“Shadow And Bone” Episode 7 Review!

SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD!

In yesterday’s review of Shadow And Bone episode six, I probably angered a whole bunch of Malina shippers by suggesting that the couple should be platonic soulmates, so today…I’m about to do it again. I’m sorry! But the ship wars surrounding Shadow And Bone are almost as epic and brutally violent as any of the in-universe conflicts, and none more so than the fight over The Darkling (Ben Barnes), and the nature of his relationship with Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), dubbed “Darklina” by fans: something that episode seven dives into while exploring The Darkling’s origins and agendas in a way that some viewers have criticized for humanizing the villain.

Shadow And Bone
The Darkling | classicfm.com

Now, how you feel about this varies from person to person, and I can’t and won’t tell anyone how they should feel about the ship, or make broad assumptions about their character if they do ship it. I can only give you my own reading of Darklina, which, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, is not something I personally ship. And that’s not an attack specifically on Darklina – I also don’t ship Malina, or Helnik (we covered that one yesterday too), or even one of the Grishaverse’s most popular pairings, “Wesper” – the coupling of Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) and Six Of Crows‘ Wylan Van Eck, who hasn’t even appeared in Shadow And Bone yet.

But purely from a story-telling perspective, it usually makes sense to humanize villains in one way or another: for one thing, it just helps keep the story interesting and engaging. The notable exception to the rule (and even this is not consistent, as I’ll explain) is when a villain is specifically intended to represent some indefensible evil, such as systemic racism, environmental destruction, or capitalism. But while you could make a convincing argument for why The Darkling represents the indefensible evil of abuse, that ironically means humanizing him is more necessary, if anything.

Abusers are often only able to do evil things because of their ability to pass as decent people or even as victims. The Darkling (in my opinion, doesn’t have to be shared by anyone else) is a predator, who subtly nurtures Alina’s insecurities to make her more dependent on him for security and comfort – this is demonstrated when Alina discovers that it was him, working through the Tailor Genya Safin (Daisy Head), who was preventing her letters from reaching Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) and vice versa, leading Alina to believe she had been abandoned by her best friend. To me, humanizing The Darkling is essential to understanding not only how he operates, but the full extent of his evil.

Shadow And Bone doesn’t even do a great job of humanizing him for the audience: the episode is frontloaded with flashbacks to The Darkling’s origin story, but these sequences run a bit too long, and could have been streamlined to better explain several major plot-points – including The Darkling’s relationship with the Grisha Healer Luda (Lucy Griffiths), who appears to have been a critical part of his early successes. She is killed off in her first scene, and we never learn more about her, so the emotional impact of her death isn’t felt: even during her short onscreen lifespan, I think most of us were still distracted by Ben Barnes having his Prince Caspian hair back (the wigs in these flashbacks for Barnes and Zoë Wanamaker are…not it).

This same problem comes up again when we watch The Darkling create the Shadow-Fold, something that should have cleared up the entire mystery about why he did so, but doesn’t fully. The explanation, such as it is, is that The Darkling – who was being pursued by agents of the Ravkan king for unspecified reasons – only consciously intended to bend the king’s army to his will: but by using forbidden merzost magic to do so, he unconsciously inflicted upon the world a seething flesh wound of darkness, mutilating Ravka and transforming everyone caught in his hellish outpouring of power into terrible demons.

That’s a decent enough explanation (though different from the books), but in the limited time Shadow And Bone has to explain what merzost even is, the entire concept feels rushed. And given that, in creating the Fold, The Darkling ends up accidentally following his mother Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker)’s advice to create “a problem only Grisha can solve” to win back his prestige, I would have either made that his intention from the start or at least more obviously in the back of his mind while he was using merzost. It’s a pretty brilliant idea because of how it plays into a key theme in Shadow And Bone, which is that victors write the history books, and the Darkling’s had time to craft an elaborate falsified version of events.

The Darkling, after all, is immortal – and “patient”, something he explains to Mal later in the episode. He’s faked his own death and changed his name and persona countless times without mortals ever being able to catch on: but in every life he’s lived in Ravka, he’s also been able to subtly alter and revise the story of the Shadow-Fold’s creation over time, until the “Black Heretic” was an entirely separate person whose real name – Aleksander, the name he still carries in secret – was lost and long-forgotten, and he was merely one of the Heretic’s descendants working to undo his forefather’s crimes.

Ironically, the anti-Grisha bigotry that sparked the creation of the Fold is also erased from history by Ravka itself, as the Fold’s very existence forces the entire country to rely on Grisha for survival and defense (therefore making the rise of modern technology even more threatening to the Grisha). And while most of that is left in subtext for the viewer to conclude on their own (not that it takes a great deal of guesswork), it still helps to inject some conflict into The Darkling’s character arc, giving him a sort of tragic nobility.

