From the moment the creators of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation made the decision to toss the Crows into Alina Starkov’s story, two facts were going to be undeniable.
The first was immediately obvious. As I discussed in the premiere recap, even though Netflix seems to have been acting on the consensus within the existing Grishaverse fandom that the Six of Crows duology is a far better story with far better characters, it was nevertheless taking a massive gamble with that fanbase’s hearts by chucking Crows characters into someone else’s story.
The other, however, is one I think fans need to get through the season to fully appreciate. And it’s this: The Shadow and Bone trilogy had nowhere to go but up. And that meant that, to exist alongside it onscreen, the Six of Crows duology was always going to have to foot the bill — but also, maybe that’s a fair trade. Leigh Bardugo herself regularly comments on how this series has been an opportunity to renovate the story that made her whole Grishaverse possible; it’s a simple enough trilogy that there was a lot of room to grow the characters and their world, to make them more complex and lived-in and lovable.
Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, meanwhile, were not uncut gems. They popped out of Bardugo’s pen fully formed, glittering adventures standing on their own, emotionally devastating merits. Yet the Crows couldn’t exist, perfect as they are, without Alina Starkov’s imperfect hero saga laying the world-building groundwork they were never burdened with: She walked so they could run. So fans ought to see the indignities the Crows suffer here as the relationship between the two stories coming full circle. Maybe the Barrel rats had to give up a bit of their unfuckwithable energy for everyone to reach equal footing — and, hopefully, in the end, move forward. The deal is the deal.
I say all this because, despite this season being way better overall than it had any right to be, Kaz Brekker has been done dirty here, on a spiritual level. If you haven’t read the books, I have to insist at this point that you look into them, because I’m deeply concerned that, after this season, you might think of him as an okay thief, an angry but smart kid who tends to dream up bigger plans than he can handle. This Kaz looks like a lot of bark, minimal bite. And while I don’t want to spoil the opportunity for this show to delve into his past next season, I do want to stress one thing: Kaz Brekker is not a good person. He isn’t just a scammer; he’s a truly pitiless thug who has used his own pain to justify hurting a lot of people. If he were Grisha, his rage alone would make him a more terrifying Darkling than Kirigan — he’d personally feed his enemies to the volcra, by hand.
He’s not irredeemable, though, hilarious as that may sound. Much of what he’s done has been to make himself untouchable, and unlike Kirigan, his horrific origin story makes him, if not likable, then sympathetic. Nobody fears this Kaz Brekker, and being feared is Kaz Brekker’s whole deal. Throughout this series, this Kaz has been way too decent and honest; all but the simplest of his plans fail, and his gestures of contrition make me full-body cringe every time. It reaches its pinnacle in the finale when he leaps, out of nowhere, in between Inej and a volcra, beating it back with his cane. That might be what he would do hypothetically, in a vacuum, but it’s such a freakish display of fish-out-of-water heroism for a guy who, the next time he saves her, will tell her that he’s just “protecting his investments” before going off to torture the person responsible. In the show, he has never once drawn that employee-employer line he likes to use in the books when he does something benevolent; by the finale, he’s all but begging Inej to stay with him. He tells a complete stranger, Nina, that Alina is a saint, just to score points with Inej. It’s too much, too soon, and I, for one, am uncomfortable.
To his credit, Kaz does try to stop Inej and Jesper — and Mal?! — from playing at heroes when it becomes clear that Kirigan is using Alina not to destroy the Fold, but to protect their skiff while he expands it over Novokribirsk. In an effort to destroy General Zlatan and demonstrate his new Ravka’s supremacy to the rest of the world, the Black Heretic has plunged the entire port city into darkness and served up its people — including Zoya’s family — to the volcra. That’s about the moment when everything on that boat stops feeling narratively consequential and descends into a delirious shitstorm combining the head canons of roughly 57 teenage AO3 authors.
This boat has everything: Ivan summarily executing the entire dignitary attaché when their bodyguards try to fight back. Kaz knocking Jesper out of the way of Kirigan’s Cut when Jesper tries to shoot him. Inej fighting a Heartrender and getting saved by Zoya, of all people. Inej landing a dagger in Kirigan’s chest, to no effect. Mal trying to kill Kirigan with a tiny pistol, only to be brought to his knees by Ivan. Alina on the ground reaching dramatically for Mal without even trying to crawl toward him. (In fairness, she has been forced to push and release this giant light tunnel back and forth like a yo-yo for the past ten minutes.) Ivan trying to kill Alina and getting shot overboard by Jesper. Kirigan bellowing mortifyingly campy lines like, “I’ve survived for centuries! Did you really think you could kill me?” and “How do you claim such power? I am the one who killed the stag!” Mal and Kirigan in a fistfight on the ground, concluding with a felicitous volcra attack and Mal’s almost-as-cringey echo of Kirigan’s words to Mal in the last episode — “I don’t have to kill you, Darkling! Your past will do it for me!” (So much for Mal’s evolved masculinity.)
