Content warnings: threats of sexual violence/sex trafficking
What’s it about? During a blazing high-seas battle, a young girl named Fena is pushed out to sea in a rowboat, instructed to stay alive until her protectors can find her again. Ten years later, Fena is living in a brothel in the rough and rowdy port town where she drifted ashore, with her “prima nocta” being auctioned off now that she’s come of age. Fena isn’t having this, and concocts a plan to rob her buyer and escape. Just when it seems her scheme has fallen through, some figures from her past reappear, and Fena finds herself swept up in a whole new daring adventure.
Pirates! There is an unmistakable glamor to them (or, at least, the version of them that has filtered down to us through Hollywood and adventure stories). I certainly have a soft spot in my heart for tales of swashbuckling, treasure-hunting, and handsome rogues in big billowy shirts (and that’s handsome rogues of any gender—Cutthroat Island may be credited with tanking the pirate movie genre, but its powerful Looks from Geena Davis had a profound impact on my sense of aesthetic attraction).
Needless to say, the title Fena: Pirate Princess grabbed my attention even before the show’s slick trailer did. I found myself entranced by the idea of a seafaring heroine and the intriguing mix of aesthetics and fantastical elements. The question is, how does the first episode hold up? Can this show sustain itself on my starry-eyed adoration of sword-fighting women alone?
The answer is: yeah! The premiere is engaging, if a little chaotic. There’s a blend of humor and action that sets up an almost campy tone, presumably paving the way for a larger-than-life high-seas adventure rather than a gritty and realistic portrayal of oceanic robbery and sex trafficking. Fena’s predicament is dark, but her upbeat determination, zany escape plans and the slapstick-ish tone of most of this episode help to offset the fear that anything will actually befall her.
As a bonus, the writing manages to portray Fena’s desire to escape from a life of sex work without having her be derisive to other sex workers. She rooms with a woman named Angie that she seems to be genuine friends with, and Fena’s dialogue stays focused on her personal choice rather than any implication she considers herself “better” or “purer” than anyone else. There aren’t many female characters in this episode, so Fena’s positive, almost sisterly relationship with Angie was a nice little moment of solidarity between two women trying to survive in this world in different ways.
Fena herself has spark, but it may be some time before we get to see her being a ship-captaining badass. And that’s okay: if she was already super capable out the gate, we’d have no character development to look forward to. That doesn’t mean I’m still not a little yucked out by the multiple moments where Fena is rendered helpless. She’s being bargained for like an object at the episode’s beginning, and later she’s captured by a group of sleazy men who discuss sexually assaulting her and dumping her into the sea.
I know the gimmick: these goons are engineered in a lab to be gross so that it’s extra satisfying when the real hero shows up and slices them all to ribbons. It’s a trope I understand, but it’s one that grates on me personally. It relies on “teasing” the audience with the possibility of a female character’s trauma before the inevitable release of that tension, and often never involves addressing that trauma after the catharsis of the Really Cool Action Scene where the baddies are dispatched.
It’s especially weird here since Fena’s rescuer then bonks her on the head with a stick and knocks her out, leaving her vulnerable all over again. This returns the scene to a slapstick tone after a genuinely tense and genuinely badass moment. It enables the audience to let out a big sigh of relief and laugh off that previous tension, sure, but it also makes me ask some serious questions about the morals and motivations of this mysterious masked hunk! And if he’s going to turn out to be a love interest for Fena, it raises some questions about what kind of weird power dynamic they’re going to have going forward.
But like I said, there’s still time for Fena to find her literal and proverbial sea legs and get back some power and agency. I certainly can’t complain that she’s not self-motivated and clever, because she certainly is. Yes, she needs to be rescued more than once in this episode (thrice, in fact, if you count her being pushed out to sea in that opening flashback) but that in and of itself doesn’t mean she’s a passive character.
That said, let’s keep count of how many more times she needs male characters to save her as the plot progresses. If it becomes a pattern, even after she ascends to her Pirate Princess mantle, that’s when it will become truly frustrating.
Altogether, Fena: Pirate Princess is off to a pretty strong start. I’m intrigued to know what lies ahead for our heroine, why exactly she’s so special, and what exactly she fled from ten years before. Fena has the potential to be a really fun action-adventure protagonist in a really fun action-adventure show. Fingers crossed she retains her agency and gets to really grow and shine across whatever zany treasure hunt she’s about to embark upon.