Tag Archives: Shannara S1

The Shannara Chronicles: “Ellcrys” is a mostly solid finish to a wildly inconsistent season

The most frustrating thing about The Shannara Chronicles, all along, has been that its occasionally really great, which only makes its failures more glaringly obvious. “Ellcrys” is—surprisingly, after a half dozen increasingly terrible hours—mostly excellent. Only mostly, though, and where it fell short, it fell really short.

The first problem occurs right out of the gate this week. Because the show spent so long getting to the events of “Safehold,” that left our heroes, at the beginning of the season finale, at their farthest point away from Arborlon and the Ellcrys, but still with their quest only halfway done and a whole army of demons between them and their goal. So things are kind of necessarily rushed, with Wil resurrecting Eretria, Eretria reopening the portal that Amberle had disappeared through, and then all three frantically racing back out of Safehold. Of course this is when the trolls finally wake up—possibly stirred by all the noise from last week’s fight with a couple of shrieking witches—and come out to play, giving Eretria the chance to be a big damn hero and save her friends.

On the one hand, I kind of love this bit. Eretria has gotten a relatively coherent character arc this season, and we’ve seen her go from being a self-serving opportunist out to free herself from her enslavement to Cephalo to being part of a team of friends and willing to sacrifice herself for a greater good. Even if not every step of Eretria’s character growth has been fully realized, I think her heroic moment was mostly earned. It also doesn’t hurt that Eretria’s fighting with the trolls is a nicely executed action scene that was great fun to watch. On the other hand, Eretria’s apparent self-sacrifice neatly serves to cut her entirely out of the story for the rest of the hour, which sucks. Oh, and not only is Eretria cut out of all the action and excluded from the final completion of the quest, she ends up captured by the trolls, and the season ends on a cliffhanger as she sees someone she recognizes, which is awful cryptic for a show that doesn’t have a confirmed second season yet.

Amberle and Wil’s actual journey back to Arborlon is mostly uneventful and includes like two straight minutes of them riding horses on a beach at sunset with their hair streaming gloriously behind them. It’s probably the cheesiest sequence the show has done to date, but I kind of loved it, lens flares and all, because it was so entirely unironic. When the pair finally get back to the woods around the elven (I am not spelling that with an “i”) capital, though, the find the area already overrun with demons. Amberle leads Wil to a cave where they hole up until dark.

While they wait, Amberle tries to confide in Wil about what she learned at Safehold about her role in saving the Ellcrys, but she’s not ready yet for full disclosure. Instead, she confesses that she loves him, and they share a passionate afternoon of lovemaking. When they finally move on after dark, Amberle is now content and prepared to go meet her fate, although Wil still doesn’t know about what she’s got to do until the last moment. Poppy Drayton and Austin Butler turn in some of their best performances in this finale, but their sex scene is the opposite of sexy. It’s not that they don’t have any chemistry, either. The scene is very short, and it’s basically just blurry writhing bodies with a fade to black. It’s not very visually interesting, and this lessens any emotional impact it might have had. If they were going to just fade it to black and have the pair wake up later in the evening, they could have spent less time showing any of the actual sex. If they really felt the sex was important to explicitly include, they ought to have shown a little more. It’s definitely not the worst thing this show has ever done, but it stood out like a sore thumb in an otherwise nicely shot episode.

The biggest surprise of the episode was the big battle scene in the woods outside where the Ellcrys is kept. I was fairly certain that we’d get a pretty epic battle in the finale, and I wasn’t disappointed. Certainly it wasn’t on as grand a scale as anything on Game of Thrones, but it looked good. There was a big enough crowd of extras to add some sense of size, and the fighting is well-choreographed in low key, naturalistic sort of way. It didn’t feel real, but it did feel like just the sort of good epic fantasy battle that I would have liked to see a little more of over the course of season. Unfortunately, both of the battle’s climactic moments were deeply flawed.

Before the actual fighting starts, Ander and Commander Tilton have a sweet moment where they seem to rekindle their romantic relationship. It’s a brief scene, but it was nice. Both of these characters have been grieving the loss of Arion, and this scene gives us some hope that with time they will heal and have a future together. Nope. Turns out that Arion has been possessed by the Dagda Mor and forced to fight in the demon army. He kills Tilton, then begs Ander to kill him, which is sad, I guess? I was kind of shocked by Tilton’s death, if only because it seemed so wasteful—the character was sadly underdeveloped—and such a betrayal of the expectation built by the earlier scene between Tilton and Ander. It’s also pretty shitty that the only significant woman of color on the show just got fridged.

It was surprising to see Arion come back, as well, since it wasn’t really foreshadowed or anything. Sure, we never did technically see his cold, dead corpse, but we also haven’t seen hide or hair of him since he got himself stabbed by the Dagda Mor. Mostly, though, this just speaks to the fact that we have no idea how the Dagda Mor’s magic works or what he’s capable of. Without even a basic knowledge of the Dagda Mor’s capabilities, there was never any reason to expect something like this, so when it happens, it feels random and, well, not meaningless, but a cheap ploy to elicit an unearned emotional response from the audience.

