SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!
“Malina” should be platonic soulmates. That’s it, that’s the review in a nutshell; you can go home now, folks. Glad you’ve enjoyed my Shadow And Bone coverage, but we’re done here (just kidding: please stick around for my final two episode reviews).
But I’m serious about Malina. Because this episode finally reunites Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) and Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who have been on separate paths since Alina blew up inside the Shadow-Fold: and while the writing is clearly working overtime to convince us that these two have strong romantic chemistry, I feel like Shadow And Bone would save itself a lot of trouble (not to mention backlash from “Darklina” stans, who are not to be messed with) if it diverged from the exact plot of the Grisha trilogy with as much boldness and confidence as when it devised an entirely original subplot for the characters from Six Of Crows. Because Malina doesn’t have to be romantic to work, and it might be a lot more interesting if it weren’t.
I’ve found that the word “platonic” usually only gets tossed around whenever fandoms are discussing two characters of the same gender, and trying to make a case for why they’re just really close friends, how their bond is too sacred to be sexual in any way (grossly equating queer sexuality with immorality), and why depicting them as LGBTQ+ is “forced”. I find the exact opposite to be true most of the time: LGBTQ+ characters often accidentally have more chemistry than the heteronormative couples Hollywood shoves down our throats. Yet the people who complain that same-sex pairings should remain strictly platonic rarely say the same about opposite-sex pairings (almost like they’re just homophobes or something…)
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with either platonic or romantic relationships: both simply require good writing that allows us to see for ourselves what type of chemistry the characters have when they interact. But in the process of boosting Mal and Alina’s personalities, Shadow And Bone has – unintentionally, I think – written the beginnings to a stronger platonic relationship between the two than a romantic one, one in which introducing romantic feelings threatens to roll back some of the progress that’s been made with them individually.
One of the biggest criticisms of Malina in the books (where Mal, to be fair, is also manipulative, possessive, and just a nasty, unlikeable, human being in general) is that Alina rarely has a chance to stand on her own apart from the men in her life, particularly with Mal acting as her “protector” – a role he starts to assume in this very episode, which concerns me greatly. Forcing a romance isn’t simply unfair to Alina: it enforces the fact that, in the books, Mal’s entire story revolves around Alina, and apart from her he barely has a personality, much less an entire subplot. There’s no room for them to be separate, because fate has plans for them.
And I don’t know about you, but characters bound by fate to be romantically linked to each other is a predictable and slightly problematic trope I wish we could put behind us in 2021. But characters whose shared experiences bring them closer together while not automatically ensuring they’ll fall madly in love with each other? Characters who are always there for each other because they value each other’s company and friendship more than a need for romantic affection, or worse, sexual gratification? Characters who are platonic soulmates? Those are tropes I can get behind. And those are all modern tropes that feel more in line with where Shadow And Bone wants to go anyway.
There’s still time. By the end of the season, Mal and Alina have not professed any feelings of romantic attraction for each other, something I actually suspected would happen in this episode, where they’re certainly offered plenty of chances to do so. But showrunner Eric Heisserer revealed in an interview today that the only reason Malina didn’t share a kiss in season one is because other members of the show’s creative team stopped him (whoever those people are: you are my platonic soulmates, all of you) from including one, and that he intends to get his way with season two…that he wants “a lot of kissing” for Malina. Excuse me while I go scream.
People are now going to think I’m a hardcore Darklina shipper, which to be clear, I’m not. But I’m also not behind this attempt to force a romance that was proven to be extremely unpopular in the books, for a number of the same reasons I don’t ship Darklina. And it annoys me especially because this attitude of extreme fidelity to the books is not being applied to the writing of the Crows, yet the single worst element of the Grisha Trilogy gets carried over into the adaptation unaltered?
Anyway, I’ve ranted longer about this than I would have liked, but apparently I’m not done: because episode six also features the first stirrings of romantic attraction between Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), another pairing I don’t personally ship for numerous reasons – starting with the fact that Matthias doesn’t view Nina as a human being when they first meet on the literal slave-ship where Matthias is employed to help transport Grisha to their deaths in his home country of Fjerda. When the ship is lost at sea, leaving Nina and Matthias as the only survivors, the two are forced to work together to survive in the frigid environment where they find themselves lost.
And unfortunately, every sequence they share feels like it’s robbing other characters of screentime while contributing little to nothing to the overall story – which is a shame, given how vividly Leigh Bardugo described this part of Nina’s backstory in Six Of Crows. It’s no fault of Galligan or Skogman (though Skogman’s exaggerated Scandinavian accent leaves much to be desired, and it hurts his performance), nor even the painfully obvious soundstage and green-screen used in the shipwreck itself. But the hardships they endure never feel quite harrowing enough to sell the bond of trust and reluctant love they’re supposed to be building in these crucial scenes.
