Alyssa Leong ’23
Bad news 2010s YA readers, good news everyone else: the second season of Shadow and Bone has been released on Netflix (and has been there for the last month, but who’s counting). Adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology, the show follows characters throughout the Grishaverse: a fantasy world where some wield the power to control the elements. In season two, Sun Summoner Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) continues an attempt to end the reign of The Darkling (Ben Barnes) while a gang called the Crows continue to aid her through their own exploits.
When Shadow and Bone season one premiered, despite my high expectations as an ex-Grishaverse fan, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, the show was not *quite* an accurate on-screen portrayal of books I held close to my heart (mainly the Six of Crows ones, less so Shadow and Bone — a bias that will be evident here). Nonetheless, I could put my own personal vision of the books aside and enjoy the show for what it was: an entertaining Netflix adaptation of a fantasy YA series.
But in season two, the balancing act between the two plots collapses entirely — and neither storyline comes out on top. Alina’s journey is adapted from the Shadow and Bone series, while the Crows’ is from the Six of Crows duology. Both these books take place in the Grishaverse, but years apart. Trying to knit them together is a difficult task, especially in a season meant to bridge the two series’ plots.
Right off the bat, the season begins with narrative starts and stops and the pacing continues to splutter on unevenly throughout the rest of the season. Episodes attempt to focus on both Alina’s storyline and the Crows, not truly giving the right amount of screentime to either. In the books, Alina follows similar plots for the whole trilogy, attempting to search for amplifiers to her power in order to stop the Darkling — a plot that does not translate neatly to screen especially given the fact this season is trying to cover not one but two books in the Shadow and Bone trilogy. However, given that the show centers around Alina’s story, her conversations with dignitaries and middling romance with Mal (Archie Renaux) have the most screen time.
Meanwhile, the Crows are delegated to relatively meaningless side quests that are somehow given the screentime of a larger plot point, as if the audience has investment in characters they have only just met. This is especially disappointing given that the Crows’ books are more action-packed, focused on heists, and character driven. Episode six, for instance, spends its last act laboriously revealing a relationship between the people the Crows are attempting to con — something that neither book fans nor show fans care about, in the scope of the larger story.
Similarly, because of the new timelines, many of the emotional climaxes feel unearned. As a book fan, I was disappointed that so many moments lacked the emotional weight they felt in the source material. Even my friends unfamiliar with the books agreed that they felt confused by certain moments.
These unearned emotional payoffs are exemplified in the fourth episode, which reveals Kaz Brekker’s feud with rival gang leader Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly) through a series of flashbacks. Kaz also tricks Pekka into getting revenge, a moment that is the culmination of everything Kaz works towards in the book series. But at this point in the show, when we barely have any understanding of what Pekka Rollins means to Kaz, the moment feels insignificant. Two promising narratives have been completely collapsed to fit all of these conflicting storylines into one season of television.
Like many young adult Netflix originals, Shadow and Bone prioritizes ridiculous romances over any kind of narrative sense, yet somehow none of them stick. Despite many of Alina’s motives in the show being driven by her relationship with Mal, their characters have very little chemistry. Granted, their relationship was a hard sell in the books as well, but in this season there is next to no buildup to their relationship.
Even fan favorite couples such as Jesper and Wylan, Kaz and Inej, Matthias and Nina, and David and Genya fall short. The chemistry between these characters, while given more time to breathe in the books, is condensed amongst the jumble of other plotlines. It’s one thing to be invested in the main romance and no others. But if the creators can’t even get sparks to fly for any of the couples, it is not a reflection of the actors, but a reflection of the writing and directing.
All of these issues culminate in the climax of the show, which takes place as battles that are oddly parsed throughout two episodes. These action scenes are sandwiched by people talking in front of greenscreens about destiny and hope and a whole lot of nothing. Even the battles themselves are largely uninteresting, taking place in various hallways and vast greenscreen landscapes, all of them badly lit. Watching as the characters battled it out with badly CGI’d elemental magic between ducking behind tiny wooden pallets for cover, I was forced to wonder what my teenage self would have thought about the show if she knew what it would look like.
But in the end, as a book fan I have to acknowledge that the show will simply not fulfill everything I want it to achieve. At the end of the day, Shadow and Bone does its job of being a mildly entertaining teen fantasy drama, albeit a mediocre one. Sure, in my ideal world we would have an HBO adaptation of just the Six of Crows books with the right direction and talent attached. But in the here and now, Elon Musk runs Twitter, artists release sped-up versions of their songs as made trendy by TikTok, and we have Shadow and Bone. It’s a fine show, but it had so much potential to be great, and that will continue to irk me for as long as it runs.
Image Source: Netflix