SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!
Like calls to like.
Although surprisingly never used in the first season of Shadow And Bone, not even as an episode subtitle, that seemingly simple phrase is a guiding principle of the Grisha in Leigh Bardugo’s original novels. All Grisha are born with the ability to manipulate matter, but their own individual qualities, both good and bad (and in the Grishaverse, defined as “Etovost”, the “thatness” of a thing that makes it unique) help pull them in the direction of a specific type of matter: whether it be water, for Tidemakers; or wind, for Squallers; or blood, for Heartrenders. What determines this connection is sometimes pretty mysterious, so being a Grisha is like living a Buzzfeed personality quiz.
But what makes a Sun-Summoner?
That’s a big question, and the finale of Shadow And Bone‘s first season isn’t able to fully answer it in the amount of time it has to wrap up everybody’s current stories while starting a bunch of new ones. But if “like calls to like”, then what about Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) makes her and her alone naturally compelled towards light? Is it her ability to selflessly fight for a world that’s never fought for her, or the courage it takes to finally start fighting for and believing in herself? There’s several options, each in my opinion valid, but it would be nice to have a specific thing to point to during the climactic moment in the finale when Alina rises to her feet and rejects The Darkling (Ben Barnes) with a single line: “This is what I am.”
In that brief shining moment, Alina is answering to no one – not The Darkling, and not Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Some fans are angry that this scene didn’t play out as in the books, with Mal being thrown off The Darkling’s skiff in the Shadow-Fold, and Alina literally jumping overboard to follow him into the darkness, thereby abandoning everyone on the skiff to the Volcra. But apart from the fact that there are now several other major characters on the skiff in this version who kind of need to survive into season two, that scene in the books is exemplary of everything I dislike about the original Grisha Trilogy. It doesn’t empower Alina: it merely solidifies “apathy towards everyone except Mal” as her defining character trait.
That being said, there are other, better, ways to inject some internal darkness back into Alina’s character over the course of Shadow And Bone – and I hope showrunner Eric Heisserer (who made the right choice not to have her massacre a literal boatload of people for Mal) will do just that. It doesn’t ever have to be to that level of carnage and certainly not for the same reasons, but villainy can be pretty empowering too when it feels earned and organic.
Shadow And Bone‘s season finale spotlights several forms of empowerment, and the battle in the Shadow-Fold isn’t simply an epic and thrilling set-piece (though it is very much that too) but also a great way to bring the characters’ personalities into the forefront as they clash onscreen, their strengths and weaknesses playing off each other cleverly. Of course, being in the Fold means the resulting melee is a bit dark, but on a scale of one to Game Of Thrones’ The Long Night, this is a “dark-enough-for-monsters-to-jump-out-unexpectedly-but-not-so-dark-you-can’t-tell-who’s-who” kind of dark.
Alina’s big hero moment is more of an introspective epiphany than a feat of physical strength – although, upon receiving a vision of Morozova’s Stag and realizing that the animal rewarded her mercy in episode seven by bestowing its powers upon her, she does take one of Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman)’s knives and thrust it upwards into The Darkling’s palm, cutting the piece of the Stag’s antlers from his flesh and breaking his control over her. It’s a triumphant moment that finally frees up Alina to be more powerful than ever before – not that we get to see any of that power, mind you, since The Darkling’s loyal Heartrender Ivan (Simon Sears) defeats her a few moments later.
And despite no longer abandoning them all to chase after Mal, Alina is too late to save either the group of foreign dignitaries onboard the skiff (Ivan mows them down instead), or the West Ravkan city of Novokribirsk; which gets consumed by the Shadow-Fold as a warning from The Darkling to the rest of the world that he’s not afraid to kill hundreds of thousands of his own civilians to protect Ravkan interests. General Zlatan (Tom Weston-Jones) and the West Ravkan independence movement come to an untimely end, as does – presumably – Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta)’s aunt and extended family, whom she had just been talking about wanting to visit earlier in the episode.
Zoya, who happens to be standing on the skiff watching this all unfold in horror, wastes no time joining forces with Alina and the Crows to bring down The Darkling (and he has the audacity to act surprised). She and Inej share a few epic fight scenes, combining Inej’s skill for hand-to-hand combat and knife-throwing with Zoya’s ability to control the wind. That the two women are also Shadow And Bone‘s most prominent characters of South Asian descent (in-universe, their heritage is Suli) adds another layer to their awe-inspiring team up.
In a battle where some of the highlights include Inej stabbing The Darkling, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) attacking a Volcra with his cane, and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) shooting Ivan dead and scolding himself for being slightly attracted to the villainous Heartrender, I think the wrestling-match between Mal and The Darkling was supposed to stand out more than it did. But The Darkling can slice people in half with a blade of shadow, so stooping to Mal’s level is a choice that needed to be justified somehow…particularly since Mal – who admits earlier in the episode that he’s not the “smart one” of the team – ends up outwitting the Grisha, distracting him while a Volcra sneaks up on him from behind.
Viewers new to Shadow And Bone who have undoubtedly heard the phrase “Six Of Crows” tossed around a lot in coverage of the series might be quick to assume that the six characters who stumble out of the Shadow-Fold together are the titular “Six” – and I’d be interested to see how that alternate-universe version of the team would work – but Zoya soon departs on her own, explaining that she has a personal duty to her family to search for their remains, even if it means re-entering the Fold. You’ll want to read Six Of Crows if only to better understand Kaz Brekker’s warning to Zoya not to linger too long with the dead.
Everyone else ends up on a ship bound for Ketterdam, including Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) and Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), whose story finally catches up chronologically and geographically with that of the Crows in a sequence remarkably similar to the books – the only major difference being that it’s an established character, the no-longer-lovable Heartrender Fedyor (Julian Kostov), who confronts Nina and Matthias in a seaside tavern (interrupting a perfectly good meal of waffles) and forces Nina to make a choice that will haunt her for a long time. To save Matthias from the Grisha, she pretends he’s a slaver and turns him over to a group of Kerch bounty-hunters instead, hitching a ride with them as a “witness” and promising Matthias she’ll drop the charges in court once they reach Ketterdam.
The novelty of watching storylines from different corners of the Grishaverse converge is one that Shadow And Bone can sustain well into season two – depending on how long Alina and Mal stay in Ketterdam alongside our beloved Crows, and what kind of devious plan Kaz has concocted to deal with Pekka Rollins and their mysterious mustachioed client that apparently requires the services of a Grisha Heartrender (one of whom, Nina herself, just happens to be sitting within earshot). With Inej being noncommittal about staying with the Crows (and honestly, good for her; but the pain on Kaz’s face broke my heart) and Malina still being platonic for the moment, there’s a lot of directions Shadow And Bone could take to keep things fresh and exciting.
But one plot point that hasn’t been changed from the books (and why would it be?) is The Darkling’s return. I mean, you didn’t think the Volcra really ate him, did you? Alina may not be strong enough yet to tear down that Fold, even with an Amplifier, but The Darkling’s control of merzost has allowed him to stagger back from the brink of death covered in scars and stronger than before, with the power to create giant demonic warriors of pure shadow called Nichevo’ya that obey his every command.
If “like calls to like”, then it’s pretty clear what qualities The Darkling possesses.
Episode Rating: 9.5/10