It’s a good year to be a fantasy nerd. Shadow And Bone just dropped on Netflix, a second season of The Witcher is deep into post-production, The House Of The Dragon is dropping set photos left and right, and Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings series is…well, it’s coming, it’s just taking its sweet time. Despite being literally the most expensive TV show ever filmed, and capitalizing on a built-in fanbase of millions around the world, The Lord Of The Rings hasn’t quite captured the attention of mainstream media just yet, or gotten people chattering outside of the Tolkienverse fandom.
That’s going to change soon, though. The first season is set to wrap post-production in early August, and before then we’ll likely see an official still from the set, maybe even a brief teaser. At this point, a title reveal would be nice. But until then, we have the exciting news that Charlotte Brändström has indeed joined the series’ production team as a director on two episodes of the first season, becoming the first woman to helm a piece of official Tolkienverse media (an important distinction from Fran Walsh directing key scenes in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, something for which she does not get enough credit).
I want to give a shoutout to Fellowship Of Fans, a YouTube channel specializing in frequent and reliable updates on Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings series, including exclusive reporting based on admirable sleuth work. Fellowship Of Fans broke the news that Brändström was probably involved in the Amazon series some time ago, and their reporting has once again been proven accurate. With the prevailing trend in Tolkien fandom these days being to wildly exaggerate and hyperbolize any potential scoop (I’m not naming names, but…you know), Fellowship Of Fans’ high quality of reporting is extremely important.
But today, it’s been made official by Amazon themselves. Brändström is working on two episodes of The Lord Of The Rings, and multiple cast members – including Nazanin Boniadi and Ismael Cruz Córdova – have already congratulated her on social media. She joins J.A. Bayona and Wayne Che Yip as confirmed directors on the series, although we still don’t know for sure which episodes she’s directing.
Brändström, a Swedish-French director with an International Emmy Award nomination to her name, has had a long career in the TV industry, spanning multiple studios – but she’s probably best known for directing two episodes of The Witcher, something that bodes well for her work on The Lord Of The Rings. She has also directed episodes of The Man In The High Castle and Counterpart for Amazon, Outlander, Grey’s Anatomy, Arrow, and, most recently, Jupiter’s Legacy for Netflix (which I am very slowly making my way through, by the way. It’s not a very good show, but since I haven’t gotten up to either of Brändström’s episodes yet, I don’t really have anything to say about it that has any impact on the conversation at hand. But at this point, I’m continuing solely because I want to get a broader idea of her work.
The significance of a woman working to bring this new iteration of Middle-earth to life can’t be understated. The backbone of the Tolkien fandom has always been women, and it’s been kept alive this long by women, by people of color (particularly women of color), and by LGBTQ+ people – but that makes it all the more important that we acknowledge that this is only a small step in the right direction. A certain group of people will wring their hands about how a white cisgender woman directing two episodes of a Lord Of The Rings series is proof that “wokeness” is ruining Tolkien, but the truth is there’s not enough diversity behind the scenes yet, and I will continue to push Amazon to do better, especially when it comes to hiring Black people and people of color for leadership positions where their input can’t be ignored or sidelined.
Beyond that, there’s not much else to say. The announcement of Brändström’s involvement was accompanied by a photo of her standing in a mountainous environment in New Zealand, but it’d be pretty cool to see something substantial at this point – like a title logo, maybe? Please, Amazon? Anything so that I don’t have to keep calling it The Lord Of The Rings and then backtracking every five seconds to explain that it’s not actually The Lord Of The Rings!
So what do you think? Where have you experienced Brändström’s work before, and what qualities do you foresee her bringing to the series? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AND THE GRISHAVERSE NOVELS AHEAD!
No fantasy adaptation can just be simple these days – something that’s alternately exciting and worrying for fans of the source material, and exhausting for any reviewer trying to write coherently about said fantasy adaptations. If it’s not Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings prequel series being pieced together from mostly contradictory notes, it’s The Witcher‘s first season playing chronological guessing-games with the audience – and then there’s Shadow And Bone, which perhaps takes the cake (or should I say, waffle) in this competition of complexity.
