Into The Badlands season 1 was a beautiful, brutal snapshot of a fascinating post-apocalyptic world. It followed Sunny, the chief Clipper (Soldier) of Baron Quinn. Sunny was an elite killer, a man with everything he wanted who slowly came to realise just how wrong he was about that. Desperate to rescue Veil, the love of his life and mother of his child, Sunny made a deal to get out of the Badlands.
It didn’t go well.
Season 2 picked the story up almost straight away with Sunny at an out-of-Badlands prison camp. Aided by new character Bajie, he escaped, fled home and arrived just in time to discover how bad things had got. Quinn survived their climactic season 1 duel, the other Barons were almost all dead and the Widow, Quinn’s arch enemy, was working with him. And Sunny’s family were caught in the firing line…
Into The Badlands season 2 did an awful lot of things right. From the opening, balletic fight scene where Sunny attempts to escape to the final throw down in Quinn’s bunker, the show remained the gold standard for action sequences on modern TV. Every cast member got multiple moments in the spotlight and each one, and their stunt teams, had clearly worked very hard to develop a way to explore character through action.
This is the one thing that, somehow, American TV drama in particular almost never gets. Action, especially violence like the sort in Into The Badlands, is a chance to show your characters at their purest. Rendered down to the instinct to survive, everyone is honest and season 2 featured some of the most honest, and emotional, fights in the show’s history. The long brewing, and brutal, fight between Tilda and The Widow is a particular standout. The young Regent’s anger and horror at her mother’s true motives driving her, just as the Widow’s guilt and rage pushes her. That fight in particular is interesting because of how grounded it is. While there’s the usual elegant acrobatics, it comes down to The Widow beating her daughter halfway to death because the younger woman has had the courage to point out her hypocrisy. Hard to watch, completely gripping and absolutely in service to the characters.
You see that again and again throughout the show. Sunny’s straight line, driven attacks in the closing fight, powered by anger and getting him badly hurt as a result. MK’s terror at his dark side giving it the exact weapons it needs to beat him. Quinn’s nihilistic glee at being unbound from every social structure causing him and his men to tear through opponents like a ripsaw. Waldo using everyone’s assumptions that the man in a wheelchair couldn’t possibly be dangerous to his advantage and their blood-soaked loss.
And then there’s Bajie. Bajie is the best thing to happen to the show in a long time. Played by Nick Frost, he’s an amiable, chatty presence and the perfect foil to Daniel Wu’s gloriously taciturn Sunny. In fact, for a good chunk of the season that’s all he is; a morally protean sidekick who can handle himself if needs be.
But Bajie’s origin, and his skills, change all that. Bajie fits two pieces of the show’s puzzle together that we didn’t even notice were missing. His past as an abbot, and his clear interest in the lost high-tech city of Azra, are the show taking definitive steps into a larger world and ones we hope it continues next year. His presence as a big guy who is just as dangerous, and clever, and kind, as the other characters makes that a very fervent hope. Bajie’s our people, and we hope to see lots more of him.
That expansion of the world, embodied both in Bajie and the way the Abbots’ plot that impacted on MK and Sunny, was a massive and well-timed step for the show. Season 1 really does feel like a first chapter now and season 2 clearly revelled in not only being able to continue that story but expand it. Seeing the Badlands from the outside was a welcome dose of perspective, and the show was at its best this year when it embraced that outsider viewpoint. Unusual episode formats paid off again and again, with ‘Red Sun, Silver Moon’ and ‘Black Heart, White Mountain’ both breaking the show’s format with immense success.
The first was almost a bottle episode, focusing on Sunny and Bajie’s relationship with legendary Clipper Regent Nathaniel Moon. Sherman Augustus’ physical presence and calm were a perfect match for Daniel Wu’s and the episode gave Sunny the chance to see himself from the outside. The fact that Moon, possibly the only more decorated killer than Sunny, ultimately chose death in battle was both welcome and ambiguous. He went out on his own terms but did so in the only way he knew how. Sunny’s dilemma; war or family, given form and voice.
