By: Eli Duah-Mensah
Spoiler Alert: This entire article talks in detail about The Promised Neverland szn one. Thank you!
It’s one of the most saccharine pictures one could paint; in what is usually depicted as a cold and morose environment, a group of orphans are never seen without a smile, never speaking without bursting into laughter, and always playing games together. Indeed, this elation is in no small part thanks to their “Mom,” who may care for these children more than she cares for herself. Though they have to study for a large test from time to time, the stress is shortly squashed with another few hours of play. And when a sibling finally finds a family, the rest of the group treat it as though they are watching them have a heart attack. Shock. Dismay. Sadness. As a sibling steps out of the orphanage one final time, most are on the verge of tears. Yet, in the dark of night, when two of the children — Emma and Norman — hunt down a leaving member to return a toy, they are struck by the realization that their orphanage, their lives, are not what they seem. They are not just orphans–they are livestock.
The Promised Neverland was one of many shows in my lockdown catalog. Yet, from the first season, it became evident that The Promised Neverland was not just another show; it was a suspenseful, yet consistently entertaining experience. Without fail, I was kept on my toes. I gasped at the clip of Connie’s death. When Emma, Norman and Ray all coalesced their unique abilities to create a plan to get them and their siblings out, I was on the edge of my seat. When the backstory of Isabella was slowly revealed, my interest was piqued. But a great strength of The Promised Neverland is not only that I am invested in the show, I am invested with the show. The writing and animation makes it so easy to empathize and get in the minds of these characters. A prime example would be “EPISODE.03 181045,” in the scene where Norman, Emma, and Ray are deliberating on where the tracking devices could be located. When watching the scene at first, there exists this fog through the characters that can confuse and cloud many viewer’s judgment. When this is cleared by the revelation, it’s both rewarding to realize what is going on, and suspenseful to see what is next.
And that is all the directors will let us know. When a mystery is revealed, the writers leave no room to dispense any more secrets. The viewer is then locked into the eery, anxious tone present in almost every scene. Even the somewhat comedic moments from Krone have a dash of a mad, skin-crawling feeling. We feel this along with Ray and Norman when the three characters collide; Krone’s wild eyes are all we need, a window to her personality. A common trope in anime, as well as live-action shows, is the emphasis on the eyes. When the air dies and we get a close-up on the character’s pupils. The Promised Neverland is no different. There exists a powerful moment in “EPISODE.02 131045,” where Emma’s normal, even dilated pupils contrasting Isabella’s as she says “I wonder where Connie is now.” From this, the directors instill an unignorable fear through the audience. Fear, that is further capitalized on the scenes with the demons, and all of the antagonists.
Truly, this is one of the greatest strengths about The Promised Neverland: its well-roundedness, its ability to juggle the fantasy world and the characters. Indeed, at times, I find the antagonists more interesting than our protagonists — more on that later. For now, the exploration of character’s personalities in The Promised Neverland is excellent. One of the best scenes for me was the children playing tag in teams in “EPISODE.04 291045.” The shot of Isabella watching the children while holding Chloe is both terrifying and intriguing. She watches with interest and caution, knowing Emmay, Norman, and Ray are conspiring against her, while appearing to juggle her care for the children. She can plausibly predict what the children are up to, yet whether it be out of care or scheming, Isabella simply watches, making no cryptic comments or moves against them. In this same scene, the three shots of suspicion against Don, Gilda, and Isabella beautifully capture the inescapability of the main character’s situation. They cannot just suspect the enemies, they have to suspect their siblings and each other. For Emma, Norman, and Ray, anxiety is bubbling to a point where paranoia arises regarding their four-year-old brother being manipulated by a conniving, once benevolent view of their “Mom.” This mood is then refracted onto the audience yet again, recycling anxious feelings again and again.
Along with well-roundedness, another wonderful quality of The Promised Neverland is how seamlessly the story flows. As the cat-and-mouse game quickly approaches its apex, the story never feels as though it’s going too fast or slow. The animation stays impressively pretty, with the cinematography forming to match the great narrative. The story juggles many topics, and may plot twists, while still remaining cohesive and eerily fun.
