At this point, Into the Badlands is past the point of selling itself and its basic conceit to an uninitiated audience. Season 1 was a success for AMC, which not only renewed the series, but also upped its episode count from six to ten. With a larger story on the horizon and complex world building more or less under its belt, the series is set to expand its scope in an effort to match the expectations that come with larger season 2. That means diving headlong into where season 1 left off, catching up with Daniel Wu’s Sunny, as well as M.K. (Aramis Knight), The Widow (Emily Beecham), and Martin Csokas’s Quinn. It also means introducing at least one new major character in Bajie, played by none other than Nick Frost.
The addition of Frost is a curious one that is in keeping with the style of the show. Those familiar with Frost in movies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Attack the Block may well want to see how he fits into a post-apocalyptic martial arts extravaganza. It’s another aspect of the series selling itself on the lunacy of its concept and its continued efforts to turn that sense of unbridled madness into the most effective part of its appeal. But Frost is more than just a bit of stunt casting to get a subset of genre fans to tune in, he’s a necessary component to the next phase of Sunny’s story, one that finds the one-time Clipper in a tight spot, mining relics of a forgotten civilization for a despotic foreman running what might as well be the series’ interpretation of hell on earth.
Into the Badlands teases Bajie as an inevitable sidekick to Sunny, the entryway to a new dynamic that will further the hero’s quest and help leaven the seriousness of the situation. But there’s more to Bajie than his apparent worthiness as a partner to the series’ protagonist. He’s a pragmatic opportunist, one who wouldn’t think twice about selling anyone out if it means he’ll wind up in a better situation. Given that he and Sunny are both at an extremely low point (literally and figuratively), the pivot near the episode’s end that sees Bajie selling Sunny out for what he presumes is a reprieve makes for what the audience can safely assume is coming a little more interesting.
INTO THE BADLANDS: "TIGER PUSHES MOUNTAIN" REVIEW
A few weeks ago, it might have seemed like bad fortune that Into the Badland's second season was debuting mere days after Iron Fist hit Netflix. Geeks only have so much room for martial arts fantasy in their weekly diet, right? But given the uniformly negative reaction to Iron Fist, the timing might wind up working out in AMC's favor instead. If you're feeling jilted at Iron Fist's lukewarm display of fighting prowess, Into the Badlands is here to wash away the bad taste.
A lot has changed for the series since the Season 1 finale. Roughly six months have passed since Sunny (Daniel Wu) betrayed his Baron and failed to save protege M.K. (Aramis Knight) from the abbots who came to collect him. "Tiger Pushes Mountain" picked up with pretty much every character undergoing a fundamental status quo change. Sunny has gone from being right-hand man to one of the most powerful men in the land to being a lowly slave in a mining prison. M.K. is now training in a remote monastery under the watchful eye of the enigmatic Master (Chipo Chung). Ryder (Oliver Stark) is busy lording over his new kingdom, even as the Widow (Emily Beecham) and her butterflies begin taking back what's theirs.
Even the setting has drastically changed. Whereas the first season filmed in New Orleans, production shifted to Ireland for Season 2. Right away, this helps the show address one of the more glaring flaws of the first season. The scale is clearly much bigger, both in terms of the variety of locales and the general look and feel of this post-apocalyptic environment. It's more Mad Max and less "Antebellum South with samurai swords."
These changes also help shake up the general focus of the show and ensure that it's not quite so preoccupied with Quinn family drama. While clearly the Quinns are still a focus, Ryder and his scheming mistress Jade (Sarah Bolger) come across like a smaller fish in a bigger pond this year. Conversely, it seems like Widow and her girls are a more integral part of the plot. If anything, Widow seems much less antagonistic now, as she seems about the only voice of decency and common sense left in the Badlands. All of these changes are welcome. The show has a more ensemble feel and a greater sense of scope and variety.
The addition of a few new players doesn't hurt, either. Chung works well as M.K.'s new mentor, with just enough vulnerability and uncertainty to her role to prevent her from coming across as a generic martial arts master. Nick Frost lends a welcome dose of humor to the show as Bajie, Sunny's new BFF in the mines. If Season 1 was a little too self-serious, Frost's presence immediately helps to mitigate that. As does Stephen Walters as Sunny's new master, "The Engineer." Walters really hams it up here, as if he's determined to fill the void left by Marton Csokas' Quinn, but given the nature of the character and the kingdom he rules, the campy approach fits the Engineer more than it ever did Quinn.
Speaking of which, we learned at the end of this episode that Quinn isn't actually out of the picture. Though the fact that Csokas' name is still in the opening credits kind of deflated that particular reveal. In any case, Quinn not only survived being stabbed by Sunny, he now has Sunny's lover and newborn child in his possession. Veil (Madeleine Mantock) doesn't seem overly concerned about the new arrangement, however, so it's hard to say what role Quinn is meant to play this season.
