The Shannara Chronicles: “Warlock” and “Amberle” are a mixed bag of set up for the season finale

This week’s pair of episodes don’t match as well as last week’s and not as consistent in quality, but by the end of the second one it seems as if the likely outline of the season finale is taking shape. That’s not to say the show has gotten predictable, however. There were several genuine surprises in “Warlock” and “Amberle,” and if those surprises don’t necessarily make me think the show is turning over an ambitious new leaf in terms of upending tropes and breaking out of storytelling conventions, they do make me wary of making too many predictions for the final two episodes of the season (and, let’s be real, possibly the series) that will be airing next week. “Warlock” is definitely the weaker of these episodes; it’s plot-focused and shallow, at times feeling like a run-on sentence of happenings, whereas “Amberle” has a strong central theme and packs some emotional punch. Together, though, they make up another solid couple of hours of high fantasy entertainment, without some of the lows that characterized the show’s first season, even if they don’t reach any new heights.

**Spoilers ahead.**

In Leah

“Warlock” is all about the aftermath of last week’s events, so it picks up right where “Crimson” left off, giving us another angle on Lyria’s crashed wedding and Ander’s death. Queen Tamlin gives Lyria her enormous necklace, which we learn is the Key to Heaven’s Well, the place we learned about last week that is the source of magic in the Four Lands, and then sends Lyria out through some of Leah’s hidden tunnels with Eretria and the advice to go find Cogline, who will know what to do with the Key. Tamlin, along with Slanter and Garet Jax, is captured by General Riga, and she is pissed about it. The first thing Riga does having captured the human kingdom is make a big show of unceremoniously dumping Ander’s body off the top of the city. He then gives Tamlin and the others an opportunity to confess what he claims are their crimes. When Tamlin refuses to recognize Riga’s authority, he plans to execute her (and Jax and Slanter, presumably) at sunset.

There’s a nice, if unsubtle scene in Leah’s jail before the execution where Tamlin, hair loose and flowing, dressed in pristine white and without her normal dramatic makeup, reflects on the mistakes of her youth and the events that have led her to this moment. The imagery is heavy-handed, but it’s still nice to see that there’s more to Tamlin than self-serving scheming. It’s obvious here that she does love her daughter, after all, and the scene touches upon the difficulties Tamlin faced as a young, ambitious queen with a thesis statement about the perennial problem with “good intentions.” There’s nothing groundbreaking here, and the truth is that the show did Tamlin a disservice early on by portraying her as so unambiguously villainous. This Tamlin, self-critical and regretful, isn’t an impossible turnaround for the character, but without more balance in her earlier portrayal, her sentiments in this episode feel a little shallow and unearned.

Tamlin’s love for her daughter comes off as a bit too little too late, and it’s very apparent in Tamlin’s final scenes that her primary motivation has always been her people rather than family. Sure, she tasks Garet Jax with finding and protecting Lyria, and Jax and Slanter’s later liberation makes that possible (though we don’t see it this week), but this week is all about Tamlin both doing what is necessary to protect her people and being true to herself as a queen and a woman. Her decision, in the end, to leap from the top of Leah’s waterfall rather than allowing Riga to shove her off is powerful and exactly the sort of thing we can expect from the proud queen. The overall emotional impact of the moment could have been stronger if Tamlin had been written with more nuance all the way through the season, but it’s nevertheless a perfectly fitting end for her.

Lyria, Eretria and Cogline

Eretria and Lyria make it to Cogline’s bunker fairly easily, but Cogline is still nowhere to be found. I liked the conversation the two young women have as they arrive, where Lyria is upset and shaken by what happened in Leah and Eretria reassures her and promises to help Lyria win back her kingdom. I don’t see how they’re going to truly have the time to actually do that with just two episodes left in the season, but it’s not often (or ever) that we get to see this set of fantasy tropes play out between two women on television. It’s a refreshing change from usual norms and a reminder of how important and valuable this show’s diverse representation is in the landscape of mainstream TV fantasy.

