I finally had a chance to sit down and watch Season 4 of RWBY—something I was really looking forward to after how much I enjoyed the previous season. With everything seemingly in ruins, Season 3 left me wondering how Team RWBY and their friends would be left to pick up the pieces and Season 4 did not disappoint. Though not as action-packed as the season before it, Season 4 finally took some time to give both the main characters and the side characters some much needed development. However, some of these developments left me feeling a little confused and questioning why the writers took that path (and not in a good way). And while RWBY’s world continues to improve in terms of diversity, at times it felt like a mirror of the name of one of the season’s episodes: one step forward, two steps back.
Having split up after the destruction of Beacon Academy, Team RWBY is each facing their own struggles in various parts of the world. For Ruby’s part, she’s teamed up with her friends—Jaune, Ren, and Nora; previously of Team JNPR—and has started her way toward the kingdom of Mistral. This newly formed Team RNJR travels across the Anima Continent, unaware that Salem, at Cinder’s request, is keeping an eye on them. In order to appease Cinder, Salem sends out new baddie Tyrian to bring Ruby back to her. Team RNJR gets totally decimated by Tyrian and are only saved by the appearance of Ruby’s uncle, Qrow. After being wounded by Tyrian, but defeating him, Qrow finally explains why Salem is destroying everything and the team realizes that they have more to worry about than they could have ever anticipated.
After the fall of Beacon, Weiss was whisked away back to her home country of Atlas by her father, but not out of any goodwill. It becomes apparent very quickly that Weiss’s father is the epitome of everything terrible about businessmen. He continuously argues with Ironwood about the impending measures to shut Atlas’s borders and gripes about how many millions he’s losing because of the new restrictions on dust—the Schnee family’s trade—all without ever caring about people who lost their lives and are still suffering due to what happened at Beacon. Weiss is forced to perform at a charity fundraiser, her father basically using her because she was at Beacon and fought in the battle. As the night goes on, though, Weiss becomes increasingly aware of and annoyed at the partygoers’ ignorance and callousness toward the affected. After one guest dares to imply that Beacon Academy deserved what it got, Weiss breaks her composure and loses control of her magic. Now the shame of her family, Weiss has everything ripped away from her by her father and must find a way to break out from under his oppressive thumb.
While Yang continues to recover from her injuries at home, struggling with how she wants to proceed and if she wants to use the prosthetic she was given for her part in the battle, Blake hops a ship to her home island of Menagerie. In wanting to separate herself from the people she cared about, she accidentally booked herself a vacation with the one and only Sun Wukong, who followed her, much to her chagrin. As Sun takes in the fully Faunus culture of Menagerie, he becomes privy to the complicated relationship Blake still has with the White Fang. Sun soon finds out that Blake’s parents aren’t only in charge of the bustling village, but that her father used to be an integral member of the White Fang. With Adam’s arrival into the group, the White Fang’s methodology became much more extreme, and now, after Blake and Sun managed to hunt down one of their spies and grab their datapad, it seems as though Adam is on the road to staging a coup and taking out the last pillar of the White Fang Blake’s father used to be a part of.
With all these plot threads, there’s a lot going on this season, but for the most part everything is a welcome addition. Season 4 focused squarely on showing how everyone was dealing with the grief and trauma of what they were forced to go through, and not everyone’s methods of doing so were necessarily healthy. Blake blames herself for much of what the White Fang has done, and thinks the only path she can take is to seclude herself, therefore ensuring that no one will get close to her, and thus, no one will get hurt. Luckily Sun is there to explain to Blake that she doesn’t need to do this; that her friends fight for her because they want to and they’re more than willing to accept whatever pain comes with that because that’s what friends do. Even though it’s not said, it’s clear that Adam’s abuse will forever be in Blake’s mind as he’s the one who seems to keep blaming Blake for hurting him with her actions. Now, though, Blake is where she needs to be: in a place of comfort surrounded by people who support her. It’s here that she can really start to figure out how to move past what has been done to her.
On the flipside, though it seems that a couple years have passed since Season 3, Jaune is still taking Pyrrha’s death very hard. With all the traveling Team RNJR’s been doing, I doubt he’s really had a chance to deal with the grief of not being able to do anything for her. This manifests in Jaune’s more dour attitude throughout the entire season, as well as his shortness with Qrow, whom he partially blames for Pyrrha’s death. Jaune believes that people are tired of hearing about how he’s sad that Pyrrha died, so he forces himself to work harder at his training in lieu of actually talking out his problems. Ruby unintentionally stumbles upon this coping mechanism as he hides it from the team (training privately at night), but doesn’t mention it. This also beautifully illustrates one of Ruby’s main flaws: her resistance to talking about bad things.
