Shadow and Bone
Two episodes in, Shadow and Bone is already threatening to give fans like me some serious trust issues.
On one hand, many of the show’s choices are breathtaking in how well they translate the material. Kirigan’s use of the Cut on the unlucky drüskelle who nearly succeeds in killing Alina, when the caravan spiriting her back to Os Alta is beset by a band of the Fjerdan Grisha hunters, is exactly as precise and gruesome as one could hope. Ben Barnes in general, while not exactly a subtle choice if you want to keep the Darkling’s intentions a mystery, seems like he was created exclusively to play “sexy goth villain grooms young woman out of her depth” roles. (That he was a teenager when Jessie Mei Li was born definitely helps.) When Alina admits to him that she and Mal hid from the Grisha testers to avoid being separated, you can almost see the Machiavellian light bulb go on behind his eyes: There it is. Stepping just a bit too far into her personal space and telling her she’s not alone, he all at once destabilizes her and offers up her deepest desire: belonging. The moment is as elegant as it is creepy.
The show’s little tweaks in the Grishaverse lore seem considered, too. When Kirigan cuts Alina’s arm to test her power, it’s just cooler to see a laserlike beam shoot skyward from the wound — alerting all manner of political enemy to her existence — than it would be to stick to the textual explanation. (Remember “the Small Science”? In the books, summoners call their element to them from external sources, rather than create it from within. This becomes relevant in a later book, when Alina is trapped underground.) Alina herself is sharper, fiercer; she may burst into tears the moment she’s left alone in her new suite at the Little Palace, but who wouldn’t? She also immediately finds a knife to stash under her pillow, just in case!
Similarly, over in Ketterdam, it makes a lot of sense, given her faith, to meet Inej before she’s killed anyone. (By the time the events of Six of Crows roll around, while she still doesn’t like it, she does have a few bodies in her wake.) And who doesn’t love an extra bit of competency porn? Kaz not only catches a card counter in a glance; he also pegs her for an East Ravkan refugee, just based on how she counts money and describes where she’s from. Making the West Ravka/East Ravka divide more culturally consequential, as well as politically, is the type of detail that can make the difference between a passable fantasy adaptation and a truly inspired one. Especially when the detail pushes the plot forward, as it does when the woman admits she and her Grisha daughter got across the Fold with the help of a man called the Conductor.
Other aspects of this world are being enhanced and highlighted onscreen in ways the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is written in first-person limited, simply couldn’t achieve. When a survivor of the drüskelle attack makes his way back to camp, and Mal (foolishly, if well-intentioned) storms into the leadership tent calling for a search party to protect Alina, his commander’s response expands this world’s political landscape. The evolution of warcraft, he explains — guns, tanks, airplanes, etc. — is increasingly devaluing the once-indispensable, aristocratic Second Army. Once he had to sacrifice 20 of his men to save one Grisha; now he doesn’t have to. Consider how, in our own universe, protectionism in the 19th century did the same to Japan’s super-soldiers, the samurai. In the Grishaverse, the Fold has effectively functioned like a blockade, giving the rest of the world time to develop technological alternatives to Ravka’s Grisha power.
In Kirigan’s coach before the drüskelle attack, Fedyor and Ivan the Heartrenders explain to Alina how, as the Sun Summoner, she’s not only a symbol of hope for everyone suffering under the Fold’s yoke, but a symbol of hope for Grisha specifically, who, in addition to starving with the rest of East Ravka, have been widely blamed for the Fold’s creation in the first place. If a Grisha can deliver their nation, just as one crippled it long ago, perhaps the world can eventually come to accept them. These two conversations add a fascinating dimension to this world’s political stakes: Grisha are both feared and fearful; their difference creates resentment and bitterness on both sides of the magical divide. But it’s now possible that, very soon, the violence and power differentials that separate Grisha and otkazat’sya could all but disappear. (… For now.)
On the other hand, this episode was going so well that I even found myself questioning whether my initial aversion to Freddy Carter’s Kaz had been a knee-jerk reaction. Is it even possible to portray a 17-year-old as dark and broken and genius and repressed — and also redeemable — as Kaz Brekker? But after a few minutes, I had to confirm, there’s still something not quite right with the Bastard of the Barrel, and it’s significant enough that fans otherwise satisfied by this show’s excellence are probably going to be mad about it. Is it because he’s being pitted against Kirigan’s Kylo Ren ass that I don’t yet take him seriously? Maybe. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that it might also have to do with Per Haskell.