Before they can retake Lyria’s kingdom, however, the women must part ways again. While waiting for Cogline to return, they fall asleep, and Eretria has another vision of Amberle, who tells her to get Wil and bring him to the Ellcrys, reiterating that Wil is the only one who can defeat the Warlock Lord and save the Four Lands. It’s about this time that Cogline shows up, and he proposes to take Lyria (and the Key to Heaven’s Well) back to his enclave, where they’ll go into hiding while Eretria goes after Wil.

Mareth & Allanon in Storlock

Wil and Mareth have brought the injured druid to Storlock only to find that the gnome healers there don’t have any way of helping him. Allanon is in a coma, and Mareth is furious at Wil; she trusted him, and now Bandon has the Warlock Lord’s skull, her father is dying, and they don’t know what to do to save him. It’s not a terrible way to introduce some tension into Wil and Mareth’s relationship, but their whole romance—such as it is—feels a little forced and rushed. It’s not that the two of them don’t have chemistry, and they do a better job this week of actually showing their attraction to each other, but they can’t go half an episode without a crisis occurring. It’s not been the best time to be forming a romantic attachment. And, by the way, Wil is still hung up on Amberle enough that they dedicate and entire episode to his coming to terms with the loss of her.

“Warlock,” however, deals primarily with Mareth’s relationship with Allanon, and it’s a mixed bag. Allanon has hidden the Codex of Paranor in Storlock, and one of the gnomes brings it to Wil and Mareth with the idea that they may find something in its pages that will help the druid, and, sure enough, Mareth comes up with a plan. She’s going to enter Allanon’s dreams and try to draw him out of the coma that way. Wil isn’t entirely on board with the idea, especially when he finds out that, if Allanon dies while Mareth is in his dreams, Mareth will die as well, but it’s not really up to him. Fortunately, Mareth finds Allanon in the dream world pretty easily, but he won’t return to the land of the living with her right away. He has to commune with someone: his mentor, Bremen, whose shade Allanon summons out of a gloomy CGI lakescape.

This is where things take a silly turn, as Bremen reveals that the next druid that Allanon ought to have been looking for was never Bandon. Instead, it was Mareth all along, and Allanon has to train her to take over as druid. None of this is especially badly written; it’s just slightly absurd, mostly because it’s all a bit too convenient, the sort of storytelling coincidence that is just a hair too coincidental for proper suspension of disbelief. It’s common in low brow fantasy, so it’s pretty much to be expected in this show, but still. It’s a bit much, and the developments in Allanon and Mareth’s relationship—namely their sudden extreme closeness—feel sudden and unearned, not to mention shallow and emotionally manipulative of the audience. I want to see Mareth get a druid sword and a positive relationship with her dad as much as the next person, but after Allanon’s earlier antipathy it’s hard to buy his sudden turnaround of feeling.

Considering how shallow this storyline really is, I would have much preferred a training montage to the scenes of Mareth and Allanon talking about their feelings that we actually get in “Amberle.” They’re thematically on point, riffing off the episode’s larger concerns about identity and connection and the value of family, but the best part of all this material is Mareth’s epic eyeroll when Allanon lectures her about her attachment to Wil. Allanon is insistent that a druid shouldn’t have personal attachments, that it makes them weak, but his own attachments constantly shape his decisions and he’s forced in “Amberle” to really reckon with that fact when Riga finds them in Storlock and Allanon has to choose between protecting the knowledge held in the Codex of Paranor and saving the daughter he’s come to love.

In the end, Allanon’s choice to try and save Mareth is in vain; it leaves Riga with the Codex, and Allanon and Mareth end the episode tied to a stake with fire licking at their feet. It’s the final image of “Amberle,” but it ends up feeling both overwrought and melodramatic. While Allanon’s number seems likely to be up by the end of the season, it seems highly unlikely that Mareth will die, especially right after her being revealed as the next in line to the throne of Arborlon as well as the next druid. To kill her off at this point would be an act of grimdarkness that I just don’t think this show has in it. Certainly, I hope the show doesn’t have that in it. Most likely, Allanon and Mareth will be rescued in the nick of time in the next episode, which is fine, but it just makes this whole saga feel remarkably low stakes. This isn’t helped, either, by the fact that there’s no obvious savior for them, which suggests that they’re going to be rescued by some extremely unlikely coincidence. It’s predictable and trite, a downside of writing that adheres so strongly to well-worn fantasy tropes.

