For many, the world building of Shadowhunters is one of its strongest suits. The captivating mixture of folklore, legends, and an urban setting. The way Fantasy interacts, reflecting real-world issues, grabs the attention of a public enamored with these classic tropes.
And yet, the audience needs a window to understand the world building and what it is in stake. A character it can relate to and learn with. Simon Lewis, more than any other character, is the best candidate. Neither heir to a Shadowhunter family nor an habitant of the Downworld when the series began, Simon has a unique perspective on this new world. The audience’s perspective.
The problem is, a character such as Simon can be plagued with all the cliches this fantasy trope entangles. Detached from the rest of the characters’ active involvement with the Shadow World, Simon’s journey often feels like a different story happening within Shadowhunters. Complete with the reluctant hero and the cool loser, and in danger of being reduced to the comic relief, Simon’s path through the Shadow World is not the most original of tales. The challenge relies on twisting something interesting out of this classic cliche.
Thankfully, Shadowhunters lucked out with Simon’s actor: Alberto Rosende infuses the character with his magnetic charisma and undeniable charm. He can make even the most cliche lines sound fresh and enjoyable. That makes Simon’s journey not only more believable, but it also calls for the audience to root for him. It is impossible to watch Rosende and not be on his side.
Which is no doubt a tremendous accomplishment, considering the rest of the Shadow World is fighting for survival while Simon is struggling with not calling his mother after two weeks.
The Imperfect Execution of a Great Character
At the start of the show, Simon was the very definition of the outsider. He entered the Shadow World by chance, bounded by an unwilling transformation and no family ties. Simon never wanted to be anything other than a mundane. He even walked away from the Shadow World when he got the chance. Unfortunately, that didn’t last for long. Average, good-guy Simon was the innocent victim of this vicious world.
Once he found himself as an unwilling vampire, Simon had no other choice but to embrace his new reality. That should’ve been enough to get the audience at his side. And it does, when Simon is unfairly treated just for being who he is. He has been ostracized by Werewolves and Shadowhunters alike, left to figure out his new abilities dangerously unsupervised. Simon has learned what it means to be a Downworlder in the unfair Shadow World in the worst way.
Unfortunately, the likability of the character takes serious hits when his attitude comes into the picture. Simon continues to treat Raphael as the enemy after countless times in which Raphael saved him or his family ties. The justified animosity of the first season has grown into a stubborn pettiness. Especially as Simon started to put the vampire clan in danger, forcing Raphael’s hand as a result.
The disregard for the vampires even resulted in Raphael being tortured on a tip Simon provided to save himself. Although Simon could have never predicted that would happen, he also never apologized for pointing Aldertree to Raphael. Instead, he mocked Raphael’s scars and refused to recognize his role in setting Camille free on innocent mundanes.
In the wake of his actions, Simon never faces consequences alone. He released Camille at the end of season 1, but the narrative forgets that was a choice Simon made. Instead of him dealing with the repercussions, other characters are dragged to do it. Raphael gets tortured. Magnus has to choose between two of the most important people in his life. Luke has to deal with a distrusting pack growing tired of the resident vampire. Meanwhile, Simon worries are all about his ruined mundane life.
The narrative doesn’t help to outline this selfish side of the character. Simon’s character flaw is overlooked when Luke protects him or when Simon receives another “level up” as a Downworlder. Luke and Magnus trained him, but Simon never gets to relish what he has learned for more than a scene or two. He had barely gotten used to being a vampire before becoming a Daylighter. As the season 3A trailer suggests, Simon is about to get another bonus that will make him literally indestructible.
None of these unearned gifts makes the character grow. Simon gets a free pass everytime he puts himself or those he loves first. Even when it comes to using a senile lady as blackmail. The bad things that happen to Simon are all results of other people’s actions, but never his own.
Thankfully, though, Simon is not defined by his selfishness alone. He is also loyal and caring; both traits that he acts upon time and again. Simon will drop everything instantly for those he cares about. Despite their short romance not working out, Clary has a life-long companion in Simon. Luke is another character whom Simon’s love has saved. When the pack abandoned Luke, it was Simon that refused to give up on him. Together with Maia, Simon saved Luke from his grief-induced madness.
And one doesn’t have to know Simon from his little league team to earn his care. Simon was crucial to Izzy’s last steps in her recovery from the Yin Fen addiction. Having to deal with his mother’s alcoholism, Simon was the best friend Izzy could’ve asked for in her time of need. He offered no judgments, only support.
Despite the selfish behavior, Simon could never be called a bad person. In fact, it is entirely possible that Simon’s behavior stems from a deep rooted need of self preservation in a society he doesn’t understand. He is growing and maturing. one day-walk at a time, and he will outgrow this pattern. Regardless, the problem isn’t that Simon makes mistakes; even Rosende’s superior acting skills couldn’t make him compelling if he didn’t. But rather, the problem is that the narrative doesn’t recognize it when Simon’s actions are fueled by his character flaws (selfishness) instead of his character strength (kindness).
