SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!
My Shadow And Bone coverage has always made one thing clear: first and foremost, I am here for the Crows. I am here to watch them plan out genius schemes to the most minute detail, mess everything up, and still somehow pull off a miraculous save in the end thanks to quick thinking and a little bit of luck. That’s why Shadow And Bone isn’t my favorite of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, but Six Of Crows and Crooked Kingdom are (Crooked Kingdom actually slightly more so, because it’s got heists but also intrigue) – and that’s why episode five of Netflix’s Shadow And Bone is where the series crosses over from “good” to “great” in my opinion.
Because this is the heist episode. I was surprised it happened so early, I’ll be honest: when Shadow And Bone‘s trailers revealed that the Crows would be plotting to abduct Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), I was convinced that a kidnapping attempt of that scale would have to wait until the finale. But weaving the heist story into one of the most iconic and dramatic chapters of Shadow And Bone, the one in which Alina herself is forced to flee from the Little Palace after discovering the truth about The Darkling (Ben Barnes), is so much more brilliant from a storytelling standpoint – and it means we don’t have to wait until season two for interactions between Shadow And Bone characters and Six Of Crows characters, which is a plus.
It also means the writers of Shadow And Bone had to craft an original heist worthy of criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), and Grishaverse author Leigh Bardugo – no easy feat, I’m sure. There’s a balance that must be achieved in a perfect heist story between coherence and complexity, and it can be hard to find, but I’m firmly of the belief that a heist should never be too simple: especially not when Kaz Brekker is putting together the plan. Some of the best I’ve read, including Bardugo’s, are those that involve many intricate moving parts, which no amount of Fabrikator fine-tuning can prevent from inevitably getting stuck or jamming up the works – resulting in beautiful, uncontrollable, chaos.
That’s why it’s also important that a heist story have characters with distinct strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. That last bit is crucial, because even if a plan is seemingly foolproof, people always have the potential to be unpredictable: to make an error in their calculations because they overlooked something; to get distracted or overwhelmed in the heat of the moment; to feel cocky and think they can outwit the original plan; to make any number of decisions, each one coming with its own risks and consequences. To break the machine, you first have to give it a little push.
The heist in Shadow And Bone‘s fifth episode works precisely because it fails so spectacularly, because Kaz and his crew (and a host of other characters unaware of the Crows’ scheme) don’t, and in some cases can’t, stick to the plan. Multiple subplots converge, people start pushing from all sides, the machinery catches fire (figuratively, of course: though come to think of it, a Grisha Inferni does play a significant role in this episode), and it’s a joy to behold. Another important thing about heist stories: the chaos you cause when the plan goes wrong must be as carefully orchestrated and thrilling as the premise of the original plan.
But anyway, now that I’ve made myself look entirely pretentious with that little writing lecture, let’s break down the heist itself. The premise is at first glance simple: infiltrate the Ravkan winter fête in disguise, find Alina Starkov, and kidnap her. Alina unwittingly makes the Crows’ job easier when she sneaks out of the Little Palace to see the circus, attending an exaggerated theatrical performance of her own exploits in the Shadow-Fold (in which she is portrayed by a blonde white woman) and giving Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) a clear visual of her before she’s hurriedly escorted off by the Grisha Heartrender Fedyor (Julian Kostov).
The plan as relayed to the Crows’ guide, Arken (Howard Charles), is for Arken to sneak into Alina’s room using a lodestone to bypass the Fabrikator locking-device on the door, there to lie in wait for the Sun-Summoner after her own performance at the party. But when Alina does return to the room accompanied by the Tailor Genya Safin (Daisy Head), Arken doesn’t even hesitate before leaping on the Sun-Summoner and slitting her throat: one of the most horrifying and shocking moments in the season.
But like a Russian nesting-doll, it’s all part of a plan within a plan: and Kaz has been playing Arken since the very beginning of their partnership, having long suspected what soon becomes blindingly apparent – that Arken’s lucrative business of smuggling Grisha out of Ravka for a fee depends on the Shadow-Fold existing to keep them trapped and out of options in their homeland. He never wanted to capture Alina: he wanted her dead, and he foolishly believed he could manipulate the Crows into helping him kill her. But Kaz, ruthless mastermind that he is, sent Arken after Alina Starkov’s decoy, a part being played by the young Grisha Inferni Marie (Jasmine Blackborow) – who does die, sadly; but perhaps less horribly than in the books.
