The Shannara Chronicles: “Paranor” and “Crimson” are a new high point for the series

The thing I love most about The Shannara Chronicles is how unabashedly it is what it is. It doesn’t put on airs or pretend at depth that it doesn’t have, and it’s pretty consistently fun and entertaining. Season 1 of the show was a little erratic in terms of quality, but Season 2 has been stronger and more reliably good every week. This week’s back-to-back episodes, “Paranor” and “Crimson,” work so well together that it finally feels as if the show is really hitting its stride, both narratively—with genuinely good, if not terribly innovative, storytelling—and creatively—being full of fantastic costumes and set dressings and with multiple excellently choreographed fight scenes. While the show still has its fair share of silly subplots and iffy character beats, the world of Shannara is finally starting to feel as big and lived in as it needs to be in order to support the enormous amount of story being told. (And it really is a wild amount of story in these two episodes.)

Let’s dig in.

**Spoilers ahead.**

Mareth, Wil, & Allanon at Paranor

It’s probably best to understand these episodes as a single two-part story, and this is nowhere clearer than in the parts that take place at the old druid stronghold, where Wil, Mareth and Allanon have traveled to rescue Wil’s uncle Flick from Bandon. This story takes up the majority of screen time across both episodes, and it’s the most complete of the two major storylines this week. (The other ends on something of a cliffhanger.) It’s also the riskier of the two storylines, with a time travel plot that I was highly skeptical of when I heard about it, but I have to admit now that it worked much better than I expected.

So, Wil, Mareth and Allanon arrive at Paranor, but before they head in, Allanon decides that Mareth can’t in because he doesn’t fully trust her. Wil isn’t thrilled about this, but he accepts it because he’s anxious to save Flick and they don’t have much time left. Time and trust are the main themes of this storyline this week, and those things become even more important when Wil and Allanon meet with Bandon inside Paranor. Bandon doesn’t trust them to give him the Warlock Lord’s skull, so he cuts Flick’s face with his evil magic sword, infecting the older man with a disease that only Bandon can cure in order to ensure that Wil and Allanon deliver on their promise. They aren’t happy about this turn of events, but Allanon does some magic that reveals the skull in a small chamber. Once Bandon is in the chamber as well, however, the skull disappears and a door closes, trapping both men in a magical prison. It turns out the skull was only one of Mareth’s illusions and that she and Allanon planned this from the beginning, with leaves Wil feeling angry and betrayed; Bandon is still the only one who can cure Flick’s disease, and he’s firm on being unwilling to do it until the skull is in his hands.

Fortunately, there’s still a way for them to get the skull, but it requires the blood of a druid and a Shannara to open the way, and it has to be done without Allanon, who is very against this plan. Allanon still doesn’t believe Mareth is his daughter, but she’s able, with Wil, to activate the device that will take them to the Warlock Lord’s skull. What they don’t expect is for the device to take them back in time to the village of Shady Vale before Wil’s birth, where they meet Wil’s parents, Shea and Heady, who are the key to finding where the skull is hidden. By the time Wil and Mareth return to Paranor with the skull, Flick is in bad shape and Allanon has started to age and weaken while trapped in the magic prison with Bandon. When Bandon is set free, he still refuses to heal Flick before getting the skull, which leaves him and Wil at an impasse that’s broken when the dying Flick impales himself on Bandon’s sword. Wil and Bandon fight, Mareth tries to use her illusions to hide the skull, the Sword of Shannara shatters, Allanon is injured and Bandon manages to escape with the skull, leaving the rest of them to mourn for Flick.

It’s a busy couple of episodes, especially for Wil and Mareth. I expect the time travel plot won’t be popular with devoted fans of the books, if there are any of those still watching the show at this point, but I rather liked it. There’s nothing groundbreaking being done here, and there are times when Wil and Mareth seem confused about whether they are in a hurry or not (they spend a lot of time saying they have to hurry), but it’s nonetheless an overall likable interlude. Wil initially wants to change the past and prevent the suffering he knows is in store for Shea, but Mareth nips that idea in the bud and they mostly focus on finding the Warlock Lord’s skull. The interactions between Wil and his parents (his mother, Heady, appears in these episodes as well) are a little cheesy at times and hit basically all the expected emotional beats, though the tone is kept light enough that it never becomes maudlin. The parallels between Wil and Shea as the reluctant heroes of their respective generations are nicely portrayed, and this whole adventure provides a great opportunity for us to see just how much Wil has changed and matured since we first met him in season one.

If I have one quibble about the time travel storyline—aside from the inconsistency over whether or not Wil and Mareth are supposed to be rushing to find the skull—it’s the introduction of Mareth’s crush on Wil. On the one hand, it’s cute to have it pointed out by Shea, and I’m not opposed to the idea of Wil and Mareth together. I ship it, truly. On the other hand, the show has not done nearly enough groundwork for that romance. Also, book readers know that Wil and Eretria end up together, and the show has always felt a bit as if that pairing was going to be endgame, so I’m concerned about what a Wil/Mareth pairing could mean in that context. It’s fine if the show wants to go in a different direction than the books, but it would be infuriating to have to watch Mareth have unrequited feelings or, worse, to see her fridged or otherwise conveniently disposed of to make room for the endgame ship later on. If they’re serious about Wil and Mareth, however, the relationship needs more room to develop. The pair have been constantly on the move and dealing with crises since they met, and the addition of even a couple of quiet, romantic moments, especially if they showed us more about Mareth, would go a long way toward making this relationship work.

