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This review contains spoilers.
On March 16, the second season of the fantasy show “Shadow and Bone” dropped on Netflix. The first season of the show, which is based on Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling Grishaverse novels, was praised for its impressive acting performances, compelling writing, high-quality production, and adaptation from the source material (which included the first book of the “Grisha” trilogy as well as characters and settings from the “Six of Crows” duology). While the highly-anticipated second season carries some of the previous installment’s strengths, it crams in too many plotlines and the addition of surprising changes from Bardugo’s books work against the show’s coherence and thematic throughline.
“Shadow and Bone” follows orphan and cartographer Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who discovers she’s a Sun Summoner — a person with the rare ability to control light and destroy the Shadow Fold, created by the Darkling (Ben Barnes) to divide her country, Ravka. A parallel storyline concerns the Crows, a gang led by Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), who find themselves entangled in Alina’s story and the politics of Ravka.
While the first season of “Shadow and Bone” only adapted the first of the three “Grisha” books, Season Two attempted to finish out the trilogy’s arc completely, adapting both the second and third novels. Because of the large amount of material to get through in only eight episodes, the season progresses at a breakneck pace that sacrifices the development of meaningful character relationships in favor of barreling towards the story’s conclusion. Because of this, moments that should be emotionally resonant often feel unearned. It almost feels like the viewer is expected to mentally fill in these emotional gaps to understand the character development that wasn’t shown onscreen.
Another reason why this season’s character work feels underdeveloped is the sheer size of its cast. At any point during the season, the 14-member main cast is spread out across three or four locations and storylines. While the show’s expansive worldbuilding is impressive, and the locations are visually beautiful, it can be difficult to keep track of everyone at once, even for viewers familiar with the source material. Some of the new characters also seem a bit extraneous. For instance, this season introduces two separate sets of siblings with Grisha powers, and the Darkling’s right-hand woman Fruzsi doesn’t appear to do much that he couldn’t do himself. With so many characters to follow, it’s no wonder that the season doesn’t have time to linger on the emotional journey of each one.
That’s not to say all the characters’ personal stories lack attention. Kaz, whose harrowing backstory is revealed in a series of brilliantly executed flashbacks — including a jaw-droppingly gorgeous shot in the fifth episode — is a highlight of the season. Alina’s biracial identity — she’s half-Ravkan (coded as Russian) and half-Shu (coded as East Asian) — is explored with much more grace than in the previous season, particularly given the introduction of more Shu characters. And the burgeoning relationship between sharpshooter Jesper Fahey (Kit Young) and demolitions expert Wylan Hendriks (Jack Wolfe) is exactly what a romantic subplot like theirs should be — sometimes endearing, more often earnest, and a delight all around.
The Crows, as usual, are the best part of “Shadow and Bone.” However, their half of the season also struggles with pace. In addition to adapting two books from the “Grisha trilogy,” Season Two of “Shadow and Bone” lifts the central plotline from “Crooked Kingdom,” the second book of the “Six of Crows” duology. It explores the story of the Crows’ confrontation with Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly), a notorious crime lord with whom Kaz has a personal score to settle. Standing alone, this subplot is brilliantly written and acted; Carter, in particular, is stunningly good. But because of the season’s breathless pace, and the lack of attention paid to characters’ interiority, this storyline’s adaptation doesn’t carry enough emotional weight behind it to be satisfying. It feels particularly unearned given that in the show, the events of “Six of Crows” — which are meant to set up Kaz’s showdown with Rollins, both plotwise and in terms of character development — haven’t happened yet.
On the day of Season Two’s release, showrunner Eric Heisserer said in an interview with EW that a spin-off based on “Six of Crows” had already been written, but was yet to be greenlit by Netflix. “It’s about how well Season Two numbers do,” he said, suggesting that the spin-off’s future depended on the success of “Shadow and Bone.”
But the inclusion of the “Crooked Kingdom” storyline in Season Two begs the question of what a “Six of Crows” spin-off would even look like. “Crooked Kingdom” is a direct continuation of “Six of Crows”; putting the former chronologically before the latter renders whatever character arcs the Crows would have in the spin-off redundant. It’s a frankly bemusing choice, and one that, given the pace of the season, gets quickly glossed over. After confronting Rollins, the Crows are immediately pulled into an irrelevant and somewhat bizarre side quest involving a legendary sword, which takes up the rest of the season.
The season finale also heavily implies that a “Six of Crows” spin-off will follow, disrupting the ending of Alina’s arc by inserting an important plot element from “Six of Crows” into her storyline mere minutes from the end of the season. This is another baffling decision given that, again, neither the Crows spin-off nor Season Three of “Shadow and Bone” have been greenlit. Unlike the “Grisha” trilogy, the finale leaves almost all of its characters in an unsatisfactory place at the end of the season, in ways that clash with the characters’ personalities. For instance, why would Alina leave Mal, her childhood friend-turned-lover, after the emotional heart of the entire season was the growing strength of their bond? Often these altered endings, such as David’s death, feel needlessly cruel to both the characters and audience.
To be fair, it’s possible that these out-of-character endings will circle back around to a more satisfying conclusion in the future. It’s fine to leave endings open for the possibility of future seasons, but given how Netflix routinely cancels well-performing shows after two seasons, the complete turmoil in which Season Two leaves the characters’ stories feels like a dangerous game at best. And at worst, it turns “Shadow and Bone” into a story disdainful of happy endings — one that would rather alienate its fanbase than let its characters (and the audience) move on from their stories with joy.
Regardless of questionable writing choices, Season Two of “Shadow and Bone” showcased stellar performances from the entire main cast. Carter is a standout, perfectly capturing the tensions and nuances of Kaz Brekker’s character. His relationship with acrobat-turned-thief Inej Ghafa (Amita Suman) — a delicious and perfectly agonizing slow burn — is an emotional highlight and arguably the most compelling romance in the show. Patrick Gibson, who carries himself with swagger as the privateer and bastard prince Nikolai Lantsov, also deserves a mention; as does Daisy Head, whose portrayal of Genya Safin is viscerally heartbreaking.
From its inception, “Shadow and Bone” was a show that seemed to be made primarily for fans of its source material. And yet, several elements of the second season seemed made to alienate Grishaverse fans, raising the question of who this show is even for. It’s a setup for “Six of Crows” but ensures the Crows’ story will lack a satisfying emotional punch. The acting is stellar, but the story is all over the place. All of these contradictions come together in a confusing mixture, evening out into a somewhat lukewarm experience for fans of the books and viewers unfamiliar with the Grishaverse alike.
—Staff writer Samantha H. Chung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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