The Netflix show isn’t a straight-up adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s debut novel, Shadow And Bone, although it will presumably continue to bear that book’s title. It also includes characters from Bardugo’s fourth Grishaverse novel, Six Of Crows, which is set a few years after her first trilogy, in a different region of the Grishaverse. But rather than follow two timelines simultaneously, Shadow And Bone (the show) imagines an original scenario where these Crows characters and their storylines overlapped with the events of Shadow And Bone (the book) sometime between their canonical backstories and the events of Six Of Crows. The end of season one roughly matches up with the beginning of Six Of Crows.
Or at least, so we thought. Shadow And Bone‘s showrunner, Eric Heisserer recently declared that the plot of Six Of Crows can’t happen until after The Darkling is dead, a statement he reiterated in an interview with Variety where he suggested that, while the Crows offer a clear path forward for the show “once you get to the end of Alina’s storyline”, in the meantime their arcs will continue to interweave with Alina’s, “without really disturbing too much of the separate storylines that they’re on.” Heisserer’s reasoning is that the central premise of Six Of Crows – that a mysterious new drug named jurda parem has appeared in the Grishaverse, giving Grisha heightened abilities – would break the world’s established magic system too soon.
Obviously, this begs the question of why it was necessary to introduce the Crows this early, if the events of their own book won’t occur onscreen until after Alina’s journey is complete and they won’t substantially impact her arc in the meantime, but the real question we should be asking is what the Crows will do in season two now that the Ice Court heist is apparently off the table and jurda parem can’t yet be introduced. Put on your theorizing hats, people: we’re about to dive down a deep lore rabbit-hole.
First thing’s first, the Crows will have to deal with their mysterious client Dreesen once they return to Ketterdam in season two without a Sun-Summoner. That’s a given whether or not Dreesen is involved in the creation of jurda parem, as I had speculated (and still believe, although I no longer think it’ll be anything more than an undercurrent of a storyline in season two). But Dreesen doesn’t seem wily enough to handle Kaz Brekker on his own, so I’m sure he’ll turn to Pekka Rollins for protection from the Crows – positioning Pekka as a main antagonist in season two, and allowing for flashbacks to Kaz’s history with the ruthless gang leader.
The details of Kaz’s plan to defeat both men simultaneously are still unclear, although he informs his Crows that, for it to work, they’ll need to hire a Heartrender whom neither Dreesen nor Pekka are familiar with – and that’s where Nina Zenik comes into the picture. At the end of season one, Nina is on her way to Ketterdam alongside the Crows, and overhears them discussing Kaz’s plan – but we don’t see her actually join the team, so it’s possible that season two will find her loyalties divided for a number of reasons.
A peculiar plotline left dangling after the finale was the matter of Nina being a spy for The Darkling, and even being personally assigned by him to infiltrate a trio of rogues from Ketterdam who intended to capture Alina Starkov. It’s a significant alteration from the books, especially since it would have been easy enough to keep her canon backstory, but it doesn’t pay off…yet. If Nina joins the Crows, it’ll only be a matter of time before she realizes they’re the same scoundrels she was supposed to hand over to The Darkling, and that could be exactly the right kind of crisis to drive her into the hands of Pekka Rollins – taking a plot-point from Six Of Crows and giving it a fresh twist.
In the books, Nina is alone in Ketterdam and out of options when Pekka’s people find her and bring her to the Emerald Palace, where Pekka offers her a job at one of his pleasure houses. But Kaz sends Inej Ghafa to scale the six-story building at night in the pouring rain with his own counteroffer – a moment too cinematic to miss out on, in my opinion. Besides, returning to the Emerald Palace would give us an opportunity to check up on Poppy, an original character and breakout star from season one who would be a great foil for Nina’s humor.
Another source of conflict between Nina and the Crows could be Matthias Helvar, the Fjerdan witch-hunter whom Nina loves. Shadow And Bone dramatized a key scene from Six Of Crows in which Nina was forced to accuse Matthias of being a slave-trader and have him put in prison in order to save him from a team of Grisha who would have killed him otherwise – but now, with Matthias headed for Ketterdam’s notorious Hellgate prison, Nina will do anything in her power to free him and clear his name; and she might use him as a bargaining chip in her dealings with Kaz. The Hellgate prison break could be a pretty awesome set-piece, even if it would lead to complications with Matthias joining the Crows much earlier than in the books.