Matthias’ casual misogyny and bigoted opinions towards Grisha are also never explored or deconstructed thoroughly, or at all really – he comes to begrudgingly like Nina for her sassy humor and sex-positive attitude, but Shadow And Bone seems to think he’s a “himbo” (an archetypal big, sweet, attractive, unintelligent, male character), and portrays him as such; forgetting that himbos are likeable because of their sweetness more so than their lack of intelligence. Also, respecting women (even being in awe of women) is kind of a big part of the himbo formula…and that’s, like, the opposite of Matthias. A himbo is what Mal could be, if all that kissing with Alina wasn’t apparently imminent.
You might say this episode is just too romantic for me…but I’m actually a big fan of romance, and when I ship characters, I ship them hard because I’m usually invested in both of them separately just as much as I am in seeing how they collide, and then try to awkwardly sort out their feelings for each other. This is why Kanej is the superior ship, and why, as a result, the Crows still save this episode of Shadow And Bone for me.
Kanej – the popular pairing of Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), two of our beloved Crows – has always worked for me because Kaz and Inej help each other heal from a lifetime of trust issues and trauma while never requiring their partner to sacrifice any part of themselves. They’re allowed to be wholly different people with dissimilar outlooks on life. That comes into play in this episode: Kaz is still wary of all his Crows and fighting back against his feelings for Inej because he’s afraid of giving himself a weakness, but only because he doesn’t realize yet that she’s his strength, and…ugh, I adore them. Could you tell?
Inej’s faith in Alina Starkov is what drives Kaz to the end of his rope: for him, religious faith is as much a weakness of character as feelings of affection, and he only knows how to exploit it to his advantage – for instance, kidnapping a saint and collecting the reward. When that backfires, and Inej allows Alina to escape from Kaz’s clutches because she genuinely believes in her, he lashes out; accidentally opening up to Inej about the risky deal he struck with Tante Heleen in order to have her on his team in the first place. Trying to make his crush mad by unintentionally revealing that he’d do anything for her? Yep, sounds like Kaz.
Alina runs off into the woods and meets Mal, leaving the Crows to deal with her pursuer, The Darkling (Ben Barnes), and his small army of Grisha. But as anyone who’s read the books knows, the Crows do their best thinking when they’re ambushed and backed into a corner by much stronger opponents – so as Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) takes off in one direction followed by a Heartrender, Inej lures a vengeful Inferni into a location better suited to her unique skillset, and Kaz simply disappears into the night with a flourish, it’s pretty clear to Crows fans like myself who’s going to come out on top. None of the Crows fight fair, and that’s what makes them so fun.
Inej’s fight is the swiftest and the most brutal, and the only one that ends with a Grisha casualty – as she plunges one of her knives deep into the Inferni’s chest, and cautions her wounded opponent to abandon the fight and seek a Healer, warning her that removing the blade will cause her to bleed out in thirty seconds. The Inferni promises to haunt Inej for the rest of her days, and to kill everyone she loves: at which point, Inej delivers probably the most epic line of all time – “In that case, I’ll take back my knife” – and leaves the Inferni to die.
Jesper, meanwhile, faces off against Ivan (Simon Sears); using his sharpshooting skills to consistently hit the Heartrender in the same spot, eventually wearing down his bulletproof kefta and bringing the dangerous Grisha to his knees, wheezing for breath. Jesper’s impossibly accurate aim in the dark leads Ivan to a shocking revelation about the Crow, although Jesper cuts him off with a well-timed swipe of his pistol before he can say it aloud. I didn’t even catch this brief moment on my first watch, but it is indeed a hint that, as in the books, Jesper is a Grisha Fabrikator who’s been concealing his powers his entire life.
As for Kaz, he encounters The Darkling himself. This duel of great minds has proven a bit controversial in fandom: yes, it’s definitely a ridiculous amount of fan-service to pack into under two minutes, but it’s also so much fun. I think what saves the moment is that Kaz doesn’t defeat The Darkling by any means – he throws a grenade and gets the hell out of there, because he knows he’s overpowered and he doesn’t have any honor he needs to preserve, nor any shame over fleeing. It’s a classic move for the Bastard of the Barrel: he gives The Darkling some information to chew on (confirmation that Alina ran from the Little Palace on her own, rather than being kidnapped), and survives to fight another day.
So does Shadow And Bone‘s heavy-handed romantic meddling drag down the episode a bit? Yeah, not gonna lie, it does – and I’d encourage Eric Heisserer to think twice before trying to push forward with Malina in season two, because the show doesn’t need it. Shadow And Bone is better than the sum total of all its current romantic subplots combined, with the sole exception of Kanej, and that’s the tea, folks. Rant over.
Episode Rating: 9/10