The Shannara Chronicles: Utopia Review

This week, Shannara takes us to a Star Trek-themed cowboy rave at an Urban Outfitters store. Yes, really. Here's our review...

Fresh on the heels of “Breakline,” Shannara reaffirms that it’s outgrown its Lord of the Rings fetish and settled into a post-apocalyptic teen adventure groove, looking to material like The 100 for inspiration. I have yet to sit down and watch that show all the way through, but the similarities between the two are undeniable, albeit superficial. The Shannara Chronicles is what put 100 on my radar, actually, because it’s made me interested to see what a fast-paced deathmatch starring hot young (mostly caucasian) models in the Canadian woods is like. Shannara doesn’t rise to that level of action, as it’s ultimately more committed to telling a traditional fantasy storyline, but it’s fairly obvious that the experimental MTV show looks to the CW series as a style guide of sorts.

And this style is oh-so-apparent here in “Utopia” than in any other episode this season. The citizens of Utopia, the Amish commune-of-the-week that Eritrea finds herself in, are all dressed in contemporary clothing they must have pilfered from the ruins of various Forever 21 stores buried deep underground. Their early 21st century outfits clash with our ride-or-die Rover girl’s body armor to the point where I felt like I was watching a lost extra from Beyond Thunderdome wander around the set of an American Eagle commercial. (Because they have really good craft services, I’ve heard.)

Regardless of these minor yet distracting aesthetic issues, can I just say how satisfying it is to see Eritrea on her own, independent from Amberle and Wil, with only her street-smarts (woodland-path-smarts?) and her inner resources to rely on? It’s like she’s a person now instead of just the spunky supporting character. I’d love to analyze the gun that she handles in this episode as a metaphor for her personal power something-something, but I must once again remind myself that Shannara isn’t quite written that thoughtfully.

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Even so, there are flashes of character development for Eritrea you can catch out of the corner of your eye. “All I wanted was my life to be my own. To be free. Turns out fate has a twisted sense of humor,” she tells Tye (leader of the Aerie clad Amish folk.) It’s a snippet of dialogue that’s been said verbatim in many a crappy YA novel, but it’s as close an insight into a thin character as we’re going to get.

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Meanwhile, Amberle and Wil run around the woods looking for the other member of their love triangle that just might be turning into a polyamorous relationship. (Hey, it’s MTV.) They stop to talk about the kiss that happened back in “Pykon” which leads to another kiss—which, in turn, leads to another sappy love scene in a sun-soaked forest. She takes his shirt off, revealing those ripped elf abs she ogled back in episode three. He reciprocates, taking off her…shoulder pads? Hmm. I guess he’s not a breast man.

This latest stab at elven eroticism is certainly enough to make the preteen girls squeal on Tumblr, but for everyone else, it’s only good for a chuckle and maybe an eyeroll. If Shannara has a weak spot, it would be in the romance department. Each tender moment is shoehorned into the geeky proceedings without much grace or delicacy. It’s the most laughable aspect of the series, and I think it’s because the production team doesn’t take these scenes seriously themselves. Or if they do, they’re getting notes from MTV on how to make them more stilted. But I have to think…when was the last time these two had a bath? Amberle’s body armor has to be fairly ripe by now. I bet Wil’s breath doesn’t smell that pleasant either. Remind me how is this sexy again?

Yet Wil and Amberle do more than just meet-cute and bump uglies here, as their seven seconds in heaven is cut short by the reappearance of Lord Raiden. Or Cephalo. ‘Scuse me. Cephalo. He’s trapped in one of the troll cage booby traps that are left around the same friggin’ set of New Zealand woods they always seem to be circling around in like millennial Blair Witch victims. He begs them to let him out, using his knowledge of where Eritrea is as leverage. Our two heroes take a moment to debate this, but ultimately Amberle makes the decision to set him free in order to find Eritrea and help navigate through troll country. Much like Wil, this is a decision that I can’t seem to get behind. It’s further evidence that the plot dictates the action here, not the characters. The characters are just tools. (Feel free to interpret that statement however you want.)

