Sunday, April 22, 2018

REVIEW: 'Into the Badlands' - The Widow Recruits a New Ally While Sunny Reunites with Bajie in 'Enter the Phoenix'

AMC's Into the Badlands - Episode 3.01 "Enter the Phoenix"

Sunny returns to the Badlands, seeking a cure for his son Henry. The Widow and Chau wage a bloody civil war. A new threat emerges.

I wrote off Into the Badlands fairly early into its first season. Yes, it was an original show with its creation of a completely unique post-apocalyptic world with its own set of rules. It featured really amazing action sequences that were unlike anything else on television. They were ridiculously over-the-top and played into that fact accordingly. And yet, the episodes themselves only came alive when the show came up with an excuse for several characters to fight one another. It seemed like it was only a delivery system for those moments with the story in between them being so lackluster and boring. All of the characters were thinly drawn and their dynamics to one another too stereotypical and conventional. It felt as if all the imagination fell into the world building with the characters actually being very familiar and broad. It was also a problem that none of the actors were appearing on the same version of the show. Yes, it features these fun and complex action sequences but it's still a grounded reality of life-and-death stakes in a chaotic world. Martin Csokas somehow never modified his performance to be operating on the same level as everyone else. He was hamming it up while scenery chewing. It was so distracting and took focus away from the other elements that got stronger over time. I heard from people that the second season gradually improved things. And yes, that was certainly the case. It still produced a number of clunker episodes while some of the side characters could be operating on the broadest level possible. But it also cut down to focus on the elements and characters of this world that were actually interesting. And so, several characters were killed off. Quinn, Ryder, Jade and Veil are all gone now. The pieces left behind are actually compelling. As such, it seems likely that the third season will only continue to expand this world and make it even more gritty and entertaining to watch.

Of course, "Enter the Phoenix" is ultimately a very expositional premiere. It once again features a time jump between the seasons. Six months have passed since the conclusion of the second season. The state of the Badlands has gotten increasingly worse as The Widow and Baron Chau have gone to war with each other. There's an opening action sequence that highlights the actual scope of this conflict. It once again proves that AMC upped the budget for the show for its new season. That's clear to see right away. It allows for the narrative to feature even more blood and soldiers battling each other in the most brutal way. Sure, no one of any value is on this battlefield. It's just an abstract concept to show the soldiers in blue fighting the soldiers in white with both sides losing quite a bit of them as the war wages on. That's the state of things at the top of the season. The Widow is fighting to bring freedom to the Badlands. She does so from a position of power where people are still complaining about her enjoying that power too much and not really abiding by her own ideals. Meanwhile, Chau is the baron fighting to maintain the current system as it currently is. The world of the Badlands was set up for a reason. The Widow is now a direct threat to that peace. It proves that so many people are willing to die for two women in charge whose ideals have blinded them from the reality of the world. It's bound to be such a vicious conflict too. The Widow doesn't see herself as a god like many of her followers do. She's just trying to create a better world. But now, she continues to have to compromise herself in order to make that happen.

The Widow decides to form a new alliance. It comes through the surprise return of a character who only appeared in one episode last season: the former clipper Nathaniel Moon who is legendary for over a thousand kills. Sunny was the only warrior capable of defeating him in battle. More and more people have come after him in the time since believing him to be an easier target now that he is missing his right hand. Sunny cut it off but didn't finish the job. At the time, he refused to be a killer. He didn't want to embrace that identity. He didn't want to believe that he was beyond redemption because he was still fighting to reunite with and protect his family. As such, he let Nathaniel live. Now, he has recovered enough and built a new legend for himself. He's willing to battle any warrior who believes they can defeat him. The Widow approaches him with an offer. It instead turns into a battle where the only way he stays alive is if he returns to the Badlands with her. It's easily the most entertaining action set piece of this opening hour. It's so wonderful to see both of them adjust their fighting tactics based on this specific environment they are fighting in. It's basically a graveyard for all of the past warriors who fought Nathaniel. It's cool and so badass to see The Widow use the swords of the fallen to her advantage. Meanwhile, Nathaniel isn't at a disadvantage because of his missing limb considering he has a new prosthetic weapon attached to it. That is just as lethal as his blade. It's a sequence that climbs to new and new heights the longer it goes on. It does so literally as well as both of them climb this tower that's overlooking the ocean. They do so until they reach the precarious top where either of them could fall off to their deaths at any given moment. But The Widow needs Nathaniel alive. She prevails in this battle and also promises to help hunt down Sunny so that he can get his revenge. And just like that, she has a new regent to protect her interests in this war.

