The Lonely Antihero: A Look at Ray’s Character Development in The Promised Neverland

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Chapters 1-38 — the first season and Episode 1 of the second season — of The Promised Neverland. Its oneshot The Promised Neverland Special Side Story: The First Shot is also mentioned in this post, but it isn’t a required read if you’ve already watched Season 1 or read up to the end of the first arc.)

Among all of the anime sequels this season, I was most hyped for the second season of The Promised Neverland (Yakusoku no Neverland). Yes, I already finished the manga, so the content this season wouldn’t be anything new for me (unless they add anime-original content).

One pretty big reason for my interest is that I wanted to see how the arcs after Season 1 get animated. I liked the approach Cloverworks took for animating Season 1, with the camera panning to build a feeling of suspense/thriller and the removal of most internal dialogue (because let’s be honest here, removing internal dialogue actually strengthened certain emotional scenes).

The other reason is that I figured I would still enjoy what would be covered in this season. There’s only been one episode out, so I’ll reserve my judgment on how I think of it so far. If I feel like to, I might make another post after the season is over.

Season 2’s first episode had one early scene between Emma and Ray, our two main characters. It was a pretty quick scene that could be skimmed over easily, but Ray is my favorite character in the series and I guess my eyes and ears automatically are on high focus every time he’s on screen. So, no, I’m not going to shut up about it. I’m going to take the time to appreciate him and his character growth.

The Pragmatic Outsider

In Season 1 (which covers the entirety of the Grace Field escape arc), Ray is the first among the children to know about the secret behind the Grace Field House: their home is not an orphanage but a farm, and he and the others are being shipped out one by one as food for demons. This was a realization he came across against his will — he didn’t experience childhood amnesia, so he simply remembered everything. When he was six years old, he made a deal with Isabella (the “Mama” who watches over the children and sends them off to the demons), becoming her spy with the secret intention of gathering materials and outside information for a future escape.

Before deciding on “Outsider” for my heading in this section, I first considered using the word “Hero.” That felt off though. He just didn’t seem to suit the label. When you think of a hero, you’d think of a selfless, courageous person with a moral high ground and a desire to protect and save everyone. Someone like Emma (who unsurprisingly is the main protagonist) would easily count as a hero. The pragmatic, pessimistic Ray would not.

Due to his introverted nature and his focus on reading and studying for his escape plan, he often doesn’t partake in activities with the other children. He is extremely close with only two — Norman and Emma, likely because they are closest to his age and are the only other children who had full scores on their tests.

Ray turning down Emma's offer of playing tag with the other children (The Promised Neverland manga)
Ray turning down an offer to play with the others.

Ray’s escape plan was to have only Norman and Emma escape. Throughout the escape arc, Ray repeatedly tells Emma that her plan of taking everyone and escaping together isn’t going to work. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense — many of these children are too young and could potentially slow everyone else down. With the chance of being caught, as well as the outside world potentially being dangerous, bringing everyone would be too risky of a move. However, this also means that they would leave behind everyone they had viewed and loved as family.

Since Emma and Norman are generally forgiving towards their friend, Ray is never called out for his seemingly cold plans to abandon their family. However, there have been a few brief moments when they questioned his allegiance and actions. This is seen when Norman first confronts Ray on being Isabella’s spy. Even Emma questions his morality at one point, asking him if he had tested on the younger children (and thus pushed their shipping dates sooner) to get information for himself.

Emma asks Ray if he had experimented on and sacrificed any children to gain information on the tracking devices (The Promised Neverland Chapter 15 manga scan)
Emma questions Ray.

The thing is, Ray isn’t heartless at all. Even though his strategizing makes him come off as detached towards the others, he greatly wants to see his closest friends — practically siblings, even — escape safely. He admits this to Norman when he is discovered to be a spy. We also see him lose his calm later in the arc as he desperately tries to find a way for the reluctant Norman to escape after it’s announced that the latter would be shipped off.