Speaking of the Dagda Mor, the other major climactic moment involves him. Namely, his fight with Allanon, which was a letdown to say the least. It was just as solidly produced as the rest of the fighting in the episode, but it just didn’t feel like the final boss battle that it ought to have. Instead, Wil distracts the Dagda Mor with the elfstones, and Allanon chops the Dagda Mor’s head off. Easy peasy, and by this time Amberle has become the new Ellcrys and all the rest of the demons just vaporize, putting a swift end to any further combat. This all occurs depressingly quickly after Tilton’s death, as well, so if only everyone had moved just a little faster she could still be alive. In any case, this one final fight should have stood out a lot more than it did. It was mediocre at best, and thus anticlimactic.

The final, if not biggest, problem with “Ellcrys,” of course, is (once again) Bandon. Whereas the other major invented-for-the-show character, Commander Tilton, was just sadly underutilized and had her potential squandered by poor writing, Bandon is an invented character that just doesn’t work. His descent into darkness is poorly thought out and executed in a shoddy fashion. His continued victimization of Catania (another terribly implemented character) is uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch. Overall, we just don’t learn enough about Bandon to become attached to him, so his turning evil isn’t particularly emotionally impactful. To top it all off, this week Catania blames herself for “failing him” and Allanon doesn’t contradict her; he just replies that they “both” did. Which is infuriating.

Still, I was happy that they kept the ending of the book, with Amberle becoming the new Ellcrys. I wasn’t at all sure they would, since it’s intended to be an ongoing series, and by the end of last week I was somewhat concerned that they were going to replace Amberle with Eretria. The battle scenes were suitably grand, though not as much as one might wish. Even the cliffhanger-y ending is tolerable, as it shows confidence that the show will be getting a second season—although if “you” turns out to be Cephalo I will lose my shit.

All in all, though, “Ellcrys” is a solid finish to a wildly inconsistent season of television. It had all the things that I loved about this show in the beginning and very little of its worst tendencies on display. I won’t make any promises, but I could see coming back for season two if nothing else better comes along between now and then.

The Shannara Chronicles: “Safehold” is this show’s most unintentionally hilarious episode yet

This week, as indicated by the episode title, we finally see our heroes make it to Safehold, which is a relief after several weeks of almost no forward progress. Unfortunately, the lack of silly side quests, ridiculous obstructions and unnecessary meandering on the part of Amberle and company doesn’t mean we get an episode free of boring and unimportant nonsense. Indeed, Amberle, Wil and Eretria feel shoved almost to a back burner this week as the show focuses on goings on at Arborlon, where new King Ander is struggling to hold onto his crown and Bandon is being possessed by the Dagda Mor.

Safehold, it turns out, is named for the letters that are left on an ostensibly ancient sign next to the ruins of the Bay Bridge that connects San Francisco and Oakland. I have very mixed feelings about this, to be honest. Remains of something as large as the Bay Bridge might last hundreds of years, but most of the other detritus of human society would not, and the sheer amount of stuff that seems to have survived in the onscreen Shannara world is simply unbelievable. The show should definitely have stuck with a less-is-more approach to this sort of thing, but instead they’ve opted for an unfortunate mash-up of fantasy and post-apocalyptic aesthetics that works less and less well the deeper they delve into the world. This week continued to have some nice porn-y wide shots of scenery, especially of Arborlon (although it does seem like they’ve started to recycle the aerial views of the city), but in close things are a mess.

The biggest problem for Amberle, Wil, and Eretria this week is that for once they don’t really have any problems. After weeks of contrived random encounter bullshit, they’re basically able to just walk right into San Francisco. Eretria’s tattoo is a deus ex machina and a half, and they don’t even disturb the trolls. When they get to the actual Bloodfire, the two banshees or whatever that are guarding it are laughably weak. All they can do is say some mean things to the heroes, and they’re quickly dispatched with Wil’s elfstones. The “cliffhanger” ending, with Amberle disappeared into the Bloodfire and Eretria seemingly dead (but obvs just passed out from blood loss), isn’t actually very cliffhanger-y at all since the show has done a piss poor job of creating a sense of actual danger for the characters.

Even the emotional stakes are remarkably low. Amberle and Eretria are besties now, which leaves Wil feeling henpecked, and there’s no hint of romance for any of them this week which makes one wonder why the show even bothered with the love triangle business in previous weeks. All of their interactions and epiphanies feel hollow and soulless. The only one of the trio who seems to have any real, authentic feelings this week is Eretria, who is exhilarated by the rush of magic when her tattoo turns out to be a map to exactly where they need to go, because fate or something. There are some other things hinted at, such as Eretria’s abandonment issues, and she and Wil almost have a moment of bonding over their desire to find someplace to belong. However, it’s spoiled by the fact that Wil’s claim of outsider status is a glaring case of telling-not-showing and feels insincere.

At Arborlon, Ander’s decision to claim his father’s throne has had some consequences as the head Councilor, Kail, has decided to lead a coup. This storyline actually has a lot of potential, but there’s not enough context for it to work as a single-episode arc. For one thing, Kail hasn’t even had any lines before this week, so it’s uncertain who she is and why we’re supposed to care about her opinion so much. Apparently Ander had promised her that he wasn’t going to take the throne, but that must have happened offscreen, which makes the implied betrayal of trust much less impactful. Without any foreshadowing or setup or seeding of the plot points here—the show didn’t even introduce the major characters involved in this plot before this week—it just feels like a distraction, and the eventual acceptance of Ander as King is aggressively uninteresting.

