Early on in the season 3 premiere of AMC’s martial arts/fantasy mashup Into the Badlands, Nick Frost’s Bajie offers Tilda (Ally Ioannides) a bit of practical advice about who to trust and who is deserving of another’s allegiance. As he points out, Tilda siding with former and supposedly reformed Baroness Lydia (Orla Brady) may not be in the her best interest, especially since the new leaf Lydia has turned over is veering toward another extreme altogether.
But Into the Badlands is a series that is most comfortable when its dealing with extremes; its almost as though it simply doesn’t have any other gear. The hack-and-slash future cooked up by co-creators Miles Millar and Alfred Gough is maximal entertainment through and through. Bright, colorful costumes, elaborate sets, extended bouts of swordplay and martial arts with a bit of wuxia mixed in to make it all the more unusual on American television. But that unconventionality is also its most important selling point: If Into the Badlands looked or acted like any other show on TV, it’s debatable that anyone would tune in.
Instead, the series has become something of an unconventional hit for AMC, a reliably entertaining, genre-bender that offers a break from the network’s usual (zombie) fare. And after a status-quo shattering second season, the story of Sonny (Daniel Wu) and those hoping to survive in the harsh world overseen by various clans and their Barons, season 3 begins with a busy entry that leans heavily on rearranging the various pieces on the show’s game board. In fact, it begins with a voiceover in which territory on a giant map (i.e., the show's game board) is distributed between the parties who are still standing.
When viewers return to the Badlands, they find themselves caught up in a bloody civil war between the two factions that are left: the Widow (Emily Beecham) and Chau (Lewis Tan). But as ‘Enter the Phoenix’ is so keen to point out, a new challenger has tapped in, ready throw a massive curveball at both. That new challenger, Babou Cessay’s Pilgrim brings more than a hint of religious fanaticism to the mix, one he and Cressida (Lorraine Toussaint) — whose true role is not fully revealed in the premiere — are apparently capable of backing up with a pair of young warriors imbued with “The Gift” and baring he scars to prove it. Though they’re not named directly, the warriors are Crastor and Nix, played by Dean-Charles Chapman and Ella-Rae Smith, respectively. (The two were most recently in the Liam Neeson transportation thriller The Commuter, but many will likely recognize Chapman for his love of cats named Ser Pounce and his headfirst dive out a window in King’s Landing.)
Pilgrim and his warriors two don’t show up until the episode’s end. It’s the second of a pair of showy set pieces meant bookends the premiere with displays of the show’s action choreography, editing, and cinematography. But as Crastor and Nix tear their way through a small garrison of troops it becomes clear that Pilgrim is using the act of violence to send a message: Join his cause or die. The scene bookends the premiere nicely, as ‘Enter the Phoenix’ begins with The Widow doing some recruitment under the threat of death herself. But she’s looking for Nathaniel Moon (Sherman Agusutus), and not only fights him to a standstill, but promises him the one thing he wants the most: revenge on the man who took his hand.
That leads to questions of what Sonny’s been up to since season 2 and how much time has passed between then and now. It’s been roughly six months, and for all anyone knows, Sonny’s dropped off the face of the Earth. Bajie assumes Sonny’s shacked of with Veil and their child, and is living a life of martial bliss. This is Into the Badlands, though, which means such endings aren’t on the table. instead, Sonny’s story has turned into Lone Wolf and Cub, as he travels with his son, fighting to survive while also fighting off bandits foolish enough to enter his not-so mobile home.
With all the table setting being done, ’Enter the Phoenix’ threatens to meander in the space between the season 2 finale and what is bound to be season 3 for too long, especially for a show that chews through plot to the degree that this one does. But Into the Badlands has at least on big reveal up its sleeve for the premiere: Sonny’s infant son has The Gift. The series delivers this news not long after it checks in with M.K. (Aramis Knight), who now spends his days locked in a cell, smoking and lying in bed with women from the Widow’s camp. Between M.K. being rendered gift-less and now three other characters carrying the strange, potentially devastating ability, Into the Badlands is making a few interesting moves with regard to the expansion of its mythology.
There are more questions than answers in the premiere, and the speed with which it goes by you might wish that AMC had planned a two-hour block for the third season, but overall ‘Enter the Phoenix’ delivers a small but fascinating reset that includes a dangerous and welcome new threat to the series.
Into the Badlands continues next Sunday with ‘Moon Rises, Raven Seeks’ @10pm on AMC.