As “Into the Badlands” prepares to wrap things up for 2017, the best news about this show, which ends its second season on Sunday, is that it’s already confirmed to return in 2018. By ordering a 16-episode third season recently, AMC delivered a vote of confidence to an underrated drama that absolutely and unequivocally earned one. “Into the Badlands” improved significantly from its promising first season, and at the moment, very few shows bring me more pleasure on a weekly basis. It’s a joy to behold.
It may be strange to experience such positive emotions while watching a show about a post-apocalyptic world, but the tone of “Into the Badlands” has never been one of nihilism or despair. Every single character on the show wants something, and though they may use underhanded methods — and ferociously precise fighting styles — to further their goals, their desires usually revolve around not just power and autonomy, but also personal connections and emotional bonds.
Watching this show, you never ask, “Why do they bother going on?” The lives of the people who populate this show, which revolves around a set of squabbling Barons who control what’s left of the world and use armies of “cogs” to do their bidding, can be challenging in the extreme. But it’s a world that, in almost every gorgeous frame, contains evidence of energetic striving and the possibility of a better future, not just reminders of what has been lost.
I’ll truly miss “Into the Badlands” when the second season is over —and to whet your appetite for the season finale, we’ve got an exclusive clip featuring Lydia (Orla Brady) and Quinn (Marton Csokas), spouses and scrappers who just can’t seem to quit each other.
Here are five of the biggest reasons this show has become unmissable:
It has the best fight scenes on television. They’re spectacular and often better than what you’d see in any Hollywood film, let alone on the small screen. Is it possible to not whoop with delight while watching these sequences? I suppose so, but I haven’t bothered to try to repress my enjoyment. “Into the Badlands” is influenced by the acrobatic and elegant fighting styles seen in the world of Hong Kong filmmaking, and its fight team (led by fight directors Stephen Fung and Andy Cheng, and legendary action choreographer Master Dee Dee) often use wire work to make the show’s characters do extraordinary things. The stunt and fight teams — not to mention the actors — pull off these acrobatic moves flawlessly, but the show’s creative team demonstrates every week that they understand how the fights should work on a deeper level. Every character has a different fighting style, and each fight has its own rhythm, pace, and feel. A battle among desperate men trying to cross a bridge is different from a balletic and supremely brilliant conflict between the well-trained forces of the Widow (Emily Beecham) and the elegant Baron Chau (Eleanor Matsuura). When Sunny (Daniel Wu) goes up against another assassin, Moon (Sherman Augustus), their battle crackled with electric desperation and intensity, and the bellowing, meaty style of Quinn (Marton Csokas) provides yet more contrast. But the most important thing is, each fight matters. The stakes are carefully established every time and the viewer is fully aware of what each character wants and just how badly they want it. I’d still watch “Into the Badlands” if the clashes were there just as decorations — they’re that great — but the fact that each conflict (physical and otherwise) is folded so carefully into the narrative gives these contests even more impact.
The mix of characters and motivations has improved. Sunny, Wu’s character, is a man of few words, which is why it was very smart to add the talkative Bajie this season. As Bajie, a shady but lovable man on the make, Nick Frost has ably supplied both comic relief, connections, and exposition, allowing Sunny to stay taciturn, but also be part of a “mismatched buddies on a road trip” duo. Another smart move: Turning the formerly powerful Quinn into a desperate rebel holed up in a bunker. Csokas was always one of the best parts of “Into the Badlands” — the actor knows he’s in an allegorical drama that requires an outsized, brazen approach, and he’s got the charisma and skills to make Quinn’s lunatic ambitions a lot of fun to watch. M.K. (Aramis Knight), a young man who used to have special powers, remains one of the least engaging characters on the show, but at least he’s no longer the focus of the drama, and his stint in a monastery supplied some reasonably compelling characters (and some terrific visuals). And this year, the Widow, her retinue, and her ambitions have been among the strongest aspects of the season. She wants to reform the brutal ways of the barons, and she’s dedicated to the welfare of the “butterflies” in her care (who are free to leave, which is not how things usually work in the Badlands). But the political compromises she’s had to make have disillusioned her adviser Tilda (Ally Ioannides), which led to the terrific fight between them at the end of last week’s installment. Every episode has supplied supporting characters and conflicts worth following, as Bajie and Sunny have made their dangerous way to Quinn’s stronghold.
The show looks incredible. The directors and directors of photography on “Into the Badlands” have outdone themselves this season — and not just because the show changed countries without missing a beat (it’s now filmed in Ireland after shooting its first season in Louisiana). “Into the Badlands” uses color with thoughtful intent and to fantastic effect; each Baron has his or her signature hue, and even the monastery had its own palette (scenes of initiates doing martial arts drills beside a waterfall while wearing purple robes are still etched on my memory). Not since “Mad Max: Fury Road” has a post-apocalyptic world looked and felt this thought-through and wildly, riotously, strangely evocative. An orange-hued junkyard; the saturated jewel tones of the Widow’s mansion; the cool, icy blues of Baron Chau’s satin ensembles; the rich green of a maze contrasted with the intense red of a man’s well-cut coat; the wintry, surreal flavor of an abandoned hotel decorated long ago for the Christmas holiday: All these images will linger long after the season is over. As was the case with “Penny Dreadful” (which was also shot in and around Dublin, as it happens), this is a world that you can lose yourself in so thoroughly that it’s easy to forgive the occasional weak subplot or dull character.
Its women kick butt, look great while doing so, and get to be as flawed as anyone else. I would probably kill (or at least maim) for the Widow’s wardrobe, or for a chance to live in Baron Chau’s minimalist-Regency mansion. And by the way, these women aren’t token ladies in a man’s world: There are important storylines for female characters all over this show, and none of them put the women in the boring position of having to act like aspirational role models. The women come into conflict with each other, strike up alliances, have romances, and make mistakes, just like anyone else. And like the men in this world, they have to be willing to fight and kill, and they occasionally betray each other. I do wish for stronger writing for Sunny’s lover, Veil (Madeleine Mantock), who has been mostly limited to pining and reacting to Quinn’s evil plotting all season. But in general, this is the rare action-adventure hour that does not turn the women’s quests and storylines into sloppy afterthoughts. You never know, the Widow could end up ruling the entire Badlands — or under the thumb of either Quinn or even Baron Chau. In any event, I look forward to seeing even more smart development for most of the characters next season — women included.
It stars an Asian man as both the action-adventure hero and the romantic lead. The stereotypes that Hollywood typically employs when it comes to Asian characters are still, unfortunately, pervasive. There are a few exceptions like “Master of None,” but in the main, Asian men are relegated to roles like the sidekick, the fourth detective on the team, or the one-dimensional tech geek. Occasionally, they get to play a criminal or a silent killer, and that’s usually about it. “Into the Badlands” — which, it should be noted, has been very successful from a ratings standpoint — knew from the start that Wu could bring his effective presence to bear on almost any kind of scene, and efficiently capitalized on it. Sunny gets to be a fighter, a lover, a schemer, and the kind of complicated hero who, despite his blood-soaked past and his literal and figurative scars, can’t help but rescue less powerful people along the way. And because the show itself can be intentionally melodramatic and metaphorical, Wu’s subtlety and quiet intensity are even more effective as balancing factors. And it’s not just that Sunny gets all kinds of romantic and heroic storylines: This is a show that tends to be effortlessly inclusive on screen, and executive producers and showrunners Miles Millar and Al Gough deserve a lot of credit for that.
Now, can we just talk about getting Season 3 here as quickly as possible?