Shadow and Bone had me with its coats.
As a non-reader of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, but a great admirer of richly crafted, adapted fantasy on television and film, I went into Netflix’s Shadow and Bone cold. All I expected was that—as with most intricate world-building that transitions from page to screen—there’s often a steep learning curve in the pilot, as the language, regions, factions, and magical terminology gradually makes sense. Costumes can be a big visual shorthand with that, and let me tell you, this series offers a level of visual embroidery porn I was not prepared for.
Please don’t mistake that for faint praise, because costume designer Wendy Partridge and her team’s work is mind-bogglingly stellar. Their detail work is captured in over the shoulder shots and full length walk and talks galore to my glee, but more importantly, help create a bridge into this world for audiences when creator/showrunner Eric Heisserer (The Arrival) is working his hardest to impart a lot of exposition, characters, and political enmity happening across the Kingdom of Ravka.
While many may just tag lush costuming as decoration, in this series it does the important work of establishing the pecking order in the very Imperial Russian-inspired Ravka. The Grisha—in their fabulously-colored and intricately stitched dusters—are the elite, revered for their magical abilities. The rest are a mix of other races wearing grey or brown military-like uniforms who, in the pilot, comprise The First Army. Essentially, they’re the grunts who fight against their country’s enemies, those who distrust the Grisha. And anyone else existing on the fringes outside of this societal order get a more individualistic look, including tailored patterns with quirky bowlers or ornate canes that distinguish their more self-centric inclinations.
This fabric cheat sheet was deeply appreciated, because the drab military wear of orphans-to-First Army BFFs, cartographer Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and tracker Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux) make it clear these two outsiders are nothing in the eyes of those they report to in their encampment on the edge of the Unsea, or the Shadow Fold, a black magic cloud of evil mojo created by a Grisha hundreds of years ago. It splits the country of Ravka in two, making access to needed foods, supplies, and resources dire. Impossible to cross without Grisha help (and even then, there’s no guarantee because of the volcra monsters flying inside, ready to attack), it’s a sore point for the entire world. In particular, the leader of the Grisha, General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), a.k.a. the Darkling, is a Shadow Summoner obsessed with fixing the Fold. He can only do that with the powers of a Sun Summoner, someone who has never existed in their history.
Of course, when you lay up a conundrum like that, a big ‘ole revelation is just itching to happen and that’s the case with “nobody” Alina Starkov. In an attempted First Army crossing across the Fold, Alina and Mal are almost picked off by the volcra until she beams out like a lighthouse set to sun, saving the travelers, and alerting anyone within 50 miles of the Fold that a Sun Summoner has been found.
Since Game of Thrones, all the cable and streaming networks have been looking for its successor. For many reasons, not many have ignited on a zeitgeist scale. Shadow and Bone (which comes from Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment, also known for Stranger Things) feels like the first real contender. It lands across the board with its production value, tone, visual effects, and engaging characters, culminating in an exhilarating season finale which all points to a potential large-scale hit.
Of particular success is how well Heisserer and his writers set up the required mythology in eight episodes without being exhausting, all the while deftly laying their emotional foundation: the bond between Alina and Mal. As the affecting anchors of the story, the first two episodes give us ample time to get to know and like them. In the now and in judiciously-used flashbacks of their youth together in the orphanage, the why of their loyalty to one another is made clear without dipping into maudlin territory. Theirs is a pragmatic and empathic tethering to one another that takes them into adulthood and sets the foundation for what’s to come, once Alina is whisked away for training at the King’s Little Palace by Kirigan and his Grisha.
Heisserer also deftly weaves an ensemble of support characters into strong B and C stories that are interesting enough to exist on their own, yet masterfully bump in and out of Alina’s journey throughout. There’s a heist B-story emanating out of West Ravka via gang leader, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), a brilliant planner with a prominent limp who enlists his close co-horts, Jesper Fahey (Kit Young)—a charm-in-over-drive sharp-shooter—and pious spy, Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), to help him land a kidnapping plot in East Ravka. Their mission plays out like a more intimate Ocean’s 11 and provides a lot of necessary context into the overall politics, religion, and class issues of the world, while including some thrilling moments inside The Fold. And then there’s the character-centric C-story of a Grisha, Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan), who is supposed to be part of Kaz’s team, but she’s captured by Grisha-hunters, the Fjerdan. One of those captors, soldier Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman) becomes intrigued by the “witch’s” tenacity and spirit. When disaster befalls them, the pair become unlikely allies and engaging metaphors for how the zealotry of their factions have obscured their commonalities as people.
As the episodes progress, so too does the rhythm of the series. Everything is humming along by Episode 4, “Otkazat’sya,” and by Episode 6, “The Heart Is An Arrow,” the bingeing gets real. The clarity of the mythology takes hold, it’s easier to place names to faces (or gorgeous filigree!), countries to their personal beefs, and the pros and cons of the Grisha in general, which makes the ride a lot more fun and engaging. The stories work in balance, with action, burgeoning feelings, and supernatural events revealing more secrets and political machinations. And through Alina training in her new powers, we also get to know Kirigan much better, and Barnes gives it his all like every great, imposing Byronic figure should. His performance leaves us guessing about whether Kirigan’s intentions are on the up-and-up as he gains the trust of the out of her element Sun Summoner, and it plays out in some surprising ways.
Kudos to the core casting as well, as Mei Li, Renaux and Barnes create and develop a worthy triangle for Alina as the Darkling and Mal tug at her heart. The potential paramours certainly represent the very different halves of who Alina is now, but the series never reduces her to a relationship choice. In fact, there’s a lot of restraint shown with all of the affairs of the heart in the series, leaning into the ample chemistry of many potential pairings but still doing the work to make sure each have depth and stakes. There’s a lot of satisfying slow burn happening all around which sets the stage for deeper satisfaction if the series continues into multiple seasons. And while Alina is often in over her head, but she’s never passive, dumb or a reductive, simplistic “badass.” She has agency in her own story, makes mistakes but owns them, and has a moral compass and natural empathy that makes her truly heroic. Mei Li embodies Alina as a complicated heroine that has a long way yet to go, but she genuinely makes you want to see her come into her full potential. Here’s hoping Shadow and Bone takes off as our next great fantasy obsession.
Shadow and Bone premieres Friday, April 23rd on Netflix.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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