If you were a fan of Into the Badlands during its first season, then it’s a good bet you will find where the series is headed in season 2 to your liking. A bizarre mix of Mad Max and old Shaw Brothers kung fu films, the series hails from Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, meaning it isn’t shy about dipping its toe in a less-than-grounded take on a post-apocalyptic story. Blending frenetic martial arts sequences with a fantastical disregard for physics and logic gives the show a unique formula to help it stand out in this era of Peak TV. There’s a good chance the show has as many viewers watching for its extended action sequences as for its Charlie’s Angels-like contempt for how objects in motion interact with the physical world.
At this point, Into the Badlands is past the point of selling itself and its basic conceit to an uninitiated audience. Season 1 was a success for AMC, which not only renewed the series, but also upped its episode count from six to ten. With a larger story on the horizon and complex world building more or less under its belt, the series is set to expand its scope in an effort to match the expectations that come with larger season 2. That means diving headlong into where season 1 left off, catching up with Daniel Wu’s Sunny, as well as M.K. (Aramis Knight), The Widow (Emily Beecham), and Martin Csokas’s Quinn. It also means introducing at least one new major character in Bajie, played by none other than Nick Frost.
The addition of Frost is a curious one that is in keeping with the style of the show. Those familiar with Frost in movies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Attack the Block may well want to see how he fits into a post-apocalyptic martial arts extravaganza. It’s another aspect of the series selling itself on the lunacy of its concept and its continued efforts to turn that sense of unbridled madness into the most effective part of its appeal. But Frost is more than just a bit of stunt casting to get a subset of genre fans to tune in, he’s a necessary component to the next phase of Sunny’s story, one that finds the one-time Clipper in a tight spot, mining relics of a forgotten civilization for a despotic foreman running what might as well be the series’ interpretation of hell on earth.
Into the Badlands teases Bajie as an inevitable sidekick to Sunny, the entryway to a new dynamic that will further the hero’s quest and help leaven the seriousness of the situation. But there’s more to Bajie than his apparent worthiness as a partner to the series’ protagonist. He’s a pragmatic opportunist, one who wouldn’t think twice about selling anyone out if it means he’ll wind up in a better situation. Given that he and Sunny are both at an extremely low point (literally and figuratively), the pivot near the episode’s end that sees Bajie selling Sunny out for what he presumes is a reprieve makes for what the audience can safely assume is coming a little more interesting.
Partnerships built first on antagonism have their place in stories like this and Sunny’s burgeoning relationship with Bajie appears ready to travel down that exact road. It’s a welcome change to the routine of the show, too, as Frost’s Fallstaff-like character is both a treacherous ruffian and a welcome comedic presence who plays off Wu’s stern, determined presence in such a way as to offer Sunny’s distance from the main thrust of the storyline its own sense of progression and intrigue. The show plays everything so over-the-top that Bajie’s duplicitous intentions with regard to his information on Sunny and what he does with it – which will no doubt double back on him – feel downright quaint in comparison, making the delayed resolution to Sunny’s time in the mines appealing for what’s being built between Wu and Frost.
As it was with season 1, Into the Badlands suffers a bit whenever Wu isn’t on screen – his pairing with Frost further unbalances things – but the writers do what they can to assuage this issue by packing in lengthy action sequences, like the Widow’s assault on Ryder and Jade at their compound. The sequence is Into the Badlands in a nutshell: fantastical, bloody action intended as much to establish clear divisions between the various factions as it to determine the various strengths of the individuals doing the fighting. Beecham’s Widow is set to push back against the other barons and this display of ultra-violence is just half of her plan. The other half is a demonstration of her particular freedom-first philosophy, one that doesn’t turn captives into slaves – as is evidenced by her letting a handful of captives from the recent assault go free.
There are divisions brewing, conflicts from seemingly unlikely sources that hint at storytelling this time around hinged on more than where the next fight will come from. It’s a gamble for Into the Badlands as its unflagging desire to start a brawl was a primary source of its appeal. Still, with more episodes this time around, there’s a chance the series can make up some of its storytelling deficit by spending more time developing characters beyond being a simple type within the confines of what is essentially a kung fu story.
That’s made most evident by what the season 2 premiere does: develop intrigue and hint at the prospect of resolution. ‘Tiger Pushes Mountain’ is a mostly interesting hour that’s partially spent revisiting the circumstances of the series itself while also planting seeds with underdeveloped characters like M.K. and Tilda. M.K.’s training with the Master does little more than to reiterate what the audience already knows about him, but now he’s in a position to become more than a simple plot device. The same goes for Tilda, as her attack on the freed soldiers presents a conflict that cannot be solved with physics-defying acrobatics or swordplay.
Like its characters, Into the Badlands has a formidable road ahead of it. Coming off the audience’s response to season 1, the follow-up has to double-down on its storytelling elements and character development to turn this show into something more than a visually appealing mishmash of various genre elements. While the series doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that is indeed where things are headed, the groundwork has been laid for a more expansive second season that may well surprise those watching — especially after that final moment with Quinn.
Into the Badlands continues next Sunday with ‘Force of Eagle’s Claw’ @10pm on AMC.
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