Every genre has its tropes. They are what defines a genre, what differentiates it from the others. When well-executed, a trope makes the story better. It simply works as an engine and attracts for its familiarity and universal acceptance. When badly done, it makes the story an uninspiring cliché.
In his conception, Jace Herondale fulfills every aspect of the Troubled, But Cute trope. Of high-school age, Jace was so handsome, everyone ignored his obnoxious behavior. He had an abusive past that was never truly explored beyond earning him sympathy points, lest it made Jace any less than a badass. But fear not, as Jace still had a hidden heart of gold underneath all that snarky attitude and tons of black leather jackets.
Much like his female counterpart, Clary Fray, Jace Herondale was a product of his time. In 2007, a character like this was the ultimate male lead in Young Adult novels. But this trope has not aged well. It is no surprise, then, that Shadowhunters decided to take a different route in the adaptation of Jace Herondale from page to screen.
In the show, Jace is still a badass warrior, highly regarded by his peers in battle. However, he doesn’t use his good-looks and troubled past as a shield to be rude to others. Instead, the show’s Jace has a rich inner life that makes him a rounded character.
The recognition felt like a natural response after a season that elevated Jace from local badass to a character worth cheering for. But that wouldn’t have felt half as satisfying if Jace’s story hadn’t been built since the first episode.
The impact of abuse
Despite an initial arrogant attitude towards Simon, Jace’s entire arc in season 1 was about helping Clary. His curiosity about this mundane girl with the Sight moved him. However, the truth was spilled out in one of (the many) arguments between Jace and Alec. Jace saw himself in Clary; a stray lost in a ruthless world. He could not let another person lose everything at the hands of a
lunatic, as he once had.
This borderline pathological need to help went beyond any self-preservation instincts. In fact, Jace’s internal moral compass made him completely ignore the law he lived his life by when it conflicted with doing the right thing. He didn’t care for the consequences, not even when it befell on his family. To Jace, the only thing that mattered was taking down Valentine.
In a way, such disregard for the rules comes from a place of privilege. Widely seen as the best fighter of his generation, Jace was used to getting away with unconventional behavior. Maryse made it clear that Jace had a free pass in the New York Institute when she defended him from Lydia’s accusations. Jace gets the job done, therefore he can do as he like.
But this position only lasts as long as Jace delivers results. He is not a person but a highly effective weapon. Jace was exempt from thinking about the consequences of his actions, so he doesn’t. He just acts, focusing on the immediate problem ahead.
That is the mentality of a soldier. It is also the mentality beaten into him. Even before Jace found out the truth about the man that raised him, he believed in the harsh lessons Michael Wayland taught him. Perfection above all, to love is to destroy, your purpose is to kill. Jace was a soldier before his tenth birthday.
Worse still, he was an abuse victim. Posing as Michael Wayland, Valentine did everything in his power to break Jace’s psyche and shape it to his liking. By keeping Jace isolated and physically punishing him for the smallest of mistakes, Valentine destroyed Jace’s childhood.
The Shadowhunters, in general, don’t get to be children but they are not usually encouraged to be merciless. Valentine made Jace kill his pet-falcon as a punishment for caring about it. This way, he ensured Jace would feel guilty every time he loved something or someone.
But the manipulation didn’t stop there. When his enemies threatened Valentine’s grip on, he faked Michael Wayland’s death. Valentine did it in a way that Jace would see his father die, imprinting such violence on the boy’s brain. By the time Jace was ten-years-old, he had lost everything.
Thankfully, though, that staged tragedy led to Jace’s salvation. When he was adopted by the Lightwoods, that traumatized child finally had a chance to know what love truly is. It was the love of his family, his real family, that saved Jace.
We know that because Shadowhunters showed us who Jace would be without the Lightwoods: Jonathan Morgenstern.
Of angels and demons
Valentine didn’t raise one child-victim but two. Everything he inflicted on Jace, he replicated on Jonathan. From blood-experiments to murdering their mothers, Valentine spared no efforts in hurting them. He severely beat up both boys, mind-washing them to be weapons instead of people. When things got out of control, Valentine discarded them in cruel ways.
Years later, Valentine continued to manipulate them. He played on Jace’s good-heart and Jonathan’s urge to be loved. Valentine even used the boys’ love for Clary as a weapon against them. In Jace’s case, he twisted it as unnatural. In Jonathan’s, Valentine painted it as impossible. Regardless, he made both of them feel terrible for caring about her.
Nonetheless, Jace and Jonathan turned out very differently from each other. That has little to do with what runs through their veins. Angelic blood didn’t make Valentine a virtuous savior, just as demon blood didn’t make Magnus an uncontrollable monster.
What happened to the boys was what shaped them. Isolation played a great part in it too. When Jace came to live in the Institute, he met other kids his own age. Alec and Izzy taught him the love of siblings, just as Maryse and Robert showed him what a parent should be. None of these relationships was perfect in any way, but they were still healthier than anything Jace had before.
Jace was still highly regarded as an excellent fighter but his siblings cared about him as a person. Living in New York, Jace learned about the Downworlders through experience and not only biased teachings. Slowly, that traumatized child repressed his emotional scars in order to grow as a functioning member of the Shadowhunter society.
Jonathan, on the other hand, literally grew up in Hell. There, the first thing the demons did was to burn his skin off. He never learned what healthy love is. Instead, Jonathan formed a distorted version of love he desperately seeks. Trapped in another form of isolation, Jonathan never outgrew his childish behavior. His entire life was a tragedy, from before he was even born to the point when he became the monster others made him.
That is the difference between the two boys. The show made a rather intelligent parallel that shows it beyond any doubt. Both Jace and Jonathan eventually go back to under Valentine’s wing. They both do terrible things while under his influence.
However, Jace chose to see himself as a person. When Valentine tells him Jace is his greatest achievement, Jace’s answer define his arc. He is not an achievement because he is not an object. In that moment, Jace claims back the humanity Valentine stole from him. Jonathan, on the other hand, embraces the title. He was never treated as a human being before, he doesn’t even know what that is. To be a source of pride is enough for him.
Jace, however, learned to strive for more.
Unfortunately, though, Jace’s self-discovery journey is far from over. Jace hasn’t even begun exploring his real identity. He finally knows the truth about his genealogical parents and what being a Herondale means. Too bad his only ties to them is a bigot and corrupted grandmother.
Imogen Herondale might be a bridge between Jace and his lost family but she is no way a good influence. Jace can learn about his mother and father from her; Imogen is a softie when talking about Stephen and Céline. However, her approach to power and interracial politics is nothing short of tyrannical. In his eagerness to please his only living family member, Jace almost did things that went directly against his inner moral compass.
And if another abusive relationship wasn’t enough, Jace has also to deal with a bigger crisis. Clary brought him back from the dead, something that never goes smoothly. He is already suffering painful consequences that only tend to increase when Lilith comes to avenge Jonathan’s death.
With Jace refusing to tell others that, he is positioning himself in the same isolation that almost corrupted him. Hopefully, he will finally learn he is not alone. He has Clary, Alec, Izzy, and Simon by his side. Others, like Maia, Magnus, and Luke will also fight for him.
Jace has come a long way in his recovery from abuse. He still has much to heal from and Shadowhunters certainly won’t make it easy for him. Thankfully, though, he doesn’t have to do it alone.