Into the Badlands: Season 2
Even if your tastes do not particularly encompass martial arts of other forms of cinematic violence the recent series produced for American Movie Classics, AMC, ‘Into the Badlands,’ is likely to hold a certain artistic appeal. The majority of fight scenes in movies, and on television, require two highly specialized crew members on set, the stunt coordinator and the fight choreographer. The former has the responsibility to the people involved in the scene and the dramatic nuances including entertaining touches such as broken furniture and defenestration. The latter designs the intricate movements, character interactions and the specifics of the general scene blocking. These difficult professions handled in such a fashion that the inherent artistry shines through with the precision of classical ballet. Of course, the catalog of dance moves doesn’t include punches, kicks, and weapons. The point of this observation is the movements instill the production with artistry, teamwork, and dedication to an arduous craft. Even the source material reflects a commitment to history and creating a detailed universe to stage the many layers of the narrative. The story is driving the series based on the 16th-century novel by Chinese author Wu Cheng' En, ‘Journey to the West.’ The series exhibits a degree of concise efficiency that is exceedingly rare particularly in the context of a program hosted on a basic cable network. The story set the distant, post-apocalyptic future. The world has been carved up, divided by the tenants of a resurrected feudal system under the control of a small number of Barons. Each headquartered in a vast plantation, typically specializing in the production and subsequent control of a crucial commodity. The peasants held in slavery referred to as ‘cogs,’ an appellation succinctly denoting their lack of individuality and insignificance. There is a second class of slaves, albeit, treat slightly better, dolls. They are prostitutes used for recreation, incentives, and rewards. Serving as a combination police force and military are individuals highly trained in all forms of combat and tactics, are the clippers. The best of this case provided with comfortable quarters, discretionary funds and the best of the dolls. In most circumstances, they are the arbiters of life and death.
For many years one of the most powerful and influential Barons was Quinn (Marton Csokas). As a former Clipper, he is deadly even on the rare occasion that he is without security. Other Barons produce standard necessities for life including fuel and food. Quinn has a commodity far more in demand, narcotics. His plantation is the largest poppy fields in the world. His Regent, the head clipper is Sonny (Daniel Wu), considered the most efficient, effective and proficient of his profession. A tradition of Clippers is to receive a tattoo for every kill. There is barely any bare skin left on Sonny’s body/ when war breaks out among factions of Barons, Sonny separated from his Baron, at the start of this second season, Sonny is working as a Picker, a menial job in a mine deep in the Badlands. The first season nicely provided the request exposition for the audience to become familiar with this tightly structured world. Much of the action unfolded among the higher caste focusing on establishing the socio-political entanglements. Sonny was depicted as a leader, feared by his peers and b=respected by those in power. This was necessary to properly set the stage for the primary motivation used in this season. Having Sonny reduced to demeaning grunt work, far removed from the relative luxury afford t a regent, the main them shifts to the struggles of the common folk. Sonny faces the demanding task of redemption, not so much in the eyes of his former associates and leaders but restoring his self-perspective. Accustomed to commanding men of the highest caliber, Sonny sets off across the barren wasteland with someone he encountered in the mines, Bajie (Nick Frost), a reprobate, constantly scheming as to the most efficient course to further his objectives. He views Sonny as a man who can survive, and therefore someone to stay near.
Sonny has been separated from a very special clipper trainee, M.K. (Aramis Knight), resulting in potentially great danger. M.K. possesses an unusual trait that fully activates in combat. He is an extremely expert martial artist, but if his blood is drawn, he becomes a nearly undefeatable berserker. M.K. is brought to an elite monastery run by abbots. There he meets the Master (Chipo Chung), who offers to train the volatile young man to control the dark energy within him. This power lurking within the young man makes one of the sought after and the unpredictable person in the Badlands. Plot devices regarding a legendary martial arts master and his exceptionally talented student are arguably the most common in the genre, the bread and butter of its screenwriters. The typical pitfall encountered is overuse of the premise severely diluting the impact on the audience. Thanks to the inherent talent and eclectic experience of the co-creators, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, ‘Into the Badlands goes beyond expectation. Mr. Gough was behind the Jackie Chan, ‘Shanghai’ franchise branching out to encompass such diverse movies as ‘Spider-Man 2’ and ‘Herbie Fully Loaded.’ His partner in this endeavor and other films also made a notable mark in television with primary writing credits for ‘Smallville,’ ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ and ‘The Shannara Chronicles.’ This long-standing partnership infuses the series with a creative synergy that can only be generated by years of friendship and working association.
The pacing of the narrative is maintained by shifting the focus between several principle threads. Besides the ones covering Sonny and M.K. the first woman to demand acceptance as a Baron, the Widow (Emily Beecham), continue to push her agenda. At the end of the first season, the Widow was betrayed by her daughter and regent, Tilda (Ally Ioannides). She had developed romantic feeling towards M.K. and openly opposed her mother upon discovering her unsavory plans for the young clipper. At the end of the season, a cliffhanger involved Tilda abut to kill The Widow, only to be confirmed in this season that the young woman relented. Tilda becomes further upset over her mother’s decision to ally with Quinn. He has his problems fending off assassination attempts initiated by rival Barons.
In some respects, this series exhibits the usual bleak view of the post-apocalyptic world yielding the default fall back position to feudalism. From the perspective of realistic possibilities, the showrunners have crafted a believable set of circumstances. It is relatively simple to understand the collapse of the socio-political system to this strictly enforced caste arrangement. This provides a fertile ground to nurture the distinct threads organically. Sonny had been at the top of his caste. As a regent, he had the ear of the Baron influencing the Lord of the Land. Sonny had a life that was straightforward. His friends prospered while enemies died. In a moment his world was in turmoil. Stripped of the authority and privilege of his rank, Sonny was reduced to fighting for himself, not the Baron. This season is about redemption. Sonny has to maintain his self-respect while M.K. had to learn to control his power and adjust to a different means of identifying with himself. The Baron has survived a significant challenge to his authority, but the Widow has disrupted the status quo. No woman has ever been included in the ranks of Baron. Only through outmaneuvering the men and challenging their establishment could she force her place at the table. The chief aspect of the series that elevates it above the myriad of similar shows remains the attention to details and the nuanced approach to telling an engrossing story.