Tag Archives: Into the Badlands

Into the Badlands: “Monkey Leaps Through Mist” is a solid transitionary episode after last week’s big events

Sunny and Bajie are back this week, M.K. still doesn’t get much screen time, the Widow is reassessing her situation, a major character death is dealt with, and things are not going super well for Quinn. “Monkey Leaps Through Mist” is primarily an episode about regrouping after last week’s events, and, consequently, it feels relatively slower-paced, especially with only one fight scene. Still, there’s some good character work, a couple of surprises and the beginnings of what might be the show’s next major shake-up.

**Spoilers below.**

The pre-credits scene confirms Ryder’s death. I was pretty certain he was dead last week, but I was also pretty certain that Quinn was dead at the end of the show’s first season. Given this show’s tendency to the occasional soapy plotline, a fake-out wouldn’t have been terribly surprising. What is surprising, however, is the ease with which Jade takes up her husband’s title. Ryder’s regent, Merrick, administers Jade’s oath right over Ryder’s dead body, with no fuss at all. There is a slight tension to the moment, but only because viewers may be primed by years of pop culture consumption to expect a group of fighting men to reject the leadership of a woman. Personally, I appreciate the matter of fact subversion of that expectation, especially because it does seem so normal within the world of the show, or at least within this moment in that world.

The other thing that Jade accomplishes more easily than I would have expected this week is getting Lydia to work with her to avenge Ryder’s death. It makes sense that Lydia would want to kill Quinn for what he’s done—and even more sense when we learn that Lydia had always wanted more children but been unable to have them—but the arc leading Lydia to this feels unfinished. She hasn’t gotten much to do so far this season, and we’ve been shown that she isn’t exactly fitting in back with her father’s pacifist cult, but it still seems almost inexplicable that she would so quickly join with Jade, be given command of clippers (whether she knows where Quinn’s hideout is or not) and take up a sword to lead an attack. Fierce as Lydia is, there’s never been any inkling that she was a trained fighter and in fact we’ve only been shown that she’s quite capable of defending herself through sheer grit and has a willingness to kill when desperate. Which is something to build on, but this week’s developments are abrupt and somewhat disorienting. It’s easy enough to buy Jade’s elevation to Baron—she was always ambitious—but Lydia’s sudden shift from trying to make it work with her dad’s pacifists to leading the attack on Quinn is harder to justify as a natural character progression.

Sunny and Bajie arrive at a town that is controlled by a friendly acquaintance of Bajie’s, Nos, who trades in metal and sex slaves. They trade Nathaniel Moon’s sword for a way into the Badlands, but before they go they have to get through a night in Nos’s village. Bajie settles in well enough, enjoying the company of one of Nos’s Dolls, but Sunny is unsettled by it all, especially when he meets a little girl named Amelia and her mother Portia. Knowing that Amelia will soon be used as a Doll, Portia approaches Sunny to ask him to kill Nos, but he refuses. When Nos finds out about this, he cuts Portia’s face, and prepares to use Amelia sooner rather than later. This finally spurs Sunny into action, and he and Bajie manage to rescue Portia and Amelia before escaping in the vehicle Nos has provided to get them to the Badlands.

I liked this fight scene, but Sunny’s newfound set of rigidly (and stupidly) inflexible morals are going to get people killed. His proscription against killing for hire almost does get Portia killed this week, and he was willing to let a little girl be trafficked into sex slavery before killing an evil man. It doesn’t exactly speak well of where Sunny’s priorities are, and it’s not clear that he’s truly learned anything from this most recent experience. In the end, he still didn’t kill Nos, which leaves numerous other women and girls trapped in a terrible situation and sets up Nos to be a recurring adversary along with the Engineer and Nathaniel Moon, both of whom are still floating around somewhere and almost certainly wanting Sunny dead. This cycle is starting to get repetitive, but I’m encouraged by the fact that Sunny now knows that Quinn is alive and at least suspects that Veil may be with Quinn. It makes Sunny’s goal moving forward a little clearer. Now he just has to get there without trailing a bunch of pissed off murderous bastards behind him.

