Into The Badlands is the best TV show you may not be watching. After an initial six episode run last year it’s back with a 16 episode second season that massively expands the world, the characters and the stakes.
If you’ve never seen the show before, you can catch up on Amazon Prime which also has season two and season one is out on DVD and Blu-Ray now. Or you could read on and we’ll tell you everything you need to know.
Into The Badlands is set in a post-post apocalyptic society. Something unspeakable has happened to the world five centuries ago and the truth of it is either forgotten or hidden. The series is full of ruined motorways and abandoned houses that have lain fallow for centuries.
However, despite whatever the awful thing was, humanity has survived and done so at a surprisingly high industrial level. The electrical grid is still active. Cars are relatively commonplace, as are powered boats and at least a rudimentary road system. There is one huge difference between the Badlands world and ours; no guns. At all.
Instead, characters fight up-close and personal with swords, staffs, edged weapons of every kinds and if they’re lucky bows and crossbows. What’s even more common is hand-to-hand combat. Extremely high-end martial arts training is commonplace and fights are often as graceful and elegant as they are brutal and bloody.
The Badlands themselves are ruled by the Barons. Each Baron is essentially the monarch of a small fiefdom and each one specialises in something that the others need. As a result, there’s a constant cold war between them as each struggles to expand their territories and raise their status while not annoying their enemies enough to go to war with them. Quinn, the Baron whose lands much of the first series is set on, grows opium flowers as his primary export.
The Barons’ soldiers are called Clippers. Clippers are terrifying. Men and women trained to the highest possible standard with every weapon and every unarmed form to kill without hesitation for their Masters. Every time a Clipper kills, a mark is tattooed on their body and a Clipper’s status is directly tied to just how many kills they have.
The Clippers are commanded by a Regent, the senior Clipper who, it’s implied, has the most kills. Clippers are expected to find and train students, nicknamed Colts, to rise up the ranks and eventually take their place.
The Colts, most commonly, are drawn from the Cog population. Cogs are the workers, the servant class who till the Barons’ fields, harvest their crops and support their regimes. In this instance it’s essentially a medieval world; the Cogs are serfs, the Colts are Squires, the Clippers are Knights
Of course nothing’s quite as simple as that. Dolls are a semi-organised class who work as prostitutes for Clippers. Mercenaries and thieves are commonplace and often menace small towns with little threat of punishment. Neutral parties such as the River King, who runs freight up and down the central rivers of the Badlands, command more status than some Barons.
Most interesting of all is The Widow. The newest Baron in the Badlands following her husband’s death, The Widow is a terrifying martial artist and a woman dead set on burning the old order to the ground. Her Clipper army is open to any women and Dolls have flocked to her as have several surprising allies. Relentless, determined and arguably the best fighter in the region, she’s capable of it too.
The Story So Far
The first season followed three groups of people through the most tumultuous few months in the Badlands in years. Baron Quinn, flamboyant, brutal, ambitious and bored was at the centre of most of this. Along with his wife, Lydia, and his soon-to-be wife Jade, he sat atop an extraordinarily profitable empire and may be the most powerful Baron.
He wanted more.
As Quinn battled his own ambitions, and growing physical limitations, Lydia and Jade circled each other looking for an opening. Both women spent the season trying to figure out if they were friends or enemies and the situation was complicated immensely by Jade’s relationship with Lydia’s son, Ryder.
The Widow was the other primary player in season one’s arc plot. Along with her young assistant, and eventually Regent, Tilda, she wreaked havoc everywhere she went for very specific, often very good reasons. Her often fractious relationship with her ward served to humanise them both and Tilda and The Widow are two of the best characters in the show so far.
Finally, and front and centre in the show, there’s Sunny. Quinn’s Regent and possibly the best Clipper in the Badlands, Sunny is a stern, endlessly dutiful and terrifyingly skilled warrior. When Sunny rescued a young boy called MK from mercenaries, he inadvertently set events rolling that would change the Badlands forever. Complicating matters still further is the fact Sunny’s lover, Veil, is pregnant and Clippers are forbidden from having children.
MK is something more than human, a living weapon whose abilities are activated the moment his blood is spilt. With no memory of why this happens, MK is a mystery wrapped in an incredibly dangerous enigma. All he knows is he comes from the city of Azra. But everyone in the Badlands knows Azra is just a myth…
As the Widow rose to power, Ryder plotted against his father, Lydia and Jade fought and Sunny tried to help MK the first series spiralled up into an extraordinary piece of martial arts drama. By the end of the series, everything had changed, no one was where they started and the world had got much bigger. Whether Sunny and MK want it to or not.
Why You Should Watch
Nothing else on TV looks or moves like Into The Badlands. The cast have talked about how extensive the pre-training was for the fight scenes and every hour of blood and sweat is up on screen. There’s some wirework, sure, but even that is entirely physical in nature. This is a series with a crunchy, skinned-knee and bloody-knuckle aesthetic to its action and there isn’t an episode where that doesn’t pay off. Look at the closing fight of the first season or the opening of season two. In both cases environment, location and emotional state are used to turn action into a means of exploring character. It’s always beautiful to watch, always bloody as all Hell and never once feels forced.
It’s the fact that action always serves character that makes the show work for us. It’s especially true of the second season, which sees MK come into his own in his own plot. In a moment that’s nicely reminiscent of the Force cave in The Empire Strikes Back he’s forced to fight his other self for control of his memories and past. At the point we’re at in season two, he’s lost and is trying to work out how to deal with that. That’s a really brave way to take a character like him and of all the show’s cast he’s by far the most improved.
The pacing helps too. The Widow’s plan is just starting to play out as we hit the midpoint of season 2 while Sunny and new character Bajie (Nick Frost!) begin to make their long, strange journey back home. One plot shows us the inner workings of the Badlands at their most brutal, the other shows us the slow emotional awakening of a killer as he’s forced out of his comfort zone. It’s complicated, ambitious and bloody stuff. It’s also never less than fun and frequently brilliant.
And that’s the show in a nut shell. It has a strong voice, a unique look and a work ethic that leaves every drop of blood on screen. Its strong stuff but absolutely essential if you can take the blood. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we need to see a man about passage back to the Badlands…
Into The Badlands season two arrives on Amazon Prime UK every Tuesday.