While I wouldn’t call RWBY a magical girl show by any means, it’s not atypical that when a show has a young female lead, she’s the pinnacle of pep and positivity. Ruby fits into the role as snugly as anyone, always trying to encourage her teammates and assuring others that things will work out in the end. In the ruins of Beacon, Ruby also lost some of this innocence and chipperness, especially when Yang lashes out at her at the end of last season, saying “sometimes bad things just happen.” Season 4 sees Ruby trying to hold onto her brightness, but also realizing that it’s not always the time or place for it; for her, or her friends. In this, though, she struggles. Her changing worldview makes her hesitate in some decisions and causes her to be wary when supporting her downtrodden friends. As the season ends with Ruby accepting that bad things do happen for no reason almost constantly, but resolving to not let it keep her down, I really do appreciate the writers giving Ruby a chance to explore this deviation from her trope without making it a huge deal. Now I just hope next season she’ll learn how to discuss bad things and uncomfortable situations in person without using humor as a crutch or just deciding not to.
There was a lot this season I enjoyed, but one of the most confusing things was the larger plot. Last season it was explained that much of Remnant’s power came from the existence of the four Maidens: ladies with the powers of the four seasons coursing through their veins. This was the reason for the fall of Beacon and why Cinder became so dangerous. However, this season we’re introduced to some new mythology about the god of light and the god of darkness. It’s a basic “this is how humans were made” story, as light and darkness created humanity together, but not only did they make humans, they created four powerful aspects—knowledge, choice, destruction, and creation—that have physical manifestations in the world that just so happen to be at each of the huntsmen academies. This is apparently what Salem is really after, for after collecting all four, you have the power to change the world any way you want. Now to me, this seems like a little much: we already have an all-powerful MacGuffin, and bringing the total to two seems not only unnecessary, but like they didn’t have a reason for Salem’s plans and just threw this together. Furthermore, RWBY has established itself as a series that gives a lot of agency to the women of its world. Keeping this in mind, it seems really, well, stupid to introduce these four seasonal maidens as the most powerful forces in-world, then be like, “Well, you know, these brother gods and what they created are actually the most powerful lol.” Maybe I’ll come to like this unnecessary choice come next season, but for now, I don’t.
Going into this season I’ll admit I had some worries after reading a post on Tumblr about how more lines of dialogue were allocated towards the dudes in the cast this season. The incorrect assumption from this data would be that in doing so, the ladies got less important screentime or less development. However, I will admit that I’m somewhat disappointed that 99% of the notable characters introduced this season were dudes: Salem’s others lackeys (Tyrian, Hazel, and Arthur), Weiss’s younger brother who popped in out of nowhere, Blake’s father, and Oscar, who seems to have inherited Ozpin’s soul and memories. These characters also have more sway in the plot than the female characters who were introduced—Blake’s mother is so far just a stereotypical mother character and Ilia spies for the White Fang, but as of yet has no other importance beyond that. I hope both that the ladies get their chance to shine and that if more characters are to be added, more of them are ladies (especially ladies of color in non-villain roles). I’m not worried yet, but if the above trend continues into Season 5, I certainly will be.
To add one more thing, I’m glad that the CRWBY is adding more diversity into their world despite me wishing that it was done earlier. It’s nice to see that in the general panning shots over towns, more people of color are showing up (it would be nicer if there were more in the supporting or main cast, but maybe they’re saving that for next season, I say with full skepticism). And while I wouldn’t call it perfect representation by any means, I’m glad to see that my wishes for a further exploration of the cultures of Remnant is coming true, to an extent. As opposed to Vale’s “city from anywheretown” appearance, Team RNJR explores several Asian-inspired towns within Anima that actually feel like the creative team put research into the source cultures in terms of things like fashion and city design rather than just sticking a jade dragon statue somewhere and expecting accolades. This is a step in the right direction, though it doesn’t erase the seeming lack of research that remains persistent even within character creation. As many fans have pointed out, Yang’s name is confusing in that it’s stereotypically a very masculine name and that it uses Western naming conventions (first name Yang, last name Xiaolong) rather than the original Chinese naming convention (first name Xiao Long, last name Yang). This naming order problem affects Sun Wukong as well. Furthermore, Ren’s full name, Lie Ren, appears to be a combination of both Chinese and Japanese, giving the impression that the creative team thinks East Asian countries are interchangeable.
It’s unfortunate that at this point, these issues in concerns to Ren, Sun, and Yang can’t be changed, but I would still like to see them go deeper with their attempts and try harder: representation is a lot more than fashion and cool sounding names. It may be difficult in a universe that’s already been established as only vaguely culturally synonymous to our world, but all the more reason to try. It would be most helpful, I think, if they stepped outside of their East Asian-inspired box for once, and even more helpful if they listen to fan feedback on representation.
As RWBY’s diversity increases and its story continues to unfold, I can only hope that the writers aren’t writing themselves into situations they can’t write themselves out of. I still have a huge issue with how this season dealt with physical disabilities and wonder if they’ll tackle just how shitty literally everyone was about it by having Yang, Cinder, or even some character I don’t know yet call someone out, but we’ll get into that another time. Still, with all this character exploration for those around her, next season I hope to see some major character development for our titular Ruby, who didn’t really do much this season. I also hope to continue to see our main girls continue to rise above the situations they were forced into, eventually finding themselves together again, able to reconcile and become the Team RWBY we all know and love. Less seriously, I pray next season we get fewer tiresome implications of Sun/Blake, and more of that good, good Bumblebee content—you’ll never sink my ship, CRWBY!!