Elsewhere, Tilda is apologizing to her mother for disrupting the conclave. However, the Widow isn’t upset. She even praises Tilda’s instincts and encourages her to trust her gut feelings. The Widow is not happy with Waldo, though. Waldo advises that the Widow earn back the other barons’ good will by capturing or killing Quinn, but she’s having none of it. Instead, she says that she plans to ally with Quinn against the other barons, which seems like a completely terrible idea, but she basically tells Waldo that he needs to make it happen. I mean, honestly, this seems like the worst idea, and there’s not much attempt made to justify it in the text, either. It seems impulsive, which is in character for the Widow, but there’s no clear gain for her in allying with Quinn, who she doesn’t know well and who has turned into an unpredictable force of chaos. Granted, the Widow can’t have much of the information that the audience has about Quinn’s illness and deteriorating mental state, but that seems like even more reason for her to avoid him. Their opinions were never aligned before, so what on earth could she be thinking now?

Speaking of Quinn’s deteriorating mental state, he is not doing well following the murder of his son. He’s followed throughout the episode by visions of Ryder’s ghost, and ghost Ryder has lots to say, digging at every one of Quinn’s insecurities and fears until Quinn is having a full-on paranoid psychotic break and threatens to kill baby Henry until Veil is able to calm him down by reassuring him of her care and appreciation of him. It’s a week of close calls for Veil, who has already in this episode had to explain (and not very well) to Declan what happened to Edgar and why she’s hiding x-rays that still show Quinn having a tumor. All that tension leads, ultimately, to Veil’s newest escape attempt. When Lydia and her clippers show up, a booby trap goes off at the entrance to the underground compound, and Veil manages in the confusion to run out into the woods with Henry. It doesn’t take long for Quinn to notice she’s missing, though, and it remains to be seen how Veil’s latest gambit works out.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • “Peace through force and justice without mercy” might sound cool, but that’s no philosophy for an effective form of government.
  • I’m not convinced that it was really necessary to make such a big show about how vile Nos is, especially with Amelia. It was genuinely upsetting to watch.
  • When I first saw M.K. this week I thought perhaps he was rededicating himself to his studies. LOL. Nope.
  • Why is there a tree full of hanged men in the middle of the woods?

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.

Into the Badlands: “Red Sun, Silver Moon” is fascinating and frustrating

After a great season opener and a solid episode last week, “Red Sun, Silver Moon” is something of a letdown. It’s not a bad episode, and there are a couple of excellent scenes, but the whole thing feels decidedly slow-paced. This is mostly due to a major event teased in episode two not happening this week at all. “Red Sun, Silver Moon” is a lot of exposition and set-up with a deeply frustrating ending. The exposition is interesting, but it’s not particularly exciting for a full hour when you’re waiting on something else to happen.

**Spoilers ahead.**

Sunny and Bajie are still crossing the Outlying Territories, where apparently “everything is barren and windswept,” when they arrive at a bridge where their way is being blocked by a new character. Before we get a proper introduction, a group of bounty hunters show up—down ask where they came from—to try and capture or kill Sunny for the price that’s been put on his head. It’s nice to get a good fight scene in before the opening credits, but this is the most interesting thing that happens to Sunny this week. The new character, Nathaniel Moon (Westworld’s Sherman Augustus), is cool—an ex-Clipper with even more kill tattoos than Sunny (999 to Sunny’s 404)—but his purpose in the story is fairly predictable, and he never feels like a credible threat. That’s he’s left alive and missing a hand as Sunny and Bajie move on (with Bajie taking Nathaniel’s sword), likely means that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Nathaniel. I only hope that means better use will be made of him in the future.

