The new season of Shadow and Bone is here, with new countries to visit and characters to get to know. It is a fun and very busy adventure, mixed with some gore and a lot of death, mixed with some really boring parts and not enough time for our characters to breathe. All in all, season two has the same strengths and the same flaws as season one, but both are magnified…
…or should I say amplified?
[Minor spoilers for season 2 of Shadow and Bone]
Season two picks up a few weeks after the events of season one, with Mal (Archie Renaux) and Alina (Jessie Mei Li) believing that the Darkling has died in the Fold and that they now have time and room to plan both the destruction of said Fold and the new life they will eventually lead together. But their dreams of living an ordinary life are cut short by the revelation that Alina’s nightmares of the Darkling’s survival are true—General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) survived, emerging with a new army of Merzost-driven shadow monsters. Alina and Mal realize they must find the second and third legendary amplifiers quickly, so that they can destroy the Fold and bring down Kirigan before he takes over all of Ravka, destroying all otkazat’sya—those who do not have Grisha powers—in the process.
Meanwhile, the Crows find themselves framed for murder, their club stolen by rival gang leader Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly). Kaz (Freddy Carter) sets his team on a dangerous, and secretly very personal, mission to take Rollins down—and then the roguish gang finds themselves drawn back into the events surrounding the Sun Summoner.
Where season one took a few episodes to find its feet, fully the first half of season two is pretty boring. This is largely a script and editing issue; despite the fact that we are jumping rapidly between several fraught story lines, every scene has the same pacing and the same beats. It almost feels like watching a short trailer over and over, and while most of the acting in these scenes is good, no performances can really stand out in a sea of actors all hitting the same notes. Season two also condenses the second and third books, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, into a single season of television, which hampers the show as it tries to fit even more plot into eight episodes than it did in season one. There is very little time for detail or complexity in Alina’s plotline, and it often feels like her character development is the first to be sacrificed by the script.
As a Chosen One character, most of what is interesting about Alina is in the nuance of how she thinks, in the flaws as well as the strengths of her personality. Without those details, the character is in danger of becoming generic. That being said, Li does find some beautiful moments of connection between Alina and her friends, and her chemistry with Renaux remains as powerful as it was in season one. She also plays Alina’s desire for power and her occasional cruelty with a deft hand, and I’m hopeful that the show will get a third season and allow her more time to explore this side of the character. This is also the upside of the choice to condense the two books—if Shadow and Bone is canceled then they have at least managed to finish the plotline with Kirigan and the Fold, but if it isn’t, they now have room to take Alina’s character in new directions, to explore aspects of her that the books only hinted at.
Similarly, Kirigan has been reduced to a rather one-note villain, and Ben Barnes can’t do much to make the character interesting to watch. Instead, his mother Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) and a new character Ohval Saran (Tuyen Do) take up a thematic juxtaposition to Kirigan’s hatred of otkazat’sya and his belief that Alina will soon become like him, isolated and numbed by the burden of power and long life. These thematic threads are drawn in interesting directions throughout the season, and not just with Alina. Jesper (Kit Young) also contends with the question of what it means to be Grisha, its gifts and its burdens, while Kaz struggles with the meaning of revenge, as well as themes of isolation and power.
Like Alina, Kaz’s character also suffers under the weight of carrying a plotline during the first half of the season. However, Carter is able to stretch his legs more in the second half of episodes, once the Crows become caught up in their mission for Alina. He gives a compelling performance as he portrays Kaz’s struggle to allow his friends to touch him, both literally and figuratively.
All the new additions to the cast are enjoyable—Patrick Gibson’s Sturmhond was neither as roguish nor as enigmatic as I would have liked, but his performance as Nikolai is subtle and charming, and the chemistry between Gibson and Li makes Nikolai and Alina’s friendship feel particularly deep and real, despite how little time the script gives them to develop it. The twins Tolya (Lewis Tan) and Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy) are a highlight of the season, and the two are so magnetic that they pull focus in every scene they are in. I was also pleased to see Adrik (Alistair Nwachukwu) and Nadia’s (Joanna McGibbon) storylines find places in the busy season.
Meanwhile amongst the Crows, new recruit Wylan (Jack Wolfe) has a beautiful romantic storyline with sharp-shooter Jesper, who remains as clever and funny as he was in season one, while also being allowed to develop and deepen as a character. Both actors have a tendency towards exaggerated reaction shots, but not in an overacting sort of way—it’s just the kind of drama both characters are prone to, so much so that at one point the show allows Jesper to nearly break the fourth wall in an acknowledgement of the rumored Six of Crows spin-off. I found this bombasity from Jesper and Wylan highly enjoyable, especially when juxtaposed with the very reserved Kaz and Inej (Amita Suman).
Nina (Danielle Galligan) stands somewhere in the middle, tonally. Galligan plays deadpan sarcasm and straight-man humor well, but Nina is still hampered by her romantic storyline with Matthias (Calahan Skogman) who spends the entire season in prison with no development whatsoever, and is annoyingly forgettable except for a few moments when he communes with wolves.
The diversity that was seeded in season one really blossoms in season two as the characters’ travels give the viewer a greater picture of the world. Alina and Mal’s time in Novyi Zem, along with Jesper’s storyline, show us the culture of the Zemeni, with their different views on Grisha, while Toyla and Tamar, as well as the Crows’ encounter with Ohval Saran, help reconnect us back to the Shu Han. In season one, Alina experienced racial slurs and poor treatment from her countrymen, and even eschewed her Shu identity. In season two it doesn’t really come up, except in a few comments from Toyla and Tamar, who are also half Shu, and half Ravkan. After many viewers expressed discomfort over the anti-Asian racism portrayed in the first season, this season focuses showing the beauty in their diverse world, especially with Mal and Alina’s treatment by the Zemeni. However, the show mostly seems to shy away from making any statements, and it would be nice to see a little more of a thematic through line between the two seasons, rather than just having the subject dropped—and there are moments where the Shu still feel very stereotyped.
The costuming is a particular star in Shadow and Bone, with lush fabrics and complicated clothing that makes the world feel much more real and developed than it otherwise would. The costuming also gives us a visual language to understand different cultures of this world, and how they are often combined in the people we encounter. I particularly love Jesper’s outfits, as well as the Celtic details on the Surmhond pirate coat and the twins’ leather vests. In addition to building a sense of place, the costumes also help make up for the gaps in character development—the mood of characters such as Genya can be understood better through the evolution of their wardrobes, and we are forewarned of a change in Alina through her choice to adopt a lavish dress and crown during the last episode.
Shadow and Bone is a very visually striking show. Some of the locations, such as the spinning wheel and the fortress where half of the final battle takes place, are very memorable this season, and there are some interesting sets for the Crows to explore as well. The CGI is less impressive—the visual of Alina calling light falls short for me, coming off as too ethereal, rather than powerful or dangerous. But all in all, the CGI matters less than the rest of it, and I am quite content that the battle between Nikolai’s allies and Kirigan’s Grisha was given more weight than the fight against the monsters.
Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Shadow and Bone and I hope that we will get a third season, as well as the spin-off for the Crows. In a perfect world, both shows would then have room to breathe a little, to spend more time on character development and letting the audience get to know them and the strange, magical world they inhabit. There are many other stories in Bardugo’s Grishaverse to pull from and be inspired by—the trick is not to pull too many at once.
Sylas K Barrett is writer and an epic fantasy enthusiast who runs a weekly read of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time here on Tor.com. If he were a Grisha he’d probably be a durast.