Tag Archives: The Shannara Chronicles

The Shannara Chronicles: “Wraith” proves the show hasn’t forgotten its soapy roots

One of the things I loved about season one of The Shannara Chronicles was how unabashedly YA the show was, and, while I enjoyed the season two premiere, I nevertheless had some mixed feelings about what seemed to be a turn towards more adult-targeted action fantasy. The second episode of the season, “Wraith,” takes a step back from action in favor of focusing on soap opera and political intrigue, and it’s deliciously fun. It does feel decidedly less YA than last season, with several older characters being introduced and last year’s crop of teens played by twenty-somethings feeling much more their actual age. It’s another aspect of the shift in tone with the show’s move from MTV to Spike, but it still works. “Wraith” is a solidly enjoyable hour that smartly uses short scenes and quick cuts to keep things moving along briskly in a dialogue-heavy episode.

**Spoilers ahead!**

Wil & Mareth

The episode opens with Wil and Mareth running from the wraiths that found them last week. Or, rather, Wil is running to Shady Vale to find his uncle Flick and Mareth is sticking with him because she insists that Wil is her best chance of finding Allanon. When the two of them duck into a very pretty cave to escape the wraiths, we learn that Mareth is Pyria’s daughter and was estranged from her mother before Pyria’s death back in season one. As they continue towards Shady Vale, Wil and Mareth argue over magic, with Wil insisting that he’s just an ordinary guy who wants to live an ordinary life and Mareth opining that having magic is a gift and a responsibility—while also pointing out that no matter what Wil says, he’s still been using his magic and that if he really didn’t want it he would have gotten rid of the elfstones long since. It’s a pretty classic fantasy theme, but it’s perennially interesting to see characters work through the whole magic-as-burden-and-curse vs. magic-as-gift-and-responsibility debate; I only hope the show doesn’t get distracted and forget they brought it up.

When Wil and Mareth arrive at Shady Vale, they find Wil’s childhood home in shambles, but Flick Ohmsford is still alive. Wil patches his uncle up a bit, and Flick gives some more history of Wil’s father Shea Ohmsford, Allanon, and the last war against the warlock lord. It turns out that Shea wasn’t driven mad by overusing the elfstone, but from refusing to embrace his power. It seems that this might be the encouragement and validation Wil needed to embrace his identity as a Shannara, although it’s at odds with everything Flick raised Wil to believe all these years. Still, I’m inclined to forgive this inconsistency in the interest of moving along from this boring ass plot. I’m very interested in Mareth and her hunt for her deadbeat druid dad, but Wil—adorable as he is—has always been the weakest character of the show, and his family drama in deeply boring.

Eretria, Lyria & Leah

Last time we saw this pair, they’d been captured by Rovers, and I was looking forward to seeing them escape this week. Instead, they are “rescued” almost immediately by a bounty hunter named Garet Jax, who hints at Lyria’s secret identity before knocking Eretria out and leaving with Lyria. In a surprising (due to timing only) twist, Lyria turns out to be the princess of the human kingdom of Leah; Garet Jax was sent by her mother, Queen Tamsin, to retrieve her. Tamsin is currently receiving the still-struggling King Ander, and she wants the elven king to marry Lyria and unite their kingdoms after years of disagreement between them. Ander has some reservations and doesn’t want to be trapped in a loveless marriage. We find out that he and Catania are now in a relationship, though she believes it’s his duty as king to do what’s best for his people, even if that does mean a political marriage. Eretria shows up and is justifiably upset with Lyria, which is exacerbated by Tamsin’s manipulation. Eretria’s about to leave with Allanon to go find Wil when General Riga shows up and kidnaps the druid. She decides to go after them, sending Catania to tell King Ander about what’s happened, but Catania is intercepted by one of Ander’s guards, who kills her (or at least stabs her), outing himself to the audience as a Crimson collaborator.

It is a lot to take in.

