Jessie Mei Li has made a wonderful Alina thus far. I believe her wholesome naïveté entirely — it’s never annoying, only heartbreaking. She’s not acting irrationally, or greedily, or along clichéd paths of bad fictional-character decision-making. She’s just a good-hearted teenager swept up into a dazzling machine by a powerful and wildly charming sociopath. If you’ve read or watched anything released in the past few years about cults, you’ll know that experts repeatedly emphasize the fact that people who join cults aren’t suckers; in fact, cult leaders almost always pursue bright, emotionally intelligent, even powerful people, a strategy that creates a deeply loyal and useful following. By this point, Kirigan (I’m sorry, I’m lit’rally never going to use his first name) doesn’t have to convince Alina to do anything. She’s filling in the gaps with her own agency, believing it free will when she comforts him, repeats his own words back to him, “saves” him from condescending remarks from the king and queen — and finally, initiates a romantic relationship with him. When Genya advises her to beware of powerful men — after confessing that she’s been raped routinely by the king for years, a position Kirigan himself engineered when he “gifted” her as a child to the queen — you can almost see girls like India Oxenberg in Alina’s eyes, refusing to process the implications before her.
But now, “CaLL mE aLeKsAnDeR” has been forcibly exposed as the Machiavellian vampire he is — not that anyone but Alina is surprised. He really has bloomed into a great villain, partly because Ben Barnes seems to be playing him entirely sincerely — creating a fun meta effect where “Ben playing Kirigan” looks to us like Bad Kirigan playing Good Kirigan — but also because he’s being written well. The Darkling has always been a complex villain, one who, at some point, really did throw himself at making the world a better place for Grisha. But now you can really see the edges where solitude and power have warped that passion into obsession. When he says, “I always have hope, Mother. Even you can’t kill that,” it’s purposely jarring. Even as time has curdled his determination into an unstoppable god complex — not to mention a certain gigantic physical monument to his own failure — he still believes his own mythos. He’s convinced he’s still the noble, misunderstood hero of this story, sacrificing himself to the protection of the Sun Summoner. It’s to the point where, during the hookup scene in the study, I can’t tell whether he’s honestly asking Alina for consent — has he managed to convince even himself that this is real? — or whether it’s all part of the snake charm, despite the fact that just minutes earlier, he pilfered Mal’s encyclopedic Alina expertise to charm her with her favorite flowers, while simultaneously hiding his arrival from her. (It’s definitely manufactured consent either way.) Barnes and the writers blur the line in Kirigan between his vile actions and the righteous self-image he maintains to justify them remarkably well.
When it comes to dismantling such elaborate scams, where would any of us be without the strident old hags? Cynical, shrewish crones with no fucks left to give, except where it counts? Fearless, crotchety old bitches with no patience for polite society or teenage fantasies or the condescension of children? Baghra is the hero none of us deserve. Onscreen, she has grown all the more deadly, now that she has a network of Grisha spies who are willing to kill for her — in this case, Mal and the soldier who accompanies him to the Palace with the Morozova’s Stag news — in order to keep her son from amassing more power. (I hope that, eventually, she’ll get to explain that she’s sabotaging her son to save him, not just Alina. It’s an emotionally truthful moment in the books that makes me love her all the more. I’d read a prequel novella about Baghra’s tragedy in a heartbeat.) Luckily, Mal escapes, and overhears Baghra and Kirigan’s face off in the courtyard on his way out. With Alina’s safety on the line again, this time tied to his own abilities — and now without Mikhael and Dubrov to stop him — Mal is back where he started: deserting the First Army for love.
Not so lucky: poor Marie, whose job as Alina’s Tailored body double gets her killed, her throat slit by double agent Arken. He’s been in cahoots with General Zlatan the whole time, as Kaz suspected, which is why Dirtyhands knowingly sent him after the decoy: expose the traitor and tie up the guards’ security bandwidth, all in one. This is Kaz Brekker’s ingenuity, writ small; his knack for observation and overpreparation keeps him in control, no matter what variables may clog up any given plan. (I say “writ small” because usually he’s ten steps ahead, rather than two — in their duology, his revenge gambits are positively Rube Goldberg–esque, with, like, seven different layers and backstops to ensure the jobs never get traced back to them.) It would have worked, too, if it hadn’t been for that meddling Inferni, who made Inej and Kaz, dressed in guards’ uniforms, before they could lead Alina away from the fête “to dinner.” They split up, but his pursuit of Kaz into the chapel gives us two things: one, a window into Kaz’s true brutality, as he outwits and crushes the man’s arm beneath a stanchion. (In Kaz’s defense, he did call him “limping man.” Real grade-A work.) And two, Inej’s first-ever kill, when, to protect Kaz from a surprise attack, she sinks a dagger into the Inferni’s brain stem from the balcony. She’ll never be the same — in Crooked Kingdom, she remembers having sobbed after her first kill — and even she can’t deny that the reason is Kaz Brekker.
