Into the Badlands: Sunny’s absence lets the show shine some light on other characters in “Palm of the Iron Fox”

After last week’s relatively slow episode and its extremely frustrating ending, “Palm of the Iron Fox” provides quite a lot of payoff, though it’s not without its own frustrations. I’m glad that we finally get to see the Barons’ conclave, but there’s a major plot event that feels somewhat abrupt, especially this early in the season. Veil finally gets a plot that’s just hers, which might be my favorite thing about the episode, but I missed Sunny and Bajie this week, even if their absence works well to give the other plots, especially Veil’s, more space to breathe. As always, the fight scenes are well done, and the showpiece of the episode—the fight at the Barons’ conclave—is worth the wait.

**Spoilers below.**

Rather than just a pre-credits scene, this week there’s a rather long pre-credits sequence at Quinn’s underground compound, where Quinn’s making the final preparations to make his move against the other Barons. Veil, on the other hand, is clearly angling to get him to leave her alone in the compound with baby Henry because she wants to escape. Unfortunately, though Quinn doesn’t seem wise to Veil’s desire to leave, he is also too canny to leave her alone. He informs her that he’ll be leaving Edgar with her to be sure she’s “safe” and then goes to give a gloriously unhinged speech to his men. I know many reviewers like to criticize Marton Csokas’ accent as Quinn because it’s bizarre, but I genuinely love the over-the-top campy flair that Csokas brings to the role and it’s turned up to eleven here in an atmosphere that’s nothing short of cult-like.

Veil’s first escape attempt, once Quinn and the rest of the men leave, is to climb out through the roof of the ventilation room where she takes Henry for his daily dose of sunshine. Unfortunately, climbing up a rope while wearing an infant is harder than she seems to have anticipated and Edgar gets suspicious and comes to check on her before she’s out, putting an end to that plan. Later, Veil decides to drug Edgar and just go out the front door of the compound, but this too proves difficult. The gate to the outdoors is locked, and before Veil can break the lock Edgar wakes up and attacks her. He’s angry at being drugged and furious at what he sees as Veil’s betrayal of Quinn and the men, and he nearly strangles her to death before she’s able to fight him off and eventually kill him. Unluckily, a key that Veil managed to get away from Edgar has broken off in the gate’s lock, and when we see her last she seems to be still trapped underground, but now also traumatized, injured, and with Edgar’s dead body to explain if Quinn and company get back before she figures out another way to get away.

After spending the last couple episodes quietly making it clear that Veil wasn’t staying with Quinn of her own volition, it was nice to see Veil finally make her move to leave, but neither of her plans were fully thought out or explained very well. This ends up leading to some mixed messaging. On the one hand, Veil is explicitly portrayed as patient and methodical, willing to endure indignity and frustration to keep her child and herself safe. We’re also shown that she’s smart and resourceful and able to think quickly to avert disaster. On the other hand, she’s apparently not smart, resourceful or quick-thinking enough to make a success of either of her plans in this episode, and neither of those plans are particularly indicative of patience or of methodical planning. That said, Veil’s story this week ended on a little bit of a cliffhanger, with her collapsed and sobbing after fighting Edgar, so it’s still entirely likely that she’ll come up with some smart, resourceful, quickly-thought-up plan between now and the time Quinn gets home. Things are just uncertain enough that whatever happens next could shift the narrative and clarify the messaging we’re supposed to be getting about this character.

I’m also unsure how I feel about Veil killing Edgar. While, no doubt, even the gentlest person can probably kill in a fight for their life, Veil is the second woman this season (after Lydia) who has killed in self-defense after being characterized clearly as not a killer. Veil, for most of the show so far—and especially this season—has been a Penelope to Sunny’s Odysseus, not a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued (fortunately), but still a largely passive character whose agency in the story has been compellingly subtle up until now. In a show that has the ethics of murder as a major thematic concern, it has felt significant that Veil was so clearly not a killer. Even her refusal to treat Quinn’s tumor and her decision to keep his condition secret from him aren’t particularly murderous actions; it’s likely that Veil is simply without the means to cure the cancer, and it’s obvious how she benefits from using her status as his doctor to manipulate Quinn and ensure at least something akin to safety for herself and her child. At the same time, it also makes sense that Veil would want to escape; her situation with Quinn is tenuous at best. He might discover her ruse, he might go completely insane, he may die and leave her alone with a group of trained killers, at least some of whom still retain some hero worship of Sunny that may put her in a weird situation during any kind of power struggle.

Still, Veil killing Edgar feels out of character and unnecessarily tragic. Edgar seemed kind—though that is shown to be highly conditional—and seems to be one of Veil’s few friends and potential allies in this place. It’s possible that this is what is meant to be the real tragedy here—that a man who seemed so caring could so quickly turn on Veil and try to kill her, but if that was the case it’s muddled by the fact that he only turns on Veil after she poisons him (and does it knowing that he could be killed if Quinn returned to find Veil missing). While this, too, may all become less confused once we find out what Veil does next, it all just amounts to a failure of the fantasy morality of the show. It’s a show in which violence and killing are common—and commonly depicted with artful blood splatter as scores of nameless extras are slaughtered in battles between named antiheroes of various stripes—and life is decidedly cheap. Veil’s killing of Edgar is different, more personal and more ethically acceptable by real world standards, but it’s nonetheless hard to feel the full impact of it when ten minutes later we’re watching a gleefully wet bloodbath.