Fortunately, all this mess of events is delivered in short, snappy scenes that stay laser-focused on their point. If anything, we could have used a handful of interstitial scenes to explain some of what’s going on. I would have liked to see a little of Eretria tracking Garet Jax and Lyria, for example, and it would have been nice to have a little more of a sense of the relationship between Ander and Catania before now. I mean, how did that happen? Still, there’s something rather refreshing about the lack of hand-holding here and there’s a pleasing kind of honesty about the show being willing to just go balls to the wall with this mix of family drama and political intrigue. And it helps that the intrigue is so delightful. Ander isn’t always the most likeable fellow, and we’re still getting a sense of who he is as a king, so it’s not obvious yet whether Tamsin is justified or not in her vendetta against the elves. Her self-interested calculation may be perfectly sensible. Similarly, Tamsin’s assessment of her daughter and Tamsin’s frank statements to Eretria are at least somewhat accurate. Lyria is at best an unreliable narrator, and it will be interesting to see what she does next. It’s a little disappointing to see what seemed last week to be a sweet and healthy same-sex relationship broken up this early in the season, but there’s always the hope of a happy reunion later on.

What works both best and worst about the stuff going on in Leah is probably Leah itself. The wide shots of Tamsin’s castle are almost cartoonish, and there’s a very poorly composited green screen shot right as Ander and Allanon arrive, but the interior sets are decent enough. I suspect these might be reused sets from Arborlon in season one, but changes in set dressing, lighting and costuming help to make Leah feel real and lived in. The bordello scene is surprisingly not disgusting towards women and could even have been a bit more risqué without being amiss. Overall, there’s something of an Emerald City-inspired feel to it all that I liked, for wall that it is derivative. I liked the variety of costumes—even Lyria’s bizarre open-crotched dress. What I appreciated most of all, however, was the diversity. While the first season of the show had a tendency to cast actors of color in significant supporting roles against a backdrop of whiteness (a common criticism of shows attempting to bring diversity to the screen), Leah is full of diverse crowd shots that make it clear that this is a criticism that someone in charge, somewhere, heard and took to heart and has worked to improve upon in this little corner of television.

Bandon

Bandon is still hunting for Wil when he comes upon some of Riga’s Crimson torturing a healer from Storlock. Bandon kills the Crimson soldiers and takes over torturing the gnome, reading his mind to find out where Wil went. He leaves the gnome alive, even heals him, before leaving to go find Wil, who is still in Shady Vale with Flick and Mareth. When Bandon finally catches up to Wil, we find out that he doesn’t want to kill Wil; he wants Wil as an ally, even trying to manipulate Wil into compliance by reading Wil’s mind and bringing up Wil’s own grievance against Allanon, who Bandon insists is the real enemy. What Bandon really wants, however, is the skull of the Warlock Lord, and he’s been told that “the Shannara” knows where it is. It’s not Wil who knows, though; it’s Flick, who was there when Allanon and Shea Ohmsford defeated the Warlock Lord and hid his parts. When Wil refuses to join Bandon, Bandon takes Flick and gives Wil three days to find Allanon and bring Allanon to Bandon.

It’s a difficult task that Bandon sets for Wil, kind of unreasonably so, but this is a fantasy show. I figure next week will be another action-adventure episode, with Wil rushing to find and rescue Allanon so they can go and rescue Flick. What is most surprising in all of this, to be honest, is the fast pace at which events are unfolding. Last season had a couple of very strange side-quest episodes, including the ridiculous “Utopia,” and I’m hoping we don’t get anything like that this time around. At the same time, oh-god-please-nothing-as-godawful-as-“Utopia” is a pretty low bar to clear. I’d much rather see the show sort out its pacing problems and be positively good instead of just not terrible.

Miscellany:

  • I still hate the wraith-vision shots. They’re cheap and lazy and don’t actually work to build up tension or anticipation.
  • I love that bisexuality is treated so nonchalantly in this show. That said, I worry that same-sex relationships aren’t treated with the same seriousness and legitimacy as straight ones.

