[This is a review of the Shadowhunters season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Cassandra Clare’s The Shadowhunter Chronicles young adult novel series has, in recent years, uniquely been both adapted to film — 2013’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones — as well as television, in Freeform’s Shadowhunters series. Although the movie wasn’t received well by critics and didn’t turn much profit at the box office, Freeform has seemingly found more success with Shadowhunters, at least granting the series a second season. However, the hiatus between the show’s first and second seasons saw a shift in the creative team — namely the departure of showrunner Ed Decter, with the team of Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer (Smallville) coming aboard in his stead.
Slavkin and Swimmer join Shadowhunters in the middle of a turbulent time for the show’s main characters. The season 1 finale saw Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara) find her mother Jocelyn (Maxim Roy), who had been kidnapped by her father, the villainous Valentine (Alan van Sprang). Meanwhile, Jace Wayland (Dominic Sherwood) learned that Valentine was his father as well, and abandoned his friends in order to side with his father.
Now, the season 2 premiere of Shadowhunters picks up shortly after the season 1 finale ended, with Jace’s friends — Clary, his close friend/parabatai Alec (Matthew Daddario), Alec’s sister Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia), the warlock Magnus Bane (Harry Shum Jr.), and the vampire Simon (Alberto Rosende) — searching for him. Meanwhile, the shadowhunter ruling power, the Clave, has sent Victor Altertree (Nick Sagar) to get the Institute back on track — making Clary and her friends’ task of finding Jace that much more difficult.
The season 2 premiere picks up mere hours after the events of the season 1 finale, with Jace looking over the droves of humans killed by the Mortal Cup in Valentine’s efforts to create his own shadowhunter army (very few humans can drink from the cup and live, after all). But, when Clary arrives suddenly on Valentine’s ship, Jace quickly sheds his role as Valentine’s right hand man in order to get her safely off board – even if that means killing his father twice, or rather, two people disguised as his father. The sequence is, of course, a test laid out by Valentine to see where Jace’s loyalty actually lies; unsurprisingly, Jace’s loyalty is with Clary.
The sequence features a handful of cool action set pieces, particularly Jace’s first showdown with a Valentine look-alike that highlighted visually interesting shots of the two men facing off as the runes on their seraph blades lit up. Considering these fight sequences – and others later on in the episode, also including Sherwood as Jace – were a step up from those in season 1, it seems Shadowhunters has decided to double down on the action aspect of the series.
Meanwhile, ‘This Guilty Blood’ additionally attempts to dive deeper into the supernatural world of Shadowhunters – but with much less success. Back at the Institute, Victor Aldertree arrives as the newly appointed replacement interim head and he conducts an investigation into Jace’s defection, eventually ordering that Jace should be brought in dead or alive. However, since the entire power structure that is the Institute and the Clave have been so poorly developed over season 1 and the season 2 premiere, Aldertree’s order holds little weight.
For much of season 1, the main characters of Shadowhunters – specifically Clary, Jace, Izzy, and Alec – have gone against the orders of the Clave and the Institute, going on what Aldertree describes essentially as rogue missions. So, since it seems to be so easy for the heroes of the series to defy this shadowhunter institution of power (in this episode alone, Clary easily sneaks out of the Institute off screen), and since there haven’t been much in the way of consequences, it’s difficult to become invested in Aldertree’s order that Jace be brought in dead or alive.
This particular weakness in Shadowhunters‘ development of the Clave additionally applies to Valentine, and Jace’s choice to side with Valentine even despite the revelation of his parentage. The character of Valentine has been painted as an unequivocal zealot bent on the genocide of all downworlders – which includes Jace’s friends Simon, Magnus, and Luke (Isaiah Mustafa) – with the help of a shadowhunter army that necessitates the deaths of thousands of humans. Nevertheless, Jace decides to abandon everyone he cares about in order to learn more about himself through his zealot father. Although it is a compelling premise for a character arc in theory, ‘This Guilty Blood’ bungles the rationalization of Jace’s decision in favor of delivering action sequences and sensationalized revelations.
However, Valentine’s revelation to Jace that he experimented on his son by injecting the baby with pure demon blood, is another facet of the larger issue of Shadowhunters. The show is overflowing with supernatural lore – so much so that the main downworlder factions even have their own representatives in Magnus, Simon, and Luke. But, with Valentine introducing demons, as well as the angel mythology in which the shadowhunter legacy is based, there is too much for the series to dive in depth with any one aspect. As a result, many of the characters – especially the shadowhunters themselves – feel like caricatures, coming off as less human than their downworlder counterparts even after an entire season and one episode.
Perhaps the brightest spot in ‘This Guilty Blood’ is Simon as the bold-adjacent vampire, who offers the only humor and levity the episode contains. Although Simon was introduced as the human entry point to the world of Shadowhunters in season 1, he is perhaps the most changed and unchanged at the same time. While Clary, Jace, and Alec in particular seem to be driven by wherever the story needs them to go, Simon has remained the light-hearted best friend – who just happened to be turned into a vampire. Ironically, he provides the most human element of ‘This Guilty Blood’ – and the show has a whole.
All in all Shadowhunters may have improved certain aspects of of the series since season 1 – the fight sequences are more visually interesting, and the visual effects of portals and Magnus’s magic are more seamlessly woven into the fabric of the show. However, Shadowhunters still struggles to find its grounding point in a world too flooded by supernatural creatures, mythologies, and motivations. Whether that’s remedied throughout season 2 thanks to the new showrunners driving the ship remains to be seen, but Shadowhunters may need to make more changes from season 1 than simply the visual effects.
Shadowhunters continues Monday, January 9 with ‘A Door Into the Dark’ at 8pm on Freeform.