Finally, Veil’s purity, primarily expressed as nonviolence (even in resistance), and her penchant for healing rather than harming have been so essential to her character and to her dynamic with Sunny that her killing of Edgar feels like a despoiling event, complete with the lingering shot of baby Henry with Edgar’s blood splashed across his little face. There’s a sense here that, whatever happens next, Veil has been tainted by her experiences, and that it touches her baby as well. Considering the degree to which Veil’s resolute purity has always stood in contrast to Sunny’s corruption, it’s surely significant that Veil would find herself damaged just as Sunny has gotten well and truly started on his redemption arc (highlighted last week in his refusal to kill Nathaniel Moon).

The other major plotline of the episode concerns the Barons’ conclave that Ryder called for two weeks ago. This all opens with a scene of the Widow getting dressed for the actual event, which seems a little redundant since she just got to the estate, but okay. Waldo advises her to be fearless in a pep talk that is only just this side of insufferable mansplaining. I’m starting to wonder just how the Widow ever managed to become a Baron in the first place if she is as incompetent at politicking as Waldo treats her like she is. The only new Baron we’re introduced to at any length this week is Baron Chau, the only other woman Baron and a strict traditionalist, probably because she’s the Baron who is the source of all the cogs owned by the others. Chau offers her support to the Widow in exchange for a promise not to shelter any more runaway cogs, which the Widow at first balks at before being convinced by Waldo (natch) to take Chau’s offer. Still, it’s not enough, and when it comes time all five of the other Barons, Chau included, vote to strip the Widow of her title and banish her from the Badlands all together.

Just as an all-out battle royal is about to start, Quinn and his men show up to crash the party. This sends Ryder fleeing through a window with Quinn in pursuit, but it leaves the rest of the Barons free to fight amongst themselves in a cleverly conceived and gorgeously executed battle scene in which each Baron must rely on small weapons they were able to hide on their person and whatever they can improvise from what’s close at hand. The standout here is Waldo’s weaponized wheelchair, but Chau and the Widow trying to stab each other with their stiletto heels is pretty cool as well. Sadly, this fight is over almost too quickly when Tilda shows up to help her mother and Waldo even the odds a little. The other Barons flee while these three stand over a courtyard full of dead and dying clippers. Something tells me that the Widow isn’t going to abandon her lands without a fight, vote or no.

The second major emotional climax of the episode is Quinn’s final confrontation with Ryder. First, however, Quinn comes face to face with Jade, who begs Quinn for Ryder’s life. It’s an interesting moment for Jade, who has at times seemed cold and patronizing towards Ryder and is certainly a master manipulator of her husband, but who here seems truly desperate to save him from Quinn. It smartly complicates Jade’s character to have her love for Ryder be genuine, and not a moment too soon as she seems poised by the end of this episode to become a much bigger player over the rest of the season. Quinn is almost respectful towards Jade and ends up ignoring her to chase after Ryder, who has entered an enormous hedge maze.

The race through the maze ends in front of a statue of Laocoön that Quinn mistakes for Kronos, an intriguing classical allusion that I spent far more time than I’d like to admit today trying to figure out the symbolism of. It’s obvious that Quinn sees himself as Kronos, but it’s less clear what connection we’re supposed to draw between the story of Quinn and Ryder and the story of Laocoön and his sons. Even less clear than that is where either of these guys learned classics with no formal education. In any case, Quinn wants Ryder to kill him, while Ryder still just wants his dad to love him. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, and it does. In the end, Quinn is the one who ends up killing Ryder (or at least it looks like Ryder is dead) and immediately regretting it before running away. The final shot of the episode is Jade weeping over Ryder’s body as Quinn retreats. It’s a surprising and abrupt ending for a character who had seemed to be just at the beginning of his story.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • What’s the deal with the white streaks in so many people’s hair this week?
  • M.K. probably killed his mother himself, apparently, which would explain why he dissociated from it so much that he can’t remember what happened and it’s fractured his personality.
  • I missed Chipo Chung this week.
  • Are Tilda and Odessa getting flirty?
  • How, exactly, did Quinn get Gabriel into Ryder’s household as an inside man? When was this decision made? Quinn’s whole plan here is woefully underdeveloped.
  • I worry that we’re getting into “Strong Female Characters must be Buffy-style ass-kickers” territory with all the show’s women. Lydia having to kill in self-defense made a certain sense; Lydia was always fierce in a way that suggested that she had the potential for that, and that fierceness was at least part of why she left her father’s cult to begin with. Veil has always had other strengths, though. And with Ryder’s probable death at the end of this episode, it seems as if Jade may be being set up to become another Widow-type character. Part of what I’ve always loved about this show was that it had a decent variety of women with different types of strength. It would be a shame for that to change.

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