Isabella, Emma & the Radicality of Love

We’re happy today to present a guest post by film historian, claire, focusing on Emma and Isabella’s actions from season one of The Promised Neverland. Enjoy!

I’ll admit it, I am late to the party. I only *just* finished Season 1 of The Promised Neverland. But before I get back to binging, let’s take a moment to look at what this masterful series can show us about facing the horror of a broken world and choosing to pioneer a different kind of order—one the world’s never seen. The following contains massive spoilers from the outset. 

Emma is a mirror to Isabella of her younger self. Here, she asks the question that has been eating away at her for twenty-two years (episode 10).

Maybe it’s Isabella’s sibilant murmuring to Emma in episode 8, cooing over her in a semblance of care after having snapped her leg. Maybe it’s the wheedling whispers of despair she weaves around the girl in episode 10, coaxing her to give up, to accept that she cannot do anything on her own, and enticing her with a recommendation for the “Mom” training program that could guarantee her survival. Whatever it is, the final few episodes make it clear that The Promised Neverland is not just a thrilling tale of escape from an impossible situation, or a chilling allegory set in a world where demons literally feast on the minds of children (how’s that for spiritual metaphor?). It is also a powerful illustration of how temptation works, and ultimately, how it is overcome so that a new way of life can begin.

Now, I’m not talking about the flashy kinds of temptation — the ones that stand out a mile away or if they don’t, require a good deal of effort to keep up the plausible deniability. No, I’m talking about that most subtle of temptations, the third one Jesus faced in the wilderness, and the one that Romans 12:2 exhorts us not to fall into: conformity to the “pattern of this world”. Both Isabella and Emma confront this temptation when they are faced with the reality of the demonic world they live in. And their contrasting responses showcase the difference between conforming and being transformed, between worshipping the “ruler of this world” and forging a new kind of living.

But where exactly is the temptation in The Promised Neverland? Here’s where a little insight from Brian Zahnd in his book Beauty will Save the World helps. In it, he unpacks the scene of Christ in the wilderness, pointing out that the sudden appearance of the devil in embodied form (with pointy tail and pitchfork), armed with some suggestions, would hardly have been tempting to Jesus. Yet we know that Jesus was genuinely tempted. “No, the darkness is much more subtle than that”, writes Zahnd, suggesting instead that “the temptation came to Christ in the same way it comes to all of us—in the form of dark thoughts that somehow enter our mind, thoughts that we don’t always immediately recognise as originating with the powers of darkness.”⁠1 What makes a scenario tempting is its seeming legitimacy. When it came to the third temptation (worshipping satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the world), this was the legitimacy of the ends justifying the means and the temptation “to become a king in the way of kings,”⁠2 through amassing state power. But Jesus recognised that such a path was nothing short of satanic worship. He would not found the kingdom of heaven through means used by earthly kings, politicians or religious leaders—wooing people through gifts (stone into bread), showy displays (miraculous angelic rescue from certain death off the roof of the temple), or earthly power backed by coercive force. Instead, his kingdom would pioneer a new type of leadership, transforming the dynamics of power in this world.

Isabella and Emma each face this same quandary in their own demonised wildernesses, and it is so subtle it doesn’t even really seem like a choice. It comes in the form of the outstretched hand of their Moms, as representatives of coercive power, offering a way to survive the suffering and death of the existing order of things. The visual parallelism between Emma and Isabella that comes to a head in episode 12 heightens the contrast in the two girls’ responses. For it is the flashback sequence in this episode that makes it clear that the entire series has actually been following two female leads and the consequences of their decisions when faced with the same choice, 22 years apart.

First Isabella’s Mom, then her Grandma extend a hand, which she then grasps (episode 12) and eventually offers to Emma (episodes 8 & 10).

