The Dragon Prince’s creators on the series’ storytelling and the rules of dark magic

Back in 2018, when Netflix announced its new original series The Dragon Prince, fans of American animation immediately went on high alert. Co-creators Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond, whose recently founded studio Wonderstorm was behind the show, were familiar names: Ehasz is a Futurama writer and head writer of the unparalleled Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, while Richmond is a game developer and director from the fan-favorite Uncharted series. And their premise for the series — a quest taking place in a world full of dragons, elves, and magic — sounded like a kind of epic high fantasy that in theory should be perfect for animation, but in practice isn’t much seen on TV screens.

The first season of The Dragon Prince turned out to be engaging and intelligent. It laid out a detailed world with complicated conflicts between the human and magical worlds, with young princes Ezran and Callum, alongside elf assassin Reyla, trying to broker peace by returning a stolen dragon egg to the magical world it came from. But season 2, which recently arrived on Netflix, is a revelation that builds considerably on the first season. Most significantly, it sends Callum on a quest to learn to do primal magic — something humans supposedly aren’t capable of, because they don’t have primal forces within them. Instead, humans generally turn to “dark magic” — a grim process that involves sacrificing living things for the inherent magic within them.

Season 2 focuses on moral conundrums that seem rich and complicated for a children’s show, as the princes’ childhood friends Claudia (a dark magician, and also a cheerful, friendly girl who clearly cares for Callum) and Soren (an amiable soldier) pursue Callum and Ezran, each with a secret agenda from their frightening father Viren. But then, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Dragon Prince is the kind of series that’s out to challenge and expand children’s understanding of the world, while being thoughtful, detailed, and ambitious enough for adult viewers as well. In part one of a wide-ranging conversation about season 2 of the series, Ehasz and Richmond discuss some of their storytelling choices, how Ezran’s development in season 2 works into their rules for magic, and some things coming up if the show is renewed for a third season.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Spoiler warning: We were as circumspect as possible about actually giving away season 2 plot points, but we are expressly talking about some of the show’s larger plot developments.

This season has some unusual storytelling around dialogue-free sequences, like General Amaya’s fight sequences, or Viren’s mirror explorations. What kind of conversations did you have around storytelling without words?

Aaron Ehasz: A lot of it is that we believe in the audience, that we don’t have to say specifically, or out loud, what is happening in every scene, for them to register it. We are trying to tell a story for an audience that’s paying attention.

The other thing is, we trust our directors and storyboard artists to tell the story with the camera. So a lot of the time, the scripts are written with dialogue, but then we know the director and artists are going to do a beautiful job. We know we’re going to have our amazing composer coming in with music. And we’ll decide we don’t need dialogue to tell the most impactful version of what’s happening.

This season’s structure is also unusual, with people operating at different paces, and a multi-episode flashback in the middle. How did you break down the season’s overall arcs?

Justin Richmond: I’m trying to remember, because that was a very hectic time. Very early on, we knew we wanted to do the flashback. That was a plan we had all along. But I don’t remember whether we knew it was two episodes. I feel like we thought it was one when we started, and as we broke the story down, we said, “Oh, no, actually, to really sell this noise, it’s actually going to be two episodes long, with all the stuff that’s happening in between.” Overall, the audience, we think, is super-sophisticated, and they totally get it. So we allowed ourselves to do a bunch of things that might be considered complicated for kids. But I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t understand exactly what’s happening through the whole season, so hopefully we walked that line.

Photo: Netflix

You open this season with General Amaya fighting, and you’d planned for another scene with her to bookend the season. Why did you push the resolution of that plotline to season 3?

AE: When we got to those last episodes, we were so focused on seeing what Ezran was going through, understanding what Soren and Claudia were going through, needing to see the culmination of Viren’s story, which is progress on his dark path and falling back on what he thinks is his goal. You could say we ran out of time, so we needed to move what’s happening with General Amaya and the Sunfire elves at the Breach to the beginning of a hopefully next season, as setup for the coming story. But we could have made that time if we wanted. We decided we wanted to give that time to other characters. We needed those other things to happen in a way that felt right. We didn’t want to rush. So we made a decision, and hopefully it’s the right decision. You always hope it’s the right idea! We hope we didn’t leave people hanging too much at the Breach.