The other major happening at Arborlon this week is Bandon’s continued druid training under Allanon’s tutelage. Mostly, this amounts to Allanon trying to force Bandon into revealing that he’s possessed by the Dagda Mor, and Manu Bennett gets some of his worst lines yet in a season that is just full of poorly written dialogue. When Allanon is unsuccessful at (I guess?) exorcising the Dagda Mor from Bandon’s mind, Bandon goes to hang out with Catania, who definitely wants to bang him. Unfortunately for her—and for the viewer, because this scene is legitimately unsettling to watch—boners are apparently the thing that really wakes up the Dagda Mor in Bandon, who sexually assaults Catania. She’s able to escape/get rescued by Allanon, but not before being pretty brutally attacked. It’s a super gross scene, and I don’t think there are words to describe how disgusted it makes me that sexual violence is such a cheap way for shows to try and be “dark” and “gritty.”

The episode finally (mercifully) ends with the last leaf falling from the Ellcrys and unleashing the Dagda Mor and his demon army. Earlier in the season, I had rather thought that there would be some kind of epic battle in episode nine, but we’re going to have to wait until the season finale. This episode does seem to promise such a battle, but considering this show’s track record so far I wouldn’t be surprised if Amberle gets back with the Ellcrys seed just in time to stop anything actually interesting from happening. We’ll see.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Holy lens flare, Batman! Enough is enough, show.
  • At one point Eretria exclaims in exasperation, while talking about Cephalo saving her, that “It doesn’t make any sense!” and this made me laugh so hard I almost choked, which was very distracting, but also the funniest thing that has happened on this show to date.
  • “You’re no King; you’re just what was left” is a genuinely excellent line.

The Shannara Chronicles: “Utopia” is WHAT THE FUCK DID I JUST WATCH?

The Shannara Chronicles is a wild fucking ride, folks. A couple of weeks ago I was ready to ragequit the show. Then last week the show seemed to be improving and getting back on track with the quest to get to Safehold and save the Ellcrys. I knew at least part of “Utopia” would be dedicated to rescuing Eretria, but I didn’t expect it to take the entire episode. And, you guys. I’m not sure I can even put into words what a complete disaster this episode was. There are all kinds of things I expected going into this series, and a few more things got added after I got a good look at the show, but “Utopia” is just mind-blowingly terrible on basically every level.

It starts off more or less how I expected it to, with Eretria being carted off by her evil ex-girlfriend and Wil and Amberle determined to find their friend, although I feel like “friend” is a very generous term for their relationship with the human girl. You know, what with all the subterfuge and thievery and betrayal and stuff. But, okay, they’re friends, and Wil and Amberle are going to find Eretria. But first, they’re going to almost bone, in a very boring and unsexy soft focus scene. Just in case anyone did manage to find Wil and Amberle’s tryst somewhat romantic, it’s interrupted, right when it’s heating up, by the worst possible development: the return of Cephalo.

Listen, I know that there was pretty much no way that Cephalo wasn’t coming back, and I even expected it to be something like this, but it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised once in a while. Sadly, nothing involving Cephalo in this episode is even remotely surprising. Amberle and Wil release him from the troll cage he’s caught in with minimal arguing about it, and Cephalo promptly tries to steal the elfstones again and bails on the party. He doesn’t try to rape anyone, which is good, I suppose, but he is given a completely unearned hero’s death and a touching parting scene where he tells Eretria that she’s “the best thing [he’s] ever done,” because apparently keeping a child as an actual slave and training her to be a thief/murderer and keeping her in line through abuse and by threatening to sell her to your terrifying friends is definitely something to be proud of. I mean, it’s not like Eretria was so desperate for anything resembling safety and love and basic kindness that she fell in with a weird cult this week or anything. Oh, wait. A+ parenting job, Cephalo.

Speaking of the weird cult! So, the elf hunters show up at a weird human settlement that looks less like a fantasy village and more like a hipster farming co-op, and it turns out that’s a pretty accurate description. Somehow, this little village, under the leadership of a guy named Tye, has managed to either save or rediscover quite a lot of pre-apocalypse human technology, everything from anesthetic to electric lights to Star Trek. This makes no sense at all and doesn’t seem to have any thematic purpose. It’s a tempting place for Eretria, but I think that any place where people are nice and she feels secure would be a temptation for her.

The way the citizens of Utopia almost worship the ancient technology is actually creepy, and though this weirdness foreshadows, I guess, the revelation that they sacrifice people to the nearby trolls, it also kind of breaks the fantasy setting. While the world of Shannara was always a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, it wasn’t revealed until much later in the books that it was actually our world, and the reason people didn’t know is because almost nothing survived of it after several thousand years. In the show, they seem to have shortened the timeline, and they’ve certainly been sure to use the detritus of our current world as a backdrop for the fantasy story they’re telling. This has mostly worked, and it’s been a good way for The Shannara Chronicles to set itself apart, visually, from other fantasy worlds. However, it’s definitely a situation where less is more—the dilapidated Space Needle is good for background and world building, but it’s nonsensical to spend most of an episode at a rave on a hipster commune.