Nathaniel Moon serves a couple of purposes in the episode and in Sunny’s overarching hero’s journey, a questing storyline that’s sometimes (like this week) a little too conventional for its own good. First, Nathaniel a barrier in Sunny’s path back to Veil, both literally and metaphorically. Like Odysseus, Sunny is finding himself side-tracked this season by other characters and events that demand his attention, and this week that’s Nathaniel Moon, who Sunny must physically best in order to move on to the next step of his journey. Secondarily, Nathaniel represents a version of Sunny himself, but a failed version with a fridged wife and son to function as a cautionary tale for Sunny, and in this sense Nathaniel exists to instill doubt in the hero. Nathaniel, grieving and broken and cynical as he is, is Sunny’s worst fear of what he could become if he doesn’t get back to Veil. The problem with this is that it is such an archetypal externalization of internal conflict that it’s not surprising or even particularly compelling. We even saw a similar, but more visually interesting, storyline play out with M.K. just last week, so it’s repetitive as well.

Speaking of M.K., this episode finds him still dissatisfied with his lack of progress at the Temple. The Master won’t let him back in the mirror room, advising him to stop fighting himself, which suggests that, whereas last week M.K. needed to conquer his darker side (and this week, Sunny needed to physically overcome a symbol of his own darkness and doubt), the Master’s ultimate goal for M.K. isn’t for the young man to beat his darker self into submission. Rather, M.K.’s goal should be a more holistic solution to his problems; he must reintegrate the fractured part of his personality in order to find wholeness and discover the answers to his questions about his past. M.K. doesn’t have the patience for this yet, though. Instead, kept awake by his anxious desire to be finished with the Temple, M.K. snoops around until he observes something frightening: the nomad boy, Tate, being tortured, which we find out from Ava is how the monks cleanse failed initiates of the gift. Instead of taking that information, heading back to bed and rededicating himself to his studies, M.K. asks Ava to leave the Temple with him.

At Quinn’s secret villain lair, which is still one of the coolest secret villain lairs I’ve seen in ages, Quinn is reading “Rumplestiltskin” to baby Henry when Veil tells him that it’s time for his x-ray. Perhaps unsurprisingly to the viewer, given his bizarre behavior, Quinn’s brain tumor is frighteningly large. We learn, however, that Veil has told him that the tumor is cured, although she’s still treating him with some kind of unusually blue potion that apparently just keeps his headaches under control. It’s an intriguing new shade of nuance added to the power dynamic between these two characters, and adds some nice depth to Veil, who can sometimes feel a little one-note. While last week it seemed as if she was primarily Quinn’s prisoner, here we see that if he’s guarding her very closely it’s because he’s actually extremely dependent upon her, both physically and—it seems—emotionally, though the show seems to have abandoned the idea from season one of Quinn having a sort of sexual obsession with Veil. Instead, we’re now getting something much weirder and more compelling. It’s going to be interesting to see which happens first—Quinn finding the real x-rays that Veil is just keeping in an unlocked drawer or Veil making her escape as its heavily implied she’s planning.

We first heard of Ryder calling for a conclave of barons last week, and I rather expected it to happen in this episode, but it doesn’t and it’s hugely anticlimactic. Instead of the conclave, we get a pre-conclave planning session with the Widow, Tilda and Waldo, which is at least a well-conceived and nicely acted scene, even if it is a huge disappointment to not see more forward movement in this storyline. The short story here is that the Widow isn’t taking her official Regent, Tilda, with her to the conclave; she’s taking Waldo, who has advantages of experience and knowledge that Tilda doesn’t. Tilda isn’t thrilled about this, but she’s mollified when her mother leaves her in charge, though the Widow’s “if I die, destroy the oil fields” feels worrisomely like foreshadowing, and I will burn some shit down if anything happens to her. The episode ends with the Widow and Waldo arriving at Ryder’s new mansion for the conclave, and things look bad. The place is absolutely crawling with clippers, the Widow and Waldo are unarmed, and Ryder and Jade look like murder is on their minds. Unfortunately, that’s it for this week, and now I have murder on my mind because that’s no way to end an episode.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I’m still slightly unclear on some things about the setting for this show. Like, I’m sure there are some rules for the worldbuilding, but I’m not at all certain what they are. That said, the monks’ secret science rooms are fascinating.
  • Sunny finally got a shave and a change of clothes, and holy shit Daniel Wu is a beautiful man.
  • I love Jade’s red eyeliner and dark red lip, but that dress is a little too matronly for a femme fatale look. Still, I’m digging the clash between her true red look and Ryder’s almost magenta suit. I have no idea how people in this kind of bonkers post-apocalypse are getting such great clothes, but the show’s costume designers do a great job of using costume to tell a story.