This parallelism between Emma and “Mom” (in her girlhood) is hinted at increasingly by each of the three successive versions of the ED, with images of Isabella, Leslie and eventually Krone as children interwoven with those of Emma, Ray and Norman. But it is the flashback triggered by Isabella’s return to the top of the wall that reveals the two characters’ comparability in full. As Emma escapes off the edge of the wall, the figure of a black-haired girl flickers in her place, and we’re treated to a disjointed yet eloquent swirl of scenes that reframe the show’s entire first season. Emma’s journey turns out to be an echo of an earlier story. There is nothing new under the sun, not even the defiant determination of captive 11-year-olds.

Isabella’s flashback (episode 12)

In the flashback, we see Isabella at play, full of mischief and laughter, her childish expressions and gestures mirroring those of Emma—minus the unruly strands of hair. We see Isabella’s Norman, a lavender-haired boy named Leslie with the same dreamy eyes, enigmatic smile, and soft-spot for his childhood friend as born by Emma’s companion. (Of course, one might say this is all just a matter of CloverWorks’ in-house animation style, but there is enough diversity in the character designs of the children of Grace Field House to convince me that the visual similarities between these two pairs of friends were deliberate.) The tear-stained parting of beloved friends; success in mounting the wall; the revelation of the demons who run the world and the collusion of Isabella’s own Mom with them; the hand outstretched in invitation, an offer of survival. This is the pivotal moment—so much so, that it is actually foreshadowed in episode 8 (though it is not yet clear at that time who the girl is). This is where the parallel stories of Isabella and Emma part ways. As the girl Isabella schools her expression of horror into one of determination, she takes the first step in becoming a part of the system of power, of becoming a Mom.

young isabella Isabella accepts the invitation to find her place within the existing system of power (episode 12).

Emma does not make this same choice. Although she is equally motivated by survival, it is the survival of all the children and not just herself that drives her. Where does this difference come from?

Before addressing this question, can we just pause to appreciate how revolutionary Emma is? Hers is a world that runs on a highly regulated cyclicality, with precise requirements that must be met at specific ages in order to “progress”, and culminating for most in “harvest”. Even Krone and Isabella, who are able to excel to the point of superseding harvest day, enter yet another cycle of Sisters and Moms. The training montages of their respective flashbacks show Krone and Isabella sitting in the same seat during their studies and standing in the same position in the thinning line of candidates. Both women arrive at Plant Three at age 28, Isabella as Mom, and Krone, six years later, as Sister but determined to become Mom as quickly as possible—the implication being that there is a window of time during which the women must prove themselves worthy of progress to the next stage in the cycle, or risk disappearing. Krone fails the test.

isabella and krone testing competing There are limited places in the cycle of power. It’s a zero-sum game kind of world (episodes 12 & 8).

Emma refuses to conform to these cycles, to the pattern of her world. She envisions something never before seen: freedom from the Plant. She alone understands that a different life is possible. How is she able to see what no one else can? How is she able to imagine such a radically different existence not only for herself but for all 37 of her adoptive siblings as well? She truly has been “transformed by the renewing of [her] mind”, as Paul encouraged the Roman church.

The difference is love. Emma loves recklessly. Norman practically says as much, calling her reckless and honest and recognising that this is why the children love her. In contrast, by the time Isabella learns the terrible truth of their world, she has already lost her love. Leslie has been harvested. But for Emma, learning of Connie’s death serves only to catalyze her love into radical action for her remaining family.

This is the difference that Paul writes about to the Romans as well. Following the exhortation to be transformed, Romans 12-15 goes on to call believers to love well: those in the body of Christ, enemies, and authorities alike. It is in loving well that our minds are renewed and we are transformed, so that we are able to eschew conformity to the pattern of the world, the broken systems of power rooted in coercion and manipulation. Emma loves her adoptive family well, including Ray even when he seems to be an enemy. Her love begins to extend toward the children in the other Plants as well, when Gilda raises the question of their fate. Emma’s final words of the season even leave open the possibility that she may yet harbour some inkling of love for the authority over her, Mom, as she bids “farewell to the house we loved. Farewell…Mom.” Is this ellipsis a silent acknowledgement of the love that once belonged to Mom and may yet still one day? It remains to be seen.

