A long and bloody war, or perhaps an accumulation of several wars are inflicted upon America… Or a region of America… Or maybe it’s just Louisiana… Anyhow, THE EVENT leads to a re-emergence of feudalism. Swathes of territory, known as The Badlands, come under the control of seven rival Barons who ban the use of guns, and each have their own holdings, fortifications, serfs known as ‘cogs’ and armies of trained assassins termed ‘Clippers.’ Clippers act a bit like Samurai retainers, and are trained in the art of hand-to-hand combat and melee weaponry. Their sole function is to protect and kill for their baron.
Our main protagonist is Sunny, a man who was found as a child and made Clipper by his Baron, Quinn. In the opening of the first episode, Sunny saves a boy called MK , whose name I assume is either short for Mortal Kombat or Milton Keynes, from a group of good-for-nothing outlaws. Sunny learns that MK was to be handed over to Femme Baron, The Widow, in order to exploit his ‘power’. Basically he’s Deus Ex Machina whenever he bleeds (and performs some sick fatalities).
What piqued my interest in this series was Amazon Prime’s intriguing yet vague synopsis: ‘The series features a story about a warrior and a young boy who journey through a dangerous feudal land together seeking enlightenment.’ With the promotional image being a far-eastern guy with a katana. Immediately I had visions of Mad Max meets Kung Fu. A bit of faux-Buddhism, like the type espoused by cartoon Pandas or men in pyjamas with laser swords, but set instead in a post-apocalyptic America.
In reality very little ‘journeying’ is done; unless of course, you count Sunny’s rather slow journey of discovery, where he starts out as a human meat-grinder to emerge… A slightly more autonomous human meat grinder! Likewise, there isn’t much variation on location. Most of the journeying happens inside Quinn’s compound; its walls festooned with his sigil, the crimson banner bearing a white armadillo. The set design creates a striking but not unwelcome juxtaposition between 19th century Southern Plantation iconography and East-Asian acrobatics. It’s certainly a bold mash-up.
In terms of visual aesthetic, from the get go, the audience is treated to a splendid display of martial arts. When I say martial arts, what I really mean is performance martial arts/wushu; the type done in films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Graceful and beautifully rhythmic, but not practical or realistic self defence. This is by no means a criticism. Stephen Fung, the show’s fight director did a fabulous job providing some great visceral spectacles. Although I would draw the line at using pickaxes as throwing daggers…
It’s a pity the show didn’t pay as much attention to world-building as it did to wire-fu. The concept of a post-apocalyptic society, where national government is shunned and society devolves into anachronistic methods of existence is not new. In literature, there’s the series Emberverse by S.M. Stirling. Where after the advent of The Change (not to be mistaken with THE EVENT), Portland shifts from democratic hipsterdom to a neo-Feudal paradise. In the comic book Lazarus, Corporations take the place of government. Nation states are dissolved as the planet is divided into corporate territories. Those who serve the families in charge of the corporations are referred to as serfs; which sounds like the jizz-induced fantasy of Donald Trump. Then there’s the more well-known Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. While the Capitol enjoys all the excesses that technology and an abundance of resources can bring, the U.S. is divided into districts whose sole function is to toil and endure in providing for Boy George impersonators.
A return to agrarianism and the demolition of the nation state are still interesting concepts to work with in media, but does Into the Badlands use or build on this concept in an interesting way? Not really. Most of the time it seems more akin to a soap-opera interested in family-power-dynamics, interwoven with 1-2-do the Kung Fu.
I found it difficult to get past the tedious interactions between Quinn, his pouty son Ryder (who would not be out of place in a Twilight movie), his first wife Lydia and his young new totty Jade. It turns out Quinn and Lydia do not consider Ryder ruthless enough to take his father’s place. Cue a few scenes where one of them, or both of them say something to the effect of ‘SON I AM DISSAPOINT!’ Ryder goes off in a sulk and has a few sexy-times with Jade to spite daddy. Lydia is proper jelly of Jade for stealin’ her mans innit, but Jade is mostly totes emosh for Ryder. Quinn has a brain tumour and spends most of his time in between states of anger and opium induced comas. Blah, betrayal, blah scheming, blah low rent Game of Thrones dialogue.
Speaking of Game of Thrones, it would have been nice to see the plot from different perspectives, particularly the other barons. I feel too much of the plot emphasis was given to the fragility of Baron Quinn’s holdings, his health, and whether there would be an imminent revolution. Granted we do spend some time with The Widow and her favourite clipper Tilda. The Widow did have an annoying habit of merely appearing to foil Baron Quinn/and or Sunny’s plans, or at least attempting to do a terrible job of it, reminiscent of Rita Repulsa from The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. To give The Widow her due, her power and status as a Baron seem atypical in the Badlands where women have reverted in many ways to second-class citizenship. Many being portrayed as Dolls (prostitutes) for Barons and Clippers.
The acting, although by no measure award-winning, is competent. I hugely enjoyed the performance of Marton Csokas’ Quinn. The Southern drawl verged on ridiculousness and reminded me of a Cajun Bobby Hill. Nonetheless, his character simmered with a psychotic intensity that was captivating.
Marton Csokas’ vocal inspiration.
I think my main gripe is not with the actors themselves but with how they’ve been written. Daniel Wu’s Sunny wouldn’t be out of place as a protagonist of a video game or anime catered to teenage boys. In his very first scene, he rolls up on a motorcycle, wearing sunglasses and a red trench coat. It felt absurdly dumb. Likewise, contrary to his name, our laconic hero only occasionally strays from stoicism to emote slight concern or irritable bowels. Irrespective of my mockery, Sunny is still a likeable character!
Rotten Tomato’s ‘Tomatometer’ (critic score) pegs this show at 53% and 87% for ‘Audience Score.’ I think critics sometimes inadvertently ignore that there are certain shows that are to be consumed at certain times in your life, or even, certain times of the day! After working an 11 plus hour day at work, I frankly don’t want to be challenged. I don’t want to be thrown between the real-life and delusional experiences of an antisocial hacker,or endure 7 repetitive seasons ‘discovering’ that humans are shittier people than flesh eating, re-animated corpses.
During the inevitable crash from my 5th cup of coffee, and as a haul my world-beaten frame off the peasant wagon some people call ‘a bus,’ I want to retreat to the bliss of television cheese. The bliss of unthinking! I want to see a crimson ninja roundhouse kick a man in a bowler hat or a sweaty boy hadouken a gate through another boy’s face. Let me inhale that whiffy fromage.
Oh, and incidentally I do realise there’s a second season airing next month, and yes, I will be watching it to spite the grey matter in my brain.