This Into The Badlands Review contains spoilers.
Well, I’ll be damned. Into the Badlands really was saving all the cool stuff for it’s stunning season finale all this time. And here I was, settling into this comfortable groove with the series, with my expectations not too high and not too low, just hanging out in the middle somewhere. I was finally starting to grasp the tone of the show and rhythm of its pacing, and its narrative priorities were becoming clearer. Or so I thought.
And then I watched this episode. “Hand of Five Poisons” is this first season’s mad dash to the door, realizing how much little time is left to finish telling its main story whilst setting up a second season in the same hurried breath. Not an easy feat by any means, and a frustratingly odd choice for a decidedly odd show, as at least a few plot threads that come to a head during “Hand” could have unfolded more organically over the prior episodes. But once again, we only had six to work with this time. Six! That’s not enough to win over a new audience with a carefully plotted story arc; that’s just enough time to dip our big toes in the water to see if it feels good enough to swim in.
This first season of Into the Badlands has felt more like the prequel to some cooler TV show than the part where things actually get interesting. And, like most prequels, there have been a lot of forgettable moments to pad things out until the key players wind up where they need to be to become the legends they’re intended to be. Obviously, Sunny and M.K. aren’t going to ascend to Buddhahood (or whatever) if they keep hanging around Baron Quinn, so that status quo thing? Yeah, it needs to be tossed out.
That’s perfectly fine. The game has changed so much by the time the end credits roll that it’s difficult to imagine a second season that would bear any resemblance to the format of what we’ve seen up until now. WIth Quinn dead by Sunny’s sword, (ironic, since I begged the showrunners not to kill him off last week), Lydia exiled from The Fort rebaptised in her father’s religion (that we know nothing about), Tilda poisoning The Widow in her illness (thanks to Veil), Sunny shanghai-ed by the River King (for lying about killing M.K.), and M.K. himself kidnapped by the mysterious three Brothers (who are also Dark Ones.) Everyone is scattered to the winds, and it could very well take a few episodes for everyone to cross paths again.
At the risk of sounding redundant, the action sequences here were amazing and season finale-worthy. Sunny’s battle with the Brothers was a beautifully choreographed fight scene, and Sunny whipping out the double bladed sword all Darth Maul style? Wow. Let’s watch it again. And again. And again…
Now that we’ve successfully finished season one of Into the Badlands, I think it’s time to talk about how the next one can improve, if and when it happens. So I came up with five pieces of helpful advice for the production team of the only experimental martial arts drama on basic cable.
1.) Pick up the pace. Preferably just like have in this episode. If you’re given shorter seasons, make better use of your time. Don’t focus on the peripheral characters that feel disconnected from Sunny and M.K.’s quest. That’s way more interesting from our perspective, since they’re exactly the kind of characters we’re tuning in to see.
2.) Fight. You’re so good at it. You train your whole cast at boot camps in order to make the actions sequences in the show that much more realistic. And yet, somehow, they wind up spending most of their screen time chatting about poppy fields maintenance and the pros and cons of polygamy. I know we’ve been averaging about 1.5 action scenes per episode; you think we could boost that it up to a 2.5?
3.) Limit your soap opera stuff. I get that you are going for that Game of Thrones thing where the slightest misunderstanding in a relationship can have disastrous consequences on a larger scale. And I get how you are using that series as a guide for how you’re tell stories in the world of the Badlands. But you’re doing your own thing now, and don’t need to emulate anything like that anymore. Rely on your Eastern roots as much as possible, specifically when it comes to spectacle
4.) Play with your mythology more. You’ve been doing that lately. Good for you. You’ve got a really interesting one. I like that you’ve been showing off your spiritual intentions more than you did at the very beginning. Yes, you’re a brutal action show set after an apocalypse, but you’re also based on a sacred classic novel from China. Enlighten us a little
5.) Strengthen our relationship with the main characters. We’re still getting to know them, and we’re not completely invested just yet. The top three characters I care about are Sunny, M.K. and Tilda. Why? Because you keep telling me they’re the heroes. Every chance you get, you wink and nudge at me that they’re more important than all the other video game-esque characters that inhabit your universe. And you tell me their stories, which are starting to take off and be more interesting. But can we empathize with them already? Can we feel close to them for once? I bet this could start to happen in the way you resolve the cliffhangers you left us on just now.
Well, enjoy your break, Into the Badlands. I hope to see you sometime next year, maybe? Drop a line if you want. I’d like to get to know you better someday.