It's only after The Widow makes this pledge that the action cuts away to what's going on with Sunny. He fled to protect his son from the war that was coming. He didn't go back to find or rescue Bajie or M.K. He instead saw it as more important to protect his child after Veil's shocking death. He figures that Bajie and M.K. were safe together. He was wrong to assume that. They were both prisoners of The Widow. Bajie has managed to escape a couple of times though. He's been trying to send messages out to Azra to see if there is anyone there who can offer him a glimmer of salvation in the Badlands. But his story brings him to the refugee camp being run by Lydia. She has replaced her father as the leader of their faith. She is showing kindness to those displaced by this war. She is showing compassion and expecting nothing in return. She is not raising an army of warriors to fight by her side. She is simply trying to help the less fortunate once more. She's trying to make up for the sins of her past. She leaves all of the fighting to Tilda and Odessa. They are the ones attacking the supply trucks to bring food to the refugees. One attack just happens to be on a prisoner truck where Bajie is rescued. It all makes it very convenient for these characters to reunite at this refugee camp. Sunny feels the need to return to the Badlands despite the bounty on his head because Henry is sick. He is plagued with an illness that no one has seen before. That's certainly ominous but probably not uncommon in a world like this that doesn't have strong medical advances. But it becomes so dangerous the moment the healer collects blood and Henry's eyes turn black. It means he has the Gift just like M.K., The Widow and Bajie did. Bajie is the only one to recognize the illness though. He also remarks that it's troubling that it has developed so early in life. As such, they need answers from Azra to determine what is actually going on with Sunny's child. Bajie thinks there's no hope to continue pursuing that mystical legend. Then, the show proves that there might be some hope left after all.

However, it delivers that message of hope through a bloodbath. The wall into the Badlands is being manned by Chau's men. A new party of individuals comes walking up to the gate. It's just three people. One is named Pilgrim who claims to be offering salvation. He presents as this all-knowing leader who may have the answers that have plagued the characters for so long. He is not allowed entry into the Badlands. And so, he sends his two young protégés into battle to kill all of the men guarding this station. They cut themselves and their eyes go black. They have the Gift as well. They are able to quickly kill everyone preventing their entry. Pilgrim allows one to live in order to deliver a message to the rulers of this land. They can either accept the faith that he is there to proclaim or they can die. It's an ominous and sinister message delivered with a huge display of power. Pilgrim doesn't lift a single finger to deliver this threat. Instead, he relies on the skills of his two young warriors. This is clearly something they have been training for. They have the scars to prove the amount of times they are cut to do battle with his enemies. It's a very eery new complication to the story this season. Again, it may present answers. Just when Sunny needs to understand the Gift the most, these newcomers enter the Badlands promising to change the entire system. Of course, that has been such a long and daunting journey for The Widow. She has been unable to change this world and make it free. Pilgrim may be better equipped with that mission because of his two warriors. But it's bound to be difficult for him as well. And that will create a very entertaining and dramatic story for the season.  

Some more thoughts:
  • "Enter the Phoenix" was written by Matt Lambert and directed by Paco Cabezas.
  • The compasses from Azra are bound to be a crucial detail of the story this year as well. Sunny is finally reunited with his. He lost it for the entire second season. The Abbots had it until Bajie stole it without telling anyone. He still holds onto it as well. It makes for such a cool entrance when Bajie is being intimidated by a group of refugees accusing him of cheating only for Sunny to take back his compass. But it's also important to note that Pilgrim has one of these as well and they may be pointing to each other.
  • M.K. is still a prisoner of The Widow's. She is keeping him very close with the intention of pulling his Gift out of him once more. He doesn't want that at all. So, he has spiraled into a depression. His imprisonment isn't all bad because of the luxuries The Widow has gifted to him. But he is still a prisoner who is being poked and prodded for The Widow's experiments to see what it'll take to restore his inner demon.
  • Lydia is fully aware that Tully attacking a prisoner truck and taking Bajie is bound to get a response from The Widow. This refugee camp has been able to exist in peace despite the instability of the region because The Widow and Chau were too busy fighting each other. But now, The Widow will need to retaliate against the people who took something of great value from her.
  • There are a handful of new series regulars this season including Sherman Augustus, Babou Ceesay, Lorraine Toussaint and Ella-Rae Smith. They are all promising new additions to this world. I'm most excited to see what's going on with Toussaint's character who is only briefly glimpsed here. And yet, it's also curious that Dean-Charles Chapman is only a guest star when it seems like his character is part of a packaged deal. That makes it likely that he's not long for this world.
  • It's also notable that Sarah Bolger is no longer listed as a series regular even though her character didn't die last season. It always seemed clear that the show wasn't going to be following up with Jade anymore after The Widow and Quinn took over her territory. The Widow is now operating out of that structure and made it her new Sanctuary. But there's always the possibility of Jade returning in the future because she's still alive. It's just unlikely because Bolger has already moved on to Starz's Counterpart and FX's Mayans MC.