Despite all of my positive feelings about the show, there are some drawbacks. For one, it can be difficult for someone to suspend their belief throughout the show. To some extent, this is inevitable — the show is essentially a prison break from child-eating demons. Yet, at some points, particularly at the tag scenes, it can get a little difficult to not ask “what kind of eleven-year-old is able to jump that far? Can a six-year-old keep up like that?” This can ruin the thesis of relatively ordinary kids using their strengths to escape a farm. This same sentiment can be applied to Ray claiming he could remember being in the womb, but one can also argue it’s just kids being dramatic.
What does it mean?
A plethora of stories have a hidden message underneath their audacious settings. Many are more than the emotional beats and the wordplay; they are the emotional beats, the worldbuilding, and something else. There are many theories and pockets of symbolism in The Promised Neverland: veganism, time, death camps, sexism and mythology (in the manga). But for me, one of the most interesting theories is that The Promised Neverland is a story of the loss of innocence and generational trauma.
Isabella is such an interesting antagonist. One could argue that Isabella is a prime example of cognitive dissonance, with her outwardly loving and caring nature being a facade for her apathetic nature towards the fate of her children. How the show slowly reveals her to be a menacing, cruel “Mom” is outstanding. We watch her go from watching a bright, caring young mother to her only caring about saving the brain of her son who has seemingly self-immolated. She’s vile, she willingly co-operates with child-eating demons in exchange for her own life, and she is quick to throw out people who even help her with it. And yet, we can still feel sympathetic towards her. Towards the end of the show, we get a montage of Isabella’s life as the children escape. We see Isabella’s bond with Leslie, how she remembers him every day through humming his song, how she tries to escape, and how she has Ray. Even when she admits to Ray that he was born for her survival, we can still feel sympathetic towards her with all she has gone through. The depiction of generational trauma in this show is excellent; Isabella willingly participates in perpetuating what she has gone through onto future generations, despite what she has gone through. Worse still, she genuinely cares about the children. She is never technically cruel towards the children, and when they escape, she hardly tries to stop them. I could write on and on about how great of an antagonist Isabella is, but for now, let’s leave it at her terrible inner desires, with her sympathetic ties.
Krone is another great antagonist. Her comedic, yet sinister energy radiates from her performance. Inevitably, when I think of her character, the raggedy doll is what comes up the most. The raggedy doll can be interpreted as one of the more clear examples of lost innocence, loneliness, or her communication to herself in her childhood. Throughout Krone’s time, we see her communicating with an old baby doll, often smashing it, tearing it, or kicking it when she is upset. For me, the doll could be an encapsulation of a time when she was young and impressionable, not privy to the problems she would face as an adult. When we get a clipshow of her life in the beginning of “EPISODE 08. 021145,” her growing sadness anytime she looks at the doll represents this change. As well as this, it can imply her loneliness, and how much she is struggling to get by. I believe there has to be a certain kind of person to become a “Mom.” There are no aspects that are particularly “good” about it.
One essentially shifts from being a victim to a perpetrator, caring for hundreds of children as their own, only to lead them to their deaths. From this, sisters, moms, and grandmothers are being made to purposefully continue the cycle of generational trauma. Then, when a child inevitably tries to escape, or discovers the truth about the farm, they are typically killed. When these pressures become too much, there is virtually no one to talk to about it. The moms and sisters barely seem to talk to one another, apart from the job. From this, the doll can represent a friend, or a consultation to her younger self. As heard in “EPISODE.07 011145” and perhaps in her last message in “EPISODE.08 021145,” Krone appeared to hate, or at least dislike her job. Her, and all of the other moms and sisters are locked in what can be interpreted as a fakeish playhouse. It’s not exactly a life anyone would want; for some, even death would be better. The doll represents an ignorant time, a time when all that was known was games and toys. Combined with it being raggedy and broken, her constant aggression towards it can represent her lack of fulfillment towards life — or at least, the sham of a life she has.
Krone, Isabella, and even the demons represent that everybody in life simply wants to get by. Whether they hate their job, or their job encompasses a terrible thing, they need to do whatever it takes to ensure the best life for themselves. Krone says as such in “EPISODE.07 011145,” where she simply wants to ensure the best possible life for herself. Everyone wants to ensure the best life for themselves, and that may or may not mean stepping over someone’s toes to get there. In this world, and for many in reality, that is okay.
Most viewers will readily admit they hate The Promised Neverland season two. Fans who read the manga only hate it more. Though these criticisms aren’t invalid, I would urge viewers who were disappointed to re-watch the first season, and for anime-only viewers to give the manga a shot. It’s such a great show, I would hate for it to go to waste for an admittedly trashy season.