Emotions are a nuisance in espionage. Princess Principal’s leading characters, especially gravity-defying expert liar Ange, make a grand point that for one to survive as a spy, one must reveal nothing, feel nothing, and most importantly, trust no one. It’s delightfully ironic, then, that the heart and soul of the show is not the spy missions that these girls carry out with expert, emotionless precision, but the emotional bonds they form with each other. As with most “ragtag bunch of morally dubious professional misfits” ensemble stories of this nature, what brings the audience back is not in the episodic missions themselves but the colourful characters and their varied dynamics with each other. PriPri is very much a “come for the concept, stay for the cast” affair, with a moving throughline about girls supporting each other that ties the series together much more neatly than the overarching political plot.
Content warning: discussion of domestic abuse, and spoilers for most of the series.
There’s a story of found family woven in amongst the traintop gunfights and ballroom infiltrations that make up Princess Principal’s action plot. Each episode is generally framed around a mission the girls must complete, but the further you get into the series the clearer it becomes that the cool spy stuff is a structure to hold up a chain of character and relationship studies.
The team is made up of a varied mix of personalities and skill sets, which creates dynamics that are fun to watch as well as simply making for a functional spy squad. Most fun, though, and most importantly, there’s also web of varied and interesting relationships within the team: the unlikely bond between timid, law-abiding Beatrice and confident team leader Dorothy; the mutually-protective friendship between Beatrice and the Princess; the understated but understanding partnership between fellow human weapons Ange and Chise; and of course the secret friendship (and romance) between Ange and Princess on which the tension in the climactic arc ultimately hinges.
Despite that rhetoric that spies must by necessity be lonely and secretive, it’s clear from the beginning that the team couldn’t do what they do without the diverse range of skills—from mechanics to diplomacy to swordsmanship—that each individual brings to the group. Likewise, it becomes clear that despite that rhetoric, the team have all found a sort of new home in this den of thieves. We first meet Chise, for example, when she’s bent on revenge against her traitorous father, but by the episode’s end she’s fulfilled her quest, and has thus lost her drive and purpose. But she finds a new place among the spies, both in a renewed sense of usefulness (to the team, but also to her home country, who she’s technically spying on behalf of) and a new sense of family.
As I mentioned above, she and Ange are compatible, but later she also connects with Princess over their shared status as outsiders trying to learn the skills to blend in, and the whole team bands together to try and replicate some of the Japanese culture she’s missing so much. They don’t get it quite right, but their effort is sweet and enough to make Chise, a girl so far defined by her stoic nature and dedication to fighting, laugh for the first time. Where once she only had her tunnel-vision quest for vengeance to ground her, it seems that now she’s found something of a new home and a new, more positive and healthy purpose.
Chise isn’t the only character who leaves behind a complicated relationship with her biological family in favour of this new home, either. Beatrice and Dorothy share their first major bonding moment over the fact that they both have terrible dads; Beatrice’s embracing the steampunk setting by being a mad scientist who turns his daughter into a cyborg against her will, and Dorothy’s so physically abusive that she ran away, which is how she eventually ended up recruited as a spy.
Dorothy revealing her past is a big deal, especially since she’s the team’s leader and the most efficient member, after Ange, at wearing masks and hiding her true self. But she lets her guard down during this sombre moment because she knows Beatrice will understand how conflicted and pained she feels, having come from a similar background. The two are frequently paired up since their opposite natures make them fun to watch, but this moment in episode six was their first step towards a deeper, more meaningful bond.
The episode that reveals Dorothy’s abusive backstory is a sobering departure from the action-packed spy capers that preceded it, but it ends on a positive note. Having watched Dorothy’s father with a wary eye all episode (the audience positioned so as to never quite know whether to trust him or not; a neat replication of what’s going on in Dorothy’s conflicted head), we see him profess that he wants to turn over a new leaf, only to get murdered. Dorothy never gets any closure for her nasty and complicated relationship with her dad, but she does get another sweet moment with Beatrice that provides hope for the future out of that unfortunate past. The episode ends with Beatrice singing a rendition of Dorothy’s favourite childhood lullaby, making Dorothy smile. Even if it’s intercut with Dorothy’s father’s body being packed away, presumably never to be retrieved, it’s a hopeful note to end on. Beatrice has seen the wreckage of Dorothy’s family life, and is offering and suggesting she has a new family among the spies now.
Perhaps the best and most delightfully ironic iteration of this found family theme is with Ange herself, the first character to verbally lay the ground rules that spies are lone and emotionless creatures. Her motivation stems from care for another person—again, one of the only people to offer some respite and sense of belonging when she came from an abusive background (working as a pickpocket for an asshole straight out of Oliver Twist). When she and the character we now call Princess met as children, it’s clear that their friendship was a source of comfort for both of them. The reveal of their shared backstory, like the others, is only short, but the show makes effective use of this small space to make it genuinely heartbreaking when the kids are separated… pretending to be each other, while unsure if they’ll ever see each other again.
The big character-related twist of the series is that “Ange” is not in fact Ange but has secretly been the Princess all along, and the one the kingdom calls its Princess is really a street kid named Ange. It’s a neat, almost fairy tale twist, but most importantly it gives both girls a solid, relationship-based motivation that makes them feel infinitely more real and sympathetic. Their scenes together are cut through with internal conflict about wanting to express their feelings for each other but not being able to, and a fierce protectiveness for one another that draws on all their respective skills. “Princess”’ ambition to ascend the throne, tear down the wall, and unite the split-up country is motivated not by political machinations but by her long-held desire to see her childhood friend again, and to reunite all the other people who have been parted by revolution (and, it’s implied, help break down some of the class divides that seemed to spark the anti-monarchy revolution in the first place).
It’s about personal power and agency, for sure, but just as the others are humans underneath their spy masks, she’s human under her crown. Her relationship with the royal family is strained and stifling, and that’s with them thinking she is the Princess. It becomes increasingly clear that the one she considers her real family is Ange, with the later addition of the spies, and that the feeling is mutual. Seeing the close bonds between these girls develop is what makes the final arc of the show so tense, with the character-based conflict gripping my attention much more firmly than the political plot. Sure, it’s a worry that the country might be plunged into revolution, but can the squad get back together in time to save their friends?!
Ultimately, the show’s climax comes down to this conundrum: the perfect spy cares about no one and nothing but The Mission, but that’s simply not the way that humans work. This spy team is a group of five girls who have all been alone and helpless at one time in their lives, but whether they intended it or not, they’ve found a new home in this team of unlikely friends and allies. And that’s how you gather the power to save a kingdom—not by being emotionless and trusting no one, but by finding a tight-knit squad of buddies you do trust.
The biggest criticism of Princess Principal I’ve seen is that its overarching plot is rushed and a little muddled, which is totally valid. What holds the series together far better is the relationships that develop between this band of thieves, and the hope and positivity they offer as the girls bond over and recover from their traumatic pasts, creating a delightful story about a diverse group of ladies supporting each other, against a lush fantastical backdrop. Teamwork makes the dream work, and having a loveable cast of rogues with an emotional core is the key to making a show like this good.