Shadow And Bone
Morozova’s Stag | indiewire.com

But the flashbacks ultimately don’t help flesh out his character as much as his interactions with Alina later, after following her and Mal to the location of Morozova’s Stag – one of three magical beasts whose bones and life-forces act as Amplifiers to a Grisha’s natural power, supposedly only for the Grisha who strikes the killing blow. Alina can’t bring herself to shoot or stab the Stag as it lays dying in the snow, but The Darkling has no such reservations: using The Cut, he brutally decapitates the Stag, slicing its crown of antlers straight off. Alina, now his prisoner, can only watch in horror.

The Darkling doesn’t give Alina any choice when it comes to using the Amplifier – in an intense ritual presided over by Grisha Fabrikator David Kostyk (Luke Pasqualino), he has the Stag’s antlers melded into a small medallion embedded into his own hand, and a multi-pronged collar that becomes rooted in Alina’s spine and shoulders like body-horror jewelry, allowing him to access and harness Alina’s Summoning abilities without her consent. But once that’s done and she’s under his control whether or not she wants to be, then he offers her a chance to rule alongside him – a chance she rejects utterly. Shadow And Bone book fans all got a squeal of excitement out of hearing Ben Barnes say the iconic line: “Fine. Make me your villain”.

The beauty of this line in the show is the added context that The Darkling knows that, whether or not this generation remembers him as a villain, it’ll only take him a few more to change the historical record again. But as book readers know, Darklina doesn’t simply go away now – the romantic connection that Alina and Aleksander shared is something intrinsic to all their interactions going forward, even though Alina is well aware of his strengths as a manipulator and liar. And as Alina herself levels up to challenge his power (something happening much faster in the show than the books), becoming his equal in raw power, the ship only becomes more…shippable.

I know Malinas are extremely overprotective of their ship because they feel they have to be (which is fitting, considering that’s Mal’s defining character trait in the books); and I know Darklinas are defensive of their ship because they get made out to be the villains of the Grishaverse fandom (again, weirdly fitting); so where does that leave us angsty Kanej shippers who are just here for Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) doing everything in his power to keep Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) from quitting the mission without telling her it’s because he depends on her? Somewhere between happy and heartbroken, that’s where.

(And if you ship Jesper with his emotional support goat, Milo (goat), you’re in luck; because Milo returns in this episode and saves the day again, playing an instrumental role in freeing Mal from The Darkling’s prison and setting the entire finale into motion. In return he gets a nice little bit of, like, I don’t know, is that cheese or something that Mal feeds him? “Good with goats” is officially the only thing I look for in a partner, and Mal has passed the test with flying colors).

One thing Shadow And Bone doesn’t have much time to explore in season one is the wealth of material in all three of the Crows’ individual backstories – except for Inej, about whom we’ve already learned a great deal in a very organic manner. In this episode, a single glance from her speaks volumes about the things she suffered while indentured to the brothel owner Tante Heleen, that required her to learn how to patch up wounds while she was still a child. And that’s as much as you need to know. I think there are cases where “tell, don’t show” is acceptable, and, while I’m excited for Shadow And Bone‘s second season to explore Kaz and Jesper’s backstories through flashbacks, it would be difficult to do much more than what’s already been done with Inej.

The Crows already have history together, though, as a team unit – and you can feel it in their iconic motto: “No mourners, no funerals”, which Kaz uses in Shadow And Bone as the Crows board a skiff bound across the Shadow-Fold disguised as foreign ambassadors (and can we just talk about Inej wearing a bowler-hat and suit? Because I feel like we haven’t talked about that enough), having given up on their mission to kidnap Alina – or at least, so Kaz claims. It’s a remarkable coincidence then that they end up sharing the skiff with Alina and The Darkling, not to mention the stowaway Mal, and the Grisha Squaller Zoya Nazyalensky (Sujaya Dasgupta).

Shadow And Bone
Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, and Jesper Fahey | nerdist.com

As the skiff slips into the haunted darkness of the Fold and everyone’s storylines promise to converge in the season finale, you can’t help but wonder why everyone in the Grishaverse doesn’t have an emotional support goat for times like these (I mean, Alina technically has an emotional support stag, but it’s not very huggable anymore as a result of being dead and headless).

Episode Rating: 9/10

“Shadow And Bone” Episode 5 Review!

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.

Shadow And Bone
Jesper Fahey, Kaz Brekker, and Inej Ghafa | tvguide.com

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.

Shadow And Bone
The Darkling | inews.co.uk

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.

Shadow And Bone
Alina Starkov | geekgirlauthority.com

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