Wil and Amberle (and Eretria)

Neither Wil nor Eretria have much to do in “Warlock,” where Wil spends most of his time wringing his hands over Mareth’s decisions as she tries to help Allanon. Once Eretria shows up to deliver Amberle’s message, there’s some conversation about that, but this still isn’t exactly a thing that happens. Wil expresses skepticism about going to see the Ellcrys; when he visited in the past, he was unable to reach Amberle that way, and he’s still carrying around a lot of pain and resentment over this. Wil’s journey in “Amberle” is an internal one where he must come to terms with the loss of Amberle as well as wrestle with his feelings about his own heroic destiny. The journey into the Ellcrys, Wil’s conversation with Amberle on the beach, and the mending of the Sword of Shannara all work together to effectively convey the importance of Wil’s character growth, both to him personally and to the story as a whole.

While the show is sometimes guilty of relying on lazy narrative shorthand techniques in order to make its points, they’ve done a nice job with seeding and developing this emotional arc for Wil. Also, and importantly, Austin Butler has grown as an actor since season one, and he’s well up to carrying the weight of this material. It’s an altogether well-conceived and nicely executed character-focused story. This season began with introducing a whole host of new characters, and it’s been a struggle at times to balance the needs of the new characters with the story that was begun in season one. The loss of Poppy Drayton as Amberle has been deeply felt, and Wil and Eretria have spent most of the season apart from each other, so this episode, focused as it is on these core characters, is an important piece of continuity that helps to tie this season together with the first one.

While Wil is busy inside the Ellcrys, Eretria goes to hunt for the missing Chosen and finds them captured by Crimson soldiers. There’s a completely random and uncalled-for rape threat by one of the soldiers against one of the Chosen, which is upsetting. The show has done so much legwork to highlight how misguided the Crimson are in their quest to purge magic from the Four Lands that its unnecessary to heap sexual violence on the pile of why they’re the bad guys. In any case, Eretria comes to the rescue, but she and the Chosen are only chased down again by the remaining Crimson. This time, it’s a mord wraith that seems to come to their aid before it dives into Eretria. When Wil finds her later, he asks after the Chosen; Eretria seems confused about what has happened, but the audience is shown that the Chosen have been murdered.

It’s obvious that Eretria doesn’t have much control over the wraiths, and that seems likely to figure largely in the next couple episodes, though this may be my least favorite storyline of the season. It feels contrived and superfluous compared to the show’s other plots, and they’ve struggled all season long to keep Eretria occupied with stuff to do that feels consequential. Even the massacre of the Chosen doesn’t feel like a meaningful betrayal (likely because this is the first time we’ve seen or heard of the Chosen this season), and the episode ends before we can tell anything about how Eretria feels about it.

Bandon and the Warlock Lord

Bandon arrives at Graymark early in “Warlock” and by the end of the episode he’s succeeded in resurrecting the Warlock Lord there. In a somewhat silly turn, the Warlock Lord is also played by Manu Bennett, so he’s basically Allanon’s evil twin, a production decision that is either kind of genius or profoundly lazy. Though the Warlock Lord seems unhappy in “Amberle” about being stuck in Allanon’s flesh, there doesn’t seem to be any in-world explanation for why that would be the case, and Bandon’s as surprised as anyone about it. It’s weird, and I would say that I’m always happy to see more of Manu Bennett’s beautiful face, except we don’t get to see much of it, buried as it is under makeup and piercings.

