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.
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.
Clary chose her mother. Izzy chose her brother. It made sense that Jace would think his parabatai might choose someone blood related. Which brings us to when Jace tells Alec that he loves him.
It’s here, with only a handful of episodes under its belt, that the series formally acknowledges the homoerotic tension between the characters. Viewers learn that the revelation went over Jace’s head, the one person Alec most feared finding out. As Jace addresses why his parabatai is being so weird lately, Alec becomes timid, rehashing the previous day’s demon encounter. But Jace doesn’t understand why Alec would be embarrassed. Jace isn’t surprised that Alec loves him because he loves Alec, too. They’re parabatai after all.
The moment is the literal and physical manifestation of subtext, as we watch two conversations simultaneously occur. One alludes to Jace’s understanding of parabatai love while the other points directly to Alec’s desire for Jace. It’s clear from the body language and perfectly executed dialogue of both characters. The writers want you to know there are definitely mutual feelings between the two men, but they come from different places. Alec’s attraction to Jace is sexual. Jace’s attraction to Alec is not.
It would watch like a super aggressive episode of queerbaiting if two things were not present. Firstly, the show has two canonically queer characters in Alec and Magnus, for whom a relationship is developing at pretty much full steam. Secondly, when Simon challenges Jace’s emotional connection to Alec in the show’s most recent episode, Jace’s outburst is drenched in “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” feelings. While Jace’s specific emotional motivations are hard to pin down, the scene confirms that he aggressively cares for Alec.
Of course, that emotional gut-punch happens right before our first real look at the canon romance between Alec and Magnus, the High Warlock of Brooklyn. Their chemistry is electric during a rather “coy” interaction at the latter’s apartment, offering a glimpse of what’s romantically possible for Alec outside of Jace. Unfortunately, societal pressures and a complicated parabatai bond won’t be the only things forcing Alec’s sexuality to remain buried in subtext. As we learn, their rogue missions completed on Clary’s behalf have dishonored the Lightwood family. Torn emotionally between two men, Alec must now marry a woman to appease the shadowhunter elite.
Focusing a decent chunk of the narrative on the layered relationship between Alec and Jace — and thus the building love triangle with Magnus — challenges audiences’ gut instinct to view every relationship through a heterosexual lens. Within the context of the show’s universe and the confines of the parabatai relationship viewers are allowed to ask why Jace doesn’t have those feelings for Alec instead of vice-versa. The narrative then takes those complicated feelings and further fleshes them through an all-male love triangle, something we rarely see in media. It’s a reversal of the heteronormative interpretation we’re so used to, because a homosexual character’s viewpoint is guiding it.
Media has mishandled homoerotic subtext so poorly that our inclination is to deny what is right in front of us. Except that every time you do with Shadowhunters, it doubles down by putting both its parabatai in situations that feel deeply emotional and, as a result, sometimes erotic.
But while this is happening, we’re being reminded of the limitations of each parabatai’s orientation. Alec can be sexually and romantically attracted to Jace, but Jace can’t reciprocate that. So although the show is using their bond’s exclusiveness to explore each character’s emotional subtext, it also serves as an acknowledgement of the various (and often underrepresented) ways male intimacy can exist.
At its best executed the Jace and Alec relationship illustrates that men can have complicated, complex and downright messy emotional relationships. And it proves they don’t need to be in a physical commitment for that to happen either. Intimacy between men doesn’t exist as an either-or choice of “bromo or homo.” Like everyone else in the world and like sexuality itself, love between men can incorporate various commitments and expectations.
Shadowhunters choice to so deeply embed homoerotic subtext into its narrative is a risky one. Being only halfway through season one leaves a lot of screen time for the show to stumble with both its canon and subtextual male-male relationships. But the show’s willingness to be more open minded in other areas — from racebending characters to removing problematic slut-shaming and violence against women — makes me believe that it can handle the challenge.
Shadowhunters continues Tuesdays on Freeform.