How Ben Barnes Played That Shadow and Bone Twist

Ben Barnes's Shadow and Bone performance masterfully walks a fine line.

Ben Barnes as the Darkling in Shadow and Bone
Photo: Netflix

This Shadow and Bone articles contains major spoilers.

The Grishaverse books series on which Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is based are wildly popular, which means many viewers heading into a binge-watch of the epic fantasy series already know some of the biggest plot twists coming their way. But not all viewers. It might not be hard to guess that a character who can manipulate shadow is a bad guy, but Ben Barnes is so god damn charming that some may be surprised by the mid-season reveal that General Kirigan, aka the Darkling, is actually the Black Heretic.

In Episode 5 of the season, “Show Me Who You Are,” Baghra whisks Alina away only moments after she and Aleksander have shared a (very steamy) kiss, revealing that Kirigan is the Shadow Fold-creating villain known as the Black Heretic. He is centuries old and he wants to make Alina’s power his own. Alina believes Baghra because the powerful Grisha reveals that she too is a Shadow Summmoner… because she is Aleksander’s mother.

For some, the twist may be an obvious one. For others, Barnes’ skill in balancing an authentic portrayal of the character and not tipping off new viewers to the story completely worked. While some of that comes down to the writing and direction, of course, Barnes, a veteran actor, was very much aware of that tricky balance and put a lot of work into maintaining it.

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“It’s an interesting challenge and it relies a lot on what I was saying about drawing out the humanity of this character,” Barnes tells Den of Geek during a pre-release junket. “You actually don’t want to scrape away too many layers of the onion either way near the beginning, because you don’t want people to think he’s being manipulative in terms of his charm either. And so I think you just have to kind of rely on your own sense of what makes someone confused or vulnerable or whatever, and balance it with this power that he has.”

Of course much of this is related to Kirigan’s manipulation of Alina, who is our audience surrogate to this world of the Little Palace, the Grisha, and the First Army.

“For Alina, this is the man who has the answers,” continues Barnes. “This is the man who can maybe guide her with this newfound power of hers, and maybe show her a new way, and a better way. And he certainly believes that. So I think it’s about committing to what he really believes without showing the darker edges of him too quickly. But, yeah, it’s an interesting sort of path, the windy, treacherous path to navigate, to try and not give too much away and play the gray in the middle.”

Barnes notes that much of that balance comes from focusing on Kirigan’s power within the world of Ravka and the Grisha. In this way, we know a truth—that Aleksander has immense power as the Darkling—even if we don’t know the ways in which he has abused it and will continue to.

“I think the first thing was to show very early on that he is at the top of the hierarchy in this world and how powerful he is,” says Barnes. “But then, you’re right, it’s threading the needle of keeping people wondering, keeping the mystery alive as to whether this is someone that I can trust or not.”

Did Shadow and Bone manage to surprise you with the Black Heretic twist? Or did you see it coming miles away?

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