A Matter of Incongruence
The biggest result of the narrative ignoring Simon’s snarky attitude and selfishness is that it creates holes in the world building of the show. If the Shadow World is such a dangerous place, how can one newborn vampire sass his way around and go unharmed?
It doesn’t work to have Simon put the entire New York Clan in danger, but only have to deal with Raphael. Where were the other vampires, the ones that wouldn’t stand for a simple talk or treat Simon’s mother as gently? Where were the vampires that would want revenge as retribution?
It is also weird that Simon can downright disrespect the Seelie Queen when Jace, Magnus and Luke spend precious time being excessively polite. Simon’s plot armor hurts both the character and the stakes of the plotlines. Simon’s gifts, such as the angelic blood he drank, put him in a place the character is not ready to be yet. His sassy remarks might be funny, but they rip the fabric of the world building apart.
The juxtaposition makes the threat seem less powerful than they were supposed to be. Raphael’s precarious position as a leader seems way more consolidated than it should. The Seelie Queen seems weaker. Her appreciation for formalities becomes a quirk instead of a show of power. In turn, Simon’s storylines lose their charm as the audience knows Simon can get away with anything.
That is different from when Simon is dealing with problems his character can solve. Storylines such as the Day of Atonement work perfectly with the struggling vampire figuring out his place in the Shadow World. Simon’s interactions with Maia as a ground level Downworlder are right at his alley. He shouldn’t be saving the world just yet. But Simon should be saving other newborn Downworlders such as Bat Velasquez. He should be dealing with the Clave’s bias. He should be finding his voice in music and bringing other Downworlder together in the small ways that he can.
These situations help Simon grow as a person. It also utilizes the character to the show’s benefits. More than Clary, Simon is the true window to the Shadow World. He can get to corners of this world that Clary’s ties to the main plotline refrain her from getting. When Shadowhunters uses that, like when Simon got drunk on plasma and woke up to a dead body, the world expands.
Incidentally, Simon’s Daylighter storyline showcased the best and the worst treatment of the character. By swearing to keep the origin of his new ability a secret, Simon demonstrated his best side. He protected Jace in the moment Jace needed it the most. However, the revelation of Simon’s day waking came as a shining plot armor when Raphael sought out to protect his sister from Simon’s threats.
That moment of gloriousness was completed unearned. It was also of poor taste given Simon’s actions in the episode. On the other hand, Simon’s refusal to lead the vampires showcased a mature side of him. Simon knows he won’t be a better leader than Raphael. Unfortunately, the storyline put him in a position of power in relation to the Seelie Queen. A position Simon is not ready to have.
This rocky arc leaves the audience in a difficult place. Should we be rooting for Simon because of his own accomplishments or because of the gifts the plot bestowed upon him? When Rosende is not on screen to charm us, should we endorse or disapprove of Simon’s actions?
Out of all of the main characters, Simon presents the biggest challenge to write. He is not directly connected to the main plotlines or has any crucial significance to the Shadow World. That can render his presence pointless in the greater scheme of things. At best, the villains can – and have – used him as bait against the other heroes.
Worse yet, Simon’s greatest potential as a window into the Downworld might have expired by now. Shadowhunters has established its complex world and racial relationships. Simon has already meddled with vampires, warlocks, werewolves, and now seelies. For better or for worse, he has presented the audience with a closer look to all of the races Clary cannot reach as deeply.
But none of that means the character has outlived his usefulness to the story. Simon has now passed the stage of a newborn vampire. He has been blessed – or cursed – with angel blood running in his veins. That means he is a vampire that can walk in the sun: a pariah in amidst his peers. Once again, Simon is set apart from everyone else.
Exploring that presents a new opportunity in the writing of Simon Lewis. Wiser and more knowledgeable about his surroundings, Simon has the opportunity to grow as a person. And fast, as he is about to receive another one. If those gifts demand that he adjust to his new role, Simon will have to rise to the occasion.
The opportunity to address his selfish behavior is here. It is not enough that Simon sacrifices himself for his loved ones. The audience already knows Simon is a good-hearted person that would go to great lengths for his friends. Disputing that is ignoring the core of the character.
However, in order to earn the great powers he has received, Simon has to go beyond that. He has to fight for those he doesn’t care about as well as those he does. Such as the vampires of the DuMort or the werewolves that shunned him, for example. In a confrontation between his good heart and selfishness, the former has to win. On that day, Simon Lewis will be the hero the narrative wants him to be. Not an outsider just trying to get by but the protagonist of his own story.
And that will be a story worth telling.