It is no secret that Alec Lightwood is the most popular character of Shadowhunters. Played by also fan-favorite Matthew Daddario, the character stole the show in the first season of the series. Among eye-rolls and many sighs, Alec captivated the audience with his no-nonsense attitude and inner struggles. By the time he finally kissed Magnus, the season seemed to have peaked to its highest despite the finale still to come.
In season 2, Alec’s storylines matured with him. The character was in the center of the new political vein of the show all the while dealing with his new relationship. The character of Alec represents the future of the series. In his journey, the show proves its premise: Shadowhunters and Downworlders should stand side by side in the fight against evil. Alec is not the lead of Shadowhunters, but he is the manifestation of its essence.
In this sense, it is no surprise how popular the character is. Still, it is worth to take a look at what made the fans love Alec so much. The combination of a solid storyline, a gray and ever-growing character, and terrific performances resulted in the show’s most real character.
Which, in turn, made Alec the easiest character to relate to.
For a show whose storytelling is primarily plot-driven, Alec’s arc stood out since the beginning. As the unofficial king of the B-Story, Alec’s storylines are always character-driven. Instead of chasing after the plot, it is Alec’s choices that move his storylines along.
Every time Alec makes a choice, the narrative either punishes or rewards him. It all depends on what motivated his decision. Alec’s inner journey is to go from complacent to defiant. Choosing to be complacent leads Alec to make the wrong choice and, thus, be punished. That’s what happened when he accommodated Jace and Clary’s unsanctioned missions; the narrative punished Alec with a political marriage.
Interestingly, that happened again when he asked Lydia. Alec was both complacent about sticking to a forced marriage and defiant for chose a bride that suited his goals despite his parents’ wishes. In that instance, the narrative then both rewarded Alec with the control of the Institute and punished him with an even worse choice: taking Meliorn to the Silent Brothers.
There was a natural progression to Alec’s actions throughout the first season of the show. The man that started out as lowering his head and doing what he was told began questioning all he was taught. Little by little, Alec started to question why he had to adhere to what the Clave wanted from him if doing so hurt him so badly.
When, at last, Alec faced his toughest choice yet, the audience has seen all that he’s been through to get to that point. Magnus’ presence at Alec’s wedding ceremony gives Alec the last chance to pick defiance once and for all. That is the moment of truth: either Alec sacrifices his happiness to please the Clave or risks it all to save himself. At that moment, Alec chose the later after a season of getting away from the former. When he kissed Magnus, Alec broke with the control the Clave had on him.
This kind of narrative makes for a more relatable character because it highlights the both the character’s strength and flaw. It creates a three-dimensional character, one whose motives are easy to understand even if the audience doesn’t necessarily agree with him. The morality of Alec’s choices can be questioned – and they are, often by Alec himself. But the audience knows why he is making each choice, what he intends to sacrifice and gain from those decisions.
Another important aspect of Alec’s story is that he isn’t fighting an all-powerful monster or discovering hidden powers. His enemies are more grounded forces: an oppressive system, his family’s high expectations. When Alec faces those opponents, the audience recognizes their own demons on screen.
We are all bound by unfair laws, even if they are moral contracts or behaviors we are expected to have. Alec is the character that most clearly fights off those ideas. It is a different struggle from the one the Downworlders have and one that permeates every culture in the real world. Alec believes he has to sacrifice who he is to thrive in his society.
Every single person has felt that, to one degree to another. From our sexuality to our choice in a career, from honoring our culture to finding our place in the world. We all have felt like we needed to hide an integral part of us in order to succeed.
Alec’s coming out story is a powerful one as it relies entirely on Alec overcoming that fallacy. When he does it, so does the audience. That is not to say it isn’t a story that primarily represents LGBT+ people’s struggles; it is and it does it beautifully. Alec is never stereotyped or defined solemnly by his sexual orientation, his feelings are treated with respect, and it never overpowers all of Alec’s arc.
But his story also goes beyond the LGBT+ representation or a discussion over sexuality alone. It invites the entire audience to question whether they should be conforming to the pre-established rules in detriment of themselves. In this sense, Alec represents all of us in a variety of ways.
But only because Alec rejected the lie he was fed with his entire life, it doesn’t mean his story is over. To the contrary, much like with his choices, this rupture with the status quo leads to consequences and more changes. Season 2 is the proof of that. Alec has still grown up in a highly discriminatory society and he can’t kiss away his prejudices.
Being with Magnus is what triggers that development. On a personal level, Alec learns what it means to be in a romantic relationship with someone from a different world in this highly divided society. He makes mistakes, like taking his frustration out on Magnus or continuing to follow Clave’s orders that he disagrees with. However, Alec slowly starts to challenged his privilege. He owns his mistakes, apologizes, and works to be better.
