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How Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender became an essential animated series

The creators of The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra have elevated the original series beyond its Saturday morning cartoon legacy.

Netflix Voltron: Legendary Defenders characters.

The five paladins of Voltron in Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender series.

Since Netflix’s Voltron: Legendary Defender debuted in 2016, critics have praised the streaming network’s reboot of the iconic 1984 Saturday morning cartoon Voltron: Defender of the Universe (which itself was an adaptation of a Japanese anime series). Consensus throughout the reboot’s first two seasons was that it remained a funny, kid-friendly space adventure while simultaneously aging up the story through dazzling depictions of deep space, hair-raising action sequences, and attentive character development. And now season three, released earlier this summer, is the show’s best one yet.

Overseen by creatives behind Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, Voltron has maintained much of the original story’s basic narrative, following five teen paladins named Shiro, Keith, Lance, Hunk, and Pidge. The unexpected pilots of a fleet of sentient robot space lions that combine to form one large battling super robot known as Voltron, the paladins are responsible for thwarting the ever-growing threat of General Zarkon and his imperialistic Galra Empire.

In season three, after efforts to locate their team leader Shiro (who disappeared at the end of season two following a battle with Zarkon) prove unsuccessful, the paladins are forced to find a new leader and align with new lions. However, rebuilding the team — in the face of their new enemy Lotor, no less — isn’t as easy as it looks. As they fight to preserve their roles as the universe’s legendary defenders, the series’ shortest and darkest season yet sees the team venture to vast, unfamiliar universes where they must face dangerous new challenges.

Here are five reasons why season three of Voltron: Legendary Defender shouldn’t be missed.

A fast pace prevents the season from falling victim to predictability

In season three, the outcomes of several Voltron storylines become apparent long before they actually happen onscreen. Whether it’s the team’s near-death experience in their first battle or the season’s final fight (which sees the paladins arguing over their heroic priorities), the way they and their enemies fare is somewhat predictable. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because season three is easily the most dramatically compelling.

With so few episodes (seven, as opposed to 11 in season one and 13 in season two), there is little room for filler. The result is a heightened sense of urgency that overcomes the season’s predictability, because it forces viewers to think less about what’s coming up and more about the dramatics of the present moment. We get plenty of action and answers, without enough downtime to wind up mired in anticipating what’s ahead.

The unveiling of Voltron’s dark past ups the show’s emotional stakes

To say that Voltron features mature content despite its kid-friendliness would be a major understatement. Throughout its three seasons, the show has touched on everything from torture and nationalism to identity and family. Three of its main characters have lost parents, and one her entire planet. Shiro regularly experiences PTSD symptoms, the result of having been a Galra prisoner, and in season two the compassionate Princess Allura was forced to unpack her own racism when Keith’s Galra ancestry was revealed.

Season three continues to explore big themes, including free will, love, power, and teamwork. These themes are most emotionally resonant in moments when the paladins are fighting — with each other, over what their next move should be, or against Lotor and his all-female team of generals. Ultimately, though, it’s season three’s final episode, in which the team is forced to finally reckon with Voltron’s past, that delivers the clearest exploration of those weighty subjects.

Opting out of the cliffhanger approach of finales past, the last 22 minutes of the season see Coran recalling the emotional history of the original paladins, the cosmic origins of the lions, and a love among friends so corrupted by power it threw the universe into destructive chaos.

The addition of darker sci-fi elements lets the series explore new edges of its universe

Voltron has always been more sci-fi than adventure, but in its third season, it embraces the vastness of the unknown in bigger and better ways, ultimately becoming a full-fledged sci-fi show.

It tonally alternates between mysterious and scary, delving into the narrative and visual tropes of the sci-fi genre. At one point in the season, for example, when the paladins receive what appears to be an Altean distress signal, Allura pushes them to check out a mysterious ship. Upon boarding, the discovery of a suited-up skeleton helps them realize the ship has long since been abandoned. The vast, shadowy eeriness of the ship is reminiscent of scenes from Alien or Syfy’s The Expanse. And when our heroes come face to face with people from both their and the show’s past, we realize that answering the ship’s call has somehow landed them in an alternate universe. It’s an unexpected but exciting expansion of Voltron’s already vast world.

Season three’s big bad, Lotor, is perfect in almost every way

It’s not very often that a villain is both genuinely enthralling and completely unsettling, but that’s what Voltron season three has delivered with Prince Lotor. The long-exiled son of Zarkon, Lotor possesses many traits of a strong leader: He’s smart, tactical, steadfast, inspirational, physically adept. He knows when to hold them and when to fold them, and instead of embracing the traditional Galra approach of fearmongering, he presumably chooses to offer mercy and free will in an effort to earn his generals’ and victims’ loyalty.

How all of that adds up is what makes him such a great foil for the paladins. If you didn’t know any better, you might confuse him for their former leader, Shiro. There’s an eerie similarity between the two that’s actually mirrored within Lotor’s entire team, which is made up of villains who in many ways look and act like the reverse images of our heroes. And therein lies what makes Lotor so uniquely threatening. At a time when the paladins are scrambling to reboot their chemistry, he’s seemingly the one part of the team they no longer have, and thus have no defenses against.

Voltron’s connection to the Galra is complicated ... by Shiro

Voltron’s underlying mysteries — Keith’s ancestry, the disappearance of Pidge’s brother and father, Shiro’s robotic arm — are a key factor in how the show has moved from being classic fun to downright compelling. Season three explores several of them, with the most notable development being that Shiro’s strange disappearances are revealed to be less coincidental than they once seemed.

In season one, the return of pilot Takashi Shirogane after his long absence in Galra confinement was what jump-started the formation of Voltron. And in season three, Shiro’s reemergence after his season two absence has jump-started Voltron once again. Only this time, Voltron isn’t interested in taking Shiro back as a paladin — at least not in the same way as before, and there may be a legitimate reason for that.

Season three inches along the mystery of Shiro’s Galran arm by peeling back the layers of a much larger conspiracy — one that leaves both viewers and Shiro with more questions than answers about his role in the Galran empire’s plans. The storyline delivers a satisfying balance between reveal and dramatic ambiguity, and with the confirmation of season four, viewers will get to learn more about Shiro’s pre–season one disappearance and, more importantly, who in the intergalactic battle his arm is really meant to help or hurt.