 

The Shannara Chronicles: “Druid” is a promising soft reboot of the series

I wasn’t sure about The Shannara Chronicles’ move from MTV to Spike, but I’m somewhat encouraged after seeing last night’s second season premiere, which didn’t do any of the things that I was worried about but did make some general improvements to the show while functioning as a sort of soft reboot of the series. If you didn’t catch the first season of the show on MTV, “Druid” is a great place to start. It’s exposition-heavy at times, with recapping last season and introducing a new crop of characters added to the main cast, but most of this is deftly done enough that it doesn’t distract overly much from the story, which this season is jumping right into. For the time being, there are several disparate storylines without much overlap, but it seems safe to expect that at least a couple of them will be intersecting soon. All in all, it’s a promising start to the season and an enjoyable hour of television that shows a level of self-assurance and comfort with its material that wasn’t present in the first season of the show.

**Spoilers ahead.**

Eretria & Lyria

Season One ended with Eretria kidnapped and Wil leaving Arborlon in pursuit of her, but instead of following that story the new season skips right past it except for a brief scene in which Eretria is brought to a guy she knows, Cogline, who gives her the option of staying with him or going if she chooses. Though she is certain her friends will be looking for her, she stays, and there’s an immediate time jump to one year later even before the opening credits start.

A year after parting from Wil and Amberle finds Eretria seemingly happily living with Cogline and his people in the ruins of San Francisco, where she helps with scavenging for old technology and has even found a new girlfriend, Lyria, who has a mysterious backstory of her own. One of my concerns about the show’s move to Spike was that Eretria’s sexuality and this relationship would be played up to titillate a presumed male audience, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. Eretria and Lyria are affectionate with each other and even share a sweet kiss, but so far there’s been none of the half-expected camera leering or hypersexualization of the relationship in general. Instead, there’s just the strong sense that the relationship between the two women is still relatively new and that they are both maintaining some secrecy about their pasts. Lyria doesn’t make an extremely strong impression, and I’m not sold on her costume (what even is that top?), but it’s still early, and what I do like is the easy chemistry and the uncomplicated (so far) relationship between Lyria and Eretria.

There’s a somewhat gratuitous action scene right at the start, when Eretria fights off a group of about a half dozen trolls who come upon the scavengers outside the city. However, it’s nicely executed enough that I can’t complain too much about it, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it provides the opportunity—when Eretria falls through a hole in the desiccated Golden Gate Bridge and into the water below—for Eretria to have a vision of Amberle, who warns her that the world is in danger and tells her to find Wil. Before she goes to find Wil, though, Eretria spends some time weighing her options. She’s got a comfortable life with Cogline, who it turns out was a friend of Eretria’s mother’s, but she can’t stop thinking about her lost friends. In the end, it’s Lyria who pushes Eretria to go when Lyria spills the truth that Cogline has been hiding things from Eretria all along: while Eretria thought all these months that Wil hadn’t come looking for her at all, it turns out that he did but was turned away by Cogline. Cogline claims that he was only protecting Eretria, but by the end of the hour Eretria and Lyria have left the city to head to Arborlon—only to be promptly captured by Rovers.

Bandon & Allanon

Bandon has gone full-on evil and is busy making mord wraiths (imagine if Darth Maul had a baby with a Ringwraith) and tryin

g to resurrect the Warlock Lord at the most amazingly unsubtle EVIL SKULL CASTLE I’ve ever seen on television. It’s kind of absurd, but I love a show that can own that sort of absurdity. The early Shannara books were always highly derivative of Tolkien, and the first season of the show made some missteps in trying to differentiate itself from that history (I’m looking at you, “Utopia.”), but this season seems to be more interested in owning it. The post-apocalyptic touches are still there in the costumes and some of the wide shots of landscapes, but Bandon’s skull fortress is pure 1980s, Tolkien-inspired fantasy, and it’s great. The only thing greater is the prop they use for the Warlock Lord’s mummified heart, which is maybe my favorite TV prop in years. It’s fantastic.

Seriously. Look at this amazing prop. I love it so much.

