Nathan‘s Review of Shadow and Bone Season 2
The first season of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, may have been a pinnacle of the YA fantasy genre on television. Fun, emotional, and exciting, it was brimming with energy, fantastic characters, and outstanding production design.
So, despite the nearly two year wait for the show’s second season (something that seriously needs to change with these television fantasy adaptations), I was excited to jump back into Bardugo’s world, brought to life on my television screen.
And what I got with the second season of this show was a pretty mixed bag. In no universe would I call Shadow and Bone season 2 “bad”, but it was quite overstuffed with too much plot, too many characters, and too frantic and frenetic a pace. In this review I’m going to start with the stuff that didn’t work for me, but I promise I liked a lot of it and will get to that!
Before I continue, I should admit that I have never read any of Leigh Bardugo’s books, so I am coming at this review at someone who only has exposure to this universe through the Netflix series. I watched the entire season with my roommate, who is a Grishaverse superfan, and he was able to fill me in on some of the changes made to the books, but I am still no expert. Therefore, anyone who has read the books may have a quite different experience than I had!
Shadow and Bone season 2 picks up pretty close to where we left off the first season. Alina and her childhood best friend (and now part time lover) Mal are on a quest to find the sea whip and fire bird, two mythical creatures that will increase Alina’s Sun Summoner abilities to the point where she can destroy the Fold (an entity made of black smoke that is full of deadly monsters). They assume that they had killed Kirigan/The Darkling in their first season-ending confrontation, but what they don’t know is that he is alive with new smoke monsters under his control. Meanwhile, our favorite “Crows”, Kaz, Inez, and Jasper, have returned to Ketterdam where they are tasked by Nina to rescue her lover, Matthias, from prison.
*The review from here has spoilers for Shadow and Bone Season 2.
Just this brief summary demonstrates one of the key issues with this season – it is way too overstuffed with characters, plot lines, and settings. From speaking to my roommate, I know that the “Crow” characters were not present in the original “Shadow and Bone” trilogy, and yet in the first season they were integrated into the main Alina plot in a way that felt natural. Without someone telling me that that Kaz, Inez, and Jasper weren’t “supposed” to be there, I would never have questioned it. However, the Crows spend a larger portion of this second season doing their own thing, in a completely different part of the world that feels distant and abstracted from the main narrative. This ultimately results in a couple of issues. First, the Crows as characters are so richly developed and fun to be around that as a viewer, I was disappointed to return to the dour and bland Alina and Mal in the allegedly “main” plot.
Perhaps the bigger problem is that it gave the show an unnecessary sprawl, which it did not have the episode count to fully contend with. As someone with the no experience of the books I was often confused about what was going on. I had a really hard time really getting a sense of place in this world (even with the map graphics in the season premiere), and while I enjoyed individual scenes and characters, I never felt fully rooted to the overall story being told. Even as one of the main plot lines running through the season, I don’t know if I ever truly “got” the whole Nina and Matthias stuff (part of this is also the two-year gap between seasons), and I almost got a sense of face blindness whenever they were on the screen. My brain was so overwhelmed with characters, plots, places, and worldbuilding that I could not hold onto anything more.
What results is a show that feels disjointed. We checked in with Matthias in most episodes and yet he sat in prison interacting with….no one? The Crows spent a large portion of the season on their own adventure in Shu Han. Alina and Mal were on a macguffin hunt, getting info-dumped on my Kirigan’s mother. And Kirigan, one of the most interesting characters from the first season, spent most of the season licking his wounds.
