When the third season of Voltron: Legendary Defender was released almost a year ago, it felt like the series had peaked early.
Those seven episodes were a near perfect coupling of high stakes action and emotional astuteness. So much so that in a review, I declared VLD an essential series – a show that had earned its place among the canon of animation’s best.
As such, it seemed Legendary Defender would spend the rest of its run trying to recreate the magic of that season.
I was wrong. Voltron hadn’t peaked. Instead, that stellar season merely laid the groundwork for something much, much better: Season 6.
When Season 5 left off, Lotor had been freed from his detainment by the paladins and seized control of the Galra Empire. Concurrently, viewers learned Shiro was acting (against his will) as a tool for the witch Haggar.
Taking advantage of the compromised physical and mental state of Shiro, as well as Allura’s drive to connect with her father and destroyed culture, Lotor formed an uneasy alliance between his warring empire and the defenders of the universe.
A perfect set up, in this latest season the team would unwittingly go on to help Lotor carry out a stunningly treacherous plan.
Starting out more funny than heart pounding, Season 6 escalated into unrelenting action. Between its major plot twists and high-intensity battles, it would also use time, space, and even dimensions to deliver weighty development for several characters.
In short, the season is outstanding. It's not, however, without faults. A 13-episode order cut in half and aired months apart gave Season 6 a few pacing issues.
Several significant reveals are given only 22-minutes to be explored, leaving little room for their full impact to settle and overshadowing some of the season's stronger comedic and creative moments.
And because so much of the main plot is a tightly woven web between characters like Allura, Shiro, Keith, and Lotor, substantial personal and relationship development falls by the wayside for other characters, including Lotor's generals.
Still, these last seven episodes are easily the series most compelling work to date, and to understand why you need to look no further than Season 3’s strengths.
As Netflix’s first go at a shortened episode release, some questioned whether Season 3 could maintain the narrative and tonal flow of the 26 episodes that had proceeded it.
Ultimately, because the episode count left little room for filler, Season 3’s rapid pace kept an increasingly intricate plot engrossing. This latest season shared this achievement, delivering a succession of escalating, dramatically substantial answers to several of the series biggest and building mysteries.
Who are Keith’s parents? If Alteans lived on in an alternate universe, could some have survived the planet’s destruction in Team Voltron’s dimension? What exactly is Lotor’s endgame and what is he willing to do to get it?
Most importantly, what happened to Shiro after he disappeared from the Black Lion in Season 2? And what are Haggar’s ultimate plans for his Galran arm?
Planted in Season 3 were also the seedlings of several characters’ personal and interpersonal developments, many of which bloomed in Season 6.
Because of Shiro’s absence in a chunk of Season 3, Princess Allura was able to don the paladin armor. The new Pink Paladin dedicated herself even more to honoring her father and releasing the Galra’s grip on the universe.
This motivation would become her ultimate weakness and biggest strength in Season 6. Wooed by Lotor’s promises of building a more peaceful empire, Allura let her feelings about her lost planet blind her to the ideological torch passing between Lotor and his mother, Honerva (also known as Haggar).
But following the reveal of Lotor’s deadly and discriminatory secret, Allura took her Altean magic to new heights. She courageously fought Lotor head-on before doing everything from planting a soul back into a body to single-handedly supercharging new Voltron abilities.
As for Keith, his reluctant step into the pilot seat of the Black Lion in Season 3 would lay the foundations for a Team Voltron departure and return, while illuminating aspects of the powerful bond between him and Shiro.
In Season 6, these developments led to the uncovering of why his mom, Krolia, came to Earth, and how the Galra Empire’s unrelenting search for the lions separated Keith’s family.
It also resulted in viewers following both Keith and Shiro to the edges of the galaxy for a Star Wars-esque scene.
One mind controlled by Haggar and one driven by a need to save the other, Shiro and Keith’s fight in Season 6's "The Black Paladins" is easily Voltron: Legendary Defender’s most visually stunning and emotionally gripping fight sequence so far.
Most of all, the introduction of Lotor and his team of Galra generals gave the reboot a dynamic threat, with the ambitions and manipulations of Zarkon’s son serving as the satisfying core of Season 6’s explosive storytelling.
