Shadowhunters episode 2 review: The Descent Into Hell Is Easy

The news isn't good for anyone hoping that The Mortal Instruments TV show, Shadowhunters, would improve in episode 2...

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 The Descent Into Hell Is Easy

Hum. Well, bad news for anyone hoping that the awkwardness of the first episode was temporary. The second episode of Shadowhunters is just as stilted, just as full of impenetrable mystic mumbo-jumbo, and just as keen on explaining exactly who and what everyone and everything is at insomnia-curing length. It’s starting to look like this show just isn’t going to be any fun.

We pick up where we left off last time: with Clary making the choice to trust Jace, the pouty stranger with the medieval weapons cache, rather than turning to her best friend and/or her pseudo-stepfather for help saving her mother from a madman. Granted, seeing actual evidence of demonic activity might’ve swung it in his favour, but it’s still a difficult sell. The show’s relying on the fact that we want to see more of the Shadowhunters’ world to smooth over any lapses in logic, but so far, it hasn’t really shown us anything worth seeing. There’s more shonky CGI as our heroes head into the Institute, and a ton more exposition as even more characters are thrown into the mix.

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Stay awake through all the blather, though, and you’ll be rewarded with an extremely important chunk of story. Actually, it’s something that, if you already know the plot, you might’ve expected to be held back a bit longer. But by the end of this episode, Clary’s true identity has been revealed: she’s uber-baddie Valentine’s secret daughter.

If I squint past all the Mortal Instruments-related trivia I’ve already got in my head, I guess it sort of makes sense to get that out there ASAP. Anyone who understands how stories work will clock onto that pretty quickly, after all; it’s a twist lifted directly out of The Empire Strikes Back. So in a way, it’s kind of exciting that Shadowhunters has decided to just get on with it; without that secret up its sleeve, it’s going to have to shuffle several other story pieces around a bit to make things work. But nothing else about this episode (or the previous one) suggests the showrunners have got any better ideas. They’re not sticking rigidly to the story as it plays out in the books, but most of their changes seem to be bad ones.

Luke being a cop, for example. It gives him too much power and influence in the mundane world – and we’ve already seen him abusing it. That makes for a very different Luke than the reliable, sensible, sweetly loyal Luke of the books. (And making him a werewolf cop also makes me think of Dyson from Lost Girl, which makes me think of Lost Girl, and Shadowhunters doesn’t come off well in that comparison. I really wish I was watching Lost Girl.)

Other characters seem like cheap knock-offs of themselves, too. Dominic Sherwood’s Jace doesn’t have enough swagger to pull off being as rude as he is, while Emeraude Toubia’s Isabelle is so predatory that for a second, when Simon got snatched by an unseen assailant in the van, I wondered if the show had gone full rogue and made her a vampire.

Something, somewhere, just isn’t gelling. It’s tempting to say it’s because the actors aren’t convincing, that the reason their characters seem like anaemic glove puppets is because they’re not charismatic enough. Since even the usually smouldering Isaiah Mustafa is about as appealing as a mouldy J-cloth in this, though, that probably isn’t the problem. I think it’s more of an issue with the writing. It just doesn’t seem to work on any level.

Both of the first two episodes have been filled with stuff, but despite all the stuff, there’s no momentum. It feels like the show is spinning its wheels. It makes a lot of noise, but nothing goes anywhere. Look more closely and things become even more of a mess; was there a single exchange in this episode you could imagine two real people (warlocks, vampires, werewolves, half-angelic demon-hunters, whatever) actually having? Most of the dialogue reads like it was written by an alien trying desperately to understand this phenomenon your species calls ‘communication’. There’s no subtext to anything, it’s all just a string of bald statements of fact. Characters go back and forth on things that don’t even need to be said, as if the show’s not sure its audience understands concepts like friendship, crushes, or even, like, talking.

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Here’s the thing: The Mortal Instruments isn’t a great story to begin with. It’s a framework built out of borrowed ideas, dressed up with too many pop culture jokes and a sprinkling of sexy angst. It’s a sprawling mess of characters and concepts and it barely holds together. In the right hands, it probably could’ve been adapted into a smart, funny, Buffyesque supernatural drama. But as much as I want that to exist, it doesn’t look like it’s going to. Two episodes in, has there been a single joke? A spark of sexual chemistry? A pop culture reference that didn’t come with an extra two lines of explanation that took all the fun out of it?

By my count, no, there hasn’t. Is anyone enjoying this show? And if so, how?

Read Sarah’s review of the previous episode, The Mortal Cup, here.