Into The Badlands Season one (six episodes) is available in the UK on Amazon Prime
Created by: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Starring: Daniel Wu, Orla Brady, Sarah Bolger, Aramis Knight, Emily Beecham, Oliver Stark, Madeleine Mantock, Ally Ioannides, Marton Csokas
In a post-apocalyptic Southern United States, society is rigidly defined. The Barons rule the country, dividing the vital resources between each other in a truce of necessity. An uneasy truce at that, which is why each Baron employs an army of Clippers. Clippers are soldiers with remarkable martial skill who are enforcers, assassins, bodyguards and marshals depending on the whims of their Baron and the needs of the situation.
Sunny (Yu) runs Baron Quinn’s Clippers. A serious, honourable man Sunny is the moral centre of a community that’s increasingly falling apart. Because Quinn (Csokas) is seriously ill, his wives Lydia and newly arrived Jade are trying to work out which is the bigger threat and his son Ryder (Stark) is starting to rail against his father’s authority. Worse still, other Barons, especially the Widow (Beecham) are plotting against them. Something is coming and Sunny and his troops have to be ready.
Then, one day, he finds a massacre by the roadside and a single survivor, MK, taken by slavers. Sunny rescues the boy and then the trouble really starts…
Picture a crossroads where Chinese opera, martial arts cinema, westerns and post-apocalyptic science fiction meet. Welcome to Into the Badlands.
Created by Gough and Millar, best known for their work on Smallville, this is one of those TV shows that you don’t see coming. It’s a relentless, often beautiful, often brutal story that takes everything I mentioned above and adds in shades of noir and horror to create something that’s frequently extraordinary and always far smarter than you’re expecting.
Sunny, played with huge subtlety and intelligence by Daniel Wu, embodies that. Sunny is a tremendously successful killer and a man who has dedicated his entire life to Quinn. He’s also a father-to-be, a trauma survivor and an increasingly reluctant murderer. Wu’s performance is one of the bravest in a show full of brave performances, appearing taciturn to the point of cold at times. But as the series goes on you see just how subtle his work is and how conflicted he has become about his world. The loyal soldier is also a chained soldier and as circumstances force him to try and break that chain Wu shows us the core of a man whose focus is matched only by his compassion.
It’s an odd thing to say about a character who kills so many people so brutally but Sunny really is a compassionate lead. His relationship with MK (Knight) shows that in the later episodes in particular. This is a man who is emotionally illiterate but whose physical eloquence is unparalleled. He needs the people around him and that’s both a strength and a weakness. It also makes him an immensely likable lead and an actor you hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future. Maybe playing Iron Fist on Netflix? It’s a role he both deserves and seems, bluntly, born for.
The rest of the cast are just as nuanced and impressive. There are no simple characters here, no easy agendas and despite the short season the show lets us see all of that. Stark’s Ryder in particular is great, evolving from a whining entitled brat into a man determined to take control of his mutilated destiny as the show progresses. He’s also a beautiful example of just how much the show trusts its audience. We find out why Ryder is like he is relatively late and when we do it changes our perceptions of him. There’s no info dumping, just clever world building and performances that unfold with the same grace that permeates the fight scenes.
Let’s talk about those fight scenes, because they look like nothing else on TV right now. Cheerfully brutal and always in service to plot and character, they punctuate the show the same way violence permeates the Badlands. Picking one that works best is all but impossible as each one fulfils a very specific function. However, an early fight that sees Sunny taking on dozens of men to save a lynched Ryder is a particular standout. Later in the season there’s a fight between Sunny and The Widow that’s equally impressive, the two characters’ physicality expressing the emotional and ideological clash behind each strike that’s thrown.
Speaking of The Widow, Emily Beecham is another impressive member of the cast. The female characters are all complex and interesting but Beecham’s Widow is the one that you remember most. As deadly a combatant as Sunny himself, she’s something truly dangerous: a visionary. Her plans for the Badlands would make her a heroine in any other story. Here she’s a constant threat, always a razor-sharp butterfly away from seizing control of MK and the power that lies within him.
That power is also one of the show’s greatest strengths. Aramis Knight, and Ally Ioannides as The Widow’s daughter, Tilda, both carry a lot of the show’s biggest concepts in their performances. Ioannides’s barely contained dissatisfaction and anger gives every one of her scenes a spark while Knight is especially chilling whenever MK “blacks out”. The blank-faced, black-eyed violence machine he becomes is a monster to some and a weapon to others and it implies huge amounts about the world outside the Badlands. A world that many characters spend the entire season struggling to get to, for better or for worse.
Into The Badlands is completely different to anything else on TV today. That’s recommendation enough all by itself but there’s so many more reasons to watch it. The tremendous intelligence of the scripts and the performances, the bone-crunchingly gorgeous fight scenes and the gradually unfolding puzzle of just what killed the world all combine to create a unique, gripping and unmissable TV series. One of the undisputed must-watches of 2015.
What’s So Great:
- The cast. Wu, in particular, is excellent but he’s in consistently strong company.
- The production values. The show looks and feels lived-in and raw. Quinn’s Fort is especially nicely designed.
- The worldbuilding. This is a logical, consistent world that’s clearly a self-contained part of a far larger whole. We can’t wait to see what else is out there. And neither can Sunny or MK it seems…
- The pacing. A tiny season like this feels like a novel and it helps the show hugely. Every scene, every line has significance.
What’s Not So Great
- Some people may be turned off by Csokas’s magnificent Southern villain. I think he’s immense fun, a sword wielding Shakespearean monster of tenacity and greed.
- Madeleine Mantock as the town doctor, Veil, and mother of Sunny’s child is short-changed this season. She’s great, especially in her scenes with Quinn but she can do much more. Hopefully season two will rectify that.
What It’s Like
- Very little else on TV right now. But if the worldbuilding of Game Of Thrones combined with Fury Road’s design work and classic Chinese cinema fight choreography sounds fun then this is definitely for you.
Why You Should Watch
- The immensely smart performances, with Beecham, Sarah Bolger and Orla Brady all doing especially great work with characters that shows like this would normally throw by the wayside. Here they’re all vital, dangerous, real people.
- The stunning fight choreography.
- The tantalising hints of the outside world. Where do Sunny and MK really come from? How bad was the disaster really? Why does no one venture outside the Badlands?
- The amazing guest turns. Stephen Lang turns up regularly in a scene-stealingly avuncular role as Sunny’s mentor and a late episode features Lance Henriksen as a fire and brimstone preacher.
- The design work. Everything in this show serves a purpose especially the costumes and weapons. Trust me you’ll never look at a butterfly the same way again.
- It’s clever, dark, beautifully shot and FUN. Just like way more TV should be.
Review by Alasdair Stewart