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Review: Shadow and Bone season two 

By Ansharah Shakil, April 19 2023

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for Shadow and Bone season one and two. 

When the first season of Shadow and Bone came out in 2021, it had its flaws, but it succeeded in depicting a high fantasy and high-stakes story. Based on Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series, the first season showed dedication to the source material and determination to create something new. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the second season.

I fully expected to love this new season. Covering the first book of the trilogy and a prequel to the events of Six of Crows, season one of Shadow and Bone was a breath of fresh air in the land of fantasy TV. It improved upon the shaky grounds of the typical white young adult fantasy Grisha Trilogy by casting people of colour for the two main characters and romantic leads, Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal (Archie Renaux). With impeccable casting, gorgeous costumes and clever plotlines, what was there not to love about Shadow and Bone

The second season retains points in its favour for the casting and costuming and even some of its plotlines. But there’s a lot that is both lacklustre and overwhelming. There are embarrassing fight scenes with an unnecessary amount of slow motion and awkward moments where the dialogue falls flat. This season’s biggest flaw, however, is rushed pacing. The quick scene changes drop the ball on emotional beats, and the rapid-fire events that occur in the span of one episode are hard for anyone to keep up with. 

In season one, the focus was on Alina accepting her powers as a Grisha and the emotional core of her relationship with Mal. The Crows — Kaz (Freddy Carter), Inej (Amita Surman) and Jesper (Kit Young) — were originally hired to kidnap Alina but end up helping her leave her home country Ravka. In season two, Alina and Mal have escaped to the neighbouring country Novyi Zem after presuming the villainous Darkling (Ben Barnes) dead. They plan to tear down the Shadow Fold by finding the two remaining amplifiers that will increase Alina’s powers. The Crows return to Ketterdam and embark on a quest to take down Pekka Rollins, joined by Wylan (Jack Wolfe) and Nina (Danielle Galligan), who wants Kaz’s help to free her lover Matthias (Calahan Skogman) from prison. 

Where the first season intricately weaved together the plotline of the Crows and Shadow and Bone, the two storylines clearly don’t belong together in season two, and pivotal scenes from the duology are put in at moments which make no sense in context. While the scenes are acted out well, in the show, there isn’t time to dwell on any of these important, character-building scenes. They’re simply inserted in one episode and forgotten about in the next.

There are a plethora of new characters introduced who cram the season even further. One of the most exciting aspects of this season was the introduction of fan favourites Wylan and Nikolai (Patrick Gibson). Yet neither of these characters are truly done justice and lack the depth they had in the book. Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy) and her romance with Nadia (Gabrielle Brooks) could have been an opportunity to have a lesbian couple in the spotlight but it has about 10 minutes in total devoted to it. Kaz’s two-book arc is covered quickly in two episodes and any acknowledgment of Inej’s trauma is superfluous. It’s fortunate that their actors provide two of the show’s best performances. Otherwise, the inexplicable changes to their storylines would be even harder to watch. 

Meanwhile, characters who subverted young adult novel archetypes in the books are reduced to those exact stereotypes, like Jesper. The treatment of his bisexuality and trauma was revolutionary in the books. In the show, he’s stuck being the comic relief, shooting off Marvel-esque quips and resolving his trauma in the span of less than one episode. Even his meaningful romance with Wylan from the books is rushed. It’s hard to know that a complex character of colour has been squashed down to make room for the ridiculous number of plotlines the season is juggling. Other characters of colour are killed off prematurely, like David Kostyk, or given a small amount of screen time despite being central to the plot, as Zoya Nazyalensky is. 

For book fans, the changes may be frustrating. But for non-book fans, the entire season might simply be confusing. Can it really be a surprise that the season had too many characters and plotlines to balance when they attempted to adapt over four books in eight episodes? The reason why seems to be the showrunners’ goal of a season three or a Six of Crows spin-off, or both. But a story isn’t meant to be told like this. Showrunners and writers should not be so worried about ratings or renewals that they have to try and distil four-books worth of development into a handful of good moments that don’t make sense or have any effect without build-up or emotional resonance. 

The end of season two has potential, and an action-packed season two might lead to a more character-driven season three, especially when there are only a few books remaining to adapt. When Shadow and Bone is good, it’s good, showing off a sweeping score, beautiful scenery and thrilling action scenes. The emotional scenes that are present in season two are gripping and captivating, and there are plenty of epic, entertaining moments. The cast’s obvious chemistry and endearing portrayals lend cadence to some of the more dubious plotlines. The beautiful set design and costuming add to the atmosphere of the worldbuilding, and the show itself is loved by fans who have and have not read the books. 

Considering Netflix’s track record of cancellations, it’s useless to speculate that the hype the show has generated will make it a shoo-in for renewal. But after the clear effort, the showrunners have gone to ensure that a renewal will be secured, it would be a shame for all of that to end up being for nothing.

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