In season 2 of Shadow and Bone, the Darkling, aka General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), tries to take control of Ravka and further expand the Fold, with no thought whatsoever to the damage he leaves in his wake. While it was clear that the Darkling was the villain of the piece by the end of Shadow and Bone season 1, there were still fans hoping he could be redeemed. After season 2, that’s not possible, not after he returns from the fold intend on controlling Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and commanding his new shadow army of nichevo’ya.
Speaking with Deadline, Barnes said that the Darkling “was always on the wrong side. He’s always the villain. But in this season, it’s unleashed a little bit and he doesn’t have an army to rely on. He doesn’t have these masks of charm to rely on.” This season, he is brutal and unafraid to simply kill those who get in his way. But he has weaknesses, too. The nichevo’ya are poisoning him, reducing him to spluttering coughing fits multiple times throughout the second season. And his support among the Grisha is not as solid as it was in season 1. He is alone.
Ben Barnes compares the Darkling to real-life dictators
“When I took on the role initially, I knew there would be this catalytic moment for playing him about halfway through the first season when we would see him turn from this man who leads with authority but also with charm,” Barnes said. “I think my intention was to show just enough of the manipulation just before the moment of it being explained to you so you don’t feel patronized.”
For season 2, however, that facade is fully ripped off. “This is a man who is no longer toying with masks of charm that he’s built up in his arsenal. He’s a more raw version of himself, but…he finds himself now in slightly unsteady territory,” Barnes said. “I think even he’s a little scared of himself. The wonderful thing about fantasy is you can make analogies so very clear, and he literally has his demons, his own shadows, inside of him. He’s carrying it around with him, and it is weighing pretty heavily and it starts to even betray him a little bit. But at the same time, he has to take ownership of this sort of villainy and his toxicity at this point.”
Barnes also pointed out that while the Darkling may believe he is justified in his actions, “if you [take those actions] at the expense of other people, then you become this dictator, like these figureheads that we have in the world today that strongly believe that every move they make is the right one and to everybody else they feel like borderline fascist dictators.”
Ben Barnes talks about the Darkling’s stormy relationship with Alina
As a character who increasingly operates alone, the Darkling’s only two significant relationships are with his mother Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) and Alina. While the Darkling had been torturing his mother for months — we see him cut off her finger in a particularly brutal scene — he is still taken by surprise when his nichevo’ya kill her. The Darkling blames Alina for her death, and “then he goes pretty dark on her in the sixth episode”.
By now, she is a little bit more experienced and has a power to her. She doesn’t suffer fools. I think she begins to realize she can manipulate [people] herself. She almost actually takes on a little bit of what his role was….But Kirigan is not an easy person to manipulate. So it doesn’t really work. He’s forced into this position of just confronting her and literally putting his hand over her mouth and shoving her up against the wall and silencing her and saying, ’It will be this way.’
Any idea of reconciliation between the two characters is now kaput. Barnes says that the Darkling’s intent this season is to manipulate Alina, and to try and get her to see things his way: “I think what I like about this show and this character is that there is a little bit of mystery left and a little bit of confusion in him. I think he’s confused a lot of the time. […] He doesn’t have the mother that always supported him. Then he started to clearly have these feelings for Alina, who’s then moved past them. He doesn’t have his army anymore, doesn’t have his palace anymore, doesn’t have any of these things, and it brews into this storm.”
Working alongside Jessie Mei Li made all of this enjoyable to play. “I think because we built up through the first season, this lovely friendship that we have, and we played these other elements of the characters, it was nice to explore the ones that we hadn’t,” Barnes said. “You also have to build up trust if you’re going to sneak up behind someone and grab them and be threatening and have your hand around their neck. You have to keep checking in with somebody and looking after them.”
In the end, going this dark was actually something of a relief for Barnes. “At least I don’t have to defend him anymore. I think in the first season talking about it, I felt the compulsion to be like, ‘Well, there’s a world in which this works.’ Because that’s what he believes. I think now it’s very much obvious that he’s gone off.”
Shadow and Bone seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Netflix.