It could have been worse, but not by much, and unfortunately this isn’t even so bad it’s good. While I did laugh, often and loudly, at “Utopia,” it was mocking, not mirthful. I will definitely be watching the final two episodes of the season, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back for season two if it happens. I really wanted to like this show, and I think I’ve been a good sport about it and very willing to overlook some of its flaws because it’s nice to look at and a nice break from the darker fantasy fare that is more common these days. “Utopia” is so awful that I want to take back everything nice I ever said about the show, and I’m frankly embarrassed to have defended and recommended it to people.


Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • Apparently Bandon is the next druid.
  • Ander decides that maybe he wants to be King after all.
  • This show should spend less money on cream colored dresses from Anthropologie and more money on making their trolls. Having them dressed in rags and gas masks is lazy and cheap.
  • Why is Eretria’s ex-girlfriend killed? Yeah, she wasn’t a nice person, but that seemed kind of random and unnecessary since she’d already been safely written out of things after she sold Eretria to the hipster cult. She wasn’t even a loose end at that point, so there was no reason to revisit her at all, which makes her death truly gratuitous.

The Shannara Chronicles: “Breakline” is a solid episode, but in a world that feels very small

After two weeks of Game of Thrones-ing things up, The Shannara Chronicles finally delivers another solid episode with a better balance between the monster of the week and a B-plot back at Arborlon. I’m also happy to report that nothing rape-y happens this week, which is also a nice change of pace.

The opening glosses over exactly how Wil, Amberle, and Eretria survived their fall at the end of “Pykon” as well as what exactly happened to the Reaper that had followed them. We also don’t learn this week what happened to Cephalo after he cut the zipline on the young people, but I feel it’s safe to say we probably haven’t seen the last of him. Normally this kind of narrative shortcutting would irritate me, but I can’t say I was disappointed to have an episode free of sexual predators, especially when it turns out to be a well-conceived, nicely paced, action-packed hour that is probably the best episode of the season so far. In any case, we start the episode with our protagonists separated and trying to find their way back to each other, and this occupies the majority of the episode.

Wil almost immediately has an encounter with a young elf, Perk, who has been attacked by a group of human elf hunters who cut off one of his ears. Because apparently gnomes think that elf ears have “medicinal” properties. This is profoundly silly, but okay. Wil treats Perk’s wound with some kind of herb (marijuana, obv), and they head off to find the elf hunters, who have captured Perk’s partner and who Wil worries may have captured Amberle and Eretria. Meanwhile, Eretria and Amberle do have a run-in with the elf-hunters, but they manage escape. However, Amberle irresponsibly drops her sword, which tips the elf hunters off to who she is and ensures that they will keep hunting the girls, who manage to fall through an ancient rooftop into a remarkably well-preserved, albeit filthy, high school gymnasium still decorated for prom. I absolutely adored these parallel adventures, though for very different reasons.

Wil is kind of a fascinating character to me because he’s not a fighter at all, and this week we get to see more of his real strength, which is healing. One thing that is great about this show as an adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara is that it mostly leaves Wil alone when it comes to this. It would have been easy to turn him into a more traditionally swashbuckling sort of fantasy hero, but instead the show has pretty consistently portrayed Wil as a character who prefers to solve problems creatively rather than violently and who genuinely wants to help people. So his interactions with Perk this week are excellent and do a nice job of challenging Wil’s ideals of how the world ought to be. It forces some character growth, by making Wil think about things from a different perspective, but I really appreciate that it doesn’t change who Wil is at heart. He might be able to help Perk and accept help from Perk, but Wil isn’t ready to abandon his own personal ethos.

For me, Eretria and Amberle’s journey through the Pompeii-esque ruins of a 21st century high school really stole the show this week. I thought the bath scene in “Pykon” was just a case of boring old queerbaiting, but “Breakline” takes the time to develop the relationship between the two women a little more. I’m not sure if I’m ready to say that Ambertria is real, but it’s close. I only wish the elf hunters had caught up to them about thirty seconds sooner. I loved the scene, but the dialogue turned very clunky and felt as if the writers don’t trust the audience to understand Amberle and Eretria’s relationship without having it spelled out for us. It’s a classic case of telling instead of showing, and nothing spoils an intimate moment like having the intimacy explained to us like we’re two.

The only major criticism I have of the Wil-Amberle-Eretria stuff this week, however, is that the show continues to suffer from a sort of small world syndrome. We’re getting to see some new settings and stuff, which is nice, and I loved the world building power of Amberle and Eretria’s trip through the old school, but what are the odds that the elf hunters are being led by Eretria’s jilted ex-girlfriend? I mean, good job on further confirming that Eretria is canonically bisexual, I guess, but come on. It’s just not reasonable that basically every new character we meet in this fantasy world knows each other, and it really diminishes the feeling that our heroes are on an epic quest. Eretria being captured by her evil ex at the end of the episode means that we’ll still be dealing with this newest diversion for at least part of next week’s episode as well. I’m concerned that this means that all the epic parts of Elfstones are going to be crammed into episodes nine and ten, which could make the ending feel very rushed and even anticlimactic. We’ll see.

