As discussed previously, one of Netflix’s biggest updates to Shadow and Bone concerns Alina Starkov’s race. Once described as scrawny and sickly — and implicitly white — the series protagonist is now simply half-Shu, a move that transforms the feelings of alienation and loneliness Alina experiences in the books, justifying them more explicitly while enriching the Grishaverse’s sociopolitical landscape. Author Leigh Bardugo has gone on record confirming that this is by design, a direct request she made of Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter who adapted the series, to correct for what she describes as her own limitations as an early-career writer. Until recently, that renovation has been all gain, no pain. But the revelation in the last episode, that Kirigan is the Black Heretic, created a small but consequential mystery: how the hell is this dude that old?
In the books, the Darkling’s immortality was no great enigma. Canonically, Grisha believe their power derives from a deep and unique connection to the forces of nature that have created the universe — the “making at the heart of the world,” they call it — and thus Grisha literally have a closer bond with life itself. This is one of the many reasons for Grisha-otkazat’sya tension: Grisha powers come with freakishly good health, but only when they exercise their abilities. (All that talk about being better than “ordinary people” probably doesn’t help.) It’s a “use it or lose it” scenario: If a Grisha suppresses her gifts, their halo effect on the body atrophies, as well, and her health takes a nosedive.
Resistance to illness isn’t the same thing as immortality, of course, but in the Grishaverse, where people haven’t even figured out the mechanics of flight yet, it definitely means better chances for survival. It’s also directly proportional to an individual’s power: The stronger a Grisha, the longer they’ll live. Alina’s former identity as Fragile Thin White Girl™ — and her subsequent transformation into Fit Thin White Girl™ — meant that by the time the Darkling’s true nature was revealed, she’d already learned about her biology from her more educated Grisha peers. In the books, we automatically know the Darkling is old because he’s an extremely powerful Grisha. (You’d think it would also be because he’s using merzost, but merzost takes from Grisha what the Small Science gives, so ironically, using it has shortened his lifespan.)
By contrast, it seems like this relationship might not be codified knowledge in the screen version. (Weird, given “The Making at the Heart of the World” is the title of the third episode.) Alina has certainly spent enough time at the Little Palace to have learned it by now, but in this episode, she has to piece together the explanation for Kirigan’s eternity on her own, when Mal (very smoothly) compliments her on how “healthy” she looks. Now, does this matter? Possibly not. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Immortality is a monumentally dumb trope, so if you don’t care about the lore, I don’t blame you.) Sometimes it’s just nice to know!
Anyway, speaking of Mal, this guy just continues to rehabilitate his own reputation by saying all the right things. Where before it took a lot of insecurity and jealous bickering for him to realize that their communications had been sabotaged, now Mal has simply chosen to act like a rational human being, one who wants to give his best “little friend” the benefit of the doubt, even as he believes she’s outgrown him. They’ve also each admitted to themselves that this relationship is more than it was, even if the messages were never delivered, which underpins this far more realistic debriefing with the good faith they’ve always deserved from each other. (Buddy. Buddy. You wrote her … every? Day? Poor Mikhael and Dubrov!) So when Alina admits she didn’t want to know if she had powers if it meant being separated from him, what can a sweet boy do but try not to smile and move onto his own arraignment?
Even though he’s completely overwhelmed by Alina’s new identity, he clearly harbors no resentment or fear of her, and he’s hurt that she’d think he would. He doesn’t assign himself the role of her bodyguard because of some toxic macho bullshit anymore, either — now he figures it’s the least he can do for all the times she did the same for him when they were children. (Although he is still clearly fighting other toxic macho bullshit, like ignoring his myriad of wounds, but that’s more self-destructive than anything.) And best of all, he hardly flinches when Alina accidentally reveals her involvement with Kirigan by using his first name. “Hey, look, you don’t owe me an explanation,” he says immediately, before she has a chance to grovel. “I just want to keep you safe.” Put aside how quickly he appeared in the woods when she fell into a ditch fleeing the Crows and soldiers (he is an uncannily good tracker, after all), and put aside the fact that this relationship has a long way to go before it can even begin to be considered healthy (at this point, it seems like even they realize this), and everything else about their reunion is perfect. Except, of course, that they don’t kiss. (This one is all on the books. Damn you and your tension, Bardugo.)
Also not kissing: Nina and Matthias, despite having gotten, ahem, a lot closer in this episode. I won’t lie, this ’ship is just gonna be romance tropes all the way down. But there’s a reason they’re tropes to begin with: They just work. This story is no exception. First up, it’s “Two enemies must work together to survive,” when the ship is capsized, leaving the two of them nearly drowned. Lucky for the witch hunter, the witch can keep him alive, and lucky for the Ravkan spy, the Fjerdan supersoldier is a fairly tremendous meathead, making him ideal transportation to shore. Next up, it’s “Bigot gains respect for his enemy when he learns they have something in common,” when Nina reveals she speaks perfect Fjerdan. Then, the best of all: “Huddling together naked in the wilderness for body heat”!
I don’t know if I believe Calahan Skogman’s Matthias is that uncomfortable taking off his clothes, much less paralyzed by the toxic, hateful, gender essentialist bullshit that has been his entire life. (Come to think of it, Ivan the Heartrender does this much more convincingly.) He’s in denial, yes — “We are very happy people!!” he all but screams — but a true believer? The internal conflict is not quite there, which becomes extremely obvious when Nina falls down that ice chasm later. Despite the fact that he technically hesitates, you don’t get the sense he’s even considering letting her fall, nor that he was ever savage enough to do it. I know this show is great at duplicity generally; we’ve seen it play out extremely well with other characters, particularly Arken and Kirigan. So that’s mildly disappointing.