Then there’s Tante Heleen, who still has in her possession the deed for Kaz’s precious Crow Club – not only his primary source of revenue, but his headquarters and the capital of his sprawling criminal empire. I highly doubt the monstrous Heleen will hand it over without a fight, and she’s capable of prolonging that fight thanks to her resources and connections. But one thing she doesn’t have anymore is a Wraith, and Inej Ghafa knows her weaknesses and how to exploit them almost as well as Heleen knows hers. This storyline could also help Inej get closer to learning the truth about her family, from whom she was separated as a child by slave-traders who sold her to Heleen.
Shadow And Bone made the deliberate choice to give Inej a brother – despite her being an only child in the books – and indicated that her brother was also sold off somewhere, although where is a mystery even to Inej. Heleen won’t know either, most likely, but she’ll know the identities of the slave-traders who captured both children, and Inej will track them down: of that I have no doubt. Her desire to fight the slave-trade is a major part of her character arc in the books, and the way she memorized every detail about her captors’ physical appearances and advocates for the other girls indentured by Heleen suggests it’s no different in the show.
Inej’s dream of owning a ship from which to launch this valiant crusade is something she only properly formulates in Six Of Crows during a powerful epiphany in an incinerator shaft (long story), but Shadow And Bone can plant the seeds of this dream if Inej encounters Nikolai Lantsov, the charismatic and flirtatious Ravkan prince who first appears in the Grisha trilogy disguised as a privateer named Sturmhond. In the books, Nikolai seeks to redeem Alina Starkov’s image with the Ravkan population by having her pose as his bride-to-be – but to avoid a massive geographical division in the show, he could announce their “engagement” in Ketterdam. I’m brainstorming here, but some kind of plot to assassinate the prince could make for rather compelling television.
Who would be pulling the strings behind such a scheme? Well, a few candidates come to mind. Obviously, The Darkling is one of those, but another could be Jan Van Eck, the Crows’ nemesis from the books. Since we know Eric Heisserer intends to introduce Van Eck’s son Wylan in season two, it stands to reason that Van Eck himself will also make an appearance, and it wouldn’t even be that much of a spoiler to establish him as a villainous or antagonistic character this early, as long as he’s working with the Kerch Merchant Council on his plots.
Assuming we’re lucky enough to get a third season of Shadow And Bone, which would presumably cover the events of Ruin And Rising, the final book in the Grisha trilogy, we’d have to do this all over again with another original plotline for the Crows to fill the gap between now and Six Of Crows. But the books provide something in this case – something that could unlock a whole new corner of the Grishaverse, fix a major problem with season one, and seamlessly interconnect with Alina’s ongoing character arc.
Alina and Mal’s storyline in Ruin And Rising is heavily focused around returning to their place of origin, which in the books is the orphanage at Keramzin. But Shadow And Bone changed Alina and Mal’s ethnicities, making them both biracial – and establishing Alina very clearly as being half-Shu (Mal is possibly of Suli descent, based on actor Archie Renaux’s Desi heritage, which raises the way-too-complicated-to-get-into-in-this-post question of whether he’s Inej’s long lost brother). There’s a lot of valid criticism of the way Shadow And Bone uses Alina’s biracial identity as shorthand for a tragic backstory, subjecting her to a constant string of micro-aggressions, abuse, insults, and racist attacks, without ever bothering to show Shu Han culture except through racist war propaganda, or allowing Alina an opportunity to explore her culture.
That’s something that could change at anytime, but season three offers a tantalizing opportunity for both Alina and Mal to journey further into their past than the orphanage at Keramzin – which could mean traveling to Shu Han at roughly the same time that the Shu scientist Bo Yul-Bayur and his young son Kuwei will be perfecting the formula for jurda parem. At this point in the show, The Darkling will be on his way out, and Jan Van Eck will have already been introduced – all that’s needed is for the Crows to somehow end up in Shu Han. And Six Of Crows provides a precedent, in a Kerch-funded mission to the Shu capital of Ahmrat Jen that takes place shortly before the book opens. The aim of the mission is to capture Yul-Bayur, but he is accidentally killed in the crossfire without the Kerch ever finding out – and Kuwei is captured by a Fjerdan team who take him to the impenetrable Ice Court.
This mission would also allow Inej to meet her most notable opponent from the books, a Ravkan assassin named Dunyasha who was trained in Ahmrat Jen. Inej’s Suli region adheres that a person’s sum total of sins and crimes add up to become that person’s evil doppelganger, or “Shadow”, who will one day face them in battle – and Dunyasha is Inej’s Shadow. With Inej’s arc being heavily focused on her faith, it makes sense to introduce this concept as soon as possible and begin foreshadowing their duel.
