Listen. You should absolutely watch this show. I know it aired last year. I know it’s gotten largely middling reviews. I know it’s a slow starter. I know it ended on a bit of a cliffhanger in episode six. I know that AMC is dragging their feet on renewing it. But it’s really, really fucking good. Much better than its reviews give it credit for and much better than the overall tepid reception of the show would suggest. And there are actual reasons why this show should be on everyone’s watch list, reasons that have nothing to do with my own almost uncritical fangirling over it.
It’s a martial arts fighting show
Into the Badlands’ martial arts coordinator, Huan-Chiu Ku, has worked on numerous highly recognizable martial arts projects, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill, and what he brings to the small screen is probably the best and most beautifully choreographed fights scenes to ever make their way to television. Every one of this show’s fights is at least good, and a high proportion of them are just breathtaking. If you at all enjoy choreographed martial arts, Into the Badlands is a must-see piece of the genre.
With an Asian lead
There’s a long, sad history of martial arts shows and films being made with white male leads in American cinema, but Into the Badlands has not one, but two Asian men in lead roles. Daniel Wu (Chinese-American) plays Sunny, and Aramis Knight (Indian/Pakistani/German) plays his apprentice, M.K. I’d be lying if I said that Daniel Wu’s gorgeous face wasn’t part of the reason I watched this show.
And a black woman as the main character’s love interest
Sunny is paired in the show with Veil (the luminous Madeleine Mantock), a doctor in the show’s post-apocalyptic town. If you’re old enough, as I am, to remember when Romeo Must Die cut out Jet Li kissing Aaliyah because audiences reacted with horrible racism to their interracial relationship, you’ll understand why Sunny and Veil’s relationship is important. What’s even better, though, is that Veil is so much more than just Sunny’s lover. As the show goes on, Veil proves to be a tough, resourceful, compelling character in her own right, which brings me to my next point.
And a whole host of badass women characters who mostly defy stereotyping
Veil might be my favorite character in Into the Badlands, but there’s also the Widow and her daughters, who are supposedly fighting to make a better world, including Tilda, who isn’t sure that her mother’s way is right. There’s Lydia, the formidable wife of the Baron Quinn, and there’s Quinn’s new (and ambitious) young wife, Jade. There’s Zypher, who has the same job as Sunny, but for another Baron. I would love to see at least a couple more women of color in the mix, but the diversity of personalities, roles, skills, and values these female characters display is also important and refreshing in a genre that often relegates women to a couple very passive or tokenized roles.
And surprisingly feminist sensibilities in general
I wouldn’t say that Into the Badlands is definitely a feminist show. Certainly, it doesn’t have any particular feminist message that it’s trying to get across. However, it’s a show that cares about being inclusive and diverse. It cares about examining power structures and oppression, and it cares about having a real conversation about it. It’s not a show that pretends to have all the answers; it’s a show that gives us a whole bunch of characters trying to figure things out, and it’s compelling as hell.
There’s really just nothing else like it on TV right now
The thing is, I’m not sure what we can reasonably compare Into the Badlands to. Sure, it’s firmly in the SFF genre, but its peculiar mix of post-apocalyptic and feudal influences (It’s loosely adapted from the Chinese classic Journey to the West) is pretty unique. It’s also bright and beautiful, filled with vivid and heavily saturated colors, excellent costumes, and amazing hair and makeup. It’s an original concept with a highly creative and recognizable style.
The story isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s well done, nicely acted, and cleverly plotted over the six episodes of the first season. Admittedly, the first couple of episodes feel more full of potential than greatness, but I appreciate that the show doesn’t condescend to its audience. Events unfold in a natural progression, plot developments never feel forced or contrived, and there are several genuine surprises, especially in the back half of the season, that make the material feel fresh.
Watch it. ASAP. And then let AMC know that we want more of it.