitating the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, the legal grounds for the events of the Kristallnacht, and eventually the genocide of the Holocaust. A more apt comparison from that period of time might be the legal system under the Vichy France government, wherein the increasing scope for Jewish exclusion was less due to a German directive than a rigorous scholastic enterprise that still ended with Jews being sent to concentration camps. Or in later eras, the methodical displacement and eviction of non-white South Africans from District Six in Cape Town during Apartheid. When society reflects on the perpetration of the great evils in history, they are rarely the singlehanded work of one sweeping, Cheshire-smiling megalomaniac. Rather it is enabled by the many hands of complicity, not even necessarily individually mean-spirited, but simply willing to maintain the status quo and further its many revisions through mundane practices of evil. Both Isabella and Krone embody that duality—monstrous in the minds of the children and collusional in the face of reality. That thin dividing line elevates the villainy.
The head of the human side of the child-harvesting operation, Grandmother, dismisses Krone’s final gambit to avoid dying, commenting that children have tried to escape and not managed before, always drawn back to the farms within the walls. The Promised Neverland shows a brief flashback to a lone girl on a wall. Discerning viewers at this point might speculate that the girl was Isabella and that she once harboured desire to go beyond the walls, further texturing her actions.
So, as the series barrels towards the finale, the humanisation of Krone by showing her choices informs Isabella as a villain too. The suggestion that she might have wanted to escape makes that moment when Norman, en route to his own demise, asks her if she is happy all the more piercing. There is a brief but illuminating cracking of her demeanour. The full weight of indirect characterisation comes to bear when Isabella discovers every ploy and seems thrilled to be able to throw away the guise. Still, even free of pretences, she continues to state that she loves her children, a paradox from Emma’s point of view. While Isabella is an effective monster for the children, the inferrable context of Isabella’s tragic past makes Emma’s steeled resolve to break the system and save everyone more impressive, as Isabella was once her equal and took the opposite course of action. Thus, when she talks to Emma about the prospect of becoming a Mother—sparking the extra, horrifying knowledge that Mothers have to first give birth knowing that their child is for slaughter—it comes from a place of actual, twisted care. Isabella is trapped in this system too, so she lets them live as happily as possible while they can; this is how she shows her love.
The finale is more of a denouement for Isabella than anything else. The series formally reveals her backstory, how she was the girl standing on the wall, how she was drawn back because she did not want to be separated from her young love, how she accepted the offer to become a Mother. And, more gruellingly, it shows her as an emotional husk humming away to her growing foetus. That these reveals are largely a series of confirmations for the audience is a satisfying resolution to the mystery, aggrandising the sense of perception and sleuthing as we have watched the children do all season. Yet to make sure nobody is too complacent, the finale throws in one final twist: Ray is Isabella’s child. I admit it caught me off guard, and I am sure that more attentive and savvy viewers figured it out ages ago with the lullaby motif, but it remained a stellar twist for me. Thinking back on Ray’s position as a spy and the way he was able to manoeuvre, which in all honesty had puzzled me a bit, the twist makes it all fall into place while also retroactively changing the dynamic of their interactions completely, at certain points making it especially cruel.
There are many examples of the The Promised Neverland’s twists upending its previous established information, and in doing so redefinining the previous characteristics of and interactions between characters. Limiting ourselves to Isabella however, a little heartwarmingly, she rewarded her son regularly with presents he wanted for a long time, as well as had private conversations. In this particular dystopia, it is probably about as close as anyone has ever had to a normal familial relationship. Were we to be too comforted by this thought, and entertain the idea that perhaps Isabella was aiding her son, is there the pivotal moment before she captures Emma and informs Norman that his shipment is imminent. She tells Ray he is no longer needed as a spy and locks him away in a room to prevent him from helping. This is no longer a handler letting go of their informant; rather it is a mother condemning her son. Ray’s shock and desperation is more heartbreaking in retrospect.
