- Launches on Thursday, March 16
- All eight episodes drop on the same date
- Based on Leigh Bardugo's fantasy book series
- Created by Eric Heisserer
- Stars Jessie Mei Li, Ben Barnes, and Archie Renaux among others
- Picks up two weeks after the season 1 finale
Minor spoilers follow for Shadow and Bone season 2.
Shadow and Bone seems perfectly placed to become Netflix’s new flagship fantasy TV series. With the diminishing popularity of The Witcher and the cancellation of fan-favorite shows like Warrior Nun, Netflix needs a new fantasy champion. Shadow and Bone, then, could be the savior it’s looking for.
Unfortunately, Shadow and Bone season 2 doesn’t do enough to suggest it’s on track to take on that mantle. Unlike Shadow and Bone’s first season, this isn’t a wholly faithful adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s bestselling books, with some baffling creative decisions cramping its style. There’s a lot to like about the show’s latest entry, but its positives are nullified in such a way that it’s not as spellbinding as it could be.
Light and shade
Shadow and Bone season 2 picks up two weeks after the first season’s finale. Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal Oretsov (Archie Renaux) continue their quest to locate more amplifiers to boost Alina’s Sun Summoning powers, destroy The Fold, and stop General Kirigan/The Darkling (Ben Barnes) for good. Meanwhile, Kirigan, who survived the Volcra’s attack in The Fold, tends to his wounds as he concocts a new plan to laud it over the Grishaverse.
After aiding Alina in the fight against Kirigan, The Crows – led by Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter) – return to Ketterdam. However, rival gang leader Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly) has seized their establishments and framed them for crimes they didn’t commit. Add Nina Zenik (Danielle Galligan), who seeks The Crows’ help in breaking her partner Matthias (Calahan Skogman) out of Hellgate prison, into the mix, and Brekker and company have plenty to deal with.
Like Shadow and Bone season 1, the show’s latest installment divides its time between two primary narratives. Well, initially at least. Alina and The Crows’ storylines are the main focus of Shadow and Bone season 2, but it’s the branching out into subplots, side quests, and other narrative offshoots that distinguish this season from what came before.
Broken into its constituent parts, the show’s second season centers on five storylines. That quintet comprises Alina and Mal’s journey, Matthias’ imprisonment in Hellgate, Kirigan’s burgeoning masterplan, and two concerning The Crows. Of the latter duo, the first is a chaotically-assembled, brand-new tale that sees Brekker and co take on Rollins’ criminal empire. The second Crows-centric plot – one that draws them back into Alina and Kirigan’s orbits – is a far more entertaining and suspenseful spectacle.
Regardless, Shadow and Bone season 2 flits between its plots with a pleasing fluidity, competently expanding on the size and scope of season 1 through its examination of the Grishaverse’s history and useful lore, new locations, and character introductions (more on these later).
However, one of Shadow and Bone 2’s main problems is how much time it dedicates to each storyline. Understandably, it’s weighted in favor of Alina’s story – she’s the series’ main protagonist and its hero, so her journey takes precedence over The Crows’, Kirigan’s, and Matthias’. Even so, Kirigan’s season 2 story arc – outside of crossing over with Alina’s, initially in a dreamscape manner akin to the Force Dyad bond seen in Star Wars' sequel film trilogy – is thematically dense and captivating enough to deserve more screen time.
Matthias’ Hellgate-based story is even less developed and, in some respects, an unnecessary inclusion. Ironically, its plot starts to get interesting later in the season, when a certain individual is locked up alongside everyone’s favorite Fjerdan. But, while this story belatedly bubbles away with intrigue, events that follow only act as vexing teases for what’s to come in a potential third season.
Equally, the transition between some scenes occurs in a way that oversimplifies specific plot points, even if they help the season proceed at a satisfying pace. One example, which sees Mal and Alina separated in episode 4 for reasons I won’t spoil, leads to their reunion in episode 5 in baffling circumstances, with Mal explaining his absence with a reductive throwaway line. Moments like these detract from the drama and tension that Shadow and Bone 2 tries to tee up, serving as nothing more than eye-twitching irritations.
Those issues are small fry, though, compared to the bewildering narrative deviations Shadow and Bone season 2 takes from its source material. Showrunner Eric Heisserer forewarned diehard fans that the show’s next installment would pull from three novels – Siege & Storm, Ruin & Rising, and Six of Crows – to tell its tales. Longtime fans, then, weren’t expecting season 2 to be a beat-for-beat retread of the book series’ storylines.
Even so, nothing prepared me for how radically different Shadow and Bone season 2 is from the novels. Again, this is a largely spoiler-free zone, but I was surprised – even frustrated at times – at the direction of certain narratives and plot points, including how season 2 ends. These big and arguably redundant changes are sure to irritate and even upset fans of Bardugo’s novels.
Given the outcry over The Witcher season 2’s narrative deviations, plus those rumored to appear in The Witcher season 3, I would have expected Netflix and Shadow and Bone’s creative team to approach things differently here. Okay, diverging from the books’ plot-beats gives long-time fans something new to engage with, and brings a sense of originality to proceedings, just like season 1 did. However, I can’t help but view these changes – especially in the season 2 finale, which drags its heels in how much it sets up for the show’s likely third season – as unwarranted alterations that many fans will take exception to.
