Did … did Kirigan write this flashback … ? That’s the only way to explain what we see go down some 400 years ago, when the Black Heretic created the Fold. Maybe this sequence was intended to contextualize his actions, to humanize this tormented immortal, à la Interview With the Vampire. In practice, however, it plays out like the argument of an asshole who wants you to understand that, really, he’s the victim here.
While (ugh, fine) Aleksander and Baghra are indeed powerful, indeed descendants of Ilya Morozova, one of the first Grisha, that doesn’t actually make them immortal. It just means they’re like sharks: really old and going strong. And that’s very much not the same thing! In fact, going by the first few minutes of this flashback, it would seem the only reason they haven’t died of unnatural causes is by the grace of other, less powerful Grisha who have had the decency to help them. When Aleksander’s then-girlfriend, a Healer named Luda, suggests that she’ll still live a fairly long time as a Grisha, and thus they can have a perfectly nice life together, he treats her like a lower life form, bitterly lamenting that she’s “just mortal.” Minutes later, she’s healing him as a volley of arrows from the King’s soldiers skewer him like a cocktail wiener. And what does she get for her trouble but a firm fridging at the end of a dagger when she’s discovered? In exchange, the Darkling (which seems like it’s now a slur in the adaptation?) beheads the entire unit with the Cut, a move Baghra later alleges she taught him as self-defense. (Ya, okay, Bags.)
Look, I understand that Grisha are widely persecuted. I guess I even believe the Darkling wants to avenge the downtrodden. But excuse me if I don’t believe the guy who just looked at his girlfriend like I look at my 10-year-old dog is really murdering 20 people out of anything resembling empathy. It’s a self-righteous, superior grief being used over and over to justify his atrocities. He was never actually willing to die for Grisha justice; he just can’t stand that being old and powerful hasn’t automatically granted him omnipotence in all things, and he’ll do anything to feel like the main character. Alina tells him as much when he’s finally captured her, killed the stag, and had Fall Out David™ sink pieces of its antlers into her collarbone and his hand. “You could have made me your equal,” she says. “Instead, you made me this. You don’t care who suffers, as long as you win.”
And it’s a pity, because I was excited at the idea that the Darkling was about to be reimagined as a Killmonger type, one with legitimately good intentions who has been crushed one too many times by a merciless oppressor. The setup has been there since the books: Show us an optimistic, gentler Aleksander, one who believes equality and peace are possible and is working toward that goal. He could be sickly from attempting to limit the use of his powers, as a show of leaderly good faith, to ensure the safety of all Grisha. Maybe if he tried to argue with Baghra that it’s his duty to use merzost, that he was put on this earth to sacrifice himself for Grisha, but we don’t, so we’re still left cleanly writing off his arguments as narcissism.
Then again, maybe narcissism and living for half a millennia simply amount to the same thing, and that’s the point of the flashback. It’s the same argument from vampire stories, after all — when one can’t participate in humanity anymore, or worse, must destroy it to survive, the brain has to devalue it. If you want to know how unplugged from reality Aleksander has become, look no further than his monologue at a shackled Mal about how all he has to do to beat the kid is wait (which is more or less identical to the one he gives in the books), or at how he, with a completely straight face, tells Alina, “Telling a half-story is not the same thing as lying.” (Yes? Yes it is?!) Maybe Aleksander’s mistake was attempting to interfere in the lives of “mortals” at all. The Darkling and villains like him don’t have to be more than monsters, of course — it’s not exactly good praxis to humanize mass murderers. But that was a lot of explaining to get to the exact same conclusion, that the Black Heretic is a selfish, rotten demagogue.
I do feel bad for Alina, who keeps falling for the man’s scams time and again. In such a panic over Mal’s extensive arrow wounds — a hideous echo of Aleksander’s flashback — she has neither time nor sense to think twice about Kirigan’s deal healing him in exchange for the Stag, even though it’s clearly a trap. (As discussed previously, they’re also codependent; Mal and Alina hurt themselves to protect each other as a matter of course.) She wants to believe that “We can do anything together” is the same thing as “Yes, if you accept the amplifier, I promise we will destroy the Fold,” but it’s not like she has an actual choice. And, Saints bless her, of course she thought Genya was a real friend, even though it was literally her job to do Alina’s hair and makeup — she’s very young.
