“I think,” says the main character of Hans Christian Andersen's 1847 tale The Shadow, “my shadow is the only living thing to be seen opposite.” It's an interesting line, if you think about it – why does the man count his shadow as a living thing? Most would argue that a shadow is not alive, but instead the dark reflection of that which lives, and it is, in fact, the man's willingness to see his shadow as a living being that ends up getting him in trouble as the story goes on and the shadow takes over his life.
The shadows in Shadows House are, in fact, living beings. In fact, far from simply “living,” the Shadows are ruling beings, as if descended from Andersen's Shadow and the princess he marries at the end of the tale, having supplanted his original human. They are served by what they call “living dolls,” people who are the human images of the shadow forms, with identical outlines to the Shadows, suggesting, as in Andersen's story, that the traditional roles of shadow and human have been reversed, and now in the great sooty manor the shadows hold sway while the people are forced to follow after, imperfect reflections of the ones who are truly alive.
We enter the story with Emilico, a newly minted (or possibly newly brainwashed) “living doll” who is about to begin serving her new Shadow mistress, a young girl named Kate. Emilico doesn't even have a name until Kate gives her one, but she's hardly an unformed infant – she knows how to walk, talk, follow directions, and clean. All she's truly ignorant of is what it means to be a living doll, and, quite possibly, the fact that she's not really a doll at all. After all, do dolls bleed when they scrape their knees? My cousin had one that peed, but that's not really the same thing. It is, however, something you might convince your family servants of in order to better preserve the family secrets or mystique or what have you, to say nothing of it being a grand way to convince them that becoming their master or mistress' “face” is perfectly acceptable, since dolls, not even living ones, have no will of their own.
Emilico is, at this point, far too naïve to suspect something sinister going on beneath the surface. In fact, she's so naïve and precious that it feels like setup for a later spectacular revelation of some sort of terrible truth. In episode one, it's easier to buy that she just may be that sweet and innocent, but episode two definitely steers things in a darker direction. Not only does she finally see the world outside of her cell and Kate's rooms, but she also encounters the same living doll twice: once when there are no Shadows around, and once when she's with her mistress. The difference in Mia couldn't be starker: by herself, she sings, is friendly, and seems to genuinely like Emilico. But when she's with Sarah, she is nothing more than a relay of Sarah's visible facial expressions – she mimics Sarah's movements and gestures in order to display the expressions that cannot be seen on Sarah's own soot-blackened face. That's what it means to be a living doll: to exist for nothing but your mistress' purposes and to have no will of your own in their presence.
It's an interesting riff on the role of the good servant in Victorian society (and surrounding time periods; Shadows House seems to take the Victorian era as its inspiration, so that's what I'm going with here), as well as the idea of children being seen and not heard, because Sarah makes it clear that living dolls aren't meant to have their own voices and thoughts around Shadows. Also worth noting is the fact that Kate, who produces a lot of anxiety soot, isn't all that comfortable with the system. She knows she's not supposed to go after Emilico when she falls into the courtyard, and Sarah's treatment makes it clear that Kate oughtn't be seen since she and Emilico haven't “debuted” yet – presumably a take on the idea of the social debut of days gone by. But the bigger question is whether Kate will remain a dedicated Shadow or whether she will see Emilico as more than just a reflection of herself. Their game of dress-up in the second episode says she might, and that's a possibility just as worth watching for as all of the answers that for now are veiled in darkness.
Shadows House is currently streaming on Funimation.