This review contains spoilers.
After last week’s Changeling demonstrated a significant step-up in quality storytelling, The Shannara Chronicles finds itself at a defining crossroads; use its fourth episode’s strength as a platform for further success or slip back into the bad habits of its opening ventures. Happily, this week’s follow up, Reaper, continues the show’s upward trend and has the distinct air of a series finding its groove.
In an especially welcome move, Reaper finally begins to clean up the mess of main protagonist Amberle’s characterisation. Not only are viewers treated to a flashback depicting a watershed moment in her life: her father’s death but the ‘road trip’ format of the episode provides a more stable environment in which to showcase Amberle’s personality. Such development is perfectly showcased in her relationship with Crispin who repeatedly defies her wishes in spite of her royal status, yet as the episode progresses, is forced to submit to the Princess’ will as she learns to stand up to the arrogant elf captain.
The flashback sequence itself is one of several highly impressive scenes this week and in addition to introducing viewers (all too briefly) to Aine Elessedil, also inducts the race of gnomes into the show’s narrative. As is typical for The Shannara Chronicles, the gnomes themselves look fantastic. Often unfairly and stereotypically portrayed as red-cheeked fellows with pointy hats and long beards, the Shannara gnomes use ninja tools and emit a steampunk-esque vibe whilst simultaneously looking ragged and downtrodden, a visual hint towards the race’s struggle against the elves.
This trip into the past culminates in arguably the strongest fight scene in The Shannara Chronicles thus far, a satisfying carnival of blade-work featuring Eventine and son taking on a gang on gnomes led by the treacherous Slanter. Although the amount of lens-flare in the sequence could be considered a distraction, reaching levels even J.J. Abrams would balk at, the choreography is superbly arranged, with solid direction from Brad Turner, the man calling the shots this week.
The Slanter storyline is one of several examples this week of The Shannara Chronicles bringing inter-species bickering into focus. While the struggles between elves and humankind have been documented via the Rovers, viewers are now beginning to see that race-relation issues run deep within The Four Lands. As helpfully pointed out by Wil however, these various species will need to band together in order to face the imminent demon threat and this gives a clear indication as to one of the themes to be vigorously explored in future episodes, ensuring the potential for meaty storylines that appeal to a more mature audience and balance out the show’s various romantic plots.
Speaking of which, this week marked the enigmatic Bandon’s turn to woo one of the many ladies within the walls of Arborlon. After saving Catania in the previous episode, attraction seems to be growing between the pair, although given the handmaiden’s distinct lack of screen-time (and arguably, purpose), it’s difficult to invest too heavily in the relationship at this point. Much more intriguing is Bandon’s training under the tutelage of Allanon, a character who seems to very much enjoy forcing young men to “fulfil their destiny”. Bandon’s initial success in controlling his powers make his capture at the hands of The Dagda Mor all the more impactful and the fact that the boy’s fate is not fully revealed acts as a tantalising cliff-hanger for the next instalment to pick up.
In terms of pacing, The Shannara Chronicles has rarely dipped below ‘blisteringly brisk’, often to its detriment. In Reaper however, the rapid-fire story progression prevents the episode from becoming stale; with yet more instances of the elves and Rovers capturing one and other. How many times have those flippin’ stones changed hands now? Had the episode lingered any longer on this constant back-and-forth or if our travellers were still on the road come the episode’s conclusion, Reaper could have been a frustrating forty-minutes of material very similar to that of previous episodes. Indeed, the elves’ capture, release and journey are all wrapped up before any one element can outstay its welcome and before long, the group reach their destination.
And it’s a good job they do because the scene that follows is arguably the most gripping of the series so far. The throwing of the severed heads, the appearance of the titular Reaper and the reluctant partnership between Wil and Cephalo all add up to a climax rich in menace, tension and flawless CGI. The reason those barrels explode may not be immediately clear, surely they can’t still have oil in them after centuries of neglect, but such minor incidents don’t detract from a wholly epic finale to the episode.
The Shannara Chronicles continues to impress visually, as it always has done. The imagery of Amberle collecting water from a dilapidated satellite was a particularly smart juxtaposition that perfectly encapsulated the history of the Shannara world. Now however, the show is beginning to provide substance as well as style, with less trite dialogue, more streamlined episode structures and gradually improving characterisation. The only concern for future episodes then is the apparent demise of John Rhys-Davis’ Eventine. Arguably the strongest cast member in terms of acting, Rhys-Davis has been one of The Shannara Chronicles’ most consistent elements and adds a level of gravitas and class to the show. Although he will be present for the foreseeable future in the guise of the Changeling demon, it is only a matter of time before the deception is uncovered and the potential loss of Eventine could be a significant blow to the series.
Until such a bridge requires crossing however, The Shannara Chronicles is making improvements in all the right areas and becoming a vastly more attractive prospect as the weeks go by. Now if only they could stop showing characters washing…
Read Craig’s review of the previous episode, Changeling, here.