In 2021, I chose the first season of Netflix’s fantasy series Shadow and Bone as one of my favorite geek stories of the year. Based on the books by Leigh Bardugo and inspired by Russian culture and mythology, Shadow and Bone was packed full of intriguing, well-cast characters; elaborate costumes; and plenty of magic. It was that rare series that actually improved upon some of its source material, and I couldn’t wait to see the story continue in season 2.
After such a strong start and sky-high fan expectations, it’s perhaps inevitable that this expansive story falters a bit in its second outing. Although season 2 has received a more mixed response, I still enjoyed watching it and I don’t think it was bad, per se. But I was left with a slight sense of disappointment, wishing it could have been something more.
The first season of the series introduced us to Alina Starkov, a seemingly ordinary young woman who turns out to be the mythical Sun Summoner, a wielder of magic (known as a “Grisha” in this universe) who can control the power of light. Her tutor/love interest Aleksander Kirigan turns out to be a villain who is her polar opposite: the legendary Darkling, whose powers of shadow and death have created a magical barrier called “The Fold” dividing the land of Ravka.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment with season 2 was the handling of the Darkling as a character. The Darkling is played by Ben Barnes, who did such a great job with the role in season 1, blending layers of charisma, darkness, and dangerous power, and giving us this rich, complex character. Yes, he’s the bad guy, but he’s also compelling.
Much of that nuance seems to be gone in season 2, and he’s written as more of a one-dimensional villain. Barnes does the most he can with what he’s been given, but his storyline in this season felt rushed and ultimately fell flat, at least for me.
Now to be fair, I haven’t read all of Bardugo’s books, so perhaps some of my gripes should be directed towards the source material rather than just the show. I also know that portraying sympathetic villains can sometimes be a controversial choice. One of my favorite Star Wars characters is Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, and I know all about the discourse surrounding his role in the sequel trilogy and especially his connections to Rey.
I wanted the relationship between the Darkling and Alina to be more nuanced, like the interactions between Kylo and Rey in The Last Jedi. Rey and Kylo share this dangerous sort of tension and surprisingly emotional bond, which is underscored by the push and pull between the light and dark sides of the Force that their characters represent. There’s far more gray than black and white in their story. Unfortunately, season 2 of Shadow and Bone whittles down Alina and the Darkling’s dynamic to a simple antagonistic relationship.
This is definitely a personal storytelling preference of mine, and not everyone might agree with me. Maybe some fans feel that the Darkling doesn’t deserve to be nuanced, and having him be an irredeemable, unrepentant villain is OK. To me, the show would have been much more interesting if Alina and the Darkling hadn’t been forced into such a stereotypical hero/villain dynamic.
*Spoilers in this paragraph* I also don’t mind Alina and Mal ending up as a couple in the story, but the direction their relationship takes in the final episode was certainly, well, a choice. The whole season reinforces how deeply they care for each other and how much they’re willing to sacrifice for each other, and then they sort of just…part ways? I don’t think this section of the story was told very well, even if I am intrigued with how Mal’s story will develop in future seasons and what may or may not happen between Alina and the new king of Ravka.
Although Alina is the main character in this series, aspiring crime lord Kaz Brekker and his crew (nicknamed “the Crows”) continue to be the scene stealers. Six of Crows is my favorite of Bardugo’s novels that I’ve read, and I’m glad the characters have been included in this series. I really liked the storytelling balance between Alina and the Crows in season 1, but this time around, I found myself longing to hurry back to the Crows whenever they were off screen.
Kaz helped soothe the blow of my disappointment in the Darkling’s story arc, because I do love an angsty, conflicted antihero. We get to see flashes of Kaz’s backstory here, which really fleshes out his character and makes him more sympathetic.
*Spoilers in this paragraph* This show does make some significant departures from the books that I’m very excited about. In the books, Alina loses her powers and goes off to live a quiet life with Mal. In the show, Alina keeps her powers, and we see some hints that she may be more like the Darkling than she wants to admit. While I don’t necessarily want to see Alina go full-on villain, I am on board for her to grapple with the dark side in future seasons. Maybe she’ll end up on the kind of arc I had wanted for the Darkling, though she will ultimately return to the light (I hope!).
I still very much want a season 3 of this show, and even though season 2 doesn’t seem to have been quite as well received, I want it to perform well enough that Netflix is willing to greenlight another season. There’s still plenty of stories to tell in the Grisha-verse, even if there have been a few fumbles along the way.