Though Allanon crashes Bandon’s wraith creation and Warlock summoning party, he’s unable to prevent the younger man from creating the wraiths. They argue—with Bandon accusing Allanon of hypocrisy—and then fight—a nicely executed sword fight that nonetheless struggles to feel truly consequential in the first episode of a fresh season—and Bandon defeats his former mentor, leaving Allanon out in the cold (literally) and helplessly watching while Bandon sends his mord wraiths after Wil. Overall, these scenes setting up Bandon’s villainy are well-done, though his motivations are a little shaky. If you watched season one, you know Bandon was corrupted by the Dagda Mor, and there was always an element of choice in that; Bandon was corrupted because he was corruptible. It’s unclear just how the show is going to be exploring that idea. Bandon seems to blame Allanon for all of his problems, but even if it was Allanon’s fault that Bandon was exposed to the Dagda Mor in the first place, it isn’t reasonable that Allanon should be held accountable for all of Bandon’s actions since, especially now that Bandon is no longer possessed.

I’m also curious to see how the show handles what happened with Bandon’s season one love interest Catania. Bandon brings her up here in his railing against Allanon, blaming the druid for Catania’s rejection of Bandon, but what actually happened in season one was that Bandon, possibly under the influence of the Dagda Mor, tried to rape Catania, and she’s terrified of him. While we do get a glimpse of Catania in an Arborlon scene this week, we don’t get any of her perspective on this issue. Considering how poorly this show has treated rape in the past, I’m not sure I trust them to handle it well now. If nothing else, the usefulness of Bandon and Allanon fighting about it is pretty limited without any input from Catania herself. It’s a weird, perfunctory and muddled treatment of the topic that I don’t think shows a great understanding of last season’s events and suggests that some of those events could be retconned or repurposed in service of either Allanon’s or Bandon’s character development without taking into account Catania and what her take on the whole matter might be.

Ander Elessedil & General Riga

In Arborlon, King Ander is working hard to rebuild his kingdom after it was wrecked by demon hordes last year, but it’s tough going with little support from any of his neighbors, who are all at least a little bit happy to see the elves brought low like this. At the same time, a new reactionary movement has sprung up among his own people: The Crimson, led by one General Riga, blame magic for the demon invasion and are terrorizing and murdering anyone suspected of using magic, with a special hatred for those of the Shannara bloodline. To that end, Riga has put a bounty on Wil’s head and is exploring other avenues of hunting him as well, believing that getting rid of the last of the Shannara’s is a way to ensure the safety of the elven kingdom. By the end of the episode, Riga still hasn’t found Wil, but he has tracked down Wil’s uncle, Flick, and burned the town of Shady Vale to the ground trying to get Flick to tell him where Wil is.

Wil & Mareth

Wil finally made it to Storlock, where he’s been training with the gnomes to become a healer, but it’s not going very well for him. He’s still missing Amberle and experiencing something like PTSD symptoms that leaves him with shaking hands that are interfering with his ability to progress in his studies. He’s down to his last chance to succeed as a healer, but he’s got bigger problems, what with the bounty on his head and the posse of mord wraiths coming after him and all. He’s also got a new acquaintance, Mareth, who helps Wil fight off some bounty hunters. Mareth has her own agenda and her own magic, though. She needs will to help her find Allanon because, she says, the druid is her father.

The Wil sections of the episode weren’t terrible, but there isn’t a lot going on here yet. Austin Butler’s acting has improved, and I like his new haircut. Wil’s grief and longing for Amberle could have been conveyed more economically and less creepily; his use of the Elfstones to summon a vision of her so he could try to make out with it was, frankly, offputting. The fight scene with the bounty hunters in the bar was good, and it’s highly encouraging to see the action scenes in the show being of such consistently high quality. I think I love Mareth, who seems smart and tough and funny, though I also am a little skeptical; last season, Eretria and Amberle were often nice foils for each other, and I’d like to see that sort of diversity of female leads’ personalities to continue. That said, I can do without the love triangle dynamic that much of last season had, and I’m really rooting for Eretria and Lyria, which takes some pressure off Mareth to be so vastly different from the other woman in Wil’s life. We’ll see. It’s early yet.

Miscellany:

  • I’m not even kidding about how much I love the mummified Warlock Lord heart prop. I was delighted when it started pumping blood all over.
  • Could have done without the mord wraith vision effect in a couple of late shots. I get what they were going for, but without Evil Dead’s panache it just felt silly.
  • Desmond Chiam is an outrageously beautiful man.
Desmond Chiam as General Riga.

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.

Whoops.

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.