But let’s be clear about something: Genya Safin was sold into sex slavery at age 11. Yes, it was Kirigan who put her there, but a trafficked child with that kind of trauma is going to bond deeply with anyone who makes her feel seen, useful, even loved. Kirigan is one of her abusers, but he’s also basically her father figure; everyone told her she was his soldier, and then he commanded her to be his eyes and ears to the King and Queen, no matter what that entailed. And yeah, that involved delivering Alina’s letters to Kirigan instead of Mal. I’d say that’s a lot more complicated than being “an outsider struggling to survive,” Alina. The Sun Summoner isn’t wrong when she says they’re all his pawns, but she might also get off that high horse to forgive a girl who’s been a victim of this cult leader for most of her life.
The only ego truly humbled in this episode is — you guessed it — Kaz’s. He’s admitted defeat on the kidnap job, citing their “dwindling funds, lack of time, and conflicting interests.” Kaz is “well and truly cooked,” to quote Jesper’s signature refrain in the books; he’s mortgaged his entire life back in Ketterdam on Inej and this job, and seeing as he never consulted Inej before making that wager, it’s not like he can ask her to come back and help him pay it. She’s ready to stay in Ravka to escape Heleen (and slavery in general), and he’s ready to let her, until she all but calls him a coward.
That’s how Inej and Kaz go: He lets a feeling slip, she sees it, he doubles down, forcing her out until it’s clear she really will walk, and then he has to give her a hint of a reason to stay just a little longer, even if it’s nowhere near enough. It’s not healthy, obviously! Kaz is lonely and angry and broken, and Inej — who has problems of her own — allows Kaz to hold her hostage with his baggage. But then he buys her indenture, or something similarly insane, some feral way of explaining his gigantic feelings, in the only language he knows. And every time they go around like this, she ends up dragging him one step further away from the abyss. Which, for Inej, seems like enough. This time, he admits she was right, that Alina Starkov really is a Sun Summoner, even if she’s not a saint. It’s a nice speech, about how he puts his faith in his people, not religion, even though it’s probably a little much for the Bastard of the Barrel to be admitting he trusts anyone, even Inej and Jesper, this early in the game. In any case, he convinces her to stick around a bit longer by promising he won’t let her go back.
And wouldn’t you know it, the choice to go back happens to be quite the serendipitous one: With the Conductor’s engine blown up by Kirigan’s oprichniki soldiers, they’re forced to assume the identities of a Zemeni diplomat and his men and board the very same sandskiff Kirigan has commandeered (and Mal has stowed away on) to ferry “the target” into the Fold. You know, to destroy it — right?
• Milo the Goat saves the day again!!! What a perfect little baby with a bullet necklace that happens to fit exactly into the keyhole of Mal’s shackles. Wonder if Mal and Jesper will bond over their square-pupiled friend one day. At the very least, Mal owes Jesper a drink.
• Speaking of Jesper, are we just going to pretend that fixing Kaz’s cane is just a normal thing that normal people know how to do with nothing but, I don’t know, farm tools? Do Inej and Kaz know??
• Also, Kit Young looks about 18, maybe 20 in that excellent suit. Exactly how old did Kaz leave his age on those boarding papers? Like 30? 35? Please excuse me, I need to go crumble into ash.
• Kaz actually gets to participate in the Crows’ banter, which he deserves after the past few episodes. Turns out Freddy Carter does a great deadpan? I guess I’m coming around on him??
• Inej is such a badass, stitching her own wounds. That little detail about having to learn how at the Menagerie is possibly the darkest addition to the canon thus far.
• Mal! And! Alina! Still! Haven’t! Kissed!!! In the books, their first kiss happens as they crouch in wait in the clearing, making the Stag’s simultaneous arrival feel like kismet. I don’t think it was the wrong decision to draw out the tension instead, but I don’t have to like it, either.
• In the books, the Stag amplifier is knit seamlessly around her neck like a collar; this update, where the antlers are literally melded with her collarbone subcutaneously and another piece is sunk into Kirigan’s hand to connect them, is far more gruesome, and far, far cooler. Also, now no one has to explain why she can’t just break it or take it off.
• Kirigan really walks into Alina’s tent and announces, “YOU ARE SPECIAL,” doesn’t he? That definitely oughta do the trick.
• I get Kirigan’s point that people’s attention will be focused on her performance, but does he really think no one is going to notice that the great Sankta Alina is currently shackled to a huge metal anchor in the floor, or does he simply not care?