There’s also not much time to dwell upon it because Bandon has an almost immediate request. It’s not at all clear how he got it, but Bandon somehow managed to get his hands on Catania’s body and he wants the Warlock Lord to resurrect her. Simple enough, we learn, as the Warlock Lord brings Catania back to life only for her to freak out because what worse nightmare could there be than to find out that her abusive, attempted-rapist ex-boyfriend summoned an ancient evil so he could have you brought back to life because he somehow things this is the way to win your love? Poor, poor Catania. I’m not sure what’s worse: that this has happened to her at all or that it’s framed as being more about Bandon’s feelings than hers. This horror show only gets more awful when the Warlock Lord turns her into a zombie in order to make a similar point to Bandon as the one Allanon tries to make to Mareth re: attachments.

What’s more frustrating than anything else here is the way in which the show almost, maybe halfway, recognizes that Bandon has treated Catania atrociously. We can see the way they have Catania react to waking up from death to find herself in Bandon’s clutches, and her reaction isn’t painted as unreasonable or cruel. However, it’s also not really engaged with because this storyline isn’t about Catania at all. She’s just an object in Bandon’s story, although I’m not sure what lesson Bandon or the audience is supposed to take from this week’s developments. There’s definitely a sort of “I’ve made a huge mistake” vibe to Bandon’s interactions with the Warlock Lord, and we can see that Bandon has definitely gone Too Far in his quest for, well, whatever he wants. Previously, I would have said that Bandon wanted revenge against a world that he feels has treated unfairly and against Allanon, personally, because it’s been Allanon’s choices and actions that have had perhaps the most significant negative impact on Bandon’s life so far (outside of Bandon’s own choices, obviously). Here, it seems we’re supposed to believe that it’s Bandon’s deep love and desire for Catania that has motivated him, but that isn’t very well-supported by the previous seven episodes of material. It’s a real problem when a major villain’s motivations are this opaque.

Riga

It’s also a real problem when a major villain gets his head unexpectedly ripped off with two episodes left in the season. General Riga seemed like a real, credible threat for most of eight episodes only to be unceremoniously killed the very first time he met the Warlock Lord, and it was a huge surprise. Unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising in a good way. I can see how this supports the main thesis of the season, that magic isn’t good or evil and that good magic is necessary in the world to fight and protect against evil magical forces, but Riga’s death robs the character of the chance to redeem himself, even in a small way. Riga himself had a sort of magic—in his immunity to other magics—and I’d have liked to see him learn from his mistakes and get a chance to use his own power in the service of something good. Instead, his unceremonious death feels like a punchline more than anything else, with any audience members who have gotten attached to him or invested in him as a character being the butt of the “joke.”

Miscellany:

  • Riga has an informant in Storlock, but he only shows up once in “Warlock,” for a split-second creeping on Wil and Mareth. We then see him being paid by Riga for providing information in “Amberle.” It’s a weird choice, but I guess Riga has to find out about Allanon’s location and the Codex of Paranor somehow.
  • I love that there’s no sense of competition or jealousy between Eretria and Mareth. I had worried early in the season that Mareth and Lyria could be shuffled off in favor of Wil and Eretria as the show’s endgame pairing, but scenes like the friendly interaction between Eretria and Mareth in this episode make me hopeful that this isn’t the case.
  • While Wil’s storyline in “Amberle” works overall, I’m not entirely sold on the necessity of Wil’s visions. Partly, this is because the show has been unclear about how visions work. They don’t seem to be true visions of the future, and the way Wil’s visions function in the narrative here is more like just garden variety feelings of self-doubt. His fear of failure and worries about consequences make sense, but presenting those feelings as premonitory visions doesn’t actually add to their emotional impact. Rather, it ends up adding a new layer to the show’s already complex and nearly incoherent mythology.
  • Similarly complicating the show’s mythology is the situation with Allanon’s runes. Apparently, that’s where druids store their magic power, and his are fading and/or transferring to Mareth over the course of her training. It’s a successful, if heavy-handed, visual symbol of Allanon’s waning power, but it also comes a bit out of nowhere to add another detail to the show’s already unwieldy magic system.

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