When talking about Shadow and Bone, the TV series, there’s one thing we need to get out of the way up front: If you’re arriving at this series as a superfan of author Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology and you’re looking for a faithful adaptation from page to screen, you’re going to be disappointed. Honestly, that should’ve been obvious the moment it was announced ahead of Season 1’s premiere that the Netflix series would bringing the Crows characters into the Shadow and Bone story. (In the novels, the action in Six of Crows, while in the same universe, takes place several years after the Shadow and Bone trilogy wraps up.) While that move was awkward at times in the first season — there was definitely some tonal whiplash going on — it ultimately worked pretty well. Major themes from both novel series remained intact, and some character changes were 100% upgrades from the book version. Who knew Mal (Archie Renaux) could be so freaking likable?!
But if you were not a fan of Season 1’s deviations from the novels, oh buddy, you are going to have a tough time with Season 2. It deviates wildly from the source material, and the reason is twofold: The show is condensing and combining the plot of the two final books in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, while still biding time until it gets to the actual Six of Crows plot. If Season 1 was a taste of change, Season 2 makes a bold, firm statement that the TV series is its own thing. And coming from a fan of the books: It’s a super smart move. There are parts of the Shadow and Bone books that lag and can easily be ditched, and the Six of Crows characters are infinitely more interesting, so yes, you want to keep them involved in the story. And by the time viewers get to the end of these eight new episodes and realize where the show is going if it gets a Season 3, I think most fans will be excited by where showrunners Eric Heisserer and Daegan Fryklind are taking the series.
But we’re not here to talk about where Shadow and Bone is going post Season 2 — even though all I want to do is squeal about the ending, because it is wild — we’re here to talk about what Shadow and Bone is doing right now, in Season 2. Last we left our favorite Grisha and non-Grisha (otkazat’sya, as they’re called in the series), Sun Summoner Alina (Jessie Mei Li) had battled against evil Shadow Summoner General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), aka the Darkling, aka Aleksander, as he attempted to use Alina’s power to expand and take control of the Shadow Fold, a shadowland he had created hundreds of years prior that is full of monsters and sitting right in the middle of Ravka. Alina failed to destroy the Fold but believed Kirigan to be dead. We, however, know that she was wrong — Kirigan emerged from the Fold with a scary new power: giant shadow monsters to act as his bodyguards.
Alina and her soulmate Mal fled Ravka as fugitives, since most people believe she was working with Kirigan to expand the Fold. Meanwhile, the Crows, who were sent to Ravka to kidnap Alina but eventually become her pals, returned to their home in Ketterdam to attend to their own business. Season 2 picks up immediately after this: Alina and Mal have a renewed urgency to find the other two mythical amplifiers to make Alina strong enough to tear down the Fold; Kirigan is on the hunt to find Alina so that he can either contain her power or convince her to use it alongside him as he attempts to overthrow the Ravkan king and put Grisha in control…well, everywhere; and the Crows have some personal problems to deal with before they are eventually thrown back into the main narrative.
Season 2 of Shadow and Bone has many of the same problems Season 1 did: Mainly, there is way too much going on. All eight episodes run close to or more than an hour. Stuffed with plot, they still feel like they’re not able to devote the time needed to every storyline or character. There are still times when mythology is only half explained, asking the audience to do a lot of lifting on their own. The plot mostly works itself out enough in the end, especially if you squint a little, although I constantly found myself wondering if a person not familiar with the books would feel the same way.
The most glaring issue caused by this season’s overstuffing is rushed character development. On top of the sprawling ensemble introduced last season, a batch of new characters are introduced. The most important one is a wisecracking privateer named Sturmhond (Patrick Gibson), who plays an integral role in the Shadow and Bone side of the story for reasons I won’t spoil here, and a lot of it hinges on his relationships with Alina and Mal. It’s not the actors’ faults — in fact, all three of them have an easy, authentic chemistry together — but the show doesn’t have enough time to develop those relationships in a believable way. There are moments between them that are meant to be emotional high points that clearly had the potential to pay off in big ways, if only they were more earned. The same goes for a gaggle of “evil” Grisha brought in to battle the good guys. They’re all so one-note you could’ve named them Plot Device and it would make no difference. Shadow and Bone seems to want us to have some type of emotional investment in them, yet it has no time to build that up naturally.
Not all the new characters feel this way. We’re introduced to a free agent brother and sister Grisha duo who roll in with Sturmhond, Tolya (Lewis Tan) and Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy), who are a hoot. They aren’t asked to do as much narrative work as Sturmhond is, but they have enough character development to feel fully fleshed out, and there’s enough there to really pique your interest for deeper storylines in the future. If Shadow and Bone gets a Season 3, I really hope we’ll be seeing more of these two.