This week’s pair of episodes don’t match as well as last week’s and not as consistent in quality, but by the end of the second one it seems as if the likely outline of the season finale is taking shape. That’s not to say the show has gotten predictable, however. There were several genuine surprises in “Warlock” and “Amberle,” and if those surprises don’t necessarily make me think the show is turning over an ambitious new leaf in terms of upending tropes and breaking out of storytelling conventions, they do make me wary of making too many predictions for the final two episodes of the season (and, let’s be real, possibly the series) that will be airing next week. “Warlock” is definitely the weaker of these episodes; it’s plot-focused and shallow, at times feeling like a run-on sentence of happenings, whereas “Amberle” has a strong central theme and packs some emotional punch. Together, though, they make up another solid couple of hours of high fantasy entertainment, without some of the lows that characterized the show’s first season, even if they don’t reach any new heights.
The thing I love most about The Shannara Chronicles is how unabashedly it is what it is. It doesn’t put on airs or pretend at depth that it doesn’t have, and it’s pretty consistently fun and entertaining. Season 1 of the show was a little erratic in terms of quality, but Season 2 has been stronger and more reliably good every week. This week’s back-to-back episodes, “Paranor” and “Crimson,” work so well together that it finally feels as if the show is really hitting its stride, both narratively—with genuinely good, if not terribly innovative, storytelling—and creatively—being full of fantastic costumes and set dressings and with multiple excellently choreographed fight scenes. While the show still has its fair share of silly subplots and iffy character beats, the world of Shannara is finally starting to feel as big and lived in as it needs to be in order to support the enormous amount of story being told. (And it really is a wild amount of story in these two episodes.)
Let’s dig in.
Mareth, Wil, & Allanon at Paranor
It’s probably best to understand these episodes as a single two-part story, and this is nowhere clearer than in the parts that take place at the old druid stronghold, where Wil, Mareth and Allanon have traveled to rescue Wil’s uncle Flick from Bandon. This story takes up the majority of screen time across both episodes, and it’s the most complete of the two major storylines this week. (The other ends on something of a cliffhanger.) It’s also the riskier of the two storylines, with a time travel plot that I was highly skeptical of when I heard about it, but I have to admit now that it worked much better than I expected.
So, Wil, Mareth and Allanon arrive at Paranor, but before they head in, Allanon decides that Mareth can’t in because he doesn’t fully trust her. Wil isn’t thrilled about this, but he accepts it because he’s anxious to save Flick and they don’t have much time left. Time and trust are the main themes of this storyline this week, and those things become even more important when Wil and Allanon meet with Bandon inside Paranor. Bandon doesn’t trust them to give him the Warlock Lord’s skull, so he cuts Flick’s face with his evil magic sword, infecting the older man with a disease that only Bandon can cure in order to ensure that Wil and Allanon deliver on their promise. They aren’t happy about this turn of events, but Allanon does some magic that reveals the skull in a small chamber. Once Bandon is in the chamber as well, however, the skull disappears and a door closes, trapping both men in a magical prison. It turns out the skull was only one of Mareth’s illusions and that she and Allanon planned this from the beginning, with leaves Wil feeling angry and betrayed; Bandon is still the only one who can cure Flick’s disease, and he’s firm on being unwilling to do it until the skull is in his hands.
Fortunately, there’s still a way for them to get the skull, but it requires the blood of a druid and a Shannara to open the way, and it has to be done without Allanon, who is very against this plan. Allanon still doesn’t believe Mareth is his daughter, but she’s able, with Wil, to activate the device that will take them to the Warlock Lord’s skull. What they don’t expect is for the device to take them back in time to the village of Shady Vale before Wil’s birth, where they meet Wil’s parents, Shea and Heady, who are the key to finding where the skull is hidden. By the time Wil and Mareth return to Paranor with the skull, Flick is in bad shape and Allanon has started to age and weaken while trapped in the magic prison with Bandon. When Bandon is set free, he still refuses to heal Flick before getting the skull, which leaves him and Wil at an impasse that’s broken when the dying Flick impales himself on Bandon’s sword. Wil and Bandon fight, Mareth tries to use her illusions to hide the skull, the Sword of Shannara shatters, Allanon is injured and Bandon manages to escape with the skull, leaving the rest of them to mourn for Flick.