Admittedly, Alina’s escape is well-timed — perhaps too well-timed — for a number of reasons. Mal just happens to roll up with news of the Stag within minutes of Alina’s demonstration in front of everyone in the Little Palace. This means that, by spiriting Alina away, Baghra has been able to deprive her son of not just a rumor, but the legitimate Sankta Alina, distinguishing Alina in the eyes of the public as the unquestionable hero to Kirigan’s villain in the process. Alina’s choice to simply escape, rather than wait for Baghra’s spies to “protect” her from the most powerful Grisha alive (it’s very possible she’d have stayed put, had Kirigan’s guards ever let her venture beyond the palace even once) is an actual sankta ex machina for the Crows, too. Jesper is on high alert, now that his hookup has been called away, and because Os Alta is on lockdown, Alina simply climbs into the trunk of the carriage he’s prepared for their getaway. I’d really try to be mad about this, but you see: Kit Young. The whole thing is worth it for his smug little “just ask” sequence alone.
• The leader of the Pomdrakon Players has huge m’lady energy. It’s made even cringier when Alina and Genya see he’s cast a white dancer to play Alina. (I want to believe the way she jokes about it is a nod to Bardugo’s regrets about Alina’s original white-by-default identity.)
• I love that Alina rejects the disco-ball gloves because she’s already too skilled for them to be useful — in the books, she actually accepts and uses them until her escape.
• Zoya, back at the Palace, corrects a white courtier who describes Inej as “Zemeni” — possibly confirming that she is, in fact, also Suli?
• This show deserves at least a nomination for its special effects — not for the Fold, or the volcra, but for how subtle these Tailoring transformations really are. The way Alina’s face shifts around on top of Marie’s before Genya wipes it away is pure uncanny valley.
• David Kostyk. I — just — why. Why is David making eye contact with people? Why is David a goth now? Why has David joined the Black Parade?
• I wonder if David’s renovation — which, again, I hate — has something to do with his dark new bit of canon? Genya says he’s the inventor of the blue flames deployed on Fold skiffs, also known in Ketterdam as corpse lights, for the plague barges that use them to collect and store bodies.
• Arken’s “lodestone” is literally just a big magnet. His contribution to the heist is a magnet. In case that wasn’t clear.
• As sad as Marie’s death is, I’m kind of thankful we didn’t have to see her guts ripped out by nichevo’ya, her body cradled helplessly in her boyfriend’s arms, as we do in Siege and Storm. This is a much cleaner, more meaningful sacrifice.
• “Sol Koroleva,” the name the Apparat uses with Alina on the staircase, means “Sun Queen.” That, combined with his little speech about how faith is “far greater than armies,” “strong enough to topple kings and generals, to crumble nations and birth empires,” tells you just about all you need to know about his endgame.
• Kaz claims Arken and Zlatan are the only two men in the world profiting from the Fold, but even accepting that he couldn’t know about Kirigan’s plans, that seems like a gross, deeply un-Kaz-like underestimation. A nightmare gash that has run the length of an entire country for centuries, and you want to tell me that nobody else has figured out how to build a market around it? (Or worse, that you, a gambling entrepreneur and criminal, would not be aware of such things?) The sandskiff industry in Kribirsk and Novokribirsk alone must be booming, to say nothing of funeral parlors and loan sharks.
• It has to be said (she wrote, knowing full well that this toxic ship grew thirstier by the minute, and that she was, in fact, encouraging it): that makeout scene was quite good. A spicy little bit of from-the-books satisfaction before it all comes crashing down on our sweet summer summoner. (Sorry. Im sorry. Im trying to remove it.)
• The fête was just horny in general, actually! Alina/Kirigan, Jesper/Dima (Easter egg: Dima is the NPC whose perspective constitutes the first chapter of the sequel duology, King of Scars), Ivan/Fedyor (another perfect gay retcon!), David/Genya … the last we hear from Marie, even, is how she recently got so flustered being hit on that she set the poor man on fire. Even if you don’t like the casting, you have to admit the ship chemistry in this show is off the charts.