This review contains spoilers.
If you’ve stuck with The Shannara Chronicles up to its current fourth instalment, firstly well done and secondly, congratulations because your perseverance has paid off. Changeling signals a marked improvement upon previous offerings and goes some way to amending the considerable missteps made in the series thus far.
The main reason for this upturn in form is the more self-contained nature of the episode that sees our band of protagonists attempt to uncover an enemy agent in their midst. One of the most frustrating things about The Shannara Chronicles has been its manic pacing and despite this week’s improvement, Changeling isn’t completely innocent of this. Amberle’s trial within the trunk of the Ellcrys flies by so quickly that what should have been an epic and brutal test of will seems more like a moderately stressful inconvenience. However, the fact that the hunting down of the titular Changeling demon occupies the remainder of the episode’s runtime is quite the pleasant surprise and certainly pays off, as viewers are afforded enough time to invest in the chase and appreciate the suspense created by the instances of mistaken identity and cold-blooded murder.
Changeling also marks The Shannara Chronicles’ first proper foray into romance territory as it finally initiates the love-triangle that a blindfolded mole would have seen coming. Viewers unfamiliar with the books may be surprised to learn that the three-way attraction does, more or less, derive from the Terry Brooks source material and although you can expect the show to milk this storyline so hard Twilight would be ashamed, the romance element thankfully isn’t something concocted purely for the benefit of the TV adaptation. Perhaps because of this, these scenes are successful in adding a fresh layer of interest into the series’ dynamic. The gratuitous nudity of episodes past was cringe-worthy and insultingly unnecessary so it’s reassuring that The Shannara Chronicles is able to get it right when it comes to the love stuff.
With the three young lovebirds all set to embark on a quest together, the sexual tension and competing for attention could wear thin. For now though, these elements are just subtle enough to lighten-up a show that had, until now, taken itself far too seriously.
Another surprise this week is that for the first time, The Shannara Chronicles delves into some traditional, meaty fantasy material during a sparkling scene between John Rhys-Davies’ Eventine and his on-screen son, Arion, played by Daniel MacPherson. The two verbally spar over both parties’ suitability for the throne and the tension sizzles throughout until, naturally, John Rhys-Davies emerges victorious.
The only thing amiss here is the nagging realisation that, inexplicably within the context of the narrative, Eventine speaks with an English accent and his son with the twang of the actor’s native Sydney and this is representative of the show as a whole. It may be a pedantic issue for some but nevertheless, the most immersive fantasy television and film productions use language to differentiate between the various species within their fictional worlds. In Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy and HBO’s Game Of Thrones for example, a character’s accent and dialect is often a vital element of both their characterisation and the creation of a believable setting. The fact that the cast of The Shannara Chronicles seem to be mostly using their respective actors’ native tones only serves to jolt some viewers’ suspension of disbelief.
Predictably, not all of the show’s problems have disappeared. The character of Amberle continues to wildly alter personalities from one scene to the next. You could argue that this is actually a highly realistic representation of teenage years but nevertheless, the show can’t seem to decide whether Amberle should be a confident and brave young woman or a typical damsel in distress and it feels like the intention is for viewers to believe she is the former, whilst the show treats her like the latter. The scene most guilty of this comes when the elf princess goes back on her promise to free prisoner Eretria; an act that contradicts everything the audience has been shown about Amberle’s nature up to this point.
Changeling misses a perfect opportunity to correct this problem in its opening scene: Amberle’s trial within the Ellcrys. Her actions here could have established the character’s true nature but instead prove just as ambiguous with the big mystical tree asking her to slay an apparition of Wil in order to demonstrate her dedication to the cause. Although Amberle passes this test, she does so via an entirely accidental stabbing and consequently, the sequence does nothing to demystify the confusion surrounding who exactly the character of Amberle is supposed to be. The Ellcrys scene also marks the first example of questionable CGI in The Shannara Chronicles so times really are a-changing in The Four Lands.
Bandon (Marcus Vanco), the timid orphan introduced in the previous episode, has a bigger role this week and cuts an enigmatic figure around the halls of Arborlon as he touches up dead people. In fact thanks to him and Ivana Baquero, the Demi Lovato-lookalike who plays Eretria, you could argue The Shannara Chronicles’ supporting cast are more watchable than its main players. Bandon is an unknown quantity, even to himself and is subsequently the richest source of intrigue in the show. Eretria meanwhile is the antithesis of everything wrong with female lead Amberle; her motives are clear and there is a struggle between what she wants to do and what she must do that makes perfect sense. Both characters possess multiple shades to their personas and amongst the shows’ young cast are by far the brightest prospects.
Don’t misunderstand; The Shannara Chronicles is still far from good. The dialogue is bland, characters remain muddled and the acting is sometimes as wooden as the Ellcrys itself. But at least things are heading in the right direction and Changeling is without doubt the strongest episode so far. Don’t put money on the show maintaining this level of quality of course, its track record suggests otherwise, but a half-decent episode has arrived, let’s be thankful for that.
Read Craig’s review of the previous episode, Fury, here.