It’s a busy couple of episodes, especially for Wil and Mareth. I expect the time travel plot won’t be popular with devoted fans of the books, if there are any of those still watching the show at this point, but I rather liked it. There’s nothing groundbreaking being done here, and there are times when Wil and Mareth seem confused about whether they are in a hurry or not (they spend a lot of time saying they have to hurry), but it’s nonetheless an overall likable interlude. Wil initially wants to change the past and prevent the suffering he knows is in store for Shea, but Mareth nips that idea in the bud and they mostly focus on finding the Warlock Lord’s skull. The interactions between Wil and his parents (his mother, Heady, appears in these episodes as well) are a little cheesy at times and hit basically all the expected emotional beats, though the tone is kept light enough that it never becomes maudlin. The parallels between Wil and Shea as the reluctant heroes of their respective generations are nicely portrayed, and this whole adventure provides a great opportunity for us to see just how much Wil has changed and matured since we first met him in season one.
If I have one quibble about the time travel storyline—aside from the inconsistency over whether or not Wil and Mareth are supposed to be rushing to find the skull—it’s the introduction of Mareth’s crush on Wil. On the one hand, it’s cute to have it pointed out by Shea, and I’m not opposed to the idea of Wil and Mareth together. I ship it, truly. On the other hand, the show has not done nearly enough groundwork for that romance. Also, book readers know that Wil and Eretria end up together, and the show has always felt a bit as if that pairing was going to be endgame, so I’m concerned about what a Wil/Mareth pairing could mean in that context. It’s fine if the show wants to go in a different direction than the books, but it would be infuriating to have to watch Mareth have unrequited feelings or, worse, to see her fridged or otherwise conveniently disposed of to make room for the endgame ship later on. If they’re serious about Wil and Mareth, however, the relationship needs more room to develop. The pair have been constantly on the move and dealing with crises since they met, and the addition of even a couple of quiet, romantic moments, especially if they showed us more about Mareth, would go a long way toward making this relationship work.
While Wil and Mareth are time traveling, Allanon has to deal with Bandon and Flick, two men who both bear grudges against him that are at least partially justified. Bandon has ceded his moral high ground by trying to resurrect ancient evil, but Flick’s grievance against Allanon is real and definitely calls into question Allanon’s tactics and his history with the Shannara family. It’s always been clear that Allanon sees himself as a hero, protecting the world from evil and preserving the secrets and magic of the druids in order to do good, but this season has really been all about picking apart at that self-image and forcing Allanon to reckon with his past and be accountable for his recent and current actions. Here, he’s confronted, again, by Bandon, but it’s Flick’s indictment that carries real emotional weight this week. Allanon’s sad assertion that “some are born for sacrifice” isn’t very comforting to Flick as he lays dying, and the juxtaposition of Flick’s final act of selflessness with a younger Allanon arriving in Shady Vale and meeting a very young Flick right as Wil and Mareth are leaving is a thoughtful and powerful way of bringing this emotional arc full circle.
Eretria, Garet Jax, Lyria & the Crimson
The episode opens with Eretria and Garet Jax running from Queen Tamlin’s guards. Jax has something important to do elsewhere, so he peels off and leaves Eretria to fight off several guards on her own. It’s a reasonably impressive fight that ends when Cogline shows up to help. It’s a bit of plot convenience theater, but Eretria is happy to see her friend, hoping that he’ll go to Paranor with her to help Wil. Cogline has other ideas, however. He needs to see Queen Tamlin, though it turns out to be mostly for expository purposes. We learn that Cogline is an ex-druid who uses both science and magic, and, more pertinently, we learn more about Tamlin’s deal with the Warlock Lord: she promised him access to “Heaven’s Well,” a place that is the source of a major river but also a source of magic, and there’s basically no chance that the Warlock Lord isn’t going to expect Tamlin to deliver.
