Reviews: Must Watch TV: Into the Badlands

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by S. Qiouyi Lu

S. Qiouyi Lu is a writer, editor, narrator, and translator; their fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and other venues. A dread member of the queer Asian SFFH illuminati, S. spends their spare time destroying speculative fiction. Find out more at s.qiouyi.lu or follow them on Twitter at @sqiouyilu.

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Iron Fist. Ghost in the Shell. Death Note. With so much whitewashing going on in the media, what’s a fan supposed to watch?

Enter Into the Badlands. From the moment I saw Sunny (Daniel Wu) clad like a badass, sunglasses glinting and dual swords sheathed on his back as he rides a motorcycle across a backdrop of poppy fields, I knew I had to watch the show.

I was not disappointed. Here are four reasons why you should watch Into the Badlands:

The characters are strong.

By “strong character,” I don’t necessarily mean someone who’s physically strong or who has a lot of willpower. I mean characters who want things, who drive the story, who feel real. Into the Badlands is a master class in establishing character motivations early so that we, the viewers, latch on to the characters and cheer them on—or hope for their demise.

Barons rule the world of Into the Badlands, and Clippers are their defenders, trained from adolescence to kill for them. Sunny, a Regent—or top Clipper—dedicates his life to protecting Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas), the only family he’s allowed to have. Then Veil (Madeleine Mantock), Sunny’s lover, tells Sunny that she’s pregnant—setting into motion Sunny’s plans to escape the Badlands with Veil and their unborn child.

At the same time, Sunny trains a mysterious young man named M.K. (Aramis Knight) who has a secret power: whenever M.K. bleeds, he becomes unbelievably strong and adept at fighting, often with deadly consequences. M.K. desperately wants to control his power and find his lost mother.

Then there’s Baron Quinn’s family drama, with his son Ryder (Oliver Stark) vying to become Baron while Quinn’s wife Lydia (Orla Brady) struggles to hold on to her power and relationship with Quinn after he decides to take an additional wife, Jade (Sarah Bolger). Not to mention the Widow (Emily Beecham) doing all she can to legitimize herself as a Baron and gain more territory.

I’m normally not one for political or family dramas, but Into the Badlands broke that streak for me: I care about everyone. I sympathize with Sunny’s desperation as he makes risky choices about leaving the Badlands; I cheer Veil on as she resists a society that would oppress her. I watch, fascinated, as characters negotiate and exchange power, often on bloody battlefields. Everyone feels well-rounded and complex, and the fact that they want things so badly makes the frustration visceral when obstacles get in their way. We follow shows for the characters, and the characters of Into the Badland are compelling enough for me to follow them anywhere.

It’s gorgeous.

Tilda (Ally Ioannides) whirls gracefully in a vibrant cerulean outfit, her butterfly-shaped shuriken cutting gleaming paths through the air.

A crimson banner crumples to the ground as the Widow reclaims a key resource.

Water courses down verdant mountains as candles flicker in a monastic sanctuary.

Filled with intricately crafted fight sequences against a backdrop of bright colors, Into the Badlands is a delight to watch. It’s clear that the actors and choreographers took great pains to create these incredible fight scenes. One of the most memorable of them occurs in the first episode of season two, when Sunny, locked in shackles, bashes his way through a crowd. Others, like those involving the Widow, are more elegant. Even in calmer moments the sets have a wonderful atmosphere to them, their palettes vibrant and exaggerated against the bleakness of the world. Into the Badlands doesn’t just have compelling stories; it’s also a visual treat.

The worldbuilding is intriguing.

Into the Badlands features a stratified society with few occupations; it’s a society that’s vastly different from our modern-day United States. Plus, the world is filled with paradoxes: retro cars abound, but guns and other technology don’t seem to exist. Yet when Sunny struggles with a book that Veil is teaching him to read, he closes its cover and says he likes The Cat in the Hat better, suggesting that the world of Into the Badlands does have some sort of continuity with our own. The continuity only becomes stronger later: Sunny receives a toy soldier, a plastic anomaly in this seemingly 1800’s-esque world, as a token to give the River God for safe passage; Quinn lectures with a model of the White House in the background, his words suggesting that the White House and its government are no more.

My curiosity about the Badlands and the world beyond the Badlands (explored more in season two) keeps me picking out small details, deepening my interest in the show. I’m hoping to see more of the world and how it relates to ours.

It prioritizes diversity.

On Twitter, co-creator and executive producer of Into the Badlands Al Gough commented on the casting:

We try to have as many Asian, African American and POC as possible. We can always improve it’s an ongoing priority

[S]unny was written as Asian, that was non- negotiable for us. AMC always supportive. Other roles were open to all ethnicities

And it’s not just talk—a Chinese-American man plays Sunny; a multiracial German, Indian, and Pakistani teen plays M.K.; a Black woman plays Veil; a Blasian woman plays the Master… Many of the main characters as well as the extras are people of color.

Into the Badlands doesn’t feature people of color only in front of the cameras, either—they’re prominent behind-the-scenes as well. Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung were executive producers for season one, and Stephen Fung also directed a couple of episodes in season two. Mike Shinoda composed the theme music. Dee Dee Ku is one of the producers; Vikash Patel is one of the editors.

Almost as much as the show itself, I’ve also been enjoying the #ColorMeBadlands and #NOCBadlands hashtags created by the Nerds of Color (NOC) for livetweeting new episodes. The fact that the actors and producers of the show engage with a tag specifically by and for fans of color makes me feel seen and valued, like our views are taken seriously and we are acknowledged as a core part of the audience.

Of course, Into the Badlands isn’t perfect. While it’s currently doing pretty well in the realms of race and gender, it could always improve on the intersections of the two, as well as on other facets of identity like sexuality and disability. For example, the disabled characters seem to all be played by non-disabled actors. But it’s a start, and I hope Into the Badlands continues to prioritize diversity.

The first season of Into the Badlands is currently on Netflix in the US; season two is airing now on AMC, with new episodes posted weekly to the AMC website. Feel free to tweet me at @sqiouyilu with all your thoughts and feelings about the show!

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