JR: We hope it’s the right decision, but the fans will let us know, I’m sure.

Ezran discovers some new abilities this season, and it’s not entirely clear whether those fit into the rules we know for magic in your world. Will we learn more about whether what he’s doing is outside your existing rules, or it’s just an aspect of them we haven’t seen yet?

JR: There’s an interesting specific set of things happening with Ezran and Zym, which may be different from how Ezran relates to other animals. It’s a very similar thing, but I think there’s a connection there that’s obviously deeper than what he had in season 1.

AE: To be clear, he has a deep empathy that is so powerful, it extends into the realm of being magical. It’s not normal. But the power of that empathy is also part of his character, and why his character is destined to play a role in the world that no other character could possibly play. Because he’s special, because he empathizes, because he’s able to connect on a deep level with beings that are not human, or not like him. His empathy is power.

Photo: Netflix

In the same way, it’s unclear at this point whether Callum is walking a path other humans have walked before, or if he’s doing something new. Are you planning to get deeper into that?

JR: When Callum says, “Destiny is a book you can write yourself,” there’s a real meaningful thing there — he is choosing to walk a different path, because he believes that’s the right thing to do. So there’s a question there — we’ve been told humans can’t do primal magic, right? Is that just something he’s been told? Is he special? Is it just something humans have believed for such a long time, and dark magic is so easy, that no one ever bothered doing the deep reflection it takes to actually let them access primal magic? Yeah, we’re going to get into that. But we’re not going to write a whole episode about him meditating. It is important, I think, but we’ll start to discover more of that, the more stories we get to do about Callum and magic.

This season, we see a character experimenting with dark magic for the first time, which causes an intense personal event. Does everybody who tampers with dark magic have an experience like that? Will we ever see how that might play out for other dark magic users? Or is this a unique experience?

AE: The way we talk about it is that a dark mage is consuming and ultimately channeling something very essential about another being. Primal magic is using runes and their essence to attract and focus and give meaning to magic. So it’s almost like they’re a lens, saying, “Magic come here, and magic do this!” Whereas a dark magic user is consuming something and becoming the vessel for it, then outputting it as something new. So there’s an experience of them having to be the thing that changes and twists a living energy into magical energy. We always felt, “Well, that’s going to do something to you.” So we did feel most dark magic users, their first time, go through something really hard and powerful. They’re affected by it, they’re changed, and there’s consequences. You’re not the same after you use dark magic. I’m not saying you’re corrupted, or ruined, or you can’t recover. But you’re a little different.

Claudia and Viren are compromised by that magic, but they’re also such relatable characters. How did you address how to balance those elements in them?

JR: When we figured out that Claudia would do anything to keep her family together, for me, that was very clarifying. She’s got this messed-up home situation. She was forced to make this horrible choice for her brother, about who they were going to live with. The compromises she’s willing to make to keep her family together make her really interesting. And on top of that, I think she’s a delightful, fun, spacey person naturally. So what does that turn her into?

You see, by the end of season 2, what she does and how that affects her physically. I think there’s something really interesting about that. We talked a lot about that in the room with the writers. And I’ve said this before, but Aaron’s a genius at mixing comedy and drama in a way that not a lot of writers are really great at. There used to be a card that said, “Find the humor,” above the board where we had every single episode sketched out. It’s a core piece of the show, from the very beginning. We call it The Epic Sadness Show For Children sometimes, because a lot of really horrible stuff happens. But just like in real life, things are still funny, even when they’re really bad. And I think that’s an important piece of our storytelling technique. I think hopefully people feel that.

AE: Not everyone would agree with you that I’m a comedy genius.

JR: Your kids don’t.