After warning Tamlin about the Warlock Lord, Cogline takes Eretria to an abandoned bunker for more exposition, this time about Eretria and her past. We learn that Eretria’s mysterious tattoo signifies that she’s one of “Armageddon’s Children,” a demon hybrid, and this makes her both potentially powerful and vulnerable to corruption by the Warlock Lord. Cogline has brought her to the bunker, where he’s imprisoned one of the less powerful mord wraiths, so Eretria can train herself to command demons and to resist the influence of the Warlock Lord. I don’t recall any of this stuff from any of the Shannara books I read fifteen to twenty years ago, so I’m pretty sure this is wholly new mythology invented for the show. It’s fine, I guess. It essentially sidelines Eretria for an episode and a half, disconnecting her from all the other characters, but it also provides her with a history that ties her intimately to the war between good and evil in the Four Lands and creates an internal conflict for her to wrestle with going forward. There’s nothing particularly special about any of her scenes in these two episodes, but this is a set-up that ought to pay off well later in the season.
After splitting up with Eretria, Garet Jax goes to visit the family of one of his dead Border Patrol men. While it’s been some time since he’s been there, it’s apparently his habit to support the family as much as he can, and he’s brought some money for them. While he’s inside talking to the widow, however, her son is playing outside only to be captured and murdered by General Riga’s lieutenant, Valcca, who has tracked Jax to the little house by the seaside. The death of the little boy is a senseless bit of grimdark for the sake of grimdarkness, but it does motivate Jax to capture Valcca and take him back to Leah, where Jax bonds with Slanter and the now-engaged Lyria and Ander over torturing Valcca for information.
Things take a wrong turn when Valcca manages to escape before Lyria and Ander’s wedding, but Tamlin sends Jax out to hunt Valcca. Jax catches up to Valcca quickly, but Valcca has already reconnected with Riga. The two Crimson men easily defeat Jax, and Riga tells Valcca to “take care of” Jax for good. Before Valcca can kill the bounty hunter, though, Jax wakes up and kills him instead. Then Jax leaves to, we quickly learn, find Eretria, who has been left alone with the mord wraith in the bunker. Jax shows up just in time to see Eretria kill the creature, and he whisks her away so they can try to warn Tamlin about Riga.
“Crimson” ends with the royal wedding in Leah, and it’s so dramatic. Right as Ander and Lyria are about to say their vows, the priest whips his hood off and it’s General Riga, which kicks off a major battle with everyone in their wedding clothes. Ander and Riga square off, but the elf king is mortally wounded almost right off. Lyria picks up a sword and tries to fight Riga, but she’s a small woman in a ballgown and no match for a seasoned fighter half again her size. Garet Jax and Eretria show up right at the last minute and just in time to see Lyria almost get killed by Riga, but Ander manages to use his final burst of strength to save her. The episode ends with Ander dying while a chaotic battle still rages on.
- Wil’s “condolences” to Mareth on it being proved that Allanon is her father was a perfect moment.
- I really appreciate that the group of guards that Eretria fights in the beginning of the episode are a mix of men and women. It’s such a simple thing that there’s really no excuse for shows like this not to do.
- It was nice that Catania got to have a memorial, though it’s a bit too little too late to make her murder feel really emotionally consequential, especially as the show moves right past it to Lyria and Ander committing to a political marriage.
- Why does Lyria’s actual wedding dress look so wildly different than the one Tamlin was having made before the wedding? Like, it’s a gorgeous dress, either way, but it was significantly different.
- Meanwhile, Slanter has no nice clothes at all, I guess.
- Everyone is having visions these days: Shea has visions of the future, Wil has visions when he returns to Paranor, and Eretria has a short vision when she kills the mord wraith in the bunker.
- How great can the Sword of Shannara be if it just shatters like that?
- I’m gonna be pissed if Allanon dies.
The Shannara Chronicles continues to improve in its second season, giving us a strongly entertaining episode in “Dweller.” I’m a little skeptical of just how much plot is happening per episode in this show, just, you know, in general, and there’s a lot going on in “Dweller,” but it all, somewhat miraculously, worked this week. The show has a tendency to use a lot of storytelling shorthand, and that’s apparent in every storyline in this episode, but most of that shorthand is smart, and the couple of groanworthy instances of coincidence that do pop up are pretty forgivable ones. There’s also a higher than Shannara-average amount of genuinely good acting in this episode, which helps solidify the emotional beats, though there are still a couple that don’t quite land on target. It’s not perfect, but “Dweller” is about as good as The Shannara Chronicles gets.
Bandon (and Tamlin) (but mostly Flick)
The episode opens with Queen Tamlin being visited by Bandon, who is there to tell her that the Warlock Lord hasn’t forgotten the debt she owes him. Apparently, Tamlin was young and new to ruling during the last war against the Warlock Lord, and she bargained with him to help her people and preserve her kingdom. It’s not clear exactly what the terms of the agreement were, but it seems this is a piper who demands to be paid. What will be interesting to see in the coming weeks is whether the threat of the Warlock Lord drives the scheming Tamlin to a genuine alliance with the elves or if she’s going to try for a better deal with the forces of darkness.
The rest of Bandon’s considerable screen time in “Dweller” is spent making his way toward Paranor with Flick Ohmsford. When they stop to take a break so Bandon can get shirtless and show off how ripped he is, Flick tries to make the case that people are actually okay and that maybe bringing back the Warlock Lord isn’t a great idea. Bandon’s a true misanthrope though, and his counterpoint is that people are terrible and Allanon in particular is the worst. To prove his point, Bandon takes Flick on a detour to a farm we soon learn is Bandon’s childhood home. It’s been fixed up a bit since demons wrecked the place in season one, and there’s a new family living there. Bandon approaches the family to ask if he and his “uncle” could get food and lodging for the night and they’re happy to help the travelers, but over dinner Bandon’s simple question about what the family thinks of magic-users elicits a violently hateful response. Worse, it becomes clear that the family knows the story of their home’s previous inhabitants; they’ve even saved the disgusting muzzle Bandon’s own parents had forced on him. It’s not terribly surprising when things take a scary turn. Bandon conjures winds to push the farmer and his wife against the wall of the abode, and he captures their tween son, forces the muzzle on him and then squeezes the boy’s neck until blood starts coming out of the kid’s mouth and nose.
And this is one of the emotional beats that doesn’t quite land the way it seems to be intended. It seems as if we’re supposed to consider Bandon’s experiment here seriously. He basically bet Flick that these common people, of the sort that Flick insists are mostly decent folk, aren’t and that he can prove it, and in a sense Bandon succeeds at this when he prompts the family about magic and their murderous opinions about magic-users come right out. Like many fearful people, this family is full of hateful opinions about what they don’t understand, and they think safety will come from destroying the object of their fear. However, Bandon’s moral reasoning here is childish and simplistic. It’s not ignorant farmers who murder magic-users and craft discriminatory policy, though they may support political or military leaders who do. It’s bad systems that foster ignorance in a populace, allow bigotry to take hold in government, and fail to root out abusers of power. It’s difficult to take Bandon’s grievance seriously when it’s so clearly a case of misdirected rage. Bandon has been a victim of some real injustice, and he’s also been a victim of bad luck, but this family isn’t the agent of his pain, even if they do have some terrible opinions.
Bandon’s decision to kill the young son, in particular, makes it difficult to give much merit to Bandon’s point of view. It’s an especially brutal death and filmed in almost lascivious detail, often focusing on the face of the boy while he’s being murdered, but it’s through dialogue while the murder is occurring that Bandon makes his final point, such as it is. The farmers opined that the son of the previous family was just “born damaged,” and Bandon repeats those words back to them as he murders their child. This is framed as irony, but also as real pathos; Flick’s face as he watches Bandon is sad, and it seems that the audience is also supposed to feel saddened and sympathetic towards Bandon. It’s a moment that doesn’t work for me and shouldn’t work for most people. Bandon is killing a child. Because he’s mad that people dislike and distrust magic. And he’s mad about his parents and about Allanon. But he’s using magic to kill a child in front of the child’s parents. It’s nonsensical. It’s not sympathetic. It’s actually heinously evil, and the only thing Bandon’s actions here should have proved to anyone is that, yeah, magic is powerful and dangerous, but also that Bandon is stupidly, senselessly cruel.
I just don’t have a lot of patience for these sorts of narratives these days, especially when the parallels to real-world current events are as unsubtle as they are here. Any urge the viewer might have to cheer Bandon on for murdering a child to punish the child’s bigoted parents is an ugly urge that ought to be tamped down rather than encouraged. Flick may be overestimating the goodness of the common people, but murdering children isn’t the moral equivalent of being poorly informed and frightened of magic, especially when another major theme of this show is that magic actually is dangerous, that it has a price, and that it’s important that magical power doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. This whole storyline in this episode is a messy metaphor that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and tries to require the viewer to accept the absurd proposition that Bandon and this family of farmers are essentially moral and ethical equals. It’s a nasty case of both-sides-ism that is as frustrating as it tries to be timely.
We don’t see much of Riga this week. There’s just one short scene that pops in back at Graymark to see how he’s taking the apparent loss of his entire force of men there. Trackers were sent after Allanon and his friends after they escaped, but they’ve been unsuccessful. In a fit of rage, Riga kills the man who brought him this bit of bad news and then tells his single remaining lackey that they need to contact Edain to hurry up the shipment of weapons they’re supposed to be getting from Leah. My biggest question here is: who is going to use all those weapons? It looks like Riga and this one captain or whatever are literally the last men standing at Graymark.
Eretria, Garet Jax, Ander, Lyria and Leah
Right after the opening credits, the group that escaped from Graymark last week is already splitting up, with Eretria and Garet Jax being sent to Leah. At Graymark, they realized that all of the Crimson soldiers were using weapons made of Leah steel, which suggests a secret alliance between Riga’s forces and the human kingdom. On the road, Garet Jax wakes up from a nightmare and discloses a little more of his backstory to Eretria, though it’s not much more than we already knew about his being part of the Border Guard and surviving a massacre. When the pair arrive in Leah, they find Ander, who’s worried about Catania and starting to be suspicious of Edain, getting sort-of rejected by Lyria, who is professing her love for Eretria. Seriously. In an obvious piece of plot convenience theater, Jax and Eretria show up right as Lyria is telling Ander that she’s in love with Eretria. It’s silly, but I like Eretria and Lyria, so I’m willing to accept it.
The news and evidence that Eretria and Jax bring about the weapons the Crimson are getting from Leah alarms Ander, but he never doubts them. It’s actually kind of impressive how easily he believes them about Edain’s treachery, and the elf king is quick to come up with a plan that allows them to catch Edain in the act of moving weapons from Leah to the Crimson. It’s not clear how much information they get out Edain and his co-conspirators, but it does seem that Queen Tamlin is working hard to maintain enough plausible deniability to avoid being implicated. She claims that she had no knowledge of Edain or his activities, and she even organizes the execution of Edain and the Leah men he was working with—though it’s Ander who actually executes his former friend.
The final scenes in Leah this week are Lyria and Eretria and then Lyria and her mother. Eretria is leaving Leah again to go help Wil, but before she goes she advises Lyria to rethink her relationship with Tamlin. Eretria points out that Tamlin needs Lyria more than Lyria needs her mother, and this gets the wheels in Lyria’s head turning. After Eretria is gone, Lyria goes to Tamlin and tells her mother how things are going to be from now on. It seems that Lyria is going to pull the trigger on marriage to Ander after all, but she makes it very clear to Tamlin that she intends to be a real ruler and that Tamlin will have to earn her as an ally. I’m starting to get very worried about Lyria’s lifespan, though. Tamlin seems to have at least some real love for her daughter, but she’s also got the threat of the Warlock Lord to worry about, and Ander already has two dead girlfriends, one of them a black woman. It also increasingly feels as if Eretria and Wil are the show’s endgame couple, which would be in line with the books. Sure, the show is rather famously divorced from the source material, but still. I’m going to be extremely pissed off if Lyria ends up fridged to make way for Wil and Eretria to pair off.