Into the Badlands: “Force of Eagles Claw” goes a little slow, but with an eye to the future

After last week’s excellent season premiere, “Force of Eagle’s Claw” slows things down a little and switches point of view less often for longer scenes and some quieter character work. Even the fight scenes this week were for the most part less flashy and even more utilitarian to the plot. It’s a good change of pace and provides an even fuller picture of the current state of affairs in the Badlands than we got last week. There’s a certain amount of unevenness, if only because Sunny and Bajie are so much more fun to watch than everything else, but it’s a solid episode, overall, that sets up some compelling options for the future of the show.

**Spoilers ahead.**

After being sold out to the Engineer last week, Sunny finds himself being prepped to fight to the death with Mouse for the privilege of being the Engineer’s new champion. He tries to refuse, stating that he doesn’t kill for others anymore, but he’s not being given an option. Instead, Sunny’s shackled to the treacherous Bajie and tossed into what passes for a fighting ring. Rather than staying and fighting for the Engineer’s entertainment, Sunny and Bajie flee up some stairs towards freedom, but they still have to fight their way out in a fight sequence that gets as bloody as I think this show has ever gotten when they escape through a huge fan and toss Mouse back into it, where the unfortunate man is practically vaporized into red spray all over the Engineer and his henchmen. As a fan of comic levels of gore, I appreciated this scene.

Sunny and Bajie finally escape the mines, but not without a vow from the Engineer that he’s not letting them go so easily. Nonetheless, the rest of their journey in this episode is largely uneventful. They hike through a land of rather lovely rolling green hills that Bajie calls the Outlying Territories, which is almost suspiciously devoid of any signs of other human life but provides a gorgeous backdrop to Sunny and Bajie’s bickering. Daniel Wu and Nick Frost have a great chemistry together, and their characters are near-perfect foils for each other. Watching Bajie’s seedy charm bounce off Sunny’s taciturnity is consistently entertaining with plenty of sharply-written dialogue and a couple of nice surprises. It turns out that Sunny isn’t completely humorless, and we get further confirmation that Bajie has some useful skills. They end the episode on the wrong side of an enormous, ancient wall that runs the whole border between the Badlands and the Outlying Territories, but I expect both their skills will come in handy in the weeks to come.

After leading her Butterflies to kill a group of rapist Clippers last week, Tilda is due for a stern talking to from Waldo, who is apparently working directly for and with the Widow now. Waldo advises Tilda that part of the key to being a good regent (and to just staying alive) is being able to bottle up one’s feelings and follow orders. Tilda insists, however, that killing those rapists was the right thing to do, and I agree. Waldo’s advice to Tilda in this scene comes off as somewhat mansplain-y, and I don’t love the way he compares her to the absent Sunny, especially when even Waldo admits that Sunny wasn’t immune to emotion, either. It’s also worth pointing out that Waldo is somewhat hypocritical here, since he’s apparently been subtly undermining the whole system for years, which seems like a much bigger act of rebellion than Tilda executing some rapists.

