The Crows Deserved Better Than Netflix’s Shadow and Bone

TV Features Shadow and Bone
The Crows Deserved Better Than Netflix’s Shadow and Bone

On the page, Leigh Bardugo’s addictive Shadow and Bone trilogy and the subsequent duologies Six of Crows and King of Scars are rich and layered entries into a unique yet familiar world populated by characters who feel flawed and tangible, at once knowable and somehow still unpredictable. With locations loosely inspired by our own world—Ravka is to Czarist Russia what Kerch is to the Dutch Republic—the novels transport readers to a universe that feels just a few steps removed from ours, like we’re looking at it through a vibrant kaleidoscope, and the result is a place where science and magic collide in exciting but fearsome ways. It’s unfortunate then, that Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s adaptation of the novels, feels so flat in Season 2. But it’s a bigger shame that the Crows—a kind of youthful take on Oceans 11 if you will—end up bearing the brunt of the writers’ worst tendencies when they are far and away the most interesting and entertaining characters in Bardugo’s novels.

After Shadow and Bone introduced the group of misfits, who all belong to a gang known as the Dregs, through the story of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) in its first season, it was my sincere hope Netflix would spin the young criminals off into their own series, one that would allow them to become the fully developed, captivating antiheroes that live on the page. It felt like that was the writers’ intention, too, as the first season ended with all the pieces in place to pick up the threads of Six of Crows, which occurs a few years after the Grisha civil war and details a seemingly impossible heist. This ultimately wasn’t meant to be, and although showrunner Eric Heisserer has confirmed that a Crows-centric spinoff is finally in development, its future is reportedly tied to how well Shadow and Bone performs for Netflix. But even if the fantasy series manages to succeed at the streaming service’s opaque numbers game, the bizarre storytelling choices and overall decline in quality of Season 2 have quashed what hope there was that the story of Six of Crows and its sequel Crooked Kingdom could be adapted well.

[General plot discussion for Season 2 below]

In Season 2, Alina and Mal (Archie Renaux), with the help of privateer-slash-charming-Ravkan prince Nikolai Lantsov (Patrick Gibson), attempt to locate two legendary amplifiers so that Alina can destroy the Fold, defeat the Darkling (Ben Barnes) and his forces, and save Ravka once and for all. Running parallel to this narrative is the B-story of the Crows, but the opportunity to further develop the universe’s most fascinating individuals is wasted, as the writers find frustrating new ways to shoehorn Kaz (Freddy Carter), Jesper (Kit Young), and Inej (Amita Suman) into Alina’s story alongside Grisha heartrender Nina (Danielle Galligan) and demolitions expert Wylan (Jack Wolfe). Their main contribution to the season involves traveling to Shu Han to retrieve a mythical sword powerful enough to kill the Darkling’s shadow monsters. After retrieving said sword, they then swoop in like the Prussians at Waterloo to save Alina, Mal, Nikolai, and their friends from becoming worm food.

Being forced to service Alina’s story rather than their own makes for a rushed and surprisingly dull season full of fits and starts that never comes together the way the writers’ intended, likely because these characters were never meant to interact and intertwine this way. The Crows’ story takes place in the Barrel, the grimy and dangerous gang-run streets of Ketterdam (loosely inspired by Amsterdam and New York City) and in the Scandinavian-inspired country of Fjerda. The first novel sees the deceivingly mature teens—all with their own special set of skills—attempt to break into and then out of an impenetrable fortress to free the imprisoned inventor of a dangerous and powerful drug known as jurda parem before it can be weaponized against the masses.

It’s a propulsive, well-plotted, and exceptionally fun follow-up to Alina’s “Chosen One” journey, which follows the more familiar beats of the classic good-versus-evil narrative often seen in fantasy but here is elevated through the literal use of light and shadow. The Crows’ storyline, in comparison, takes readers off the beaten path with a story that centers the morally bereft (or at least morally ambiguous) and has its own world-altering stakes but delivers them through action and adventure. It works as well as it does on the page because the foundation has already been laid, thus allowing Bardugo to build out this rich and expansive world in compelling new ways. So when the Netflix series forces the Crows to become little more than supporting players in Alina’s ongoing fight to destroy the Fold and take down the Darkling, the characters are cheated out of their development while fans are cheated out of a thrilling romp full of duplicity, disguises, and double-crosses. 

Kaz, as the de facto leader of the group, comes the closest to having a personal arc in Season 2; the series explores his traumatic backstory with Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly), delving into how the scrupulous gang leader conned him and his older brother out of what little money they had when they arrived in Ketterdam and how the older boy’s death on the streets eventually led to Kaz’s severe haphephobia and the birth of the ruthless and amoral man known in the novels as Dirtyhands (named so because, as Bardugo writes, “there was no sin he would not commit for the right price”). None of the others fare as well. The fearsome fighter Inej is often reduced to her feelings for Kaz, while the quick-witted sharpshooter Jesper embarks on a rushed relationship with Wylan and is confirmed to be a Durast, albeit with little exploration of why he hides his natural abilities, even from his friends.

In the end, most of the Crows are but a few beats removed from where they were at the start of the season. A heartbroken Nina is still attempting to free her boyfriend, the former Grisha-hunter Matthias Helvar (Calahan Skogman), from the island prison known as Hellgate, where he has been locked away the entire season. And although Kaz and Inej vocalized their feelings for one another, the former is unable to give the latter what she needs, so she sets sail with Mal—who in yet another bewildering departure from the novels has taken on Nikolai’s Sturmhond identity—to find her family instead. Only Jesper and Wylan end the season having made any real personal progress. But what little excitement there is for their newfound relationship is overshadowed by the fact the series rushed through it like it did everything else. Nothing exists beyond the surface, which does a great disservice to Bardugo’s deeply intricate novels. 

Knowing this, it’s difficult to muster much excitement for a Crows-centric spinoff from this team. While the mechanics of the heist narrative would surely benefit from the faster pace the show’s writers adopted in Season 2, the nuance needed to faithfully adapt the story is likely to be lost in translation, doomed to die alongside the varying depths of the Darkling and his complex and corrupt motivations. In all regards, the young, charismatic thieves deserved far better than the scraps Shadow and Bone threw their way during its two eight-episode seasons. And we, the audience, deserved better, too.

Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Gold Derby, and, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling.

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

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin