As one of the most anticipated shows of the year, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone was already being prized to be the next epic fantasy. That expectation puts a lot of pressure on the show to create a narrative that is engaging and thrilling. Did they succeed in this? Overall, yes. That’s not to say it’s a perfect adaptation, but the positives outweigh the negative and, the first season of Shadow and Bone lays the foundations that introduce viewers to a richly immersive fantasy world. Here is why you should be watching Shadow and Bone.
Credit must be given to the phenomenal cast, who perfectly captured the essence of their respective characters. As someone that has a soft spot for those crows, it was such a joy to see the characters you love be plucked out of the books and onto the screen. Announcing Ben Barnes as the notorious Darkling certainly gave this show an air of credibility when news first broke, but after watching Shadow and Bone, this cast of rising stars prove that they can hold their own on this show. The beauty of their performances lies in those subtle moments that demonstrate their understanding of their characters and their motives. A clear example of this is in Amita Suman’s Inej’s reaction to witnessing Alina’s power. Inej has always been that beacon of hope that is grounded by her belief in the saints. Upon witnessing the power of the sun summoner, Sumita created a subtle but incredibly moving moment that emphasised the core qualities of Inej’s character. It’s these moments that allows viewers to connect with our heroes on a deeper level, one that is only possible because of the cast’s commitment and understanding of their characters.
One of the biggest challenged this show faced was how to successfully intertwine the separate narratives of the Six of Crows duology and the Shadow and Bone trilogy. On the whole, Shadow and Bone impressed with their handling of these narratives, even surprising this viewer with how effortlessly they managed to bring the Crows into the Shadow and Bone narrative. These intertwining narratives served as a brilliant introduction to the Crows and effectively, if not conveniently, set up their Ice court heist. What was also impressive was how engaging the Shadow and Bone narrative was. As someone whose interest in the Shadow and Bone books faded over the years, they did a brilliant job of building this rapport between the Shadow and Bone characters without having the Six of Crows cast overshadow the overarching narrative of the Fold and Grisha politics. The balance between both casts of characters was well executed, and the fact they found a way to broadly link Nina and Matthias to the plot was equally as crafty.
As I’ve mentioned throughout this post, the success of Shadow and Bone is largely tied to the brilliant chemistry between the cast. It’s this chemistry that quickly led to an astonishing amount of depth to the various character dynamics presented throughout the season. Within 8 episodes, the cast has already established a deep sense of history between the characters, allowing viewers to invest in their journey. Mal and Alina are the destined friends to lovers with a natural chemistry that make them the couple to root for, and within that, they still carry a sense of independence that gives them room to breathe as individuals. Similarly, the trio of Jesper, Kaz, and Inej, already establishes the complexity of their dynamic as work colleagues that blur the lines of colleagues and personal companions. Kaz Brekker, known for his brutality, was softened down this season, but still carried that sense of forced detachment that demonstrates the conflict between his head and heart, especially where Inej is concerned.
Finally, we have the Darkling. A polarising figure that cements himself as a villain that genuinely believes himself to be the hero of this tale. Ben Barnes delivers a compelling performance that perfectly captures the manipulative charm of the Darkling. He is the most dangerous villain. The kind that believes his cause to be just, but also manipulatively twists his abuse of characters like Genya as acts of strategy. This cold manipulation is as dangerous as it gets, as it creates a misplaced sense of loyalty. This charming persona has an underlying air of menace to it, one that proves just how calculating a villain the Darkling is.
Room for Improvement
While the show did an overall great job at bringing this world to life, there were a few elements that were unnecessary to the plot. The blatant element was the anti-Asian rhetoric that was woven through the season from the get-go. It felt like the racial comments directed towards Alina were thrown in for the sake of it. It was unnecessary, especially since there was no attempt to explore the seriousness of the issue. If you’re going to throw in racial slurs, then it’s only right that you engage with them to further the discussion on race within the Grishaverse and beyond. Hopefully, this element is not carried into the seasons to come.
Similarly, the body horror of the antler collar felt like an unnecessary exploit to cement the Darkling as the true villain of this tale. Despite the Darkling being a beloved character to many, the showrunner’s and Ben’s magnificent performance had already proved that the Darkling was a formidable villain. The fusion of the antlers seemed like a gruesome visual prop to emphasise a fact that we already believed in the Darkling’s villainous arc.
Finally, while the overall narrative successfully managed to weave in and link the many arcs in this tale, there were times where these many narratives felt disjointed from the overall flow of the story, serving as a rushed guidepost getting the characters from plot A to B. For example, while the interaction between Kaz and the Darkling was brilliant, it did feel like the moment was mainly included to fulfil this fandom dream of having these two dominant characters meet. This is not a major issue, but when thinking about those unfamiliar with the books, it’s easy to see how they might get confused by the multiple narratives and fantastical elements. This issue was almost inevitable given the number of characters there were to introduce and arcs to align/established in such a short amount of time. Overall, they did a great job at weaving these narratives, but there were still a few clunky moments scattered in between.
To conclude, Shadow and Bone succeed in creating a compelling fantasy world that’s rich in lore and has an abundance of characters that represent the richness of the Grishaverse. While it’s not without its faults and plays on enough classic fantasy tropes, the chemistry between the cast and the intrigue of our characters cements Shadow and Bone as an engaging fantasy series.