Later, we come upon Tilda and the Widow practice sparring, which Waldo is interrupting to have a sort of strategy meeting with the Widow. Ryder has called for a conclave of all the Barons, where he’s going to complain that the Widow’s taking back of her oil rigs is unlawful. It’s a way to avoid an all-out war, apparently, but it’s also baldly cowardly, which seems like a semi-ballsy move for a guy who has managed to get himself installed as the Baron of multiple territories. The Widow is ready for war, but Waldo advises caution and diplomacy. This conversation as well had the potential to come off as mansplaining on Waldo’s part, but I think it worked better than the previous talk between him and Tilda. The Widow is a mature woman, and Emily Beecham imbues her with a sort of ambitious, very physical energy that prevents her from ever seeming subservient. Whereas Tilda may look up to Waldo as a mentor, the Widow keeps him as an advisor and their interactions—even when they don’t entirely agree—have a strong sense of collaboration and equal footing.

Ex-Baroness Lydia ended last season by returning to her father’s religious commune, and we see her in this episode seeming to have settled back in nicely. At any rate, she’s officiating a marriage ceremony and looks as happy and content as we’ve ever seen her, though the rebuke she receives after thanking the community for accepting her back suggests that she isn’t quite as accepted as she thought. When a couple of Nomads arrive and disrupt the wedding, killing the groom and several more men before making to steal and rape the bride and other women, it’s Lydia who leaps into action to protect the group. This fight scene, brutal and harrowing as it is with the threats of rape, is probably my favorite of the season so far as it shows us a side of Lydia that we haven’t seen before and reveals just how much she’s been changed by her time away from her father and these people.

Unfortunately, Lydia’s reunion with her son Ryder later in the episode isn’t as successful a scene. It works well enough as a continuation of Lydia’s themes from earlier and to further highlight Lydia’s change in status since last season, but the revelation that Quinn was responsible for protecting Lydia’s father and his flock isn’t particularly surprising or interesting, and neither is the family drama between Ryder and his estranged mother. Judging from how much Ryder seemed to rely on Jade for leadership last week, it’s hard to disagree with Lydia’s assessment of her son’s abilities as a Baron, and if she was just planning to reiterate that hurtful truth I’m not sure what she hoped to gain by visiting her son at all. I feel like, ultimately, the real conflict here is still between Lydia and Jade, but we don’t see Jade in this episode at all, which is a shame. I can think of several ways that Jade’s presence, either to interact with Lydia or just to interact with Ryder about Lydia, could have improved this storyline.

At the temple, M.K. continues to train with the Master, who takes him to a room full of mirrors and tells him that there are many versions of himself living inside him and that it’s one of them that is blocking his progress. In order to move forward, M.K. must defeat this other self, which also turns out to mean that he must come to terms with a significant event in his past. It’s pretty straightforward, with some expected callbacks to Luke Skywalker’s similar journey in Star Wars, but things aren’t made so easy for M.K. While his showdown with Dark M.K. is the most visually striking fight scene of the episode, M.K. is ultimately unsuccessful in defeating his darker impulses and must be pulled out of the vision (or whatever it is) by the Master. I don’t expect this storyline to be narratively groundbreaking stuff, but it’s nice to see M.K. being allowed to face real obstacles in his path to enlightened heroism.

The final thread of this week’s story confirms that Quinn is, indeed, alive and not some kind of awful hallucination of Veil’s, and this is where things get weird. Apparently, after what looked like a fatal ass-kicking from Sunny, Quinn was found by Veil as she was leaving town. Instead of leaving him to die like she probably ought to have, she rescued him and doctored him up until he could turn right around and keep her a prisoner in his very creepy (kudos to the set designer and props department) underground lair. Quinn still has several dozen clippers who have remained loyal to him in his current exile, and he’s styled himself as something of a religious leader, blaming his previous failures and current problems on his lack of faith and failure to observe old rites. To avoid such failure in the future, Quinn has become newly dedicated to religion and is baptizing Veil’s baby, Henry, in blood. It’s strange and gross and melodramatic and Marton Csokas is really living it up as Quinn. I have no idea where this is going, but it’s fun as heck to watch.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Is it weird that I think Nick Frost is moderately sexy, even covered in dirt and wearing those awful overalls?
  • M.K.’s roommate has run away, which seems significant. I smell a future nemesis in the making.
  • So, is Lydia going to end up with the Widow or will she somehow reconnect with Quinn? Or is she going to do something else entirely, since she has tons of information and expertise about things? She pointed out that most of Ryder’s cogs worship the same gods as she does, and that feels like foreshadowing.