The series hasn't immediately shed all the flaws of the first season. The performances are still fairly hit and miss. Wu is predictably dependable as Sunny, and he immediately forms a tight rapport with his new sidekick. Wu opts for the silent approach here, which works well given how far the character has fallen and how much he's lost. But there are still too many stiff, stilted performances from the rest of the main cast. Knight in particular has a very deliberate, almost robotic quality to his line delivery that really hurts his character. Ally Ioannides' Tilda, meanwhile, tends to work best when she takes the silent, broody approach. The final confrontation between Tilda's soldiers and the wayward Clippers stood out precisely because of that silence. As for Ryder and Jade, it's probably not a good sign that I left this episode disappointed that neither character was killed off. The Quinn clan may be less a focus this season, but it may turn out that less is still too much.
But let's be honest - most of us tune into this series for the fight scenes above all else. And where Season 1 sometimes went a little too long in between displays of martial prowess, this episode wasn't shy about giving up the goods. And again, with Iron Fist being such a disappointment in the action department as well as every other area, it's nice to be reminded that Into the Badlands remains the reigning champ on TV.
The sheer variety of the fights impressed as much as anything else in this episode. Sunny was forced to rely on a much more desperate, dirty form of combat as he struggled to escape his captors. There was a real Jackie Chan quality to that fight, what with Sunny being chained up and forced to use his environment and his attackers' momentum against them. Then there was Widow's prolonged attack on the Clippers, which involved equal parts graceful ballet and swordplay and brutal, almost excessive acts of violence. Balancing out all of that were the smaller fight scenes involving M.K. and his new allies, which give the show a whiff of Chinese wuxia movies. No matter the style, all of these fights were beautifully choreographed and executed. Let's hope the rest of the season keeps up this fast and furious approach to action.
Into the Badlands
A lot of shows coming off their first season would spend most of their second season premiere easing back into the story, catching up with each character, seeing how they’re coping with the revelations of last season’s finale, and just generally beginning to build up new conflicts. Into the Badlands isn’t that kind of show, though. Across six episodes last year, it laid out a vision of ruthless violence and efficient, propulsive storytelling. Hardly a moment was wasted; after all, there’s no time to be wasted when there are so many necks to snap and bones to crush.
Thus, the season 2 premiere only waits about 90 seconds until it dives head-and-fists first into a beautiful, brutal fight. It’s six months later, and we see Sunny is imprisoned in a labor camp, recently arrived and given a harsh introduction to the life of meeting daily mining quotas. Of course, Sunny doesn’t just become a prisoner willingly. Despite his head and hands being made immobile by a pillory, Sunny does his best to fight off his captors, maneuvering around the tight space and taking down nearly every single guard. Eventually, two other guards get the upper hand, and Sunny is forced back into chains and into the bunks along with the other “workers.”
There, he has a vision of Veil and their unborn child, all before being rudely awakened by none other than Nick Frost. Okay, his name is Baije, but it’s hard not to see Nick Frost, especially as he plays the affable, jovial sidekick to Sunny’s brooding protagonist. Baije is here to help Sunny get through the day-to-day in the camp. He shows him the ropes, tells him about meeting his quota, and even recognizes that he’s a Clipper. It’s more a forced friendship based on circumstance than anything else, but it seems like Sunny could really use just about any friend in this place.
So, what’s everyone else up to? Well, M.K. is deep into his training with a bunch of other kids who share his powers, and he’s still being a little s— about everything. He’s grumpy that The Master hasn’t seen him yet, he’s angry that he can’t just use his powers when he wants, and he’s eager to leave his training and go find Sunny and Tilda and make his way to Azra.
M.K. makes a break for it one night, only to wander into a room and find the compass with the embossed outline of Azra that once belonged to Sunny. He picks it up but is stopped from taking it by another hand. He turns and comes face to face with… someone. Initially, he seems to dismiss this woman — that is, until she asks him to catch a broom and it sends him flying across the room. “You’re The Master,” he says. Subtlety isn’t exactly a strength of Into the Badlands.
The interaction between M.K. and The Master isn’t all that insightful, but it does give us a sense of what role she’s playing in his life. She knows everything about Sunny, Tilda, and Azra, and it’s proven that she has great strength when she stops a provoked attack from M.K. That doesn’t come without some punishment, though, as she rolls back her sleeve to reveal a broken forearm, the bone popping through the skin. Luckily for The Master, she just waves her hand over it and everything is healed. Still, if M.K. has that kind of power right now, just imagine what he could do if he focused on a single goal.