“Shadow And Bone” Episode 2 Review!

SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!

The main selling point of Shadow And Bone for many viewers, Ben Barnes’ portrayal of The Darkling was a casting “secret” so thinly veiled – and so quickly uncovered – that it never should have been a secret in the first place. And not only because it was so obvious to book readers that even casual fans were soon made aware of The Darkling and his villainy, but because, even if I had never read Shadow And Bone nor ever heard the name, I’d still be ten times more likely to check out a new fantasy series starring Ben Barnes as a charismatic villain called The Darkling than a pretend good guy with the ridiculously bland code-name of “General Kirigan”.

Shadow And Bone
The Darkling and Alina Starkov | nerdist.com

The former exudes…confidence, mystery, more than a hint of sexuality. The latter just sounds flat and dull, and undersells Ben Barnes’ ability to make a character named The Darkling appear genuinely morally conflicted – which he does, brilliantly, over the course of Shadow And Bone‘s first season.

All of which is to say, nothing can convince me that the pros of preserving the once-and-done surprise of his villain turn outweigh the cons of losing the chance to extensively market Ben Barnes as a villain. But you’ll have to wait until episode two of Shadow And Bone to properly meet Barnes’ hotly-anticipated (and just plain hot) version of the controversial character, who is something of a lightning rod in the Grishaverse fandom, attracting legions of adoring fans and ardent haters who fight over him on Twitter constantly.

In just this one episode, the popular fan-ship between The Darkling and Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), dubbed “Darklina” by fans, springboards effortlessly from page to screen thanks to Barnes and Mei Li’s instant chemistry – though the episode is bookended by scenes reminding us of the even stronger bond between Alina and her best friend, Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux). Part of why Darklina is so popular still in the Grishaverse fandom is because “Malina” was so widely hated, but with Mal actually being an interesting and likable character in the Netflix adaptation, I suspect we’ll start to see an unexpected shift in ship loyalties (even though Malina work better as platonic soulmates than as lovers).

But the Darklina scenes still carry weight – particularly a sequence lifted almost word-for-word from the pages of Shadow And Bone, in which the Grisha are ambushed by Fjerdan witch-hunters from the north while racing back to the Little Palace with Alina, and The Darkling saves Alina’s life in the nick of time by using his most unique and terrifying weapon, The Cut. Best described as a bladed boomerang made of pure shadow, The Cut is capable of slicing people and objects in half; and is only used by The Darkling as a last resort when he’s been backed into a corner (something to keep in mind when he uses it later in the season).

Shadow And Bone
Shadow And Bone | polygon.com

The Cut is very clearly the most powerful weapon in the Grisha’s Second Army (besides Alina herself), but this episode also gives us a good look at the abilities of Grisha Heartrenders, one of whom we saw in the first episode using her power to gently coax information out of an uncooperative prisoner by slowing his heart-rate and loosening his inhibitions. But that was in Ketterdam, and that was a very different circumstance. Here in Ravka, the militarized Heartrenders are used more often to gruesomely stop an opponent’s heart or manipulate their bodies, always accompanied by a sickening sound of bones bending and cracking.

But Shadow And Bone also makes it clear that Grisha aren’t invincible, and that they are in fact quickly becoming obsolete in the face of new technology and weaponry being employed on the front lines by both of Ravka’s hostile neighbors, Fjerda and Shu Han. Even their bulletproof kefta can’t entirely slow down a barrage of machine-gun bullets, and the walls of their Little Palace won’t protect them forever. And that in turn lends The Darkling’s mission to protect the Grisha more urgency, as we see how any fallout from their mistakes leads to Grisha being persecuted and slaughtered worldwide. If they lose their natural advantage over human weapons, they will lose everything they’ve gained in several centuries, all their accumulated privilege and power.

Meanwhile in Ketterdam, it’s nothing quite so noble that motivates Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter, whose eyebrow game is on point this episode) to begin assembling a team to cross the Shadow-Fold and kidnap Alina himself. He doesn’t care about the Grisha, or the Ravkan political situation – he’s in it for the prize of one-million kruge that awaits anyone who returns to Ketterdam with the Sun-Summoner. But this episode does layer in a personal level to Kaz’s mission, as he’s forced to outwit and outmaneuver his own nemesis, rival gang leader Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly). The series never dives into the backstory between Brekker and Rollins, leaving that wealth of material for the second season to explore, but book readers will pick up on a number of hints.

The sequences in Ketterdam are already complex enough, however, with the addition of a subplot for Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), who has to pay off an existing debt to brothel-owner Tante Heleen (Deirdre Mullins) before she can leave town, by assassinating a smuggler. A bit of double-crossing ensues, we meet a truly wonderful side-character named Poppy (Micah Holmes), who gets far too little screen-time; and Kaz is forced to intervene just before Inej can strike down her target, who turns out to be the one man who could get them through the Fold – the mysterious Conductor, Arken (Howard Charles), an original character created for the series. Charles doesn’t ever make much of an impression in the role, but the character becomes quite significant later in Shadow And Bone as his own ulterior motives are uncovered.

Shadow And Bone
Inej Ghafa | radiotimes.com

My biggest complaint with this episode, which is the last one in which we spend much time in Ketterdam, is that the canal city doesn’t feel as large or sprawling as it does in the books – most of the action here takes place in a variety of small, smoke-filled rooms and parlors; the city streets are very clearly a single refurbished soundstage; and there’s just one establishing shot of the entire location, at night. But this is still only an introduction to the Six Of Crows story, and I hope (and strongly believe) the whole city and its diverse cast of characters will get more screen-time in season two.