The only thing that has carried over from the books is Alina’s epiphany that she’s not actually a slave to Kirigan’s will after all: The stag volunteered its power to her when she chose not to kill it. In the original version, there are a lot more Grisha onboard, and most are cheering the Darkling as their savior. Kirigan deliberately brings Mal along for the ride to toss him overboard, as a symbolic sacrifice to scare the dignitaries — already too petrified of the Grisha to fight back — and crush Alina. And instead of simply renewing her strength to overcome Kirigan, Alina’s enhanced power — which comes to her as she helplessly watches Mal get swallowed by the dark — also takes the form of the Cut, which she uses to first topple the skiff’s mast to stop the onslaught of oprichniki and Grisha, then to slice the skiff itself in half as she leaps through the railing to save and escape with Mal, plunging the boat and its passengers into darkness and death. The Sun Summoner gets her hands quite dirty in the text, but it feels far more authentic, and less … swashbuckling, than this new version, in which Kirigan and his deadly Heartrenders are the only casualties of the “good guys.” Shocked as I am to admit this in the case of Alina Starkov, but I actually prefer the original — especially because that Alina was smart enough to know that, despite appearances, the Darkling is probably not dead.
Later, after Zoya has cleared the skiff of the now-distended Fold (did they just … leave the bodies onboard? No mourners, no funerals!), the new supergroup debriefs and deliberates on its next moves. Inej fangirls over Alina, who thanks her with a new dagger. Zoya heads off alone to search for her family in Novokribirsk, but not before (barely) making amends with Alina. Kaz agrees to let Alina go — she did save their lives, and Jesper is too tired — and Alina solves the biggest of their problems —Inej’s indenture — by offering Kaz her jeweled headpiece as hush money. (“I swore you wouldn’t go back to the Menagerie, and one of these gemstones covers it,” Kaz tells Inej later.)
But if Alina and Mal wanted to disappear, the least they could have done is board a different ship than the one the Crows climb aboard to return to Ketterdam. In fact, I spoke too soon when I said the sandskiff was popping. This is the boat that has everything: A Sun Saint in disguise, a crew of Barrel rat scammers and murderers, and a certain Heartrender and drüskelle.
That’s right: Somehow, in Os Kervo, Alina, Mal, and the Crows manage to board the exact same Ketterdam-bound vessel that picked up Nina and Matthias in Arkesk earlier. Fans of the books knew Nina’s betrayal was coming, but it’s even more crushing watching her have to decide between letting Fedyor (Fedyor, how could you!) and his Grisha take her and an unconscious Matthias from the inn where they landed — thus condemning the Fjerdan to certain death — and announcing to some Kaelish bounty hunters that Matthias is a slaver and she’s willing testify to that in Kerch court. In the books, the choice is similar, but not identical: They landed at a Fjerdan port originally, thus putting her at significantly higher risk, and her choice was between the slaver gambit; giving Matthias up to a cell of undercover Grisha there who knew her, and, recognizing him as a drüskelle, wanted to take him prisoner; or telling him about them, thus blowing her comrades’ cover.
The results are the same, mostly, although in the former version, Matthias doesn’t learn the circumstances of the betrayal until much later, giving him ample reason to hate Nina for a good long time out in Hellgate. This time, I don’t know how he’s going to hold onto that grudge. Sure, he can stay mad, but it’s obvious there was literally no other way out of that pub for him — on his best day, he would have done the exact same thing.
Regardless, Nina apparently thinks she can get him out of Hellgate with either a crew, or money, or some combination of both, because her ears prick as she overhears Kaz explaining the beginnings of his plan to ward off both Dreesen and Pekka Rollins: They need a new Heartrender.
• I just realized David Peterson — the conlanger who built out the languages for Game of Thrones and The 100, among others — is doing this show! (I interviewed him back in 2016 about the rise of professional conlangers in Hollywood.)
• This is now a Jesper fan blog. In every show, there’s always going to be a fun supporting actor who upstages everyone with their charisma, but Kit Young is like, god-level at this point. (“Still couldn’t shoot the pretty face. I’ve gotta stop doing that” manages to be both funny and blithely queer.) And we already know he’s going to pull off the rest of this character’s growth beautifully; he just about made me want to die in the last episode when he joked through tears, thinking Inej was going to leave them.
• Fun fact for interested newcomers: Ivan’s deadly loyalty to Kirigan stems from his whole family having been killed in this war, which Kirigan has vowed to end by any means necessary. He and Matthias have that in common, too: two boys manipulated by superiors who use their grief over the loss of their family to incite them toward hatred and murder.
• Speaking of Matthias, did we all notice his mournful gaze at the wolf taxidermy at the inn?
• When Zoya’s telling Feliks that her aunt lives in Novokribirsk, and he asks, “You have family there?” — that’s a microaggression, right? The way she responds, “Yes, my family’s Ravkan,” certainly suggests as much.
• Zlatan is a very, very silly (new) character. Who sees a boat carrying both a saint and a demon coming directly toward them in a tunnel made of light through the Fold and thinks, “My normal men can definitely kill these people”??
• The nichevo’ya are so much bigger than I expected! They’re like a cross between His Dark Materials’ spectres and the black goo from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.
• 🎶 Engulf any harbor, consume any city, destroy every rival, until you find your dream! 🎶