Ben Barnes Is Happy to Be Your Villain In Shadow and Bone Season 2

TV Features Shadow and Bone
Ben Barnes Is Happy to Be Your Villain In Shadow and Bone Season 2

A wise person once said that the best kinds of villains are characters who see themselves as the hero of their own stories. And it’s true—very few villains are evil simply for the sake of being evil, or delight in simply doing wrong for its own sake. The best have their own motivations and perspectives, as well as deeply felt hurts, loves, and griefs that shape not only who they are, but how they see the world around them. It would have been easy for Netflix series Shadow and Bone to lean into the worst aspects of its main villain (who is, not very subtly, called The Darkling) in a way that made the character feel like a caricature rather than a three-dimensional person. But instead, thanks to deft writing and a complex, smoldering performance by actor Ben Barnes, the Darkling is more nuanced and compelling than any murderer who’s trying to take over the world and gaslight the series’ heroine probably has any right to be.

But while Season 1 of Shadow and Bone seemed inclined to give General Kirigan (the name the Darkling goes by in this particular lifetime) a slightly more sympathetic presentation that he might have otherwise deserved—complete with dead first love, a largely absent parent, a significant persecution complex, and the sort of tragic misjudgment that has admittedly forged heroes out of lesser men than this—Season 2 seems much more comfortable allowing the character to fully enter his hardcore villain era. And, so too, does the man who brings him to life onscreen, though he’s more interested in the reasons behind his full-on heel turn than anything else.

“Oh, absolutely!” Barnes says when asked if his character is truly a villain. “He’s absolutely problematic. He’s absolutely a villain and he absolutely deserves everything he gets. However, I think my job is to understand his motivations and get on board with them. To understand the rage, to understand the toxicity, to understand where his lines are, and how far he will push things. I know where the edge is for him, and I made some very clear decisions about what he does and what he allows to happen or not, what he gives into, what he’s willing to sacrifice.”

During Season 1, it’s fairly easy to like—even to root for—Barnes’ General Kirigan, who is as charming as he is manipulative (not to mention easy on the eyes!). But in Season 2, the character takes a much darker and more overtly dangerous turn. And it’s one that the actor who plays him relished, particularly because it allowed him to stake out a narrative space within a season crowded with new characters and storylines. 

“We’ve got so many more characters [in Season 2]. There are sort of 16 main characters or something and everybody has to occupy a slightly different space. For [Kirigan], his agenda is essentially the same [as Season 1] but is slowly shifting. The frustration and fury that he can no longer charm his way or manipulate his way into having people understand or agree with it means he has to try different tactics, which are necessarily darker. That’s what sets him in a different space in the show.”

Unlike its first season, which adapted only the first book of the author Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Netflix series tackles the events of both Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising in Season 2.

“I was relieved to find that out from a very personal, selfish perspective because, in the second book, my character barely shows up,” Barnes laughs. “He’s very representative of something dark in Alina’s dreams [in Siege and Storm]  and I thought, well, that feels a little bit derivative because if it were to be played out onscreen, I’d just be turning up to haunt her dreams. And I was hoping to play something a bit more complex than that.” 

Instead, Season 2 sees General Kirigan—once a respected Shadow Summoner with power in the Ravkan government—fully embrace his identity as “The Darkling.” Although everyone believes Kirigan died during a Volcra attack at the end of Shadow and Bone’s first season, the Darkling returns in its second, more powerful than ever and in command of dangerous shadow monsters frightening enough to compel the remainder of the Grisha army to join his plans to overthrow the Ravkan monarchy. (As well as hunt down Jessie Mei Lei’s Alina Starkov, the Sun Summoner who has set out to find the mythical creatures that can amplify her powers enough to destroy Kirigan’s Shadow Fold.) 

“I was delighted that we would be playing through more of a real story arc for that part of the book,” Barnes continues. “Otherwise, I would just have to be treading water a little bit in a dark and evil place. For me, that’s not interesting. What’s interesting for me is to look at the differences—for the character—between the two seasons, to look at how his outlets, in terms of him being the highest status and the most respected, have dissipated. How his powers have shifted. How his darkness, these literal shadow monsters, are making him both powerful and poisoning him at the same time.”

And with fewer allies, steadily decreasing support among the Grisha, and new abilities he can’t entirely control, Kirigan quickly spirals even further into darkness. 

“As the season goes on, it gives me an opportunity to spread my wings, and to really get nasty with it, which for me was actually something I haven’t really done before,” he continues. “I’ve tried—I’ve been trying so hard to keep the vulnerability, and I think there’s a lot of humanity in the character still, but the edges of humanity that are maybe not as clean.”

Part of the appeal of the Darkling as a character is that, at least in Shadow and Bone’s first season, he’s much closer to an anti-hero than an outright villain. His desire to improve the lives of Grisha certainly seems genuine, as do his feelings towards Alina. Add in a tragic backstory and centuries of loneliness and you might find yourself wondering whether or not how exactly you’re meant to be feeling about him. 

“I think he’s still trying to do things with grace in the first season,” Barnes says. “He’s manipulating people but he’s trying to go about it… he’s charming and he’s wearing masks and all of that. He makes no bones about the fact that he’s trying to use [Alina] for an end, which is ostensibly to bring peace to a country and to a people and to stop conflict. That’s what he believes he’s doing. And I think he believes there’s nobility in that. It’s such a terribly fine line between that and some awful dictatorship.”

And, according to the actor who plays him, the character clearly and deliberately steps over that divide in Season 2, but that didn’t stop Barnes from leaning into the emotional complexity of his character’s dark(er) turn.