Wil, Allanon and Mareth
While Eretria and Jax head of the Leah, the rest of our heroes are off to Paranor, where they hope to rescue Flick. First, though, Mareth approaches Allanon about his being her father, which he denies and rather cruelly rejects her, refusing to even consider training her to control her magic, which is really all she wants. Allanon insists to Wil that the druid sleep ought to have made him infertile, and it made me actually cackle to imagine a younger Allanon telling Mareth’s mom that they don’t need to use condoms because he’s totally infertile, only for her to find out a couple months later that he was incorrect. I can’t help it. It’s just such a line, and Allanon is being such an asshole to Mareth. I mean, even if he doesn’t believe she’s his daughter, he could still help her out with her magic problem since that’s kind of his job and a moral imperative or whatever. Instead, he’s just kind of a dick to her throughout the episode.
It’s a great week for druid detours, though Allanon’s isn’t as sinister as Bandon’s. Allanon is taking Wil to retrieve the Sword of Shannara, which is hidden at the grave of Wil’s father, Shae. The elder Ohmsford’s final resting place is inside a huge, beautiful cave that, from the top, looks like a giant vagina surrounded by trees, which isn’t at all a heavy-handed bit of visual language suggesting rebirth. However, before Wil can get his dad’s sword and symbolically come of age and power as he raises up an inherited phallic symbol he has to defeat the huge tentacle-spider—the titular “Dweller”—that stalks the cave in a sequence that’s shamelessly cribbed from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.
I poke a little fun, but I loved this stuff. The vagina tree cave is hilariously on the nose. The visual and even auditory references to the Shelob sequence from The Return of the King are such an obvious homage to a good movie that it’s hard to get mad about them. There’s some great banter and a lot of evidence that Austin Butler is growing as an actor. The Dweller doesn’t look bad; at the very least the compositing is competent so that it feels like there’s a real creature in the scene with decent lighting. The defeat of the Dweller through teamwork was nice. Shae Ohmsford’s “grave” is baffling (I have so many questions), but it looks awesome, and the Sword of Shannara is another great-looking prop. Most importantly, for all that there’s a lot of story and character stuff crammed in here, it never feels perfunctory or rushed and it all makes a reasonable amount of sense if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the high fantasy of it all.
- Eretria stole the Elfstones back for Wil when they were at Graywatch, which answers my question from last week, but her explanation was basically “I saw these sitting around and thought you might need them” and that is deeply silly and really stretches the limits of what you can get away with having happen off screen.
After a slower, soapier hour last week, The Shannara Chronicles is back with a more action-focused hour in “Graymark.” Short scenes continue to give an illusion of a fast pace, but this is coupled in this episode with an actually fast—one might say too fast—pace. Seriously. A lot of ground is covered in “Graymark,” which is exciting, but the speed with which all this travel and story happens has the unfortunate effect of making the world of Shannara feel remarkably small. This lack of epicness plagued the show’s first season as well, but the first couple episodes of season two involved somewhat less travel and the time-lapses between events within those episodes were handled a little more deftly than they are in this one, making it less notable. In an episode focused largely on a single major event/quest, it would have been nice for it to have more of a feeling of consequence. What I loved about “Graymark,” however, is how unabashedly high fantasy it is. The Shannara Chronicles has always been a show that owned its late-70s-to-mid-80s origin, but it was in rare retro form this week.
The episode opens at the titular fortress—complete with unsubtly Nazi-ish decoration and a whole lot of razor wire—where Allanon is being imprisoned and tortured by General Riga, who is dead set on rooting out and banishing all magic from the Four Lands. The way to do that, Riga thinks, is by destroying the Codex of Paranor, which is the repository of all remaining druid knowledge. Allanon tries appealing to Riga’s sense of justice and points out that the Warlock Lord is their common enemy, but Riga insists that “the true enemy is magic.” Having no luck with torturing the information he needs out of Allanon, Riga’s plan is to hunt down Wil Ohmsford and torture him until Allanon gives in to Riga’s demands. Fortunately for Riga, he doesn’t have to do much hunting.