Then there’s the universe expansion of Season 3, best exemplified by Episode 4, “Hole in the Sky.”
Similar to the fun, one-off adventures of “Space Mall,” “The Voltron Show!” and now Season 6's D&D-inspired “Monsters & Mana,” the tonally darker interdimensional exploration of “Hole in the Sky” centers Voltron’s superb animation and foreshadows the critical role of science in the Season 6 fight against Lotor.
Not by accident, many of Season 3’s best parts were fundamental to Season 6’s story. But that connection does not make them equals. Season 6 ultimately blew past the achievements of its predecessor.
And it's because this last season of Voltron: Legendary Defender isn’t just great animation and well-written sci-fi. It’s an example of how skilled adaptation and a dedication to serialization can turn one animated series into a startingly well-crafted drama.
So much of the sixth season’s riveting characterization comes from the writers’ ability to adapt from the original 1984 Voltron narrative.
Lotor and Princess Allura drop the Bowser and Princess Peach like dynamics in favor of a relationship driven by 10,000-year-old aspirations and grudges.
Viewers are also introduced to Romelle, who is not related to Allura like in the 1984 show but does become the key to destroying the Voltron-Galra alliance. Brought to the team by Keith and Krolia, the Altean reveals how the Galra Emperor “saved” her people after Zarkon destroyed their planet – only to harvest to the death for their quintessence.
Lotor's findings from that disturbing effort, and with some unwitting help from Allura, create a weaponized, quintessence-fueled robot able to counter Voltron by tearing through space and time.
Lotor plans to use the "new" Voltron to re-write history and create an Altean-led empire with him as its unquestionable, unstoppable leader.
The implications of this are terrifying, morphing him from the muppet-ish villain of the 1980s Voltron to one of TV’s most compelling bad guys, live action or not.
In addition, adaptation serves as the key to Keith’s somewhat messy trajectory into becoming the new Black Paladin. Instead of killing Shiro off to establish Keith’s rise as pilot of the Black Lion – a move from the 1980s series – Shiro becomes the real heart of Keith’s arc.
We learn that after Shiro’s Season 2 disappearance he did in fact die, but his conscience remained protected in the mind of the Black Lion.
His death and the Galra-planted clone’s return set off Keith’s move to the Blade of Marmora, meeting his mother, and unraveling his past through a series of cleverly inserted Quantum Abyss delivered flashbacks.
It also serves as the driving force behind Keith’s love and appreciation for Shiro, a relationship that solidifies itself as the series most intense – a heart-wrenching metaphor for the lengths we go to for family whether blood, chosen, or galactically fated.
While adaptation feeds Season 6’s character development, serialization propels the main action.
Many of Voltron: Legendary Defender’s Season 6 twists weren’t just answers to long established questions, but a carefully crafted dramatic domino effect.
The real trick besides the mind-blowing nature of all the season’s reveals is that they don’t happen separately but in conjunction with one another. The dramatic fall out of one reveal leads almost directly to another reveal.
Setting up your narrative payoffs to detonate so quickly in relation and succession is no easy task. Series like 12 Monkeys, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead have managed to be exceptional in this regard, but not always consistent.
That’s because they try to enact the slow-building, gut-punching formula in back-to-back seasons. After a few times, they end up emotionally exhausting the audience.
Voltron, on the other hand, takes a more holistic approach. It writes not for seasons but the whole of the series, with sprawling but contained arcs connected like chapters.
This choice has let the narrative naturally ebb and flow in intensity, building to an organic crescendo that while fast, never finds you numbing to ever-increasing stakes.
All of the storytelling strengths present in Season 3, in addition to Season’s 6 masterful use of adaptation and serialization, work together to produce an admirably strong seven episodes.
It’s a season that delivers not just some of the best animation of the series, but the most electrifying action sequences on TV this year. Furthermore, it proves compelling storytelling isn’t just about your ability to pencil in a plot twist, but how you use it to incite the development of your characters.
Voltron team leader Takashi Shirogane often says that patience yields focus. What’s made clear by Voltron Season 6 is that its storytellers headed these words. Because of its patience, the series' sixth season yieldeda a narrative masterpiece.
Abbey White is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.