‘Black Heart, White Mountain’ was largely set inside Sunny’s mind following a near fatal attack by the Abbots. Flashing between his hallucinatory life as a farmer and the real world, it broke new ground for the show in terms of style and approach. It also gave series lead Daniel Wu a chance to show other sides to Sunny’s character to great effect. Sunny was firmly established, by this episode especially, as a fundamentally decent man locked into a fundamentally amoral set of skills. He’s almost a grown up child soldier; incapable of doing anything other than what he’s best at, but knowing there’s more to the world.
That idea drove the Widow’s plot too as she realised that she’d not only won, but had very little idea what to do next. The idea of The Widow as a social reformer, and what happens when she gets power, is one of the most interesting things the show has ever done. Even before that final, crunching beat down of Tilda it was gripping to watch. After that fight, it looks set to be front and centre in season 3 and with good reason. Beecham, along with Wu and Frost, is one of the best elements of the show and her character still has a lot to do. And more to make up for.
All of this was immensely successful and it was far from alone. The Widow’s tango-esque duel with Baron Chau, the extra background on the Abbots, the hints at the world that was and the exploration of life outside the Badlands all worked brilliantly. They did this because each one pushed back, very specifically, against accepted wisdom. The Widow and Chau are shown to be at least the physical equals of their rivals. The Abbots have far more of an agenda, knowledge of technology and a plan, than they first seemed to. Azra is less an idealistic forgotten dream than a real place at the end of what may be a very short trail of clues. Life outside the Badlands is nasty, brutish, short and still somehow better than it is on the inside. All of this worked. And yet, one of the season’s most memorable elements is unfortunately its biggest failure; Veil.
Throughout season 1, Veil, played by Madeleine Mantock, was a foil to everything else. A healer in love with a killer, a woman whose incredible strength came through character rather than martial skill, she was a vital part of what made the show work.
This season, her arc included; captivity, near rape, actual murder and dying.
Veil spending almost the entire season underground was surprisingly effective at first, and it gave the few moments she was able to get out some real emotional charge. However, given her past with Quinn, placing her in that situation felt like it should have given her huge agency. Instead, the early implications (That she was waiting for the tumour to kill him) quickly gave way to her being the victim of the week, especially as the show came in to land for the season.
The near rape was the most disturbing element of this. Rape is a trope way too many shows head straight for and for ITB to do this to its nominal leading actress felt very uncomfortable. It was intended to be, certainly, and it never tipped over into sensationalism for this viewer. But we know it did, for many others. Even Veil’s plan; to kill Quinn knowing full well she’d almost certainly be next, felt muted. She had agency, even now, but agency in a situation this uncomfortable and, bluntly, over used doesn’t carry far.
Then there’s the murder. The show did an excellent job of exploring how Quinn’s loyalists aren’t all wannabe berserkers and Edgar was a good example of this. Quinn was at his most interesting when surrounded by people you didn’t expect to be loyal to him and Edgar was the embodiment of that. He was a good guy, following the wrong person.
Veil’s murder of him was, it seemed, intended to be frantic, untidy and desperate. That’s understandable given how much of an anathema to her normal way of life it was but it still played…off. Not just because of how brutally she killed him but because of how inept she was after that. It’s entirely understandable why; she was in shock, but it still played as a bum note the series never quite recovered from. Veil was smarter than this.
Her eventual death felt like even more of a missed target. The idea of Sunny being left alone to raise their son is interesting but hardly one that hasn’t been done many times before. Worse, it rendered Veil’s entire presence in the season functionally moot. She was there to do one thing; mark time for 9.5 episodes, deliver the killing blow to Quinn, and die.
What’s even more disappointing is that killing blow is the only strike in the entire season that feels false. She’s stabbed through the shoulder and neck, her first major wound of the season and dies. The man she kills has already been gutted, twice, and got back up. Sunny has been stabbed in the chest, Bajie has been stabbed in the chest, Tilda has been beaten unconscious and had a chandelier dropped on her. All of them survive. Veil stabs herself through a non-fatal area and dies. For, it seems, no bigger reason than the show hasn’t got anything else for her to do.
It’s such a shame that season 2 ended this way, and more of a shame that almost all the good work the show’s done is overshadowed by this one, staggeringly bad, decision. Season 3 has already been confirmed and will be 16 episodes. We’re excited to see it, but, honestly, cautious too. Here’s hoping it won’t plumb the same depths of tropey writing that, unfortunately, closed out this year.