The Shannara Chronicles: “Pykon” is an unnecessary, derivative slog of a detour

In “Pykon,” our heroes are diverted through some mountains in search of a kind of shortcut through an old Elven fortress. Meanwhile, Arion is entirely taken in by the Changeling, who is posing as the presumably dead Eventine, and Ander is gallivanting rather uselessly around the countryside with his ex-girlfriend and a gnome. One major issue with the episode is that these storylines barely seem to have anything to do with each other, and there’s a total lack of thematic cohesion between them. Unfortunately, that glaring issue of craft is basically the least of the hour’s problems.

“Pykon” starts off with a train wreck, giving the viewer a creepily voyeuristic view of Amberle’s sex dream about Wil. It’s a lens flare monstrosity from which she is abruptly woken from by her attempted rapist, who is apparently just a regular member of the group now. No big deal. I’m not sure what the most infuriating thing about this is because it’s so much grossness crammed into such a short amount of time. In any case, the idea that actual rapist Cephalo is just roaming around free like a normal person who didn’t just try to rape Amberle last week had me spitting mad before the episode even properly started. I could see bringing him along as a potentially useful prisoner or as a way to keep him from following behind and causing trouble, but he shouldn’t get to have banter within two days of being shown to be an actual rapist who actually attempted to rape a main character who we’re supposed to identify with.

Not only is Cephalo a free man, but he’s practically the leader of the group this week. His opinions dictate pretty much every decision made by the party, starting with the decision to go to Pykon. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, though. He kidnapped and tried to rape Amberle. He’s stolen Wil’s elfstones multiple times. And he owned Eretria, with the heavy implication that he was physically and likely sexually abusive towards her, and he has threatened her life on numerous occasions. Crispin the elf guard quite sensibly doesn’t trust him, at least, but literally no one gives a shit about what Crispin thinks about anything at all. In the end it gets Crispin killed and the rest of the party betrayed by Cephalo, who proves—to no one’s surprise—that he only cares about himself.

The thing is, I get the feeling that this is supposed to parallel the much better written stuff that happens this week with Ander, Commander Tilton, and Slanter, who are on their way to the Breakline to find out if there really is a demon army amassing there. En route, they come across a small group of gnomes who have been slaughtered by demons, underscoring the fact that the Dagda Mor and his forces aren’t just a problem for the elves; they threaten everyone. Slanter requests that he be allowed to say last rites for his people, and the soft-hearted Ander removes his chains only to have Slanter promptly turn on him and abscond with the horses, leaving the two elves alone so they can talk about their feelings. Unlike Cephalo, however, Slanter isn’t a complete monster of a person, so when he sees that there actually is a huge army, he comes running back and there’s something of an alliance forged between the elven prince and the gnome.

This whole sequence is surprisingly smart and well-executed, with some good character growth for Ander and a nice amount of backstory that helps to explain his relationship with Commander Tilton, but it’s not enough to redeem the rest of the episode. Mostly, though, it just doesn’t really work as a counterpoint to the Cephalo stuff because Cephalo is so irredeemable. Slanter isn’t exactly a great dude, but it could be argued (pretty successfully) that his killing of Aine Elessidel was a more or less fair act of war. Cephalo is just a really shady guy (and a rapist and slaver). The idea that two once-warring factions could bury the hatchet after many years makes a lot more sense than the idea that a young woman is going to follow her attempted rapist into low-budget Caradhras for a shortcut that may not even exist.

Which brings me to that little adventure. Listen, we all know that the Shannara stories have been, from the very beginning, a shameless rip-off of Lord of the Rings. The Sword of Shannara is practically a scene for scene rewrite of The Fellowship of the Ring, and all the subsequent books have been similarly, if not quite so absurdly, derivative. So far, the show had managed to avoid inviting too many direct comparisons between itself and LOTR, but in “Pykon” they seem to have just said, “Fuck it! Let’s go full Tolkien!” There’s the trip through the mountains in a blizzard, the seemingly abandoned edifice, the escape over a chasm, from a monster made of fire and smoke, who kills a party member, before falling down the crevasse, pulling people with it. The only new flourishes are the obvious queerbaiting and gratuitous torture scenes.

Let’s talk about Eretria and Amberle in the bath. First, I have to say that I am totally here for bisexual Eretria. I actually kind of love that idea, and it would be interesting to see the relationship between these two women develop in that direction if there was time to do it. However, that’s not what this is. This is just titillating filler that wastes time that could have been spent on, oh, something like an actual conversation between Amberle and Eretria to cement their newfound and rather fragile alliance. Worse, this scene isn’t even particularly sexy. It’s not that the two women don’t have any chemistry, but it’s a decidedly PG-13 show that isn’t actually interested in really exploring sexual tension between women; the scene is shot even more voyeuristically than the episode’s opening dream sequence, and it’s interrupted by a weird noise (perhaps from the creepy voyeur whose point of view we’re observing from) that is never actually explained. It really is just a “sexy” interlude thrown in for, well, who knows why this show does the things it does?

It turns out that, of course, the creepy guy that they find at Pykon is a torturer with a serious grudge against Amberle’s grandfather. Or something. It doesn’t really matter because he’s just a roadblock to give the characters something to do while the Reaper from last week recharges—because, goodness knows, we wouldn’t want to feel like there was too much forward movement. This tendency to reuse monsters and recycle situations is further confirmed by what happens to Amberle inside Pykon. When the whole group is drugged and imprisoned, Amberle tries to pull rank, using her status as a princess to try and convince Remo to release them, but it backfires. In a near-repeat of last week’s events, Amberle finds herself separated from the group, this time to be both sexually menaced and tortured—again needing to be rescued, this time by Wil, who is rewarded with a kiss. Because nothing gets Amberle’s motor running like the threat of being lobotomized and forcibly impregnated, I guess.

I never did expect The Shannara Chronicles to be particularly good, but I did think the show would be an entertaining and lighter alternative to heavier fantasy fare like Game of Thrones. However, week after week this show is squandering good will and frittering away its potential by doing its best to imitate the worst qualities of its grittier counterpart. At over halfway through the season, I figure I might as well watch the rest of it, but I have a feeling I won’t be happy about it. I guess I should just be happy that The Shannara Chronicles showed its true colors before I got five seasons invested into it. At this point, Shannara is going to have to do something really good to get me to subject myself to a season two.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I can’t reiterate enough that Cephalo is an actual rapist, not a lovable rogue.
  • If Pykon was used within the last twenty years as an active military installation, why are the elves skeptical that it exists?
  • Why did Mag have to die? Sure, a child is inconvenient on a quest, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea this show ever had, and I rather liked her interactions with Wil.
  • Arion’s daddy issues and conflict with Allanon are potentially interesting, but get bogged down this week by having to share time with Catania and Bandon, who are the most superfluous of all superfluous characters.

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