Unfortunately, Alec’s internalized racism isn’t always addressed on the show. A glaring example happened when he learned of his sister’s addiction. Alec first blamed both Magnus and Raphael, reacting with extreme violence and hostility toward the later. However, when Alec confronted the real villain, Aldertree – a fellow Shadowhunter-, his methods were distinctively less aggressive.
This difference in treatment was never addressed and it should’ve been. That would’ve made for an even stronger development when the next phase in Alec’s story arrived; his political career. Still, the narrative’s shifting focus to more political storylines gives Alec a chance to keep growing.
His big test occurs when the Clave issues a command to racially profile Downworlders. Alec clashes against high authority, refusing to endorse such procedure. Once again, he is choosing defiance. This time, however, his stand isn’t motivated by his own well-being but by the well-being of others. It is the culmination of Alec’s rejection of the racist notions he’s learned his whole life.
As a reward, the narrative crowns him with the definitive title of Head of the Institute; Alec’s long-wanted dream. When that comes true, it is because Alec has earned the position.
In this sense, Alec is the first out of all of the characters to “level up” by his own efforts.. He doesn’t accidentally fall into the position, he doesn’t take it for other people’s sake, he wasn’t in that position since the starts of the series. Alec grew into it naturally. And it shows.
Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown
As Head, Alec put an end to racial profiling the Downworlder, created the Downworlder Cabinet, and made sure the Clave’s discriminatory laws didn’t apply when they were not needed. Alec is a better and more competent Head than all the ones that passed through the position so far.
Which is not to say he is perfect. Alec still chose to omit the truth about the Soul Sword from Magnus. He was immediately punished by a devastating breakup even though Alec’s reasoning made sense. Being in a position of power means that right and wrong depends on perspective. Alec has started to learn that.
He has also started to learn his personal feelings take second place in the grand scheme of things. Alec is the first Shadowhunter to swallow his pride and recognize the authority of Downworlder leaders. In the quest to locate and execute Valentine, Alec turned to his established Cabinet to coordinate a joint effort. When he learned that the Seelie Queen would be speaking for all Downworlders, Alec was the only Shadowhunter present not to question their decision. He worked with it, despite not being personally pleased by the news.
Diplomacy is quickly becoming one of Alec’s greatest strengths. Wildly recognized as an excellent Shadowhunter, he is now one of the best leaders of the show. Much like with all of his other skills, that is not something that came naturally to him. Alec learned how to shoot arrows through practice and dedication; the same is happening to his leadership skills.
From learning how to deal with Clary to convincing Luke to participate in the Cabinet initiative, Alec continues to change. In the midst of their fight and the conflict between Shadowhunters and Downworlders, Alec enlists Magnus to close the rift between Earth and Edom. That is a victory of the Head of the Institute – and the High Warlock -, whom both put aside their feelings to focus on the greater good.
Like a clock, the narrative comes to Alec’s aid by the end of his season 2 arc. Alec has learned what it is to be a good leader and who to trust in a time of crisis. It is only fair he gets his love life back on track. Once again, Alec apologizes to Magnus, who is tired of fighting. Their nuanced and converged storylines bring them both together again to their unending happiness.
At the apex of Alec’s arc in season 1, he listed the reasons why he couldn’t be with Magnus. He’d be risking the love of his family, his career, the life he had worked hard to build. Those were the stakes in Alec’s story, the things he had sacrificed himself for. When Alec kissed Magnus, he was fully aware that everything he loved and worked for could be lost to him.
But it wasn’t. Alec rejected his character flaw (compliance) and embraced its literary antidote (defiant). One season and a lot of growing later, Alec is the Head of the New York Institute, the Shadowhunter working to bring the Shadow World together, and more close to his family than he ever was. All the while being happily in love with the man of his dreams.
Alec represents what we all want to achieve. He started out miserable as the follower of unfair rules, clinging to scraps of happiness where he could find them. Once Alec broke with that, he found true love, a healthier relationship with his family, and his calling in life. He is by no means perfect. But, when Alec screws up, he faces the consequences with his head high and without excuses. Alec learns from this missteps, growing into a better person every new episode.
It is rare to see him directly involved with the main plot of the show. But it would be foolish to disregard him as a secondary player in the grand scheme of the Shadow World. Alec is the Shadowhunter that will change it permanently. Not by pure angelic powers, but by effort and dedication.
That was how he rose to be one of the best of the New York Institute. And that is how he will rise to become Consul one day. Until then, the audience can continue to cheer for him as it so loudly does already.