The B-plot of “Breakline” deals with Arion and Ander being sent by fake Eventine to try and use the warlock sword against the Dagda Mor. I’m not sure why the princes go along with this obviously terrible idea, but it ends up getting Arion killed and Ander has to be rescued by Allanon. Arion’s death feels really unceremonious and abrupt, in spite of being fairly heavily telegraphed, probably because Ander just leaves him lying there on the ground. While I’m not a stickler for adaptations hewing too closely to their source material, it’s too bad that Arion’s death is treated as such a small, personal event, with no witnesses besides Ander and Allanon. Similarly, the defeat of fake Eventine happens in a room with just a couple of people. Surely crowd scenes can be expensive, but these types of events demand a larger audience if they’re going to feel as epic as they ought.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I wish we got a better look at Perk’s bird thingy. I remember the Wing Riders being pretty cool in the books, and I’d love to see more of them in the show.
  • Bremen looks a lot like Rutger Hauer, and I actually got a little excited for a second thinking it might be him, but it wasn’t. I feel cheated by this.
  • I’ve seen a lot of people making fun of Allanon’s transformer sword, but I actually kind of love that cheesy effect.
  • I loved Amberle’s dice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous thoughts:

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

The Shannara Chronicles: “Reaper” is a morass of upsetting writing choices

**Trigger Warning: Discussion of Rape**

Right, so I kind of love this silly show in a way that makes me inclined to forgive quite a lot of its faults, but this episode is a mess of bad storytelling, poor decision-making, absurd dialogue, rape threats for shock value, and just general time-wasting. All of these (except the rape threat stuff—that’s new) are problems that existed in the first four episodes of the show, but never enough to completely bog the whole thing down the way we see in “Reaper.”

The disaster starts right out of the gate with an extended pre-credits flashback that does nothing to further the story. It does finally give us a look at the gnomes (cool-looking, in a vaguely steampunk-y way) and offers us some new insight into Amberle by showing us a glimpse of her relationship with her father, but it’s altogether just too long a break in the action. We’ve been waiting for weeks to see this quest actually get started. Last week’s episode, “Changeling,” was actually a step backward, with the whole party returning to Arborlon, but the final scene saw our heroes finally going somewhere. It was extremely frustrating to have to sit through a lengthy flashback before we even get to see what Amberle, Wil and Eretria are up to. It does introduce the gnome, Slanter, who looks to be playing a significant role going forward, but this could have been done in some other way that would be a less irritating diversion from the main plot.

Speaking of diversions from the main plot, perhaps the worst example of time-wasting this week was all of the stuff with Bandon. I wasn’t entirely sold on this character before, but now I kind of hate him. His trying to learn how to control his powers might be interesting if it was the focus of a whole show of its own, but here it’s simply a distraction, and a fundamentally boring one. This is compounded by pairing him with Catania, another character created for the show and who has no discernable reason for existing at all. I suppose mentoring Bandon might give Allanon something to do, but he could be advising Eventine, mending fences with Arion, or just not be taking up screen time that could be better spent elsewhere.

When “Reaper” finally does focus on the quest plot that should be driving the show, it’s still a wreck of, well, notably less than epic proportions. Less than a day out of Arborlon, our heroes find themselves under attack by Rovers, although calling what ensues a battle would be highly dishonest. Before the elves can do anything whatsoever, Cephalo has swords to their necks, and he and his band quickly tie up Wil and the elven guards but make off with Amberle. This is where things go very wrong, on multiple levels.

Honestly, this is just shoddy on a storytelling level. Unless something has changed since the last time Wil and Amberle were captured by Rovers, there’s no reason to feel like they’re in any real danger this time around. Logically, you’d think that they’d be even better positioned to defeat Cephalo once and for all with at least a half dozen fighters with them, but they’re neutralized so early they don’t come into play at all. Instead, the show’s writers decide to introduce an entirely new element of peril by having Amberle separated from the rest of her group, ostensibly to be sold into slavery. This may indeed be Cephalo’s ultimate aim, but first he’s going to try and rape her, which is a thing he’s done plenty of before, if we’re supposed to judge him by the way he talks about how he’s raped other women. This is a huge problem.

First of all, it’s just plain tiresome to see yet another young woman in yet another fantasy show being subjected to an ultimately senseless (in every sense of the word) attempted rape as a way of (supposedly) raising the stakes. It’s not even successful at that in this case, since it’s basically a foregone conclusion that Eretria is going to come back and save the day—which she of course does. This is just the beginning of this cornucopia of awfulness, though.

The worst part about this all is the differences in the way the show treats the characters and the narratives that are created around them. Amberle has been presented for almost two full episodes now as unreasonably paranoid, irrational, and haughty, and it would be easy to see her abuse and degradation at the hands of Cephalo as Amberle being “put in her place.” This is further supported by the fact that she has to beg Eretria for help, and the other girl lets Amberle believe that she’s been abandoned before swooping in at—literally—the last possible moment to effect a rescue. At the same time, while the episode seems to try and frame Eretria as a hero for rescuing Amberle, it’s explicitly stated more than once that the reason Eretria came back was for the promise of riches from the elf girl’s grandfather.