What’s Allanon up to? Motivating the ancillary characters lurking around Arborlon, of course! What else would a quasi-immortal super powered Druid warrior do in his spare time? “Hey Bandon, I know you weren’t in the books or anything, but you should think about signing up to be a Druid. Here’s a brochure with a link to our Facebook page.” Then, a few minutes later: “Hi Ander. Geez, why aren’t you smiling? I know your dad and brother are dead and all, but holy shit mate, cheer up! Who’s my little future king? Hmm? Whoosa good little heir to the elven throne?” I kind of love Allanon in the supportive big brother role. His pep talks just slay.

Meanwhile, Eritrea gets invited to a sweet rave that’s also a private screening of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with cowboy hats and Christmas lights added in for fun. And lens flares, too. Sweet mother of J.J. Abrams, we cannot forget to mention the lens flares. Yes, this is the umpteenth shark jump for a show that has already leapt through several burning hoops over a Sea World-sized tank of sharks in its first season. Never ever did I expect that Shannara Chronicles would eventually become a dark version of Hart of Dixie, featuring models from an Urban Outfitters catalogue bouncing around to not!Skrillex.

New heights of absurdity are reached when Wil and Amberle crash the party and disguise themselves as two kids who are either on their way to an EDM hoedown or a Fields of the Nephilim concert, I’m not sure which. Is this supposed to make up for the high school prom we were teased with last week? I guess it’s not a relatable YA story unless there’s a dance involved at some point, as countless episodes of The OC and Vampire Diaries have taught us, two teen soaps that rely on such soirees as fuel for petty emotional drama.

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Which is what the main tension of “Utopia” boils down to. Or, rather, it’s a pathway to the main conflict here, which is an overarching theme of self-interest. On the road to the destination to someone else’s quest, Eritrea discovers her own utopia—a plateau of personal freedom she’s never visited before in her life as a slave. Tye gets into her head slightly, awakening her own self-interest to ultimately serve his own. But such manipulation sparked a brief time of reflection for Eritrea, who is more than ready to live according to her own rules now.

That’s why she puts her walls up high, predictably, when Wil and Amberle try to intervene at the, um, community Trekker rave. Our number one rover calls Amberle out by saying that the only reason they followed her to Utopia was because she has the map for their campaign. She assumes that they’re not here to rescue her. We wonder to ourselves for moment if she’s right, but we’ve seen enough of Amberle’s agape expressions to know that the princess seriously cares about her new BFF. Like really!

Thankfully, it only takes one brief encounter with a mentally ill crippled man with one eye to set Eritrea back on course. He tells her that her “body is the vessel,” and her “blood is the key.” Also, she can’t let her friends leave without her. This is enough confirmation from the universe to reaffirm that reaching the Bloodfire is indeed her destiny after all, which puts a damper on her own self-interest.

Meanwhile, Tye’s own self-interest becomes especially dastardly when he ties up Wil, Amberle, and Cephalo to be blood sacrifices to appease the trolls, because Utopia’s peace comes at a deadly price. Once again, just like in “Reaper,” Eritrea saves everyone at the last minute, with a magic bullet this time. Maybe the gun is a symbol for her personal power after all. After shooting the troll executioner in the head, the citizens of Utopia decide that a good old fashioned shootout is in order, and thus our episodic climax is born. Sadly/not sadly, Cephalo is shot to death by Tye in a heroic act of cliched redemption. (Oh, the faux-Furiosa from last time died too, by the way.)

After running all night long, the three stooges are shown to be closer to Safehold than ever. As the camera zooms out dramatically, we see the crumbling skyline of San Francisco in the near distance. Which means that they’re in what, Oakland? Treasure Island? It’s hard to tell. I hope they made a pitstop in Berkeley because they have some really damn good cheap food there. There’s this one Thai joint that is to die for. Figuratively speaking, of course. It’s definitely not worth being impaled by an elf hunter over, but they’ve got Pad See Ew for $6.50. That’s worth getting stabbed once or twice at least.

“Utopia” took Shannara’s growing sense of meta-awareness and ran with it. Maybe it went overboard with its jarring contemporary stylistic choices, but major plot points were hit and characters were given time to explore their motivations. In that respect, it’s a nice checkpoint for the show as it dashes towards the conclusion of its first wild and crazy season.

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2.5 out of 5