Immediately after the opening credits, Eretria has managed (with a little help from Garet Jax) to track down Wil. As great as it is to have Wil and Eretria reunited, this all feels a little too easy and convenient. The two of them do have a couple of good conversations, though some of that was recapping season one events, presumably for viewers who are new to the show this year. The important thing, though, is that Eretria brings the news of Allanon’s capture by General Riga right at the time when Wil needs to find Allanon for his own reasons (to save Flick), so the two of them, along with Garet Jax and Mareth, are going to go extract Allanon from Graymark. And that’s basically the rest of the episode.
It’s a great quest adventure set-up in the high fantasy tradition, with clear stakes and a straightforward plan and it goes about how anyone familiar with the genre would expect. I only wish it had been given a little more room to breathe instead of smushing all this story into a single episode.
It’s not even that there’s just so much story here. There’s just an awful lot of torture, and it’s unpleasant to watch. Depictions of torture in general can be fraught, not least because torture is not a thing that works, which makes it irresponsible to depict in a favorable light. The good news is that’s not what’s going on here. Neither Allanon nor Wil are willing to give in to Riga’s torture. The bad news is twofold: first, the torture is depicted with an almost pornographic relish, which is gross, and, second, it undermines Riga as a sympathetic villain. Even as we learn about the death of Riga’s wife and unborn child (sigh) and his mother being attacked while pregnant by the magical creatures whose influence made Riga himself immune to magic, we see scene after scene of Riga coldly and viciously torturing two of the show’s main protagonists.
One gets the sense that Riga has some fundamental principles that he’s guided by and that his war against magic is something of a crusade that he feels morally justified in waging, but the way he tortures Allanon and Wil seems unbound by any rules of engagement or ethical concerns. If torture was a tactic that worked, it might be possible to accept it as part of the fantasy setting, but it’s shown two or three times over in this episode to be ineffective, making Riga’s continued reliance on it morally indefensible. He learns nothing of value here and doesn’t advance his cause at all, so his decision to use torture ends up feeling either profoundly stupid or indefensibly cruel. If Riga is stupid, it undermines his status as the most compelling villain of the series so far; if he’s wantonly cruel, it makes it really difficult to see him as sympathetic or misunderstood and diminishes the chance of any kind of redemption for him. Regardless, it’s not a good look.
What does work, surprisingly enough, is the plan for how to escape Graymark. It would have been nice to see a little more of the planning process, and the episode is a little hand-wavy about some things (like, how did Garet Jax get that map of the fortress?), but the plot of the episode is smartly put-together and well-executed. While Eretria’s reunion with Wil seemed easily accomplished earlier in the episode, there are enough real challenges in the course of this rescue plan to provide a sense of real drama and concern for the characters. Eretria and Mareth both get opportunities to use their particular skills to further the quest, and they even seem to be becoming friendly after each of them being somewhat suspicious of the other on first meeting. The episode even manages to provide space for some Garet Jax back story, though he’s not completely demystified by the end of the hour. While there’s a lot going on, and I would have liked to see more of some of the non-torture parts, what we did get on screen is nicely balanced between action, exposition and character work.
The best part of the episode, of course, is the final action scene as Allanon, Wil, Eretria, Jax, and Mareth finally escape from Graymark. It’s a well-choreographed fight scene, we get to see some magic, and all the characters get a chance to shine a little. The rain was a bit much, but it looked cool and, really, that’s what matters.
- Ander is engaged to marry Lyria.
- Catania is missing. Ran off back to Arborlon according to Edain, though we know better.
- Queen Tamsin knows that Edain is Riga’s man. Sounds like she may be funding the Crimson and fomenting this whole civil war thing that’s going on with the elves.
- Honestly could have done without the scenes in Leah altogether this week. There’s enough else going on that they felt intrusive and out of place rather than truly important or interesting in their own right.
- It’s not clear if the elfstones Riga now has are the real ones or not. It seems like there have been fake ones used at other times in the show, but they’re never commented on here one way or the other.
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.
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 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.