Cephalo is the character who is treated the best in all of this, but it’s completely undeserved. Up to this point, he’s been presented as a ruthless but charming rogue, and while he’s threatened Eretria’s life and freedom several times, his threats have been shown to be toothless time and again. This week he goes far beyond threats with Amberle. He actually sexually assaults her, brutally, and is stopped only moments before completing his intended—explicitly so—rape. He also has plenty of dialogue that tells us that this isn’t his first rape; this is habitual behavior for Cephalo, clearly. I might have been able to tolerate this if this attack was finally the thing that gets Cephalo killed, or even if he was left tied up for monsters to get the way he left Wil and the rest of the elven party. That would have been something like narrative justice for a character who has, since the beginning, been pretty irredeemably bad. Cephalo had already been shown to be abusive, misogynistic and a slaver, which is pretty far outside of what can really be classified as “lovable scoundrel” behavior, so knowing that he’s also an actual rapist should seal the deal. Instead, and in lieu of any resolution to this mess that would make sense, Cephalo gets a sort of mini redemption arc before the end of the hour when he’s given the opportunity to save the group when they face the Reaper that gives the episode its title.

So, to recap: Amberle has to be humbled because she’s been so bitchy about this whole quest thing, Eretria is totally willing to abandon another woman to be raped unless she can gain personally from a rescue, and Cephalo is…misunderstood? I guess?

There’s some other stuff that happens this week, but I don’t care much about it since I’m still seething over the Cephalo crap, which basically ruined the whole episode for me. I know that this show has been billed as Game of Thrones for teens, or whatever, but that’s no reason for The Shannara Chronicles to emulate some of GoT’s worst qualities. Part of what I’ve enjoyed about this series so far is that it is so very different from the other, more grimdark shows that are so popular these days. The lighter tone and more straightforward heroic quest adventure story of Shannara has its own sort of appeal, but “Reaper” unravels some of that appeal by making things darker and more convoluted than they need to be.

The Shannara Chronicles: “Changeling” changes almost nothing for anyone

“Changeling” is a tough episode to review. On the one hand, it’s a kind of objectively dull hour, with little forward movement, a lot of time spent standing around spouting expository dialogue, and not much actually happening. On the other hand, it’s an episode that is heavily focused on character, and this benefits nearly everyone on the show. It’s also nice to see a good deal more of Arborlon, which now feels much more like a real, living place. So while the episode is certainly flawed, I kind of loved it, and the end of “Changeling,” finally and for real, has our heroes actually setting out on their journey.

Episode four picks up right where the third one left off, with Amberle entering the Ellcrys tree. Once inside, she’s rather predictably subject to a vision and a test wherein she has to overcome her fears and master her emotions in order to prove that she’s capable (at least theoretically) of completing the quest the tree is going to give her. It’s pretty straightforward, standard issue chosen one stuff, but it’s nicely filmed and Poppy Drayton is convincing in her role as Amberle. She’s got an expressive face and isn’t afraid to use it, and this episode is definitely a showcase for her abilities as Amberle has to confront her fears, deal with a trauma, and come to terms with a tragedy before embarking on a journey that is going to change her life even more than it has been already.

The downside of this, though, is that Amberle doesn’t really get a lot to do once she emerges from the Ellcrys besides look very serious and sad and disapproving. This isn’t helped by the fact that she’s also being hunted by a changeling demon that wants to murder her, which keeps Amberle moving around quite a bit through the episode, but always within the palace at Arborlon and mostly with at least a couple of guards in tow. I was happy to see her get a nice quiet moment with her friend Catania. They have a nice chemistry, and it’s obvious that the two young women share a great deal of love and affection. It’s a good counterpoint to Amberle’s contentious relationship with Eretria, though I’m happy to say that the conflict between these two is more substantial than fighting over a boy (even if I suppose that Wil is part of it).

Probably my favorite Amberle scene this week, though, was when her grandfather, Eventine, gifts her with her father’s sword, along with a speech about how like her father she is. This is also a great scene for Eventine, who was kind of a jerk in his other scenes this week. For a guy who no longer plans to abdicate his throne, he sure does a lot of delegating of responsibility. Also, poor Arion! Arion is the worst, but I felt legitimately bad for him when Eventine told him that he’s not ready to be king. Maybe if Eventine had been a better dad, his heir wouldn’t be such a dick.

While Amberle is busy having a very serious coming of age moment as she accepts her sacred responsibility or whatever, Wil is busy banging Eretria and getting his elfstones stolen again. He is seriously so easy, which is cute in a way, but I can definitely understand why Amberle might be very worried about having to maybe kill him, what with his being self-destructively stupid and all.

In any case, Eretria gets caught and is being framed for murder and accused of trying to kill Amberle, but this all ends up with them figuring out that the demon is a shapeshifter. There is some kind of half-baked plot to trick the demon by using Eretria as a decoy, but it doesn’t work. However, Allanon manages to kill the changeling anyway, and by the end of the episode Amberle, Wil, and Eretria are setting out from Arborlon.

I’m curious to see how this works out, mostly because I wonder how long the show is going to make us wait for the inevitable showdown with Cephalo and the Rovers. I’m also not sure what the show is going to do with Bandon and his visions, which seem almost superfluous with Allanon around reading minds and looking stuff up in his magic book that conveniently has all the answers. Also, what is going to happen with Catania? I hope she’s going with them as well; otherwise, it will feel like sort of a waste for her to exist at all.