Now, look. It makes perfect sense that the show would cut out the aging official head of the Dregs gang. It’s certainly cleaner for the screen, especially when juggling two story lines simultaneously. Also, Haskell sucks and isn’t that important to the wider narrative. But — and bear with me on this — I think his absence has also eliminated some of the biggest indicators of Kaz’s power in the Barrel. Without an adult “in charge,” at least in name, it’s harder to believe that this kid is a self-made boss, one widely feared by grown men. As with any crime family, you have to see the crown prince run mental circles around his own patriarch to fully understand how he’s risen through the ranks, saving the Dregs’ reputation and thus securing foot soldiers’ loyalty.
Haskell’s absence is probably why I initially pegged Freddy Carter as too theatrical in the premiere: Without a boss, Kaz’s position at the top feels a lot more like dress-up and playacting than the very tangible result of his own cunning and ruthlessness. How, exactly, did this so-called bad deal with Poppy the drag queen — who I hope returns next season in some capacity, because this is their first and only appearance this season — end in this 17-year-old owning the Crow Club in the first place? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to have come into it through the work of an aging crime lord who thinks he owns Kaz? And wouldn’t it be smarter to show how powerful his nemesis Pekka Rollins is, not by having him casually kill a random brothel owner we don’t care about, but by first underscoring how un-fuckwithable Dirtyhands is to the rest of Ketterdam’s top gangsters?
Possibly the most glaring effect of Haskell’s absence lies in Inej’s indenture. In Six of Crows, Kaz buys Inej’s contract outright — with Haskell’s money. Haskell is the one investing in a new “spider,” as they refer to her role, for the Dregs. He’s the smoke screen. In this new version, Kaz is personally paying off her indenture in installments, meaning that she’s technically still owned by Tante Heleen, the madam of the Menagerie. One could argue that these are just semantics, but they’re the semantics of child trafficking, so it does feel a little fucked up for Inej to be out on bail from sex slavery, rather than having the terms of her contract completely transformed by a gang that needs her other skills.
Moreover — and not to be the Masculinity Police — but the direct nature of Kaz’s financial role in her freedom does set him up as a significantly softer boy from the jump. He apologizes to her almost immediately when he snaps at her, and he all but lays his neck down on Heleen’s desk when he offers the Crow Club’s title in exchange for fully buying out her contract so she can travel with them to Ravka for this job. One of the joys (“joys”) of the Six of Crow duology is that we honestly can’t tell whether, after years of plotting his revenge have hardened him in unimaginable ways, Kaz actually can care about Inej; it becomes a major plot point in the second book when Inej is held hostage specifically to hurt him. In Netflix’s version, there’s no real doubt, even as he insists to Inej that they can accomplish this job and free her without fulfilling Heleen’s twisted hit and killing the Conductor. He’s single-minded, sure, but so far we haven’t had to wonder if he’s too far gone.
So are these details a fair trade-off when considering the rest of the show’s bounty thus far? Given this is Shadow and Bone and not Six of Crows, are “Mal not being an asshole” and “otherwise faithful expansion of the canon” actually worth one “perfect Kaz and Inej”? I honestly don’t know yet.
• We never really learn why Inej killing the Conductor would actually benefit Heleen. It’s implied that he wasn’t actually a child trafficker selling to her competitors, although I’m sure he could be both a slaver and a smuggler, depending on who’s paying. It’s also not clear that she has a relationship with Pekka, so it couldn’t be that. Kaz comments that Heleen would do plenty of things simply to spite him, as he would to his own enemies; I guess getting your most annoying slave to kill her own way out is “just evil”?
• Is Jesper supposed to know about Kaz’s past with Pekka Rollins? In the books, none of the Crows do; in this episode, we learn Inej doesn’t, but when Kaz stomps up to the bar following his encounter with the kingpin, Jesper asks Kaz if he thinks Pekka “remembers [him],” despite having seemed equally clueless when Inej brings up Kaz’s obsession with the Kaelish boss.
• Speaking of my favorite, Jesper gets a perfect bit of Easter-egg retconning this week when Kaz remarks that he “asks for a demolitions expert on every job.” While it seems clear we won’t actually meet Wylan this season, I appreciate the nod toward their future anyway, you know?
• I loved Dubrov and Mikhael’s little meta Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moment in this episode. After convincing Mal not to desert to go looking for Alina, they wonder aloud why he wouldn’t be mad at her for keeping her powers from him. He’s fairly resentful in the book, which means this exchange points pretty explicitly at Mal’s evolution as a character. And you know what? I appreciate that.
• These costumes, props, and sets continue to dazzle. Kaz’s pocket watch? Inej’s knives? I die.
• SPOILER ZONE: Charmed by the exchange between Kaz and Pekka: “Tell me, have we ever made a deal before?” “You and me? Nah. Otherwise, you’d know better. Or you’d be dead.” Technically, he kind of was!