What happened with Kirigan was especially disappointing because this is such a long series (whether books or TV) thing to do with villains. How many second books/second seasons spend time with the villain, doing nothing, contemplating their own villainy, and trying to gain back their powers. Luckily, Ben Barnes is a charismatic enough actor (and the character has enough depth from season one) to allow for some interesting scenes, but he didn’t feel like a genuine threat for most of the season.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if the story didn’t feel so rushed. However, for whatever business or creative reasons, the writers/producers decided to get to the end of the Shadow and Bone trilogy here. Therefore, they ramped up the Alina/Kirigan conflict too quickly at the end. We entered the endgame so quickly that the final battle in the seventh and eighth episodes felt pretty low-key. I was surprised when they killed Kirigan (and when my roommate confirmed that this, indeed, was supposed to be the end of the trilogy) because the battle felt like a small skirmish that would happen in, say, episode 4 of a ten episode season. Kirigan’s death wasn’t impactful because I stopped feeling as if he was a threat, and the show never did enough to make him feel threatening again.
The rushed finish to the season also made everything else in the season finale feel unearned. We got quite a lengthy denouement, where the heroes mourned their losses, celebrated their victory, and looked to the future. As a fantasy fan, I am normally all about these scenes. I love that moment when evil is vanquished and I can let out a sigh of relief along with the characters. Scenes like the final scene with Alina and Mal saying goodbye should have been an emotional gutpunch within this easygoing sequence, but I felt little.
The season flew through characters and plot lines so quickly that we weren’t privy to those little character moments that fully developed these relationships, robbing the season finale of its full potential. This wasn’t a universal problem – the relationship between Kaz and Inej was especially well done – but so many of the characters felt too much like two-dimensional set pieces moving around a map. And no character suffered more from this than Alina, who went from a young reluctant hero to a woman who frowned and moved her arms around a lot.
I think that a lot of the problems could be attributed to Netflix (and the rest of the media’s) obsession with franchises. Maybe there wasn’t enough plot to pull the original trilogy into three seasons, but the behind the scenes machinations to not only extend this series beyond Bardugo’s books, but also to potentially spin off the Crows into their own series, were too obvious. A Crows spinoff only works if they started to move the Crows in their own direction untangled from Alina; some plot arcs moved so slowly (like the Matthias) because the writers were planting plot seeds to harvest later, and we got a contrived out of the blue ending to the season to continue the story beyond its initial plot into a third season and beyond. The way in which was controlling the creative became all too obvious.
While the second season here stumbles in many regards, I will again reiterate that the second season was not bad. It was a whole heck of a lot of fun to watch. This might seem like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I promise I am not! Too many fantasy shows on TV forget to be fun. All fantasy shows are pulling from the Game of Thrones grimdark playbook, forgetting that Game of Thrones also found time for levity (like that random scene in its first season where Master Pycelle stretches and dances weirdly). House of the Dragon, Rings of Power, season two of The Witcher, Wheel of Time….they aren’t fun shows to watch. Alternatively, Shadow and Bone promises a good time even if you aren’t following anything that is going on. From lots of magic (the CGI is passable, if a bit iffy), heists, and romance, the show is never boring.
As I alluded to earlier, a lot of the fun is placed on the shoulders of the Crows side of the show. Jesper is a hoot, and his new queer relationship with Wyland was cute. Kaz and Inej’s slowburn “will they or won’t they” was a much more believable pining relationship that whatever Alina and Mal had going on, and I always got hype for their next heist or adventure.
The show also looks great. It is clear that Shadow and Bone doesn’t have the budget like Rings of Power or House of the Dragon, but they make up for it with a colorful set design and beautiful costumes. It helps that the story, set in a fantasy version of Russia, has a steampunk(?) aesthetic so different from the gray medieval fantasy worlds we usually see depicted on television. If I had magical god powers, I would require everyone to dress like the characters on Shadow and Bone because they were a real treat for the eyes. So, if nothing else, turn your brain off and just get swept away in the fun designs and visuals of the show.
Big fantasy shows on television have had a pretty bleak run in the past few years. The first season of Shadow and Bone seemed like it was going to buck this trend, but its second season falls victim to many of the genre’s problems. But I also cannot deny that this show was fun, and we need more fun in fantasy television.