‘Shadow And Bone’ Gets Older But Not Wiser in Amusing Season 2
Have you ever wanted to watch Game of Thrones but thought the actors were just a bit too well-known? Wished the live-action Avatar: The Airbender was made by the CW? Thought The Great and The Witcher could have a bang-up crossover episode? It doesn’t matter if those thoughts have never crossed your mind, because Netflix’s supernatural fantasy series Shadow and Bone is here with a second season anyway.
Adapted from multiple books in the Grishaverse series by author Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone is set in a magical land where imprints of some of the most prominent cities in their most famous eras — think plague-era Amsterdam, dynasty-ruled Beijing, Tsarist Moscow, and Viking Stockholm — not only exist, but are roughly a three-day journey from each other. Oh and also there’s magic. Fantasy tropes abound in Season One, which introduced viewers to Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) as a sainted Grisha (magic user) with the rare power of Sun-Summoning. Her country of Ravka is split in two by a perilous field of shadows called The Fold. She spends the series discovering her powers, including the secret of Amplifiers, magical animals that when killed can make a Grisha stronger. Oh, and as the chosen one, she’s of course entangled in a love triangle between older Grisha and Second Army General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) and her childhood best friend Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux), who is not magical but oh so attractive.
Season Two opens with Kirigan firmly cast in the villain department, Mal and Alina in love but on the run, and a cast of characters introduced in the first season (a group of lovable steampunk thieves and two unlikely lovers) finally working together while meeting other quirky outside characters (a dashing privateer and his extremely convenient bodyguards). Alina wants to destroy The Fold and Kirigan once and for all, but must choose between love and the future of her world, which means accepting help from unlikely places.
As an ongoing Netflix series, the first season of Shadow and Bone eked out a favorable opening due to timing (the COVID-19 wastelands of 2021) and the popularity of its extremely thorough YA-fantasy source material. To avoid burnout, the show took an irreverent (and smart) approach to the books it was based on, combining multiple books and even sparking the ire of some racist groups by making the usually-considered-white main character half-Chinese.
Season Two of Shadow and Bone tries to dive deeper, ramping up the blood and gore and political machinations. Mei Li and Renaux truly give their all, imbuing Alina and Mal’s relationship with the right amount of earnest pining and steaminess. Barnes… is also there. But the show still falls back on YA tropes, failing to ramp up the sexiness in the right way. And there are simply too many characters and too many cities and too many quests and too many fights to keep the show balanced and fleet-footed. Instead, the simplicity of the storyline between The Crows — a band of thieves made up of Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) and his crew, Heartrender Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan), munitions expert Wylan Hendriks (Jack Wolfe), sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young), and Wraith Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) — steals the whole thing. Carter and Suman touch each other only once, and still manage to have the most compelling romance of the whole lot. It makes sense, since Six of Crows is arguably Bardugo’s strongest book. By smashing 800 pages and dozens of storylines together into one eight-episode season, however, Shadow and Bone accidentally lets The Crows snatch the spotlight, making every moment they’re off the screen — and there are a lot of them — annoying.
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Look, Shadow and Bone isn’t perfect. It’s not even technically good. It’s a steampunk escapist fantasy that strives for worldliness and ends up feeling like poorly-fight-choreographed fanfic about magical Russia. Everyone has a face that not only looks like it knows what an iPhone is, but has one in their back pocket — ready to pull out as soon as the director calls cut. The costumes seem detailed and expensive, yet are constantly undercut by how clean they remain, even after characters fight and rage and drag themselves through muck. The special effects and makeup betray their budget. And the pacing is a right mess.
That its cast of newcomers is given so little to work with and still makes me want to watch another season — in the hopes that my favorites get a chance at happiness — is a gift. Streaming’s obsession with the best or nothing means that shows have impossible standards to live up to. If you’re not making the next House of the Dragon, or slogging through the IP rat race against Disney, why are you here? It’s why cancellations are the norm nowadays, even for series that are celebrated. By getting rid of middling shows, ones that have historically provided fertile ground for the industry’s next big things, Hollywood is doing its young actors a disservice. Shadow and Bone isn’t great. But you can’t call it boring. And if Riverdale can have seven batshit seasons, Shadow and Bone deserves some time to grow — and maybe shine.