Nina has some issues, too. Let me preface this by saying that, as a fellow thicc wiseass, I adore Nina Zenik something fierce. But it’s likely that many people watching this show, both fans and newcomers, hate Nina by now. And, grudgingly, I get it. Nina’s teasing has always verged on cringey, missing almost as often as it hits. (This is due to — and I say this reverently — Bardugo’s extreme theater-kid energy as a writer.) But it does hit. In many ways, Nina and Jesper are class clowns of a feather, developing their banter and charm first as a defense mechanism, then as a profession. Both roles require an innate kinship with that sort of humor. Kit Young nails Jesper’s energy to a T, which leads me to suspect he’s been an endearing fuckup in his own life at some point. But with Danielle Galligan — whose more serious side of Nina I otherwise buy — Nina’s shtick feels like she’s reading someone else’s jokes, like she’s only ever taken the piss onstage. She never quite gets to full deadpan. She’s funny, but maybe not in the way that Nina is funny. (Again, I say all this with extreme prejudice; if she were American and not Irish, Gilligan and I might have played at least a few of the same parts in school musicals. Like calls to like, baby.)
That all said, I forgot about these issues the moment Nina sneaks a peek while Matthias is stripping down and goes completely slack-jawed at the view. The power of Gilligan and Skogman’s chemistry really can’t be overstated. The way he grabs her arm when she’s speeding up his heart? The stupid look on his face as she pretends to “beguile” him, right before the ice breaks underfoot and he has to save her? What they may lack individually, they make up tenfold by nailing the couple’s overall vibe.
The absolute worst part of this episode, and certainly one of the worst parts of this entire series thus far, is an indulgent bit of fan service nobody asked for: a face-off between Kirigan and Kaz. In the premiere recap, I suggested that mashing the two book series together was risky and a little cynical — that forcing underdog antiheroes to participate in someone else’s chosen-one narrative was kind of insulting, even if it delivers beloved characters sooner — and this scene perfectly exemplifies the problem. Kirigan opens with his spooky-villain “Where is she” shit, Kaz retorts with his defiant-Barrel-rat “IDGAF, also she hates you” shit, Kirigan throws the Cut but Kaz is ready with a flash bomb and escapes in the blast.
First of all, Kaz is not the Wraith. The guy is a con artist, but he has a disability, and while he can mask it, as he does in the Palace, he can’t transcend it entirely and disappear, just to make a sexy little point about Kirigan underestimating the Crows. Second of all, can we please ease up on humiliating Kaz Brekker and give him some of the fear his reputation is supposed to inspire? Is he the Bastard of the Barrel or not? By this point, we’ve seen this supposedly notorious criminal terrorized by Kirigan, embarrassed by his feelings for Inej, and laid low by Pekka. Kirigan’s mere presence offset Dirtyhands’s intimidation factor as an anti-hero from the start, but forcing them into a showdown is frivolous headcanon nonsense that doesn’t serve either character, and kicks Kaz, in particular, while he’s down. The Crows were set up to fail here this season, but their brilliant and once-terrifying leader is bearing the brunt of that choice. For once, I agree with Kirigan when he says, “You should have stayed in Ketterdam, Mr. Brekker.”
The only Crow who is prospering, perhaps predictably, is our beloved, sharpshooting, degenerate gambler. Jesper Fahey has always thrived in chaos. In Six of Crows, he describes himself as having “always felt better when people were shooting at him … if he was worrying about staying alive, he couldn’t be thinking about anything else.” So it makes sense that he’s having a blast right now: He’s the only character who’s gotten laid thus far, for starters, and his little dance with Ivan in the laundry is nothing short of delightful. It’s a crossover that actually does serve the narrative: the compulsive joker versus the humorless cop. The Joyful Anarchist versus the Very Serious Institution. The chaotic underdog tale versus the lawful hero’s journey. (And not that it’s relevant, but they’re both queer.) I’m not going to spoil how Jesper manages to best a Heartrender by pinging bullets into the same spot on his bulletproof kefta with three increasingly elaborate shots, because he pistol-whips the last guy who tried. Let’s just say I can’t wait till the secret’s out.
• Good-bye, Arken Visser. If Mal’s making all the right choices, the Conductor makes all the wrong ones: lying to the Black Heretic in the presence of his best Heartrender; throwing the Crows under the bus; throwing Zlatan under the bus; changing his story yet again about who, exactly, he smuggles; bragging about cutting Alina’s throat to the immortal shadow-summoning general obsessed with her; then offering to “get revenge” on his behalf? I’m not saying he deserved to die, but the man made zero friends and did not read the room.
• Speaking of dummies — “You robbed me of my brother, now I’ll rob you of your life”? Who would have guessed that both Inferni twins were going to be that terrible at smack talk? Also, she has a knife in your chest and is offering to let you live! Why are you antagonizing her?!
• After refusing to kill for so long, Inej has now killed two people in 24 hours.
• No subtle Grisha SFX this episode, but it’s been supplanted by a genius amount of wordless, expositional subtext. Kaz wanting to help Inej but shrinking from her open wound, Jesper decking Ivan before he can spill the beans about [REDACTED], all that wistful mouth-looking …
• New canon: Zoya and Kirigan were once hookup buddies. As much as I hate girl-on-girl crime, it explains a lot. Zoya really deserves a break — she doesn’t even get to take her frustration out on a Crow!
• Oh, Genya, how could you? Giving Alina a ring that My Chemical David™ can use like GPS on Kirigan’s behalf? Take your own advice! Stop trusting powerful men!
• Apparently Kirigan is so rich he can have his car stolen and simply write it off as an acceptable loss and continue on foot? At the very least, I’m glad the Crows got a nice ride out of this mess.