Furthermore, it has been proven that he still cares about the other Grace Field children. The Promised Neverland‘s first post-series side story (an official oneshot that details the events leading up to the first chapter/episode, told from Ray’s perspective) confirms that he has been feeling guilt over not being able to save everyone. As a young child bearing Grace Field’s secret alone, he suffered nightmares of his family being sent off to demons. He couldn’t explain to the others why they should be putting more time into raising their test scores, especially when it still wouldn’t guarantee their survival. The only thing he could do was watch the other children be unknowingly led to their deaths.

Ray watches the other children be shipped off over time (The Promised Neverland Special Side Story: The First Shot)
Ray watches his family being shipped off one by one.

This gives additional insight on why he plans for only Emma and Norman to escape — he has already come to terms that it’s impossible for everyone to escape, so the next best thing he could do is make sure that at least someone escapes. Among all of the Grace Field children, those two are the likeliest to succeed. The fact that he’s the closest to both of them only further strengthens his motivation.

So he studies to survive until his inevitable shipment date, despite actually having no interest in studying or reading. He sets up a way for Norman and Emma to discover the truth for themselves. And when the awaited day happens, he would see his family escape while he stays behind.

Right before he attempts to set himself on fire near the end of the escape arc, Ray tells Emma that this is something he has been preparing for years — to die as a form of atonement for using the other children and not doing anything to avoid their deaths for the past 12 years; and most importantly, to die not as cattle but as a selfish human.

For the longest time, I didn’t see him as a hero. If anything, he was a victim of a system with demons and cattle children — a tragic character who was on the brink of committing suicide out of survivor’s guilt and as a final act of defiance. I still believe this, but I’ve also come to realize that he is a hero (or more accurately, an antihero) in his own right. Even though he lacked the typical idealism you’d see in heroes and his sometimes-implied actions were morally questionable, he has been acting selflessly for the majority of his life.

From a young boy who desperately — selfishly — wanted to reject reality and pretend everything is fine, he was quickly forced to come to terms with reality and act on his own, putting himself at risk as he worked behind the scenes for others’ safety (even if it was for only Norman and Emma originally). His death would’ve been a “selfish act” in the sense that it didn’t stop the plantation system but was a way for him to avoid the fate he and any other child would’ve had.

Had he succeeded in his plans, he would’ve had a death that narratively came full circle but would be undeniably saddening. Thankfully, the series took a different approach.

The Atoning Hero

If you’ve finished Season 1 or read the entire escape arc, you’d already know that Emma stops Ray from setting himself on fire and manages to have him escape with the rest of the (older) children. This greatly affects Ray — not only did Norman saw through his plan and prevented it, but Emma’s optimistic plan of bringing everyone worked (even though she did have to compromise by leaving behind those who were too young to be shipped off and planning to later come back for them). Seeing a plan he had deemed impossible come to fruition, Ray finally finds a reason to find a more hopeful outlook in life.

Even though he was saved and has escaped with the others, he still feels guilty over everything. In the first episode of Season 2, there is a condensed scene where Ray privately apologizes to Emma, then makes a promise with her. Below is the full scene from the manga:

(The anime, unfortunately, removed the part where Ray talks about the others congratulating him. The anime did give us a shot of Ray smiling though as compensation(?) so it isn’t a horrible change, I guess.)

In this scene, we see Ray having a change in heart, but this isn’t solely due to Emma forgiving him. (It would’ve been expected for Emma to forgive him anyways, considering how she is as a character.) The main driving factor is the forgiveness from everyone else. For the entire time, we’ve seen Ray feeling guilty for using his family and wanting to leave them on the night of his planned suicide. Now he realizes that despite all of his “sins,” the other children still love and accept him because he is family.

Once a pessimistic character who found his life “cursed” and deserving to die, Ray grows into someone with the same optimistic desire as everyone else — for everyone to be free, living happily together. Instead of dying as a way of atonement, he is now set on protecting the group of children who always believed in him even when it wasn’t reciprocated.

As the season goes on, we can expect to see Ray taking on the role of a trusted co-leader with Emma and finally becoming someone he couldn’t properly be to the other kids: a proper member of their family.

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