Photo: Netflix

AE: The only thing I would throw in is, Viren, Claudia, and Callum each have different motives for using dark magic. People can do bad things for good reasons, or for what they think are good reasons. I don’t know that we have a hard stance on what the right thing to do is here. We’re just interested in these characters being dimensional and real and true to themselves, even when some of them are willing to go further than others in getting what they want. I love that Claudia is so sympathetic, even though she does something that feels so horrible. But you know she’s doing it for her brother, and it’s a little heartbreaking. She isn’t doing it heartlessly. She doesn’t want to do what she does in the season’s culmination. She just knows she has to save her doof. She has to help Soren.

JR: Some of this is the actors, also. Jesse Inocalla and Racquel Belmonte in the booth, it’s like talking to Soren and Claudia. They’re goofing around just like that, they have the same relationship, they’re super funny. So a lot of that blends through into the writing. Once we knew how they were playing the characters, you can lead into some of the stuff that makes them special, and they bring a whole new level.

AE: And Jason Simpson, who plays Viren, part of what he brings to it is, he’s absolutely convinced this guy’s not a villain. He does what’s necessary — Jason will argue all day long that Viren is doing what’s right in his own mind. It’s part of what makes his character compelling.

JR: If you called Jason right now and asked, “Are you the bad guy?” he’d be like “No, of course not!”

AE: “He just gets a bad rap! He’s a practical man, doing what he must!” [Both laugh]

What Claudia does at the end of season 2 echoes a beat from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a similar magic Willow has to do to help her own friend. Was that a deliberate reference?

AE: Oh! I’ve watched all of Buffy and I don’t remember that scene.

JR: I don’t either! But maybe, subconsciously, yes!

AE: I mean, maybe we’re just going to the same place of having to do something really awful to innocence. Or mayyybe it’s homage to one of our favorite shows!

JR: Yes, that’s right. Thanks, Joss!

AE: I hope they don’t feel ripped off, that they just feel admired and respected! But yeah, that’s one of the greatest stories that blends emotional storytelling and amazing fantasy and terrific acting.

One of the season’s most complicated emotional beats is the speech about how history isn’t just strength and destruction. It isn’t just a catchphrase like “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a full manifesto. Why was this such an important message for you to present?

AE: That sequence, and those lines from that letter, are Harrow knowing he’s in his last moments, going, “What are the mistakes I slipped into? My sons are going to have to go into the world, and they’re going to grow up, they’re going to have power and make decisions. If only I had been strong enough to think of it this way, maybe I could have made different choices.” And it’s the challenge the whole younger generation faces in the show. They’re growing up into a world with pre-existing conflicts and crimes and wrongs on both sides. Are they going to be strong enough to create something new in that world, instead of following up on the back-and-forth? This is the test they’re undergoing right now, and they haven’t even been through the worst of it yet.

JR: The world is really hard sometimes, and it’s worth putting out a message of hope, and hopefully saying to people — not just kids, anybody — “You don’t have to be burdened by the things that came before. They matter, but you can do the right thing, regardless of the chains that have been put on you before this.” I think that is an important message right now to get out in the world. And I very much believe in that. Hopefully we’re putting positive stuff, not negative stuff, out into the ether.

You said back in 2018 that there were Easter eggs in the show that nobody had caught yet. Have the fans finally caught up to you?

JR: I remember specifically the one I said that about, and that has been found. I don’t remember if there’s any other ones that no one’s caught. There was one very specific one that I was thinking of at the time, and it has been found and tweeted.

Can you tell us what it was?

JR: I don’t remember exactly which one it was. I just remember it was something that for some reason, no one caught until a couple days later.

AE: And it’s that Harrow’s soul is in Opeli. [Both laugh] That’s not true. I’m being a jerk.

In part two of this interview, which will appear in one week, Ehasz and Richmond discuss how they retooled the series’ animation for season 2, how their directors use virtual camera rules to make the show feel more realistic, and the ridiculously minor closing credits gag character we can expect to see again in the future.

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