The other week I had pure freedom to loaf around, so I firmly planted myself on the couch and hit the Netflix hard. Luckily for me, Into the Badlands, a show that had caught my eye before, was finally available. I’d only seen trailers online before for this post-apocalyptic show (brought to us by AMC, continuing their move from movies to original programming like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead). About two minutes in, I was hooked. I honestly can’t remember the last time I was quite this excited and engrossed by a new show, which is saying a lot. How is it awesome? In every way possible. Let’s take a look!
The plot is deceptively simple. In a indeterminately distant future, the world has collapsed and been rebuilt by power-hungry warlords in uneasy alliance with each other — uneasy primarily because everyone from sons to wives to military commanders seem to be plotting the overthrow of these barons. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how the wind blows, the barons have groups of especially skilled warriors known as “clippers”. We begin in media res as chief clipper Sunny finds a mysterious lad known only as M.K., who holds a power that many seek to use for their own gain. Shenanigans ensue.
What first reeled me in? I have to say the visuals — they are stunning. Absolutely stunning. The aesthetics are almost steampunk, but without much technology, if that makes sense? There’s also a definite blend of “East-meets-West” post-modernism that we sort of saw in Firefly and Serenity — only I’d say a little less problematic. Okay, so “kung fu” has been culturally cross-pollinated into pretty much every territory in this alternate world, but for once the main ass-kicker, ironically named Sunny, is actually Asian. Compared in stark contrast to the recent Iron Fist debacle and the surprising dearth of Asians in the Firefly-verse, this is a breath of fresh air. The fact that Sunny gets to be strong and sexy and gruff and a supreme warrior is not an option often available to the Asian male. He is seen all shirtless and buff and even gets sexytimes with his lady friend. Inconceivable! It’s hard to put into words exactly the importance of casting this role with an Asian actor; finally we have, at the very least, a nod of respect to the history and heritage of unarmed martial arts as they are known and shown in pop culture media. It’s true that white characters are using skills that originated in Asian culture, but by giving Sunny a place of primacy, it seems to at least acknowledge the origins of the techniques far better than Serenity or Doctor Strange.
Plenty of other diversity goes on in this world. The mysterious young M.K., Sunny’s protégé and a wielder of unknown power, is played by Aramis Knight, who is of mixed German, Indian, and Pakistani heritage. This could potentially make him a character of color — however, he could easily be read as white, and since the character’s background (and therefore family) is shrouded in mystery, I’d be willing to bet many perceive him as such. Veil, our resident lady physician and Sunny’s honey, is Black. She has all the vibes of a Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman frontier doc, including a very old-fashioned pioneer sartorial fashion. Brilliant at her work, she pushes the boundary of medicine in this low-tech world, even fashioning “mimics”, as she calls prosthetics.
She’s not the only awesome lady; far from it. The Widow has taken control of her territory after her baron husband died (under mysterious circumstances, no less), and she is a master of martial arts on par with the best warriors in the show. In addition to the Widow, we have Lydia and Jade, the current wife and the wife-to-be of the baron Quinn (polygamy’s back in, at least when you’re in charge); they weave a tale that goes everywhere from antagonism to sister-wife camaraderie to venomous betrayal. The Widow’s daughter Tilda is a refreshing example of a young female badass who is not overly sexualized. In a society that in general seems to have moved to middle school girls looking like Cher’s high school besties in Clueless (am I dating myself?) it was nice to see Tilda, who appears to be around 15, not plastered in make-up and shoved into mini-skirts and tube tops. Rather, her outfit seems almost prudish when fantasy media is so often filled with screaming Amazons and Valkyries wearing mere strips of fabric.
While the women are very strong in this show, there’s definitely an interesting gender tension that I feel is usually missing from post-apocalyptic worlds. Something I loved was that in the fort where M.K. is first taken, they train only boys to be warriors, and in the Widow’s realm, it seems mostly girls are trained. While many sort of post-apocalyptic/post-modern stories seem to have boys and girls training and competing together (think Hunger Games), I personally feel like if society gets fucked up and has to be rebuilt, some of the things we were working on, like gender equality, would have big backslides. It was neat to see someone else pick up on this and put it into their show. Though the first episode was very male-heavy, it quickly became clear that the women were much more than just decorations for their husbands or male significant others. The exact status of women varies from territory to territory, as might be expected when new realms form their own cultures.
Something that surprised me was how much I got into the politics. The worldbuilding is extraordinarily good; the complex and cut-throat power plays are thick in the plot, and to be honest, that’s usually where these shows lose me. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve never gotten into Game of Thrones — trying to keep track of who is betraying whom for what territory can be impossible to keep straight in my head. However, I found myself able to keep up and more or less feel like I was actually following, and even more surprisingly, caring about, all the political twists and turns of the scheming barons and company. More often than not, I just give up and enjoy the action scenes in this kind of situation, but the writing and acting was good enough to keep me informed and invested.
My only complaint is that there were only six episodes in the first season! Of course, the production costs must have been sky high to make such a beautiful show, and the network may have wanted to test the waters. The second season has already begun to air, though I have yet to catch any of it. I can’t wait to see more of these awesome characters and fantastic combat scenes, as well as get some explanation of more of the mysteries, including the barely hinted at religion of this world. Have any of you seen this amazing show yet? I’d love to hear your comments below!