But if I’m rambling at this point, it’s only because I love my Crows deeply, and I want them all to have fulfilling character arcs while we wait for the Ice Court heist. Is that really too much to ask? Eric Heisserer got himself into this mess by insisting that the Crows had to be part of Alina’s storyline as his pitch to Netflix – now we have to hope his writers room actually has a plan for them beyond the initial “wow” factor of the Crows trying to kidnap the Sun-Summoner in season one.
A24’s The Green Knight definitely looks like a strong awards season contender, but it already deserves to win something for the film’s clever method of adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic by recentering its entire marketing campaign around the ominous line “One year hence…” – which now refers to both the Green Knight’s warning to Sir Gawain that sets the entire story into motion, and the rather meta aspect of the film being pushed back from its May 2020 release date to a new one at the end of July, 2021. A little more than one year hence, but close enough.
The Green Knight‘s new full-length trailer, released today, should hopefully give general audiences some idea of what they’re in for, while piquing the interest of fantasy nerds, Arthurian legend lovers, and Medieval history buffs (a.k.a. me, me, and also me). The Green Knight should be of special interest to Tolkienverse fans who are at all interested in J.R.R. Tolkien’s scholarly work outside of Middle-earth – which included translating the poem of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight into Modern English on his own, and collaborating with his good friend and Viking Club cofounder E.V. Gordon to compile and annotate a Middle English edition of the text in 1925. That arcane bit of information is absolutely nonessential to understanding or enjoying this particular adaptation of The Green Knight, but it’s fun regardless.
I can’t speak to the quality of the adaptation just yet, but one thing I love about this trailer is how weird and macabre it is. It’s clearly leaning into the Celtic mythological influences on Arthurian legend, which means everything from a herd of giants to a talking fox (oh yeah, and the Green Knight himself: a towering man-tree hybrid who carries around his own decapitated head). Andrew Droz Palermo’s rich and vibrant cinematography is perfectly suited to this tale, which is built on layers of symbolism and allegory hidden in every innocuous detail – all obviously meaningful, despite their original and definitive meaning being unclear and a subject of heated debate.
Some scholars argue that the poem is a deconstruction (either serious or semi-satirical) of Medieval chivalry, using the conflict between the Green Knight (quite literally representing nature at its most primal and chaotic) and Sir Gawain (a supposedly virtuous knight of King Arthur’s court) to comment on chivalry’s inability to restrain humankind’s darkest impulses. So…basically Amazon Prime’s gory superhero satire The Boys, but aimed at knights – who, if you think about it, made themselves out to be the superheroes of their era. Just based on the trailers, that particular reading of the poem appears to be the central theme of The Green Knight.
Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, but the film’s cast also includes Alicia Vikander and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s Erin Kellyman – who’d you think the trailer would spotlight at least a little given her recent boost of popularity off the hit Marvel Disney+ series. Unfortunately, I suspect her role will be very small. Sir Gawain And The Green Knight has a lot of things to say about the dynamic between masculinity and femininity in the age of chivalry (though again, things which no modern scholar can interpret with any degree of certainty), but it’s too early to say if the film will dive into any of that, or give the women in Gawain’s story more prominent roles.
Hopefully, The Green Knight does really well at the box-office as well as with critics, so that Hollywood will start to take more of an interest in Arthurian and Celtic myth, after essentially reducing the former to “knights in shining armor” and “the sword in the stone”, and simply ignoring the latter outright for years. Next stop; Cú Chulainn, Finn McCool, and the Morrígan!
I’m gonna be honest, the Bad Batch didn’t make much of an impression on me when they debuted in The Clone Wars‘ final season just last year. The concept – an elite team of genetically-defective clones whose individual mutations give them special abilities – was admittedly quite intriguing, but the execution was only okay, never elevating the material. And despite their uniqueness being so crucial to their very existence, there wasn’t ever enough time in that season to clearly distinguish their character arcs; only their physical appearances, skills, and a handful of archetypal traits.
But now the Bad Batch have an entire sixteen-episode series in which to extensively explore both their team dynamic and individual storylines; and the series’ premiere event (which clocks in at 71 minutes, longer than any episode of The Mandalorian, or even Marvel’s Disney+ originals) sets an appropriately dark and sophisticated tone for that journey, much like the final season of The Clone Wars. The first episode dives into the fascinating question of what happened to the Old Republic’s clone armies after they had played their part in initiating Order 66: mindlessly slaughtering the Jedi and clearing a path for Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to conquer the galaxy.
