Shadow and Bone
Despite being modeled after 19th-century history, the Grishaverse novels contain little, if any, racism. Otkazat’sya certainly hate and fear Grisha, and vice versa, but author Leigh Bardugo has never really gone the X-Men route and explicitly tied the oppression of powered people to white supremacy. And despite a number of nationalities and cultures being fleshed out, we never really see any sort of bigotry on those bases. Netflix’s adaptation, meanwhile, dives right into the muck, and weirdly enough, it feels a lot like righting a wrong. For the same reason that color-blind casting is a disservice to actors of color forced to play characters that deny their lived experience, fantasy based on the past needs to acknowledge the forces that shaped it. It doesn’t have to follow those rules — indeed, Bardugo explicitly cuts the development of chattel slavery and indigenous genocide from this universe, opting instead to envision Novya Zem (a stand-in for the Americas) as a peaceful frontier for Black and white farmers alike — but it can’t just ignore them altogether. Pretending nobody in the Grishaverse is racist was a denial without rebuttal.
All that said, it is crushing to watch Alina Starkov be spoken to like this. In Os Alta, the seat of power, it’s racists the whole way down, from the vainglorious queen who assumes from her appearance that she doesn’t speak Ravkan, despite being in the Ravkan army, to the maid who suggests Genya Safin tailor her eyes to look “less Shu.” A rare Corporalki specialist basically equivalent to a Grisha plastic surgeon, and “gifted” to the queen by Kirigan as a child (indenture comes in all flavors here!), Genya the Tailor is also a pragmatist. She uses the maid’s remark as an opportunity to banish them all, and when Alina softly, heartbreakingly, begs her not to change her eyes, she replies, “I don’t care that you’re part Shu; I care that you look terrible.” The warm welcome she gets from Genya and the rest of the Grisha after she and Kirigan demonstrate her power for the King is immediately dampened by Zoya Nazyalenski, whose mean-girl snobbery now comes with a sprinkling of racism, too: “You stink of the orphanage, half-breed,” she whispers in her ear as she makes a show of hugging her. (Zoya was always going to be a problem — the original line is “you stink of Keramzin” — but it does seem weird that she had two episodes of mostly normal behavior before abruptly commencing her reign of terror.)
Luckily, the bigotry isn’t the point; it’s just the poisonous background noise of an already impossible task. Alina is making up for nearly a decade of lost Grisha training in her mandate to destroy the Fold, all while trying to adjust to an overwhelmingly intimidating new home. For this episode, we dip our toes back into the first person as Alina writes her many, many unanswered letters to Mal. Through voice-over — and roughly 47 additional cuts to that same Valencia-filtered shot of little Malina holding hands in the meadow — we see Os Alta through the lens of Alina and Mal’s (deeply codependent) relationship. It’s impossibly opulent, to the point of alienation (which makes Kirigan’s insistence that the Grisha typically eat “peasants’ fare” all the funnier, in a paleo, vegan-y type of way). Worse still, every time she attempts to leave the Little Palace, or even mentions it, she’s smoothly rerouted. We don’t even get the consolation of a training montage to see her making progress, such as it is.
As a result, her experiences there all seem a bit rushed: She’s laid flat by Zoya (which she kind of deserves!) on her first day of combat training, then laid low by the merciless Baghra on her first day of Grisha training. Then, the king’s spiritual adviser corners her in the library with his weirdly hostile simping. (While Botkin and Baghra are perfectly cast*, I’ll admit I was really looking forward to the Apparat’s whole Rasputin-y vibe, or at the very least a clammy, unwashed Wormtongue. This guy doesn’t even have the creepy beard.) At the very least, the Apparat does give her the language she needs to detangle a recurring dream she’s had all her life, that of a giant white stag: It’s related to the “myth” of Ilya Morozova, one of the first Grisha, and his merzost-fueled menagerie.
Now, the Apparat’s exposition gets a little muddy here, so let’s dig down: In the Grishaverse books, some animals are considered amplifiers — they’re not common, but they’re not mythical, either. If a Grisha kills such an animal and wears a piece of it on them, it can expand their power. For example, Ivan the Heartrender has a necklace of bear claws, and Zoya has a cuff embedded with tiger teeth. Morozova’s three mythical creatures — a stag, a dragon, and a firebird — are said to be Über-amplifiers, birthed using merzost (black magic, remember) from his own finger bones. In the show, it’s unclear whether regular amplifiers exist, or are themselves mythical. Either the Bonesmith was responsible for the existence of many amplifiers in the world, or he only made the Big Three. The former doesn’t account for the singular power of the Big Three, and the latter doesn’t square with Alina’s comment at Baghra’s that “human amplifiers don’t exist,” which would suggest regular amplifiers do. This ambiguity could’ve been quashed if we’d seen Ivan or Zoya’s amplifiers, but it seems like nobody has one here. Also worth pointing out: that bit where he says, “Mostly the peasants hate the Grisha, but I think it is because the Grisha do not suffer” sure seems to come out of nowhere, right? It makes far more sense in context: In the books, he’s talking about the “peasants’” paradoxical faith. The (Jesus-free) orthodox church of the Grishaverse worships saints; the thing is, most of these saints were likely Grisha themselves. The way otkazat’sya hate Grisha consequently seems contradictory — unless you consider the Apparat’s theory, that suffering, not the Small Science, is what determines their devotion.