“In the second season, he’s crossed the line over into that kind of maniacal, poisoned, dictatorial attitude. He has an awareness of it,” he continues. “For a villain, he’s a very emotionally aware character. He asks a lot of questions about what are you prepared to sacrifice or give up to achieve what you think is best to achieve. He’s a curious man still, even though he feels like he knows everything there is to know he’s interested in things, particularly Alina. In the end, does any of that boy remain, any of that man who one knew how to love remain, has anything been reignited by Alina that will allow those final specks of vulnerability and humanity to shine through? Is he going to be willing to sacrifice anything for what he will learn is for the good of the many? I think for me that was the interesting territory to navigate in this season. That was what I wanted to really lean into and finesse.

Kirigan’s more overtly evil behavior also complicates his relationship with Alina, who was once his protegee and, if not outright love interest, at least a potential romantic partner. But Season 2 is remarkably clear-eyed in the way it presents and contextualizes their interactions, careful not to over-romanticize their dynamic and honest about the gaslighting and manipulation at its center.

“He’s definitely much more toxic, much darker, much more Machiavellian, and much more rageful this season. I think that it’s less sexy,” Barnes says “It’s less a traditional fantasy sort of triangle. Love doesn’t really feed into it. It’s more about power dynamics. Now, I think there’s a dynamic between them where they can both start to attempt to manipulate [one another]. It’s just in the first season he was much better at it than her.”

Though the “Darklina” relationship is a favorite of many Shadow and Bone fans, Barnes seems fairly clear that within the world of the show itself, the relationship isn’t an aspirational one.

“Obviously I was teasing that agenda in the press for the first season because it’s something that my character was teasing. And that’s what I will get on board with supporting because I want people on my side,” Barnes says, laughing. “But, truly, we go through the stages in life where we want different things from our connections with people. Sometimes you want things a little darker. And that’s all good. But my answers [about Darklina] with regard to the second season are very different. Then the story we’re telling about the love between Mal and Alina, the purity of that, and the very clear messaging I think we’re putting out there in terms of the toxicity, the confusing toxicity between [Alina and the Darkling]. Actually, I think that’s the other thing, anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that they considered to be toxic in any way, it’s very confusing. And you don’t understand why you keep getting pulled in.”

For Barnes, his character’s most interesting and impactful relationship in Shadow and Bone is with his mother Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker), one that is colored by many complex layers of rage and regret. 

“She was such a dream,” he says when asked about building his onscreen bond with Wanamaker. “She just sits there and tells you the truth, and I need that as an actor. I need someone to bring me back down because I can go dramatic if it’s called for, as you may or may not have noticed. She’s a dream person to work with for me.  I actually worked with her on her other scenes later in the show that I’m not in. She’d come to me and be like, ‘merzost, what does that mean? What is this?’ And we’d sit in my kitchen and drink tea and she would smoke cigarettes and we would just go over what things meant.”

The complicated bond and history between the two is one that has lasted for hundreds of years. (Since they’re both rare Shadow Summoners and direct descendants of Ilya Morozova, a Grisha who experimented with dark magic known as merzost, the pair are exceptionally long-lived.)  Yet, the years haven’t been kind to either of them and, as a result, they haven’t been particularly kind to one another. 

“I think it’s such an interesting relationship because she loves him, but she’s kind of given up on him, and he loves her, but he’s sort of given up on her. The last thing she says to him is, ‘Know that I love you and know that it was not enough.’ To me, that’s so powerful. It was rushed through a little bit, that moment, I feel, but there’s power in it for sure.”

  [Season 2 plot specifics discussed below]

Barnes is particularly proud of the, admittedly, quite disturbing scene in which the Darkling cuts off one of his mother’s fingers in order to turn her bones into amplifiers for himself and his Grisha generals. 

“I think the finger scene is maybe my favorite scene in the entire show,” he says. “It’s a lovely scene. It’s beautifully shot. It’s very unexpected, what happens. And I love being surprised.”

He also names Baghra’s death scene, in which she essentially sacrifices herself by using her bond son’s mind to distract him while Mal and Alina escape the burning family crypt, as an especially key moment for his character. Her death is one of the few times we see the Darkling—or Aleksander, as his mother calls him—truly rattled, and it’s largely because of the complex and longstanding emotional ties between the two. Baghra, after all, has lived as long as her son has. She is the one singular constant in his life, and as such is both the person who knows him best and the one who can hurt him the worst. 

“He has such an agenda with her, and such bile and resentment that he’s built up towards her, for betraying him—or just feeling like he’s been betrayed or not mothered, really. The emotion comes as a surprise to him when she’s no longer there and he feels responsible for it. And at the last minute, he tries to stop [her death] from happening. It turns out that’s not something he’d been prepared to sacrifice for this.” 

Given Barnes’s ability to quote Shadow and Bone dialogue seemingly on command what is likely months after the series finished filming, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that he says he was “the champion” of Bardugo’s original texts during filming. And, to be fair, I get it, the Darkling does get some great lines throughout the trilogy—just Google it if you don’t believe me—a mix of the same sort of overt gaslighting and surprisingly genuine emotion that have come to be the hallmark of the character.

“As we went along, I think I was a bit of the keeper of the book dialogue. I had my list of ten lines I wanted to say in Season 2,” he says. “I thought they were so poetic that I was like, ‘I want to say these lines.’  And I managed to get them all in. Some of them come in a context that isn’t quite how they are in the books because we didn’t have those scenes, but I just wanted to get the poetry of this man in as well.” 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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