Shadow and Bone’s Overstuffed Second Season Does a Disservice to Its Great Characters

TV Reviews Shadow and Bone
Shadow and Bone’s Overstuffed Second Season Does a Disservice to Its Great Characters

The first season of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone was a shining example of how to do a YA fantasy adaptation right. Though the show wasn’t necessarily the most technically faithful translation of the first book in author Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series of novels, it was remarkably true to its spirit, embracing both the high fantasy elements and the complex emotional and relationship stakes of young adulthood. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the series’ second outing, which is not only poorly paced but narratively overstuffed, crammed with new characters, superfluous side quests, and rapid-fire plot revelations that are rarely given enough time to breathe, let alone develop fully. This ultimately means that the end result is something that, while not technically bad, is certainly disappointing.

It’s not that Shadow and Bone Season 2 isn’t fun to watch. It is—there’s plenty of action, big emotional set pieces, and the introduction of several fan-favorite new characters from Bardguo’s larger fictional world. The series’ scope is larger than ever, encompassing multiple kingdoms and at least a half dozen major plotlines. But its increasingly expansive narrative—and the fact that it adapts events from two books (Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising) from Bardugo’s first Grishaverse trilogymeans that the narrative steamrolls ahead relentlessly throughout Season 2’s eight episodes, spending little time on exploring the emotional fallout from the events its characters experience.

Season 1 of Shadow and Bone was largely focused on Sun Summoner Alina Starkov’s (Jessie Mei Li) journey to claim her own power—both literally and figuratively speaking—as a Grisha. Season 2 begins in the aftermath of her battle with the power-hungry General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), a centuries-old Shadow Summoner known as the Darkling who seeks to use the monstrous Shadow Fold (a literal giant wall of darkness full of monsters) to take over the kingdom of Ravka. With the Darkling now presumed dead, Alina and her best friend/love interest Maleyn Oretsev (Archie Renaux) are searching for Morozova’s two remaining mystical creatures, the sea whip and the firebird, which will hopefully enhance her light magic abilities enough to destroy the Fold for good. Unbeknownst to either of them, the Darkling has returned and is building an army of deadly shadow monsters and dangerous new Grisha recruits—with his sights set on killing the Ravkan king.

Elsewhere, Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman), and Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) return to Ketterdam, where they discover the Crow Club has been taken over by a local gangster and hire Heartrender Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan) to help pull off an elaborate plot to take back what’s theirs. Nina, for her part, is desperate to get her lover Matthias (Calahan Skogman) out of the famous Fjerdan prison known as Hellgate and willing to work with Kaz to do so. Unfortunately, the stories of these characters—who all hail from Bardugo’s Six of Crows novels—often feel as though they’re happening on a different show entirely. The deft balance that Shadow and Bone managed to strike in Season 1, in which the Crows characters were woven into the larger story of Alina’s embrace of her powers and role in Ravka’s future thanks to the invention of a new prequel-esque plot for them, is largely missing here, as the group has little direct connection to the larger story the show is telling until at least two-thirds of the way through the season.

What makes all this especially unfortunate is that the best part of the Netflix series thus far has been its deft and thoughtful character work, which is often the first thing that seems to have been jettisoned in a Season 2 that is so frequently hamstrung by its need to cram what is essentially two novels’ worth of plot into eight episodes of television even as it serves a half dozen characters from another set of books entirely. Season 1 was so thoughtful and deliberate in the way it crafted a variety of rich, fully realized relationships, from love stories to friendships, across the series’ canvas, and the show spent a prodigious amount of screentime showing us both the depth of those bonds and the ways those connections changed the people involved in them, for both good and ill. Mal is perhaps the best example of the ways the series expanded and improved upon the foundation in Bardugo’s novels, and the newfound onscreen depth and complexity of his character is also reflected in his romantic relationship with Alina, which is, in turn, reimagined as the emotional crux around which the series turns. 

Much of that nuance is missing in Shadow and Bone Season 2, which speeds from major event to major event without taking much time to breathe in between. Where Alina’s search for the stag that would become her first amplifier took the bulk of the series’ first season, here she finds the creature that will provide her second within the space of a handful of episodes. The increasing tension between her and Mal over her growing power and her increasingly public political role in Ravka isn’t explored particularly fully or well either. And the rushed pacing makes almost every character’s decisions feel as though they’re happening because the story says they should happen, rather than because they are organic choices any of them might actually make on their own. 

What’s perhaps worse is that Season 2 skips over many of the emotional beats Season 1 would almost certainly have shown us. The show largely relies on its viewers to give the bond between fan favorites Tolya (Lewis Tan) and Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy) emotional depth and any hint of Nikolai Lantsov’s inner conflict with his own duty as a Ravkan royal comes more from Patrick Gibson’s earnest performance than the actual script. Even Alina’s complex feelings about the Darkling are given comparatively short shrift, and while Ben Barnes is certainly having the time of his life playing his character’s hardcore villain era (he’s truly so good in this role), there’s less complexity to his heel turn than an actor of his caliber deserves. 

Season 2 is still at its best during the small character moments that made the first season shine. Nina’s steadfast belief that her love for Mattias will be enough to carry her back to him is strong enough to power an entire subplot and leave viewers desperate for a reunion between them. Sharpshooter Jesper gets one of the season’s most satisfying personal arcs, as well as a charming romance with demolitions expert Wylan Hendricks (Jack Wolfe). Every scene between the Darkling and his mother Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker) is full of fascinating layers of rage and regret. And the excellent chemistry between Li and Renaux means that Alina and Mal’s relationship remains extremely compelling, even if it always doesn’t get the extended focus it once did.

Book fans will likely be quite surprised by the hard swerves the Netflix series takes from the original Shadow and Bone novels, particularly Ruin and Rising, which are all changes of a scope that seem primarily geared toward ensuring the series gets a third season (and possibly a Six of Crows spinoff?). How—or whether—the changes from the source material will ultimately pay off (or help the series get back to its more character-driven roots) is a question only time can answer, but Season 2 never quite makes the case that these shifts are necessary or exciting enough to make up for rushing through this part of the story. May the Saints light all our ways, I guess. 

Shadow and Bone Season 2 premieres Thursday, March 16th on Netflix.

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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