Episode Rating: 8.5/10

“Shadow And Bone” Episode 1 Review!

SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!

At long last, the entire first season of Netflix’s Shadow And Bone has landed on the streaming service – but while it would be customary for me to binge-watch the whole season and review it in a single post, I’m trying something a little different in this specific instance. Shadow And Bone is so personal to me that I feel I have to give the adaptation the respect it deserves by reviewing each episode individually, as I would a weekly release.

Shadow And Bone
Alina Starkov | npr.org

Don’t be mistaken, however…I have in fact already finished the first season. So these individual episode reviews will take that into account, and as such will include spoilers for the entire series.

If you’ve been reading through my coverage of Netflix’s Shadow And Bone, you’ve probably gathered that, while I’m a huge fan of the Grishaverse – the sprawling fantasy world in which Leigh Bardugo’s original series of novels are set – I’m not quite as devoted to Shadow And Bone itself, Bardugo’s debut novel and the first installment in the three-part saga of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), an orphaned girl who discovers she can conjure and control sunlight, giving her the unique ability to save her home-country of Ravka from a wall of liquid, semi-sentient, monster-infested darkness called the Shadow-Fold that divides the nation in two.

In the books, Alina is…well, not all that interesting as a protagonist. She lacks some of the moral complexity and charisma that make Bardugo’s later heroes (several of whom also appear in Netflix’s Shadow And Bone, courtesy of fantasy timeline compression) so instantaneously fun and lovable by comparison. But when the series opens, the first significant change to the story is one made with Alina’s characterization in mind – and it benefits her arc in every way imaginable. In the Netflix adaptation, Jessie Mei Li is playing Alina as a biracial woman, and drawing from her own lived experiences in so doing.

Alina is half-Ravkan, and half-Shu Han, both fictional countries but with the former being very clearly inspired by late 19th-Century Russia, and the latter by East Asia. And with Ravka and Shu Han currently waging a war for control over the trade routes that bypass the southern edge of the Shadow-Fold, Alina’s heritage makes her a target for racism and xenophobia everywhere she goes, long after she is revealed to be the legendary Sun-Summoner and her country’s government starts to take an interest in her – if anything, the pressure on her to firmly “choose” a cultural and racial identity only increases at that point, with some hoping to exploit her Shu Han background as propaganda, and others wanting to erase it entirely.

Although Shadow And Bone‘s method of depicting Alina’s childhood through increasingly sporadic and fragmented flashback sequences does become grating after a while, those golden-tinted scenes are necessary to fully understanding the lifelong bond between Alina and her best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), probably one of the most universally hated characters in YA literature. The changes to Mal are very subtle at first, only gradually adding up to create a vastly different version of the character – one who seems genuinely kind and endearing, cute rather than clingy, precious rather than possessive.

Shadow And Bone
Mal Oretsev and Alina Starkov | netflix.com

Alina and Mal both serve in Ravka’s First Army, which co-exists alongside a Second Army comprised entirely of Grisha – who are best described as advanced alchemists, their powers deriving from the precise manipulation of matter. The first episode doesn’t dive too deeply into the distinctions between the factions of the Grisha, but the heavy focus on Squallers (Grisha who control wind and air-currents) and Inferni (Grisha who control fire) allows for plenty of CGI spectacle, as members of both groups are critical on the perilous journey across the Shadow-Fold. The Squallers, in particular, are well represented by Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta), the first Grisha we meet up close in the show.

Almost everything about the passage through the Shadow-Fold is handled brilliantly. While Alina’s motivation for actually being there is a bit unnecessarily complex (she destroys the only maps of West Ravka in the army-camp so that she, as a cartographer, will be dispatched on the journey across the Fold to create a new one), the blend of suspense and horror when she actually gets on the sand-skiff makes for a thrilling sequence – but I think the oppressive darkness could perhaps have been even darker, giving the occasional bursts of Inferni flame and Alina’s sudden explosion of sunlight a more visually striking appearance.

Shadow And Bone has to do double the worldbuilding because it’s also adapting very specific plot-points from another of Leigh Bardugo’s novels, Six Of Crows, each of which have been reconfigured to fit into the new series…though unfortunately, we don’t get to spend as much time among the winding streets and waterways of Ketterdam as I would have liked, only getting a taste of the lush Baroque setting before we’re whisked away to Ravka. That being said, the three main characters from Six Of Crows who have been integrated into the Netflix series are each handled beautifully.

Freddy Carter’s interpretation of the beloved gang-leader and criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker is probably the best live-action adaptation of a character I’ve seen in a long time. I was scared Brekker’s layers upon layers of devious wit wouldn’t translate well to the live-action medium, which is usually all about simplification, but much to my relief that is not the case. And Brekker’s teammates, Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), while not extensively used in this episode, still make strong impressions with clever individual storylines. I’m going to be brutally honest here – I was never really into Jesper’s character in the books, so discovering that I actually adored his live-action counterpart was a genuine surprise for me.

Shadow And Bone
Kaz Brekker | elenasquareeyes.com

Alina’s storyline only properly intersects with that of the Crows at the end of the episode, and from afar (and at the expense of Ravkan cartographer Alexei, who survives past his original death date in the books just to get shot in the head), but the development still seemed to come shockingly early in the season – and it immediately frees up the Crows to do more scheming, less stalling.

The scheme in question: to locate and kidnap the Sun-Summoner herself, Alina Starkov.

Episode Rating: 8/10