While most Star Wars media has looked at Order 66 from the perspective of the Jedi who survived it and went into hiding, The Bad Batch picks up with the clones themselves, who have nowhere to hide from the shame and guilt of what they’re slowly beginning to realize was the entire purpose for their existence all along. The Bad Batch themselves didn’t even kill any Jedi – the inhibitor chips planted in their brains are faulty, giving them their unique personalities and casual disregard for orders – but they won’t turn their backs on other clones: especially not the one member of their team unit, Crosshair (voiced, like all clones, by Dee Bradley Baker), whose inhibitor chip is still working strongly enough to give him internal conflict as he fights between his programming and what he knows to be right.
Star Wars loves inflicting an undue amount of pain and grief on its fans, so it’s no surprise that The Bad Batch opens by once again reliving Order 66 – but what did surprise me was that we finally get to see the death of the Jedi Depa Billaba (Archie Panjabi), and the fateful moment at which she told her young padawan, Caleb Dume (Freddie Prinze Jr.) to flee before the clones could kill him too, burdening him with years of guilt and setting him on the path to become the rogue knight Kanan Jarrus, whom we would later meet in Star Wars: Rebels. Is it slightly distracting that Dume – a young teen at this point in the timeline – has an adult man’s voice? Maybe, but Prinze Jr. is iconic and frankly irreplaceable in this role.
What Jarrus left out of his tragic backstory was that the Bad Batch were witnesses to this horrific moment, and that it was the team’s commander, Hunter, who allowed him to escape even though Crosshair was prepared to kill the young Jedi. Much of the episode’s first half revolves around this decision and its ramifications, including the wedge it drives between Hunter and Crosshair – eventually leading the sharpshooter to betray the team and join forces with Admiral Tarkin (Stephen Stanton).
But even with Tarkin and Dume’s cameos, the episode feels like it’s kicking off a fresh and unique story that will organically weave these and other cameos into the narrative (whereas The Mandalorian simply shoehorned them in wherever possible), while keeping the focus on our core cast of characters. The Bad Batch, thankfully, are all pretty interesting once you get to know a little bit more about them: I particularly adore Wrecker, the team’s big scary muscly sweetheart, and Tech, who’s an endearingly snarky know-it-all. Echo is the only member who still feels in need of a personality boost, but his character was originally a regular clone before joining the Batch, so that’s not entirely surprising.
The team also gains a new member in this episode – a young girl (voiced by Michelle Ang) with an adventurous streak, whose backstory is still something of a mystery. Ominously named Omega, she comes from the cloning facilities of Kamino, where she works as a medical assistant to the Kaminoan doctor Nala Se (Gwendoline Yeo), but the episode doesn’t take long to confirm that she is in fact another defective clone. Since all clones are assigned male at birth, Omega’s gender identity is pretty significant – although I’m wary of concluding from this that she’s meant to be a trans character, as some fans have been saying. Unfortunately, I feel her distinctive white-blonde hair and possible Force-sensitivity give away that she’s more likely an early prototype of a Palpatine clone.
But even if that is the case, I like her character a lot – and her wide-eyed reaction to traveling through hyperspace for the first time made the simple plot device feel magical again after nine movies. Hopefully she survives through The Bad Batch, and doesn’t transform into Snoke from the sequel trilogy or something like that, but I genuinely won’t be surprised if her character is meant to explain away some of the plot-holes in The Rise Of Skywalker.
I want to believe that the show is too sophisticated to go down that route, however, because in other regards it displays the same level of subtlety and thematic cohesion found in most of Dave Filoni’s animated projects. On that note, The Bad Batch can certainly be enjoyed by both adults and kids, but the premiere’s longer runtime combined with its darker, more contemplative tone may cause the audience to skew a little older. The action scenes are fun and lively (teamwork is always cool, especially when it involves characters cleverly building off each other’s strengths), but there’s not a lot of fighting in this particular episode.
Considering that I went into The Bad Batch expecting to be bored out of my mind by characters who I hadn’t really liked when they first showed up, I regard all of this as a huge win – and I’m excited to see where the series goes from here. I’m not sure if it’ll be my next obsession like Rebels was, but I will continue to review it because I like Star Wars, even when it seems purposefully designed to cause me emotional distress.