SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!
Although Shadow And Bone never pauses to translate the intimidating subtitle of its fourth episode, Otkazat’sya isn’t merely a full mouthful of syllables – it’s also the Ravkan term for any human not gifted with the Grisha ability to manipulate matter. And thus, it’s only fair that this episode shines the spotlight on the best and worst of regular human behavior: our endurance, our ingenuity, our capacity for heroic deeds and unforgivable cruelty (ahem, Matthias). Even though Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is still the main character, her arc in this episode is masterfully counterbalanced by that of her best friend, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), himself an otkazat’sya.
Yes, this is the episode where the earnestness and humility of Renaux’s performance, combined with some excellent screenwriting, actually forced me to like Mal…the same character I swore up and down I’d hate simply because of how awful he was in the books.
It’s not even that Mal shares equal screentime with Alina, because he doesn’t – but as The Darkling (Ben Barnes) bends his will and effort toward seducing Alina and wrapping her ever more tightly around his finger, who Mal is and what he represents takes clearer shape in both her mind and ours’. The episode does a good job of leading Alina to the reasonable conclusion that Mal has abandoned her, without losing her any audience sympathy in the process even though we can see for ourselves that Mal has been fighting to get back to her in any way he can, and that he would never have intended to hold back her power because he never feared her strength – an impactful deviation from the books.
Mal, in fact, spends the entire episode tracking down the legendary beast known as Morozova’s Stag – a living Amplifier, which can dramatically enhance and focus the power of any Grisha who kills it and possesses its impressive rack of antlers. Shadow And Bone could perhaps have done a better job of portraying Alina’s lifelong spiritual connection to the Stag (it pops up in her dreams and childhood drawings a few times), not to mention Mal’s awareness of that fact, but he only ends up on the Stag’s trail after The Darkling issues an order to find the creature and bring it to the Little Palace – where Alina needs all the help she can get to tap into her Sun-Summoner abilities.
The episode works genuinely hard to show the difficulty of Alina’s training – and, importantly, the ease with which she embraces her power any time she’s near The Darkling, himself a living Amplifier (a fact that was revealed to Alina on the previous episode, only increasing her confusion over what’s a result of her emerging feelings for The Darkling, and what’s entirely his doing). Her entire training with Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) could easily have been summed up into a single montage, but is wisely spread out over the course of the episode, allowing it to play a more integral part in Alina’s character development as Baghra coaxes her power out of her wholly removed from the influence of either The Darkling or Mal, strengthening her confidence.
But as Baghra’s training intensifies, so too does the irresistible force of The Darkling – who strategically opens up to Alina about his own (mostly falsified) lived experience of oppression; even revealing his true name, Aleksander. The “Darklina” scenes in this episode are brilliantly written, though they wouldn’t work half as well as they do if it weren’t for Mei Li and Barnes’ chemistry, and the undercurrent of romantic – and to an even larger degree, purely sexual – tension that ripples beneath the surface of all their interactions.
By the end of the episode, when Alina sneaks from her room to speak with Aleksander in the map room, and the two come dangerously close to sharing a first passionate kiss, you’ll find yourself rooting for Alina to make her move even as you simultaneously acknowledge that Mal is probably a better option in the long run (something I’d never say of book Mal, who is every bit as possessive and emotionally manipulative as The Darkling). Ben Barnes had fascinating things to say about how much of The Darkling’s attraction to Alina was real, but handling the subject in future seasons of Shadow And Bone is sure to be a tricky tightrope act.
And speaking of tightropes (I promise this will make sense)…let’s turn our attention over to the Crows, who represent what I described earlier in this post as the best of human ingenuity. Without Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) around to help them infiltrate the Little Palace, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) is forced to quickly devise a backup plan that involves breaking into the Ravkan Archives: a little warmup for the team’s future heists, the biggest and most daring of which are being reserved for later seasons. Kaz’s teammates Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) and Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) both get to play a critical role in the heist, particularly Inej – who displays the quiet tenacity and flexibility (both literally and figuratively) that makes her so valuable to the team.
Fans of Six Of Crows know that the popular fan-pairing known as “Kanej” is destined for future seasons of Shadow And Bone, but there are unmistakable hints of the bond between Kaz and Inej in the way they share a deep understanding of the other’s exact movements and motions, acquired from a long partnership on the streets of Ketterdam. In Shadow And Bone, much is made out of their differences – particularly Inej’s reliance on her religious faith to help her cope with trauma and Kaz’s lack of faith because of his trauma – but that only helps to make their shared experiences a more powerful link between the two.
Inej isn’t defined by her pain, however, which is very important: and we see more aspects of her character emerge in this episode. When Kaz decides to infiltrate a traveling circus troupe to get into the Little Palace, Inej is called upon to play the part of a high-flying acrobatic dancer – a clever callback, which casual viewers might miss, to her backstory as a tightrope-walker (told you that reference would make sense) in the books. Jesper adds his sharpshooting precision to the mix, and two of the Crows have themselves an act worthy of Ravka’s upcoming winter fête. Kaz, the drama queen that he is, decides to make his own way to the Palace – brilliantly establishing his distaste for any theatrics but his own.
Beginning to edge towards the outskirts of the story and the limits of my interest, Nina Zenik reappears – only briefly, in the grand scheme of things, but the sequence in which she confronts her captor Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman) seems excruciatingly long. The worst of human behavior is on display here, as Matthias trots out the vicious (and these days, all too familiar) rhetoric of a bigoted ideology that’s been brainwashed into him. Shadow And Bone seems like it wants to depict Matthias as conflicted and sympathetic, but his and Nina’s subplot never has enough screentime to achieve that.
But if Shadow And Bone pulled off the impossible and made me like Mal Oretsev, I want to give the showrunners (and Skogman too, though I still don’t think his acting is on the same level as many of his costars) the chance to do the same with Matthias Helvar, as difficult as it may be. All the more reason to officially greenlight season two right about now, Netflix…
Episode Rating: 9/10