Emma’s parting words (episode 12).

It is not just the scope of Emma’s love that is so exceptional, but also its profundity. Emma’s love trusts. This is what sets her apart from her friends, who repeatedly sound a refrain of caution and doubt, while Ray is so disillusioned as to aspire only to vengeance, punishing his mother for her years of manipulation by manipulating her in return, to the point of suicide. But where Ray has been fighting this battle against the system alone, Emma learns from her early mistakes the vital need to trust the other children with the truth and her vision for escape. This is the radicality of her love, and it is what ultimately makes a new life possible for her and the 15 older children who flee with her. It is what will eventually make the rescue of Phil and the little ones and the children in the other Plants possible as well. As Emma trusts, her love accomplishes much.

Emma recklessly trusting the family she loves (episode 11).

In contrast, Isabella neither loves nor trusts, but instead seeks control through manipulation and violence. She shows affection only to the babies and littlest ones, while denying the older children any such warmth, particularly her son Ray whom she sacrificed as a baby in her quest to survive “longer than anyone” (talk about demonic worship!). After incapacitating Emma and scooping her up in her arms, Mom even comments on how long it has been since she has shared an embrace with the girl. “I’ll control you until the end,” she tells the suffering Emma, later whispering a death threat to her after halting Norman’s parting caress. Mom is only tender to those over whom she exerts power. And no wonder, since her mistrust and manipulation of others seems to have served her well.

Talk about tough love (episode 10).

Yet, the strain of her partnership with the system of coercive power has taken its toll. The look of horror that defined the girl Isabella’s instinctive response to the world’s ugly reality returns twice more in adulthood, belying the mask of contentment she wears as Mom. Her facade cracks when she realises that Ray is her son, and again as she accompanies Norman to his appointment with the monsters, when the boy asks if she is happy. In both instances, Isabella is faced with the naked truth of what she has bought into and it terrifies her.

Isabella’s mask falls away one more time, atop the wall. This time, it isn’t horror that transforms her features, but resignation and…peace? Maybe even a flicker of hope? It comes as she watches Emma disappear across the chasm—the very maw that had swallowed her own girlish hopes of escape—and rather than cut the rope to plunge Emma into that same pit of broken dreams, Isabella blinks and looses her hair in a gesture that transforms her into someone other than Mom. It’s here that the flashback begins, and we see who she once was and how she became Mom, sacrificing everything for survival. “But I’ve had enough,” she says as the scene returns to the moonlit wall. “I guess I lost.” And as she watches the children flee, this woman who is no longer recognisably Mom smiles. “Go on. Be careful,” the smile is genuine, “and I pray that you will find light.” She waves, and we see her from a new perspective, from the other side of the chasm and the land where a new life begins.

Isabella transformed? (episode 12)

Jesus chose not to seek to beat the world at its own game like Ray, or to preserve his own life like Isabella. He chose instead to pursue a response to the reality of our world that had never yet been seen: radical love and trust in place of coercion and manipulation. Emma makes the same choice. What will her world become? It remains to be seen. One thing is for certain though: she will need to keep choosing this way of love and trust, as the temptation to lose hope, go it alone, and conform to apparent reality will continue to present itself to her just as it did to Jesus. And herein lies my hope for Isabella’s redemption—because temptation keeps coming back around and every time it does, we have the chance to choose again. Isabella has now come face to face with the radical power of Emma’s love, and it caused her mask to drop away. Has she been transformed? Season 2 will tell…

Here’s hoping Isabella will be the next Zuko.⁠3

Will Isabella become a true Mom to these ones left behind? (episode 12)

Claire is a film historian by day and anime enthusiast by night. There’s nothing she enjoys more than finding God in unexpected places, and then jumping up and down excitedly and telling everyone about it, usually somewhat incoherently.

1 Brian Zahnd, Beauty will Save the World (Charisma House, 2012), 51.
2 Zahnd, 55.
3 Possibly the greatest redemption story arc in animation, from Avatar: the Last Airbender.

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