4 out of 5
Created by: Alfred Gough and Miles Millar
covers season 1 through 3
In our cluttered streaming / TV landscapes, our filters for what’s “worth” our time are surely on high alert, and mine flagged Into the Badlands as not qualifying pretty early on: extremely gimmicky camera work; vaguely defined stew of post-Earth concepts; a hodge-podge of completely generic action movie character archetypes (a ‘chosen one’ warrior; a vigilante-with-a-heart-of-gold; warring factions for power which included spurned lovers, secret loves, backstabbing children, and mustache-twirling overlords; and so on, and so on…)… There was definitely some kind of self-aware camp going on, and it’s not that there wasn’t investment and skill behind the presentation, but there didn’t quite seem to be anything ultimately defining about Badlands that suggested it’d be the next AMC breakout, a la Breaking Bad or Walking Dead.
Not much has made it to the Breaking Bad bar, of course, and Walking Dead’s zeitgeist arguably flashed its pan after its initial six episodes and then slowly, er, died over its many seasons afterwards. And returning to Into the Badlands with some more patient viewing habits does rather prove out all that I observed: it remains gimmicky, and fairly stiff, and constructed of picked-and-chosen tropes; however, that self-aware bit was smarter than I was allowing, as creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar lean into these stylistic guardrails in order to allow for a lot of casually fantastic storytelling, and an even-keel of actors playing bits such that we sort of get the best-of-the-best of those many archetypes, stripped of bloaty subplots and keeping seasons to a constant roll of fun distractions. That might seem to be in opposition – distractions that are not story excess – but it means Badlands accepts that it’s all entertainment, and then sets out to make sure every hour is thus worth our time. Apply this to the choreography as well: while hardly necessary, the fights are shot with / staged with all focus on making each one (not just the first episode’s; not just the first season’s) amazing and inventive and energized. So, no, the dialogue isn’t necessarily hiding depth and there aren’t any story twists that can’t be rather guessed at from afar, but the show puts together its package with the utmost dedication.
At some point in the future, all of our creature comforts have lapsed into relics of the past; the peoples have clustered into vague bands and lands run with varying levels of controls by their respective Barons. Our focus is on Sonny (Daniel Wu), as “clipper” – a bodyguard / assassin – for one of the most powerful barons, Quinn (Marton Csokas). Quinn’s “cogs,” the lower classes, are very much a slave race, with all energies geared toward supporting / glorifying their baron; Quinn’s various wives are not getting along, and his son, Ryder (Oliver Stark) is probably plotting a coup. Meanwhile, Sonny runs across a young vagrant, M.K. (Aramis Knight), who harbors a secret, uncontrollable power – he’s that chosen one trope – and encourages within Sonny his fomenting discomfort with Quinn, and a desire to escape the Badlands for fabled utopic lands beyond. So in exchange for training M.K. to control his powers, M.K. will help Sonny make his way out. Mix into this constant warring amongst the barons, and it gives the show ample opportunity to show off its brew of martial arts influences: wire work, swooping cameras, floating physics, lots of anime flaring hair and feet dragging in sand / leaves. Not afraid to break bones and splash CG blood, these scuffles seem indulgent – and they are – but goodness are they also masterfully choreographed and cleanly shot, always throwing in fun props or new ideas and also, as the series goes along, spaced out so as not to tire us with over-reliance on them. The first season tends to hit them hard early on as a proving point, but once proven, the show can spread its wings a bit and allow its storytelling to breathe.
Because despite being a collection of genericisms, the sheer amount of concepts tossed together end up making it pretty fun. It all seems a bit disparate at first because of how it’s crowded out by the fighting – the supernatural angle of M.K.’s powers; Sonny’s internal struggles; the politics of the Badlands – but as long as you give yourself over the show’s confident swagger and allow it to show off for a few eps, the writers then get to lean in to the pre-established nature of their tropes to play with them in excitingly goofy ways. By the time you get to season 2 bringing in Nick Frost as a sidekick type who ends up helping to bridge several story elements, you’re all-in on the show’s confident stylization, equally entertained by the soap-opera dramatics as the fights. (Very specifically, when I got to an episode that fit what’s very much a sidequest / filler template – a dream sequence while a character is sweating out poison – and I was wholly happy to be side-quested for as long as necessary, I accepted that the creators knew what they were doing.)
To underline something, the most impressive part about Into the Badlands is how consistent it is. It doesn’t change tactics, or reroute its story. Alfred Gough and Miles Millar established a particular template and then rigorously stuck to it, perhaps making for a barrier to entry such as what I experienced, but ultimately winning in the long run when it’s clear how dedicated the show is to constantly being as popcorn-y spectacle-y as possible, never sparing us an entertainingly silly plot indulgence or especially ridiculously awesome battle.