Into the Badlands: “Tiger Pushes Mountain” is a beautiful, bloody start to the season

I loved Into the Badlands when the first six-episode season aired back in late 2015, and I was thrilled when confirmation of its second season finally came. It has a unique concept with a distinctive and striking visual style, a diverse cast, and excellent fight choreography, and it even has a decidedly progressive sensibility so I was genuinely confused and disappointed when it seemed that no one I knew was watching it. The good news is that season one of the show is now on Netflix, everyone is watching it (finally, belatedly), and season two has begun and is off to a great start.

“Tiger Pushes Mountain” picks up six months after the end of the first season’s finale, which had several cliffhanger-ish endings, and it serves both as a where-are-they-now episode for those of us who watched the first season and a sort of soft reboot of the series that is mostly accessible to new viewers (though I still highly recommend checking out the first season on Netflix). It’s an episode that shows exactly what kind of show this is, and it sets a tone for the new season that is already proving to be slightly darker, definitely faster paced, and a good deal bloodier than season one was.

**Spoilers below**

Sunny (Daniel Wu) ended season one being betrayed by the River King, and season two opens with Sunny arriving in shackles at the Bordo Mines, which gives us our first action scene of the season before the opening credits even roll. The troll-like overseer of the mine (Stephen Walters, credited as “The Engineer” and bringing a delightful touch of madness to the role) orders the murder of one of the other new arrivals, and Sunny chooses this time to take a stand. He kills several of the Engineer’s henchmen and at least temporarily prevents the murder before being recaptured knocked unconscious.

Sunny wakes up to find himself chained to Bajie (Nick Frost), a disreputable sort of grifter character who immediately assesses Sunny as someone who “looks like trouble.” Nick Frost brings a garrulous energy and louche charm to the role of Bajie that makes him great fun to watch in scenes with Sunny, who has always been a quieter character and spends much of this episode silently trying to think his way out of his current predicament. It’s only about halfway through the episode when Sunny approaches Bajie for help, but Sunny makes a mistake when he lets on to Bajie that he’s planning to escape alone. Bajie’s betrayal of Sunny to the Engineer is expected, but Nick Frost is so likable in the role that I can’t help but hope these crazy kids work things out enough to go on a bigger adventure together.

At the end of season one, M.K. (Aramis Knight) was kidnapped by mystery monks who seemed to share his magical powers, and here we find him several months into his training at a secluded monastery. His mentor at the start is a young woman named Ava (Eve Connelly), but M.K. is anxious to meet the Master. There’s an interesting scene with M.K. and a Nomad boy that he’s sharing a room with in which we learn that the stigma M.K. has faced regarding his powers isn’t the norm everywhere. Among the Nomads, the other boy was treated almost like a god and granted special privileges, so he’s skeptical of the training the Master offers to/forces on them. It’s a smart way of recontextualizing M.K.’s role—he’s not unique, and his understanding of his own powers isn’t the only way of understanding them—and helping the viewer to understand the way in which magic fits into the world of Into the Badlands.

When M.K. finally meets the Master (Chipo Chung, who some will recognize from a couple of memorable turns on Doctor Who), we again get a different perspective on and deeper understanding of M.K.’s gift. M.K., however, just wants to finish his training as soon as possible so he can get back to the Badlands and his friends there. There’s not a ton of forward movement on this storyline this week, and the episode ends with M.K. still firmly stuck at the monastery, but the Master is going to personally take over his training from now on. I expect things are going to get interesting for M.K. next week.