Mostly, though, I’m just very excited to see the real quest finally getting underway. Hopefully next week will see a lot more forward movement on the main plot—because it’s really the only one. As refreshing as it is to watch a show that is relatively free of subplots, this style of storytelling only really works if there is consistent linear development. Keeping all of the action (if you want to call it that) contained in one small setting (Arborlon) feels claustrophobic and is, ultimately, frustrating, especially when this bit with figuring out the changeling could have been handled in about ten minutes.

Still, I really like that this show seems to be so aware of what it is. It doesn’t put on airs, and it doesn’t try to pretend as if this isn’t a story we’ve seen a thousand times before, but it does seem fairly committed to doing a proper job of it. Though the writing doesn’t often rise above workmanlike and the story is pedestrian at best, The Shannara Chronicles is exactly the sort of gorgeously designed comfort-programming I want to watch these days. “Changeling” and its weird feeling of stasis is somewhat of a hiccup, but if the next six episodes are good, it will be easy to forgive the sins of this one.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The seed prop is cool, but it looks a little too much like metal.
  • Spinning the camera around in a circle doesn’t hide the fact that you’re just filming a group of people standing around spouting exposition.
  • “Accomplishments? What would they be?” BURRRRN.
  • “I’ll never call you short tips again.”
  • “She attacked me in my room.” Oh, Wil. I was a little disappointed when Amberle didn’t point out his red ears.
  • I loved the interior shots of Arborlon. They’re not as nice to look at as the scenery porn in the show’s outside world, but it’s pretty impressive what they’ve done with relatively small sets.

The Shannara Chronicles: “Fury” goes backwards in order to move forward

The two-part opener for The Shannara Chronicles wasn’t a perfect piece of television, but it was marvelously entertaining and superbly beautiful to look at. “The Chosen” also did a creditable job of introducing all the show’s major characters and conflicts and setting up the major quest that will occupy the rest of this first season. The show’s third episode, “Fury,” is a step backwards in several ways, and it does become a little bogged down at times, but by the end it seems ready to move along to the real meat of the story.

After the fast-moving, plot-heavy “The Chosen,” the order of the day in “Fury” is to take a step back, metaphorically, and dedicate some time to character development. This is mostly a good thing, and Eretria especially improves upon further acquaintance, where we learn more about her motivations and what her life is like when she’s not out in the woods being a sexy, wise-cracking rogue. Amberle, who is a serious young woman, turns out to also be smart and funny once you get to know her a little more, and Poppy Drayton has noticeably relaxed into her role. Wil is in turns sweet and stupid and infuriating, but I think he’s overall likeable and not nearly as insufferable as other characters of this type.

Unfortunately, the episode also takes a step back more literally, by having our heroes travel all the way back to Arborlon before they can continue on their quest. More on that later, though. Before that can happen, there are some detours and another seemingly significant character is introduced.

While Allanon manages to save Wil and Amberle from the fury from the end of “The Chosen,” he’s injured in the process, and his incomplete instructions to them send Wil diving into the Silver River to get some kind of healing mud. It’s a good thing Allanon was just planning on healing himself with his druid powers, though, because by the time Wil gets out of the river, Eretria has shown up and has a dagger to Amberle’s neck. As they’re dragged through the woods to the Rover camp, Amberle takes Wil to task for falling for Eretria’s “half-baked Rover seduction” and the show’s love triangle is officially born.

Things continue to move along nicely once they reach the Rover camp and meet Eretria’s “father” Cephalo, who is almost inexplicably obsessed with the elfstones and is convinced that threatening Amberle’s life is the way to get Wil to share their secrets. Joke’s on Cephalo, though. Wil truly doesn’t know how to use the stones, Amberle is pretty resourceful, and Eretria isn’t totally on board with the plan. Before all that stuff can really come to a head, however, the Rovers find themselves under attack by the second fury, who has tracked Wil and Amberle to the camp. While people scatter in chaos, Wil desperately pulls out the elfstones and is able to use them to destroy the demon. Cephalo tries to take the stones, but Allanon shows up just in time to rescue Wil and Amberle, and put them back on the way to Arborlon where they’re supposed to be.

On the way back to the elven city, they come across a destroyed farm in the countryside. While searching for survivors, they find a boy chained up in a barn wearing a very creepy mask. He introduces himself as Bandon (which is a legitimately awful fantasy name; I hate it so much) and tells them that it was his parents who had locked him up, though he doesn’t share the reason why. It’s a very strange kind of random encounter that I don’t remember being in the book, and Bandon turns out to be a very strange character.

When they finally reach Arborlon, they receive a cool welcome, as abandoning your sacred post like Amberle did is pretty frowned upon. Here is where things go a little off the rails, though, and it feels like the show was just killing time for the last ten or so minutes of the episode. Literally none of this stony-faced posturing and lengthy deciding whether Amberle would be allowed near the Ellcrys was at all necessary. Just let her in the tree, dammit, and move along to figuring out who the spy in Arborlon is so we can move along to some real questing. Unfortunately, the unmasking of the spy is going to have to wait until episode four.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • I feel like a dirty old lady for saying it, but Austin Butler is surprisingly hot. I would have had the hugest crush on him twenty years ago. Also, Amberle totally checking him out was one of the funniest moments of the show so far. She might be a little too serious at times, but she’s not made of stone.
  • I would have liked to see a little more time spent on the emotional fallout of Pyria’s death, which seems like it should be a pretty big deal for both Allanon and Amberle. Sadly, I don’t think the show will ever have time to revisit this.
  • Cephalo threatening to kill Eretria is already tiresome because it’s such a toothless threat.
  • I didn’t love the elfstone props in the first episode, but they actually look pretty cool when Wil uses them.
  • The vibe between Amberle and her uncle Ander is very odd. I know the characters are supposed to be fairly close in age, but it definitely feels more like kissing cousins than almost-siblings, which is what I think is the intent.
  • I guess Bandon has visions of some kind, and that’s probably going to be important later on.
  • I hope this is the end of Wil threatening to bail on the quest.