This third episode would be a total bummer if it weren’t for the Crows. (However you feel about this narrative shoehorning, you have to admit that, at this point, it’s a relief to see them.) The timeline is definitely a little weird — how long does it take to sail from Ketterdam to Os Kervo? And weren’t they two weeks behind Alina’s timeline already? Also, in this new prequel, the Conductor, a.k.a. Arken, plans to get them into the Little Palace with the help of his contact, a Heartrender named Nina — that is, he would have, if the drüskelle gang (including the unseen bolas assistance of one Matthias Helvar) hadn’t kidnapped and spirited her away to their ship before they could arrive.
This episode’s minor but potentially consequential retcon belongs to Nina Zenik: Arken describes our thicc waffle queen as a “radical” who “thinks Grisha should get to choose if they serve the Crown” and “despises involuntary service more than she does Fjerdans.” The fulcrum around which Nina’s original story revolves is her identity as a Ravkan spy, a soldier completely dedicated to her country. It’s why she and Matthias are forever at odds, even as (oh come on, as if you newbies didn’t see this coming) they fall in love: Matthias loves Fjerda as much as she does Ravka, making their relationship inherently a betrayal of both. It also makes Nina a potential wild card in the Crow gang; like Kaz, she has to decide where her priorities lie. As of now, this Nina Zenik seems to have zero loyalties whatsoever, except to her own principles. I don’t hate that for her — it makes the story markedly less martial, which is nice considering how much of today’s TV is unabashed military propaganda — but the change does sort of feel like it’s meant to serve everyone but Nina. I mean, where’s the character growth if she already knows nationalism is bullshit?
Despite the absence of an inside woman, Kaz pressures the rest into going ahead with the plan anyway, so the group splits up to gather the weirdly specific supplies Arken requires: a peck of majdaloun jurda (I guess for his own personal use?); 20 pounds of coal, only 80 percent of which Jesper is able to steal after gambling away the cash that could’ve bought all of it; and a goat, who gives a stunning performance, both as comedic relief, being carried by the dead-serious Kaz through Novokribirsk, and comfort animal, for the moment en route when Jesper, as predicted, starts panicking. (I love this goat. The goat is my favorite character in Shadow and Bone.) The crossing itself, a feat of “physics and engineering” that involves flinging a single engine car down broken train tracks that conveniently span the entire Fold, is supposed to be incredibly stressful, but it’s over in a deus ex minute. Exactly how they manage to clear the Fold’s opposite border on just 16 pounds of coal — especially given how far behind schedule they fall and given the damage they incur from attacking volcra — must be the work of the saints, because it sure as hell ain’t no Small Science. (Unless …)
I think it’s worth highlighting that Arken (Howard Charles, who, believe it or not, looks exactly like the Weeknd IRL) is remarkably well cast, given that he’s a new character entirely. He seems to weaponize people’s first impression of him, including our own: Sure he’s a smuggler, but it’s still possible he’s also a trafficker. And those tally-mark scars are, like, serious pirate shit for this babyface who fretted over how many books he could fit in his suitcase. If Kaz (and the goat) hadn’t seen him secretly enter a tent with the revolutionary West Ravkan general, we might never have suspected he was anything more than a nerdy engineer.
* I say Zoë Wanamaker makes the perfect Baghra, with the caveat that I couldn’t stop my broken brain from imagining her as Spirited Away’s Yubaba. We all have debts to pay, okay?
• In the books, Alina is a little bit in love with Genya, right? Like, she will not shut up about how beautiful she is. I’m pretty sure she notes Genya’s beauty more times than she notes the Darkling’s ~*~sLaTe GrAy EyEs~*~. (There’s probably fic about this, I just don’t want to look into it.)
• The visual effects used for Genya’s tailoring of Alina’s face and hair are so good. I almost couldn’t tell it was happening at first, which is exactly as it should be.
• Another subtle yet inspired choice: The show has kept the written languages “authentic,” without English subtitles. The Crow Club deed is in Kerch, while the West Ravkan propaganda, the Fold memorial wall, and the books Alina studies are all written in a Ravkan cyrillic. I wonder if a conlanger built these out, maybe based on Bardugo’s handful of words and phrases?
• Kaz is a bit better in this episode. His little swerve at the memorial wall — “Hope is dangerous,” he tells Inej, staring just a bit too long at her face before abruptly shifting gears and demanding she get over her family — was the perfect, Kazzy blend of sweet and cruel.
• Hate to bring up a stale meme, but Genya’s beat is a real Ship of Theseus thing, huh? I guess if she stopped working on herself, she’d “revert” to her plainer appearance, but still, that much tinkering has to have lasting effects.
• Why does Baghra live in a cave? Just give her her cottage, damn.
• Hahahaha, Bone Road.