While Wil and Mareth are time traveling, Allanon has to deal with Bandon and Flick, two men who both bear grudges against him that are at least partially justified. Bandon has ceded his moral high ground by trying to resurrect ancient evil, but Flick’s grievance against Allanon is real and definitely calls into question Allanon’s tactics and his history with the Shannara family. It’s always been clear that Allanon sees himself as a hero, protecting the world from evil and preserving the secrets and magic of the druids in order to do good, but this season has really been all about picking apart at that self-image and forcing Allanon to reckon with his past and be accountable for his recent and current actions. Here, he’s confronted, again, by Bandon, but it’s Flick’s indictment that carries real emotional weight this week. Allanon’s sad assertion that “some are born for sacrifice” isn’t very comforting to Flick as he lays dying, and the juxtaposition of Flick’s final act of selflessness with a younger Allanon arriving in Shady Vale and meeting a very young Flick right as Wil and Mareth are leaving is a thoughtful and powerful way of bringing this emotional arc full circle.

Eretria, Garet Jax, Lyria & the Crimson

The episode opens with Eretria and Garet Jax running from Queen Tamlin’s guards. Jax has something important to do elsewhere, so he peels off and leaves Eretria to fight off several guards on her own. It’s a reasonably impressive fight that ends when Cogline shows up to help. It’s a bit of plot convenience theater, but Eretria is happy to see her friend, hoping that he’ll go to Paranor with her to help Wil. Cogline has other ideas, however. He needs to see Queen Tamlin, though it turns out to be mostly for expository purposes. We learn that Cogline is an ex-druid who uses both science and magic, and, more pertinently, we learn more about Tamlin’s deal with the Warlock Lord: she promised him access to “Heaven’s Well,” a place that is the source of a major river but also a source of magic, and there’s basically no chance that the Warlock Lord isn’t going to expect Tamlin to deliver.

After warning Tamlin about the Warlock Lord, Cogline takes Eretria to an abandoned bunker for more exposition, this time about Eretria and her past. We learn that Eretria’s mysterious tattoo signifies that she’s one of “Armageddon’s Children,” a demon hybrid, and this makes her both potentially powerful and vulnerable to corruption by the Warlock Lord. Cogline has brought her to the bunker, where he’s imprisoned one of the less powerful mord wraiths, so Eretria can train herself to command demons and to resist the influence of the Warlock Lord. I don’t recall any of this stuff from any of the Shannara books I read fifteen to twenty years ago, so I’m pretty sure this is wholly new mythology invented for the show. It’s fine, I guess. It essentially sidelines Eretria for an episode and a half, disconnecting her from all the other characters, but it also provides her with a history that ties her intimately to the war between good and evil in the Four Lands and creates an internal conflict for her to wrestle with going forward. There’s nothing particularly special about any of her scenes in these two episodes, but this is a set-up that ought to pay off well later in the season.

After splitting up with Eretria, Garet Jax goes to visit the family of one of his dead Border Patrol men. While it’s been some time since he’s been there, it’s apparently his habit to support the family as much as he can, and he’s brought some money for them. While he’s inside talking to the widow, however, her son is playing outside only to be captured and murdered by General Riga’s lieutenant, Valcca, who has tracked Jax to the little house by the seaside. The death of the little boy is a senseless bit of grimdark for the sake of grimdarkness, but it does motivate Jax to capture Valcca and take him back to Leah, where Jax bonds with Slanter and the now-engaged Lyria and Ander over torturing Valcca for information.

Things take a wrong turn when Valcca manages to escape before Lyria and Ander’s wedding, but Tamlin sends Jax out to hunt Valcca. Jax catches up to Valcca quickly, but Valcca has already reconnected with Riga. The two Crimson men easily defeat Jax, and Riga tells Valcca to “take care of” Jax for good. Before Valcca can kill the bounty hunter, though, Jax wakes up and kills him instead. Then Jax leaves to, we quickly learn, find Eretria, who has been left alone with the mord wraith in the bunker. Jax shows up just in time to see Eretria kill the creature, and he whisks her away so they can try to warn Tamlin about Riga.

“Crimson” ends with the royal wedding in Leah, and it’s so dramatic. Right as Ander and Lyria are about to say their vows, the priest whips his hood off and it’s General Riga, which kicks off a major battle with everyone in their wedding clothes. Ander and Riga square off, but the elf king is mortally wounded almost right off. Lyria picks up a sword and tries to fight Riga, but she’s a small woman in a ballgown and no match for a seasoned fighter half again her size. Garet Jax and Eretria show up right at the last minute and just in time to see Lyria almost get killed by Riga, but Ander manages to use his final burst of strength to save her. The episode ends with Ander dying while a chaotic battle still rages on.

Miscellany:

  • Wil’s “condolences” to Mareth on it being proved that Allanon is her father was a perfect moment.
  • I really appreciate that the group of guards that Eretria fights in the beginning of the episode are a mix of men and women. It’s such a simple thing that there’s really no excuse for shows like this not to do.
  • It was nice that Catania got to have a memorial, though it’s a bit too little too late to make her murder feel really emotionally consequential, especially as the show moves right past it to Lyria and Ander committing to a political marriage.
  • Why does Lyria’s actual wedding dress look so wildly different than the one Tamlin was having made before the wedding? Like, it’s a gorgeous dress, either way, but it was significantly different.
  • Meanwhile, Slanter has no nice clothes at all, I guess.
  • Everyone is having visions these days: Shea has visions of the future, Wil has visions when he returns to Paranor, and Eretria has a short vision when she kills the mord wraith in the bunker.
  • How great can the Sword of Shannara be if it just shatters like that?
  • I’m gonna be pissed if Allanon dies.

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