The Shannara Chronicles: “The Chosen” is a Tangerine Dream soundtrack away from greatness

Though I loved them as a teenager, I don’t think I’ve even cracked the spine of a Shannara book in at least ten years. Still, I was delighted when I heard there was a television series in development based on Terry Brooks’ novels. With so much recent fantasy fare that is decidedly grimdark, The Shannara Chronicles is a much-needed palate cleanser, and since I’m a sucker for nostalgia projects there was basically no chance that I wasn’t going to watch (and love) this show. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had watching a fantasy epic in a long time, and I would even argue that it’s solidly well-conceived, with decent acting, good plotting, and nice pacing.

The opening shots and credits for The Shannara Chronicles are absolutely gorgeous, and the whole show so far is just one stunning piece of CGI scenery porn after another. It’s so pretty that I don’t even care that after thousands of years, none of the metal structures they show would still be standing in any form. It’s not as if the broken Space Needle, desiccated ship, or various rotten vehicles and satellite dishes and so on add any particular sense of realism to the setting. They are cool, though, and the vivid, highly saturated colors put this show essentially one Tangerine Dream soundtrack away from aesthetic perfection. I can even forgive the show for creating an elven city that looks—no joke—like they just tried to imagine what might happen if Lothlorien and Minas Tirith had a baby city in the post-apocalypse. In fact, I rather like this kind of overt callback to LOTR. It’s probably best for Shannara to just own its heritage right out of the gate.

The costuming is nicely contemporary-feeling, but without just being a showcase for designer dresses like some other teen shows. I don’t feel like I’ve been transported in time when I see the show’s elves or Rovers, but I also don’t feel like I’ve been transported to prom night at a prep school. The costumes for Amberle and Eretria are reasonably practical for the activities the women are engaging in, which I appreciate, and neither of them is overly sexualized.

The show in general displays a pleasantly frank attitude towards sexuality, in line with its YA sensibility and current trends in YA fiction. There’s no sex actually confirmed to be happening, but Amberle is not assumed to be virginal, in spite of being an elf princess. Her aunt actually assumes otherwise when Amberle goes to her for help, thinking that the princess could be dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. While this is somewhat played for laughs, it’s indicative of the show’s relaxed way of dealing with teenage sexuality—in this future world it’s normal, accepted, and issues seem to be handled practically and non-judgmentally. There is a love triangle suggested (Amberle, Wil, Eretria), but the show so far hasn’t made romance a too-central part of the story it’s telling. Instead, it seems more concerned with just introducing us to the characters, introducing the characters to each other and getting on with the adventure.

The actual story is pretty pedestrian stuff—an evil dark lord coming back with demons, a farm boy with a great destiny and a secret heritage, Manu Bennett as sexy Gandalf—but it’s done well, and I’d always rather see a derivative tale told nicely than an avant garde disaster. The show definitely struggles with dialogue in this first episode, though. Although I’m not always hip to kids’ lingo these days, I actually enjoy the teen-speak of the young adult characters, but there were more than a few hilariously bad speeches. Hopefully this will get worked out better in future episodes as they find a balance between creating relatable young characters and plausible fantasy heroes. One area the writers shined in, on the other hand, was in incorporating expositional dialogue. So many sci-fi and fantasy projects get bogged down with clunky, uninteresting exposition, but this one works it in pretty deftly. I won’t say it’s not noticeable, but it’s not ham-fisted or dull.

Probably my favorite thing about the show so far, though, is the ways in which it improves upon the source material. Admittedly, it’s been a good while since I read the book, but I remember it as heavily focused on Wil, with Amberle in particular as a much less active character. Here, though, Wil’s hero’s journey exists in parallel with Amberle’s and they support each other on their way. Even Eretria seems a bit more lifelike than I remember, though it’s not clear yet where she fits into the bigger story except as the other prong of the love triangle. Regardless, it’s nice to see the story kind of updated and expanded to give the girls larger and more heroic roles, and I’m legitimately excited to see what happens next.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

  • The show could definitely be more racially diverse. There are a lot of people of color in crowd scenes and background roles, and it’s cool to see a black woman as the Commander of the elven army, but all of the main roles except Manu Bennett’s Allanon were cast with white people. So it’s not the worst show in terms of diversity, but it could have been better.
  • I would have especially liked to see more of the Rovers cast as non-white actors. I know it’s from the books, but if you’re going to use tired old stereotypes of travelling people in your story, you could at least not make them all super white to boot.
  • I don’t like the chestplate thing that Manu Bennett wears. It looks weird.
  • The CGI scenery looked amazing, but the CGI for the demons left something to be desired.