Kaz and Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), meanwhile, are more than happy to abandon the treacherous Conductor to the whims of the Grisha, and I love their casual use of the phrase “lynx flush” to describe the trap they set for him – they’re precious cinnamon rolls, yes, but they are also vicious and extraordinarily dangerous, and I love them for it. As they weave their way in and out of various disguises, keeping close to the real Alina, we also get to see more of Kaz’s cynicism (he’s convinced Alina’s lightshow is a trick using mirrors) and Inej’s faith (her reverent use of the term “Sankta Alina” foreshadowing the name she will later give to one of her fourteen knives).
I’m also a big fan of the immediate cut to Jesper whispering “Saints!” (a common Grishaverse exclamatory phrase) no less reverently, but for a very different reason – having just successfully seduced one of the Little Palace’s handsome stable-hands. I was worried Jesper’s canonical bisexuality wouldn’t be addressed in this season, but Shadow And Bone actually improves and increases diversity across the board, with several other supporting characters being either stated or implied as LGBTQ+ – most notably Fedyor and the Grisha Heartrender Ivan (Simon Sears), confirmed by Mei Li to be a couple in an interview where the actress also said Alina herself could be queer. Fingers crossed!
But as Mei Li noted in the interview, Alina’s strongest relationship is probably always going to be with Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), who also returns in this episode – throwing Kaz’s plans into disarray despite the two never even crossing paths. Mal is simply answering The Darkling’s call for information about Morozova’s Stag, word of which quickly reaches the ears of Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) on the other side of the palace grounds. Racing against Joseph Trapanese’s pounding score, Baghra unleashes her loyalists to find and kill Mal before he can speak to The Darkling. They reckon without Mal’s own ingenuity, as the tracker refuses to tell The Darkling where to find the Stag until he’s allowed to see Alina.
And then there’s Alina herself, the most unpredictable cog in the entire machine. She and The Darkling share their first kiss in this episode, and then another, and then one more improvised by Ben Barnes. The Darkling even gifts her a bouquet of blue irises, which he learns from Mal are Alina’s favorite flowers. It’s clear that things are about to get a lot more intimate when Ivan suddenly intrudes on the couple’s rendezvous in the map-room to warn The Darkling of Arken’s assassination attempt, throwing cold water on all the heat and passion. But all of it – the romance, the found family, the sense of belonging – is all part of The Darkling’s plan to keep Alina happily subservient.
Book readers know all too well the pain of first learning the truth about The Darkling – but when Baghra gives Alina the full rundown on his origins and agenda, I hope newcomers to Shadow And Bone will be as shocked as we were once upon a time. The Darkling created the Shadow-Fold centuries ago, and has lived countless lifetimes since, changing his name, faking his death, always returning to help the Grisha increase their power and social status until all of Ravka is reliant on them – but now, with technological progress changing the game, he needs to absorb Alina’s power to expand the Fold, not destroy it.
Shadow And Bone doesn’t force any unnecessary conflict into this revelation – yeah, Alina’s not too happy about discovering her new boyfriend is an ageless genocidal tyrant, but the facts are all laid out in front of her and there’s not much room for her to deny or deflect the accusations. She can’t stay in the Little Palace, so Baghra helps her escape through a system of tunnels built into the Palace walls that eventually lead her to the very same courtyard where, what do you know, Jesper Fahey is waiting with the Crows’ escape-ride.
Kit Young’s nervous laughter and expressions of relief and disbelief as he watches Alina literally climb into a luggage-trunk on the back of the carriage effortlessly sells the whole scene. As the trio drive off into the night, their heist completed and their mission this close to success, it feels good to be a Crows fan, I’ll tell you that. Could your comfort character have pulled all that off? No, I didn’t think so.
Episode Rating: 10/10