Shadow and Bone season 2 expands the show’s horizons, for good and ill

Shadow and Bone. Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in episode 203 of Shadow and Bone. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023
Shadow and Bone. Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in episode 203 of Shadow and Bone. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023 /

If you thought Shadow and Bone was dark before, wait until you watch season 2. The Netflix show, based on the best-selling books by Leigh Bardugo, shifts in tone with its sophomore outing. It also expands in score, adding more characters and places to visit.

This is a season about war, trauma, wounds and reckoning, as well as love, loyalty and courage… and some jokes sneak in too, somehow. This season is a chance for all characters to decide who they want to be and the impact they want to have on the world.

But through all of these shifts, the cardinal message of the story stays the same: a condemnation of overreaching. The second season delves further in the concept of merzost: abomination, going too far into magic, using a power that should not be touched. “What is infinite?” asks Baghra, played by a magnificent Zoë Wanamaker, “The universe and the greed of men.” And women, it should be added, as even the show’s protagonist Alina Starkov, once sunshine in human form, has been hardened by war and loss, and falls prey to merzost, even if it’s for selfless reasons. The cost of her overreaching is only hinted at in the last scene and will hopefully be explored next season… Netflix, please do hurry and announce a renewal.

Don’t binge Shadow and Bone season 2

Season 2 is thick in plot. It’s a skillful blend of at least three of Bardugo’s novels: Siege and Storm, the second book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy; Ruin and Rising, the third and final book; as well as parts of Crooked Kingdom, the second book in the Six of Crows duology. And there are elements borrowed form other books in the Grishaverse series as well.

Bardugo herself weighed in on the merged storylines: “Readers are not only going to be surprised by the way that these storylines crash into each other, they’re never going to know where the next move is coming from — and that actually was a pleasure for me because I got to be surprised by my own stories.”

This is a daring choice on the part of the producers, who somehow manage to give everyone a growth arc. For this reason, I really don’t recommend bingeing this show. Each episode is so full that it should be savored, not rushed. If you do binge it, I advise you to rewatch it slowly once you’re done. You’ll appreciate the care with which every single scene is written, acted and directed. You’ll find more references to the books and parallels to season 1.

Shadow and Bone season 2 makes big changes to the source material

While the second season diverges from the books, mostly for the sake of condensing storylines, the overall spirit of the story stays truthful to Bardugo’s work. That said, the ending takes some serious creative liberty and alters the fate of important characters. We’ll have to see more to understand the significance of these changes, as they could be undone by future seasons.

We get many new characters who will entertain audiences, most notably scene-stealer Prince Nikolai Lantsov, played spectacularly by Patrick Gibson; his loyal twin warriors Tamar Kir-Bataar (Anna Leong Brophy) and Tolya Yul-Bataar (Lewis Tan); and Wylan Van Eck (Jack Wolfe), a member of the Crows. We also visit two more continents, Novyi Zem and Shu Han, each with its own history and traditions. “These new settings led not only to new branches of storytelling, but
new opportunities for design and aesthetics on every level,” commented executive producer Shawn Levy.

In a season with so much to cover, the writers do a good job of alternating between storylines. The tonal differences in each subplot ensure that the story does not drag. The story may not be terribly cohesive, but that’s not a bad thing. What groups all the main characters this time is that they’re all either in hiding or on the run, having lost that sense of stability that characterized parts of the first season.

Shadow and Bone season 2 is a bit harder to enjoy than season 1

Even in a spoiler-free review, I would be remiss not to mention the main characters, so here’s a vague sentence about each. Alina abandons the classical hero’s journey to overtake a saint’s quest, not without consequences. Mal is no longer desperately clinging to his childhood and is now looking to find himself. The Darkling stays unaware. Genya faces the horrors of her past and comes out triumphant, if scarred and in pain. Nikolai’s future is more precarious than he can imagine. Kaz is about to embark on the heist of a lifetime but with more awareness than when he did so in the books. Inej finds freedom and purpose. Jesper comes to terms with his nature. Nina’s journey has been largely pointless but allows her to reconnect with her roots. Matthias has been hardened possibly beyond repair. Wylan finds belonging and confidence.

Each episode and each character arc deserves to be properly dissected and analyzed. Stay tuned for more of that!

The second season of Shadow and Bone redefines the show. It is still a story about belonging and otherness, about faith and zeal, but this season goes deeper into fantasy land and farther from our reality, making the drama slightly harder to grasp. It’s still an excellent show, with a few faults that are easy to overlook when the story is this grand.

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