Grisha growth and alluring additions
Refreshingly, Shadow and Bone season 2’s predilection for thematic exploration and character development – for new and returning characters – blesses it with some truly engrossing content.
For one, Alina and Mal’s relationship runs the full gamut of emotions. Initially, there’s a tender awkwardness to the pair’s burgeoning romance, a sweet but sickly teenage-like love that’s unwavering no matter what’s thrown at them. Eventually, world-shattering challenges present themselves that put the duo’s bond to the ultimate test, which serves to exponentially ramp the tension up.
Vital as it is to explore Alina and Mal’s dynamic, it’s Kirigan and Brekker’s individual character arcs that are examined most closely, and in tantalizing detail.
In Kirigan’s case, Shadow and Bone 2 trains a lens on the physical and psychological pain inflicted upon him by Alina and company, as well as further examining the loneliness that pains him after centuries of existence. Despite the evident darkness within him, the sequel season’s exploration of his humanity is moving. His trauma, though largely self-inflicted, is similarly relatable, and speaks to the fallibility that every Shadow and Bone character is imbued with.
Speaking of trauma, Brekker’s mental and emotional anguish is explored through flashback sequences, which directly impact the errant decisions he makes – choices that inevitably drive a wedge between him as his closest confidants, Inej (Anita Suman) and Jesper (Kit Young). Brekker’s mix of anger and pride over his past creates a fascinating fraying of tensions between the trio and anyone else caught up in their escapades, particularly in the first of the Crows’ season 2 storylines. Plot-wise, The Crows versus Rollins’ gang is a messy affair. As a character study or wider examination of the fragility of relationships, though, it rises above its season 2 peers.
Another welcome aspect is the addition of fan-favorite characters from the books, who are given plenty of scenery to chew as the season progresses.
Nikolai Lantsov, the swashbuckling Ravkan Prince-turned-Privateer who becomes one of Alina and Mal’s most trusted allies, is portrayed with panache, charisma, and emotional intelligence by Patrick Gibson (Tolkien). Even in his introductory scene, where Lantsov – who also goes by the alias Sturmhond – is seemingly positioned as an antagonist, Gibson’s likeability makes it hard not to immediately warm to him.
The inclusion of twins Tolya Yul-Bataar (Lewis Tan) and Tamar Kir-Bataar (Anna Leong Brophy), Lantsov’s lieutenants, also brings a fun-fuelled sibling rivalry and unique characterization to the table. Add the shy but no-less-charming demolition expert Wylan Hendriks (Jack Wolfe) – who joins The Crows and Nina – into the equation, and Shadow and Bone season 2 is emboldened by its new arrivals. The manner of their character introductions feels seamless, too, helping each to feel a natural part of the Grishaverse. As such, there’s no need for any MacGuffin-style storytelling to insert them into their respective plots.
With a potent new collection of supporting characters, plus the return of other favorites, such as Genya (Daisy Head), Zoya (Sujaya Dasgupta), David (Luke Pasqualino), and Baghra (Zoe Wanamaker), there's the potential for season 2 crafts new, interesting, and fun team-ups that'll pique viewers' curiosity.
Shadow and Bone season 2 emphatically delivers on that front. Wildly different personas collide with a satisfying regularity throughout, with each new relationship supplying humor, tenderness, and melodrama in spades. Each dynamic feels novel and unforced, regardless of how season 2’s multiple storylines weave in and out of one another. The culmination of these mash-ups is a thrilling, high-octane, and crowd-pleasing crescendo that unfolds in the season’s climactic battle – occurring in episode 7, not episode 8 – and pays dividends on the new relationships built across each episode. If nothing else, it makes up for the somewhat predictable nature of episode 7’s (and the season’s) multifaceted showdown – one that, like the other battles in season 2, is at once both enjoyable and trite.
Shadow and Bone season 2 is a two-headed beast. On the one hand, it’s a gripping, spookier, and darker entry in the series, with its character studies and rich themes cementing its position as one of the best Netflix shows around. On the other, it’s a narratively inconsistent installment that, while absorbing and shocking in some areas, perplexingly substitutes elements of its source material for story beats that will only displease the fans of the novels. Contextually, the manner in which season 2 kicks off means that some viewers will be best served by rewatching the season 1 finale in order to reacquaint themselves with where the show left off.
More casual viewers will likely find Shadow and Bone season 2 to be an enjoyable experience. For me, though, it doesn’t quite stick the superpowered, magic, and Small Science-infused landing. I’m sure other members of Shadow and Bone’s ardent fanbase will perceive similar faults with its storytelling approach, or with other aspects of its eight-episode run. Fundamentally, these issues weigh Shadow and Bone 2 down and, unless it rectifies such glaring errors in future seasons, it will fall short of achieving the lofty position of the best Netflix fantasy series.
Shadow and Bone season 2 launches in full on Netflix on Thursday, March 16.