Meanwhile, Ryder (Oliver Stark) and Jade (Sarah Bolger) have abandoned the plantation house and are ruling their three territories from Jacoby’s mansion. Unfortunately, this information is delivered in clumsy exposition in a scene right back at the supposedly abandoned plantation house, which is weirdly overgrown and dusty for just a few months’ absence, especially since all the furniture and stuff is covered and they supposedly left on purpose. Apparently, this is where Ryder hangs out when he’s feeling pensive or just needs a retreat from the responsibility of being the Baron of three territories, even though it seems pretty obvious in this episode that Jade is the one doing the heavy lifting of actually leading and managing things in their new situation. Still, this isn’t the worst way of working in some necessary exposition, and the scene is mercifully short as Ryder is shortly called away to deal with a problem at an oil refinery and Jade joins him.

It turns out that the Widow (Emily Beecham), after the late revelation of her revolutionary ideals last season, has spent the last several months building up her forces and planning to take back the territory she lost. This episode finds her making her first major move, and she and her daughter/Regent, Tilda (Ally Ioannides), meet Jade and Ryder at the refinery. When Tilda explodes a vehicle piled with oil barrels, the Widow chases Jade through the refinery killing every man in her way in a gloriously fun-to-watch fight sequence that culminates in an encounter between Jade and the Widow that I’m certain launched a thousand ships. Seriously. I’m not sure how to read Jade’s expressions as she watches the Widow as anything other than intrigued arousal.

It’s also a fight sequence that works interestingly to lead the viewer to contrast the Widow and Sunny. Both characters ended season one rather down on their luck—Sunny betrayed and captured, the Widow at least momentarily beaten and robbed of her territories and prestige—and their arcs towards regaining what they’ve lost and achieving their goals (which are broadly similar) are rife with parallels and points of obvious comparison. Daniel Wu has said that they wanted to make the action scenes more in service to character and story this season, and they’re successful so far. Though Sunny’s and the Widow’s respective sequences don’t appear exactly at opposite ends of the full episode, they still work to neatly and symmetrically bookend the what-are-they-up-to-now portion of the hour before the show moves on to actual moving-along-the-plot and introducing-the-rest-of-the-season’s-conflicts stuff.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • I was certain the mines were going to be coal mines or, possible, precious metals or gems, but they aren’t. They’re digging for relics from the pre-apocalyptic past, which is a neat idea executed nicely. The dark, filthy mines and the violent overseers with their dilapidated gas masks are downright creepy.
  • Jade’s blue dress is stunning. Best costume of the episode, for sure, though I appreciate the grime on every single inch of the Bordo Mines scenes.
  • Tilda and her sisters killing those rapists was a great scene—I’m always happy to see rapists die—but it also introduces a smidgen of doubt about Tilda’s loyalty to her mother. They clearly don’t agree on every single particular of how they should remake their world, and there’s a potential mother-daughter conflict in the making here that could make for great television.
  • Odds on whether Quinn is really still alive or if this is some kind of nightmare Veil is having after just giving birth? I might have yelled “WHAT THE FUCK?!” out loud when that happened.

Why you should drop what you’re doing and watch Into the Badlands immediately

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.

Best of 2015: Favorite Television

2015 has been a sort of strange year for television. On the one hand, there were quite a few shows that I was excited about at the beginning of the fall season, but when it came down to it I found that I just didn’t have time to watch all of them (The Last Kingdom and The Bastard Executioner were two that didn’t make the cut). Of the ones that I did watch, a couple turned out to be totally unwatchable disappointments (Scream Queens and Heroes Reborn fell into this group). And a couple of the shows I was most looking forward to (X-Files, The Shannara Chronicles, Lucifer, The Magicians, Shadowhunters) don’t actually premier until January. Most of what I’ve watched this year, then, has been things that I was already watching and enjoying. Only a few of the year’s new shows really stuck, and at least one of those is almost certainly not getting a second season.

