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Shadow and Bone's Romances Are More Thrilling Than the Nonstop Plot in Season 2

Netflix’s adaptation is missing the emotional power of Leigh Bardugo's book series.
  • Archie Renaux and Jessie Mei Li in Shadow and Bone (Photo: Netflix)
    Archie Renaux and Jessie Mei Li in Shadow and Bone (Photo: Netflix)

    Season 2 of Shadow and Bone suffers from Stranger Things syndrome: too many characters, too much plot, and not enough time. The latest installment of Netflix’s blockbuster fantasy series is packed with twists, romances, and fight scenes, all of which immerse the audience in the Grishaverse, based on the book series by Leigh Bardugo. Unfortunately, the season sacrifices key emotional journeys in order to pack so much into a mere eight episodes. While the results are certainly fun, they prioritize non-stop action over the characters that so many fans love.

    This is most notable with Alina (Jessie Mei Li). Also known as The Sun Summoner, she spent most of Season 1 discovering her true identity as a Grisha — someone with magical powers — who can summon light. With the help of General Kirigan, aka The Darkling (Ben Barnes), a Grisha who manipulates shadows, she has now embraced her power, and she is finally able to shed the stigma of her identity as half Shu (this universe’s version of East Asian). That is, until the Darkling betrays her. Now, she must again rebuild her sense of self as separate from the man who trained her.

    It’s a fascinating evolution for a heroine whose relationship with her powers continues to evolve, but it’s cheapened when Alina almost immediately decides to trust Sturmhond (Patrick Gibson), a pirate and literal stranger threatening to turn her in for a bounty. Her impulsive faith in this amoral, unknown man is inconsistent with how she’s been portrayed, especially in light of her recent betrayal. (It doesn’t help that Sturmhond is actually a prince whose family might want to kill her.) Yes, the choice advances the plot: Alina and Mal (Archie Renaux), her childhood best friend and current boyfriend, have to get on Sturmhond’s boat to continue their mission to take down Kirigan’s Shadow Fold. But it also weakens the season’s exploration of trauma. As the central character, Alina’s journey should arguably be the most connected to this dominant theme.

    By contrast, Genya’s (Daisy Head) trauma is her character’s main arc. A Grisha with the ability to change someone’s appearance at will, she also betrayed Alina at the end of Season 1, though she did so hoping Kirigan would promote her and no longer make her vulnerable to a monarch’s sexual assaults. In Season 1, Genya’s hardships weren’t as explicit, but in Season 2, she confronts many people who have hurt her. The time given to this reckoning is especially satisfying, as there is a tendency in fantasy and action to use rape as a plot point without exploring the fallout. To its credit, Shadow and Bone rejects this route by giving Genya the space to speak her truth and be heard.

    Kaz (Freddy Carter) also explores his trauma, though with less depth. After the events of Season 1, he and the Crows, his ragtag team of outlaws, have returned home to Ketterdam only to find the city overrun by Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly), a gangster briefly featured in Season 1. As fans of Bardugo’s books know, Pekka and Kaz have a nasty, compelling history. However, they have very little to do with Alina or her quest to take down The Darkling. Kaz’s fans may appreciate his inclusion, but it just means there’s even more to follow in an already overstuffed season of television. His story, which is rich enough to fill multiple books, feels out of place here.

    However, Kirgian’s arc suffers the most. Now that he’s lost Alina, The Darkling is reduced to his single-minded desire to rule the world, so much so that he’s almost one-note. His handful of scenes with Alina — and Barnes’ electrifying performance — do just enough to keep him from being an ordinary villain, but The Darkling in these episodes is a far cry from the complex man we met in Season 1.

    At least the ships (of the romantic variety) rise above the noise. Alina and Mal waste very little time making their relationship status official, giving viewers many swoon-worthy moments. Fans who prefer Darklina (aka The Darkling and Alina) will also find a few moments of relief, as will those rooting for Kaz and Inej (Amita Suman), arguably the series’s most highly anticipated slow-burn. Their captivating moments just emphasize that the show’s strengths are in the dynamics among the characters and the satisfying emotional journeys that emerge from their fantastical surroundings. Season 2 is a fun ride, but visceral thrills aren’t nearly as memorable as the rush fans will get from Mal’s declarations of love or Kaz’s longing looks.

    Season 2 of Shadow and Bone premieres March 16 on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Olivia Truffaut-Wong is a culture and entertainment writer. Follow her on Twitter @iWatchiAm.

    TOPICS: Shadow and Bone, Netflix, Amita Suman, Archie Renaux, Ben Barnes, Daisy Head, Freddy Carter, Jessie Mei Li