Isabella’s antagonistic role this season fittingly ends at the wall. Her desire for the children “to find the light” recalls her younger ambitions. Still, the show manages to both turn Isabella into an insurmountable wall of oppression while also humanising her indirectly, and this final genealogical twist straddles both those elements. So for a moment, I thought she might pitch herself off the wall, having finally given up while acknowledging her failure to harvest the children. What actually happens is much more ambiguous and all-the-more terrifying. She returns to the burning embers of the farmhouse, and while unaware children blissfully hug her, she smiles and admits to Phil, the only remaining child who knows the truth, that the others “escaped safely”. Phil is not excited; he is incredulous, but also scared. And as an audience member, watching Isabella coddle sleeping children in blankets, so am I. As much as I would like to believe that Isabella will now resist from within, her history suggests otherwise. Phil’s hint of fear is my fear. Isabella, the human-sacrificing villain, might just redouble her efforts. The fact that I cannot read the intent of Isabella’s slightly wistful smile nor decipher her inscrutable personality, is why this season, and especially this finale, has been a masterclass in villain creation.
Isabella the Antagonist makes The Promised Neverland all the more a brilliant thriller. Isabella the Unknown is more terrifying, though. Once again, The Promised Neverland plays with known and unknown expertly. Earlier, I mentioned the revision of information with twists. That was always done within a framework of hard rules: that children are being tracked; that they will be killed eventually. The walls and farmhouse were physical reminders of these hard facts. This directed the focus of the puzzling and the impressiveness of the ingenuity, while always having Isabella present to underline the threat posed. But the finale bombastically burns down the farmhouse and with it the known structure of the series. That the series has never diminished Isabella’s capacity or capriciousness in the present day carries through to this shift. Both the children and viewers no longer have guidelines to situate themselves. It is a frequent horror technique to use the absence of information, because whatever the audience can conjure in their minds is often more viscerally terrifying to them individually than something concretely displayed. The imagined horrors of the forest beyond, with only the images of demons to speculate what might be out there, is an enticing prospect for the viewer.
Similarly, with the series untethered, we once again have no real knowledge of who Isabella will be going forward. We can only ruminate on her past pragmatically evil deeds, while the idea that she might genuinely want the children to escape percolates. In a sense, we are taken right back to where we began with Isabella: a smile of hidden depths. Unlike that first smile that revealed her antagonistic role, this one has no true clarity, and in that way it is just as foreboding. Much like Norman staring from atop the wall, we the viewers are hopeful for the future of the children, but we know their story is always on the precipice of a reversal of fortune, not least because of the unknown potential of Isabella herself.
Andreas Nachama, Topography of Terror. Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on Wilhelm- and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße. A Documentation, Stiftung Topographie des Terrors, Berlin, 2010
Christiaan Beyers, Land Restitution’s ‘Rights Communities’: The District Six Case, Journal of Southern African Studies Vol. 33, No. 2 (June, 2007)
Richard H. Weisberg, Vichy Law and the Holocaust in France, Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH, Amsterdam, 1996
Disclaimer: There is a bit of an elephant in the room that anyone plugged into anime articles and criticism probably is aware of: this article shares a great many similarities with that of a video posted today by Mother’s Basement. Hell, even the titles are similar. The excellent MamaLuigi was editing this article when he brought the video to my attention. It was quite demoralising honestly, because I’m a firm believer in the academic standard of not publishing the same material, so I considered abandoning it. There is no way of proving that I didn’t just crib my stuff off of the popular Anituber, and that sort of academic dishonesty is an anathema to me, so just never posting the thing would be easier. But I was pleased with the essay. So posting this article today, as opposed to later on this week when I had originally planned, is really a matter of pride I guess. Hopefully it’s well-structured enough to indicate that I didn’t steal his work, which I will post in the comments for the sake of disclosure. He makes some good observations. Given how soon after the show ended, it’s probable that we were writing (and him editing a whole video impressively) in parallel on opposite sides of the world.
Thankfully, this thing will be buried soon enough, but I still needed to get it out. Thanks for potentially reading anyway.
Once again, thanks to MamaLuigi for his time and efforts.