Jessica Jones

This Netflix gem is kind of objectively the best new show of the year. It can be tough to watch, with its themes about rape and abuse, in spite of the fact that none of the sexual violence is ever actually shown on screen. Jessica Jones is a deeply compelling character who fits a lot of common noir tropes, but a lot of that is subverted by her journey being one of personal healing rather than a revenge tale. In the end, Jessica wants mostly to protect others rather than just avenge herself, making her a complicated and fascinating feminist hero. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Supergirl

This year CBS gave us a very different kind of feminist hero in Supergirl, and I love that we now live in a world where both Kara Danvers and Jessica Jones are getting their own vastly different shows. Supergirl is much more overtly and earnestly feminist than the Netflix series, which can be frustrating at times, especially when the show garbles its 101 level messaging, but Melissa Benoist carries the whole show on her super-strong shoulders by creating a Kara who is tough and brave, but most of all deeply kind. When Strong Female Characters are often imagined as ass-kicking fighters, it feels pretty revolutionary to have a super-powered woman on television who is as deeply empathetic and caring as Benoist’s Supergirl.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a show that I almost didn’t watch at all because I found the title so off-putting. It’s also the show that’s been, by far, the most pleasant surprise of the year. Hot shot lawyer Rebecca is so miserable with her life that she makes a totally bonkers decision to move to a small town in California where her ex-boyfriend, Josh, lives. It’s an absurdly silly premise, but I haven’t related to a character this much in a very long time. I, too, struggle with mental illness, and I, too, have often thought that making some enormous and ill-advised change in my life would somehow magically fix everything. Essentially, this show is a humorous take on how this kind of insane decision could work out for someone. Spoiler alert: everything is terrible-ly hilarious. Also, there are songs, because everyone involved in the show is a musical theatre nerd.

The Expanse

It’s great to see SyFy actually getting back to its roots and producing more, well, sci-fi. I didn’t love their adaptation of Childhood’s End (although I appreciate the attempt), but The Expanse is truly excellent. It’s space opera, but also a sort of mash-up with a noir detective story and a futuristic political drama. There are several notable women characters, including Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the incomparable Shohreh Aghdashloo), who I am certain is going to end up being the iconic character of the show. It’s worth watching just for her parts, but the rest of it is pretty great, too.

Into the Badlands

For some reason, almost no one seemed to talk much about Into the Badlands during its six-episode first season on AMC, but it’s a fucking excellent show that has surprisingly feminist sensibilities as well as some of the most incredibly choreographed martial arts fight scenes I’ve ever seen on television. Just in general, Into the Badlands is a gorgeously imagined and shot show, with highly saturated colors, striking cinematography, and great costumes. It’s also got a relatively diverse cast headed up by two Asian men (Daniel Wu and Aramis Knight) in the lead roles. A black woman (Madeleine Mantock) is the main character’s love interest, but she’s also a doctor and a revolutionary of sorts in her own right. The numerous other women on the show also eschew stereotyping, and while they exist in a fairly sexist fictional world, their roles and struggles aren’t entirely dictated by that. The only negative of this show is that it’s only six episodes for now and a second season hasn’t been confirmed, which makes the cliffhanger ending at the end of episode six potentially very frustrating/upsetting.

Minority Report

This show had tepid ratings and mediocre reviews and is the abovementioned likely-cancelled show, but I enjoyed it. The actors had a decent chemistry, though the writing could have been stronger all around, and I’d have liked to see the show explore more of its bigger ideas instead of adhering mostly to a case of the week format. Sadly, Fox has a tendency to invest in development for interesting sci-fi shows but then cut them off quickly if they don’t perform well, and that’s what happened with Minority Report. The news that their episode order had been cut from thirteen to ten after something like episode three of the first season didn’t help ratings. Still, the show was entertaining and had a lot of promise. It even managed to wrap up episode ten in a way that will act as a reasonably satisfying end to the story if there are no more episodes. It’s still available for binge watching on Hulu if you run out of other things to watch.