Here’s a truth about Shadow and Bone that is never really explored in the text: Alina and Mal each suffered an unimaginable trauma as children, and their friendship was a means of surviving it. Regardless of how it happened, be it in the Border Wars or (somehow) in the Fold, both lost their families violently, and were then raised on an estate that hardly knew them from the next charity case. In the books, it’s the subtext of much of Alina’s loneliness, and it’s why Mal needs so badly to be loved by everyone around him, but where their relationship is concerned, the psychological fallout is more or less simplified into the classic “childhood best friends eventually grow into something more” YA trope. Mal, in particular, suffocates his trauma, pretending it doesn’t exist and taking his insecurities out on Alina. But the trilogy doesn’t properly frame this attitude as toxic, which is probably why so many Grishaverse fans hate Mal.
I had been wondering where the friction between their TV counterparts might come from, now that both characters have been significantly upcycled. Now, I have my answer: They love each other deeply, but they’re codependent, and it is tearing their lives apart. Because it’s more than just love that has driven them to “do foolish things,” as Mikhael put it. We see young Alina destroy her palm, the blood gushing out of her fist, in order to stay behind with Mal when the testers come to the orphanage. (“You protected yourself by denying yourself,” Baghra observes.) We see a freshly recruited Mal cut his own hand by smashing a pint glass over a racist officer’s head, in defense of, and to be with, Alina — even if it’s in the brig. Now, at the Little Palace, Alina is suffocating her own potential for greatness, in the hopes that Mal will show up and help her decide what to do. And Mal volunteers for a suicide mission to find Morozova’s Stag, getting his two best friends killed by Fjerdans in the process, in the hopes that success will bring him back to Alina. Where in the books they’re both trying to decide if they resent each other — with Alina, it’s mostly beating herself up about what Mal thinks of her powers — now it’s deeper, and more heartbreaking: Neither seems to know who they are without the other, so they hurt themselves, and others, to avoid any growth that might change that relationship. They’ve now unwittingly written each other twin letters, neither to be delivered, outlining how the other is their “true north.” In reality, they’re more like the sirens on those old maps, each luring the other’s ship to rocks and ruin, whether they mean to or not. That’s not romance. It’s trauma.
That said, Alina is learning to be her own person, albeit under extreme duress. Baghra whales on her physically (finally, a montage!) and even doses her with psychedelics to get to the bottom of what’s keeping her from tapping into her powers. (Surprise, it’s Mal!) Alina even manages to temper General Kirigan’s advances, at least to a certain extent. But for the moment, she’s doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. She declines Kirigan’s black kefta because she wants to be like everyone else, not because in offering it he’s trying to manipulate her into being dependent on him and everyone else into associating her with him. She declines to kiss him because of her anxiety about Mal, not because he’s almost double her age or her commanding officer or a megalomaniacal predator. And she finally asks Genya to tailor away her hand scar because she seems to believe she must purge herself of Mal in order to move forward: “needing anyone else is weak” (she hears this in Baghra’s voice, even though Baghra never actually says this), those (4,786) sweet childhood memories in the meadow meant nothing, and he never actually loved her the way she loved him. Hopefully, in time, this Alina will learn to both know herself and love Mal, all at once, and vice versa. They deserve that.
Meanwhile in Kribirsk, the Crows finally, finally do a crime. I think we can acknowledge the fact that they probably didn’t need to steal the blueprints to the Little Palace from the National Archives while still not looking a gift heist in the mouth, don’t you? After all, it’s what they do best, and to be frank, it’s the least the series could do after forcing these scrappy underdogs into someone else’s hero narrative.
The job is a ballet, exactly as satisfying as it should be: combine a fine bit of Wraith-ing from Inej, one freakishly well-timed gunshot from Jesper, one horrifying (if effective) dramatic performance from Kaz, and a sprinkling of chemical know-how, and they have the Palace plans — only to realize that they reveal exactly zero secret or side entrances. Luckily, before they embarked, Kaz thought to task the Conductor with finding transportation — “But that’s the hardest job!” Arken protests. “You managed to win us over, didn’t you?” Kaz responds, not not pointedly — and being the sneak he evidently is, it seems to have paid off. Having (somewhat racist-ly?) guessed Inej was an acrobat in a past life, Arken has sabotaged a performing troupe slated to perform at the Little Palace’s Winter Fête by greasing the silks of their aerial dancer, causing her to slip and fall, then coincidentally offering up the Wraith’s services. (Did you catch his little “that’s none of my business” sip when the original dancer dropped to the floor with a sickening crack? This guy definitely traffics kids.) Inej delivers easily, if resentfully, while Jesper, somewhat more cheerfully, proves his own mettle with a mirror, his revolvers, and a target held in Inej’s upside-down mouth. For some reason, Kaz opts to “make [his] own way” rather than earn passage with his mastery of sleight-of-hand tricks. Maybe that uncanny-valley turn as Ivanovski the Sculptor drained his enthusiasm for entertaining pigeons in the name of fortune. The Saints are merciful, in any case, because I, for one, couldn’t tolerate another second of that grotesquely charismatic small talk.
And finally, Nina puts in some work this episode, deprogramming her sweet summer Fjerdan supercop when his curiosity gets the best of him and he not-so-subtly attempts to bribe her with food in exchange for more information about Grisha. The information he gets is not, of course, what he expects; for example, he doesn’t even know Heartrenders ease pain as well as cause it. (To be fair, that’s on the Grisha. The title “Heartrender” doesn’t immediately call to mind such jobs as “soothing tempers.”) Nina is not what we would call a subtle person, so the subtext of the scene is limited mostly to Matthias’s face: the way he stares at her mouth (or something a bit further south) while she tells him to go fuck himself? The way he can’t look her in the eye when he says, “I feel nothing about you”? His expression when she says she’d rather starve than be a traitor? When the ship gets caught in a storm and starts taking on water, and Matthias’s captain orders him to execute the Grisha captives, trial be damned, it’s almost like the guy is doing Nina a favor. (And us, of course. Eventually.)
• I had to watch that “braised lamb” bit like five times to figure out that it was Mikhael’s girlfriend’s perfume on the letter, and not something decidedly more inappropriate.
• Yes, I did say in the last recap that the racism retcon was good. But when it comes to Zoya, I’m a bit puzzled. Sujaya Dasgupta is Indian, which roughly translates to Suli in the Grishaverse; wouldn’t she be equally discriminated against? If so, it makes their tête-à-tête in the training courtyard all the more concerning: Zoya may have been shitty to Alina, but Alina also wildly exaggerated her combat experience, then sucker-punched Zoya when her back was turned, after she won with a few harmless defensive parries, then fully just allowed her to get banished from Os Alta. If you ask me, that’s kind of punching down.
• “CaLL mE aLeKsAnDeR”? Her echoing his “you are not alone” bit in his war room? God, the grift is so transparent! And she’s so young!
• Genya just told us that Tailoring is temporary in the last episode, so if the show is about to act like that scar is gone for good, I’m gonna have to have a word with the manager.
• Minor quibble: If the Grisha are persecuted, and people know the Grisha testers can’t test children who are injured, wouldn’t the testers come back? It seems like a lot of families might help their children hide their abilities if they feared the visibility. And given how much the crown and Grisha in general value the Second Army, I can’t believe the process wouldn’t account for Grisha hiding from testers.
• “One time, Baghra released a hive of bees on me. It was awesome.”