It’s been over a month since the second season of Shadow and Bone aired on Netflix, and as of yet there is no word on whether it will be renewed for season 3 (or whether a Six of Crows spinoff will be greenlit). As more time passes, a dangerous mood has set in among some parts of the fandom: apathy.
I was one of the fans counting down the days until season 2 came out. I own multiple editions of the Grishaverse books, I watched season 1 of Shadow and Bone more times than I can count, I can quote the most random and objectively unmemorable passages from Leigh Bardugo’s novels, and yet I feel complete apathy towards season 2 of the Netflix show. I’m not even angry at it. I just quite simply do not recognize the story they told. The characters and themes I love from the books? They weren’t present.
I could ramble on for hours about all the ways the characters were shadows of themselves in season 2, but at the heart of this story is Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), the Sun Summoner tasked with the job of tearing down the Fold: a vast swathe of darkness teeming with monsters that divides the country of Ravka in two. In season 1, we saw Alina grow from a shy and unsure girl to a confident young woman who embraced her Grisha powers. She went from wanting nothing to do with her Grisha identity and struggling to summon sunlight to feeling capable and sure of herself. We saw her go from being manipulated and controlled by the Darkling (Ben Barnes) to taking control of her own life.
We also saw her grow into her relationship with her best friend Mal (Archie Renaux). The two went from being co-dependent to separated to being reunited and clearly choosing to belong at each other. they could be apart, but they were stronger together. There is a reason each of author Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy books begin and end with chapters about “the boy” (Mal) and “the girl” (Alina). This is their story, together, as Bardugo herself said after the release of the final book in the trilogy: “This has always been the story of two refugees—orphans who the world views as expendable, the impact they have on the future of their country, and the cost that war exacts from them both.”
Season 1 ended with Alina sure of herself, sure of her abilities, and sure of her place next to her best friend. She was uneasy with the way people viewed her as a Saint due to her powers. She was funny, kind and strong. She was curious about her powers, but heeded advice from Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) about the danger of amplifiers, animal bones fused to a Grisha to enhance their powers.
All in all, season 1 understood the core themes of the Grisha trilogy when it came to Alina: how power cannot be endlessly enhanced without consequences; how endless power corrupts both the world around you and you yourself; how Alina’s powers are seen as Saintlike, which exposes her to the Darkling’s manipulation; and how in Alina’s heart what she craves is peace and safety with Mal.
Enter season 2.
The problem with Shadow and Bone season 2
Shadow and Bone season 2 is rushed. It moves at a hundred miles an hour, leaving the viewer barely any time to breath. Gone are the carefully built and emotionally hard-hitting moments we had in season 1. By moving so fast, season 2 of Shadow and Bone disconnects itself emotionally from the audience and abandons the core themes which had been intricately woven into season 1.
Alina being worshipped as “Sankta Alina” was a pivotal moment in Episode 5 of season 1. Book-readers were expecting to see the arc from Siege & Storm and Ruin & Rising play out, with the Apparat (Kevin Eldon) building up this mythos around Alina. He leads an army of holy warriors, known as the Soldat Sol who are sworn to protect Alina; the revelation that Tolya (Lewis Tan) and Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy) are members of the Soldat Sol is a huge moment for Alina. She realizes that not only are these people her friends, they also hold her up as a Saint to revere and worship.
But Alina’s arc from the trilogy — going from soldier to summoner to Saint — is barely brushed upon in season 2. She is referred to as a Saint, but absolutely nothing else comes of it, and Tolya and Tamar’s faith is all but erased.
But there’s something else that’s missing from Shadow and Bone season 2 which I think mostly accounts for my apathy: the central themes of power and corruption.
Alina is warned throughout the books that there are consequences to chasing power. No Grisha should wield the level of power she seeks, even if she intends to use it to bring down the Fold. When Baghra discovers that Alina has harnessed the power of Morozova’s stag and the Sea Whip, she is outraged and horrified. She tells Alina that she must give up the search for the Fire Bird, another amplifier, and that if she does not there will be consequences beyond Alina’s wildest understandings. Baghra begs Alina to do what the Darkling could not and “give this up,” by which she means give up the goal of uniting Morozova’s amplifiers.
On the show, we have Baghra telling Alina to complete the task of gathering all the amplifiers. The warnings about power and corruption are gone, and with them the soul of the story.
Power, corruption, faith and peace
And this is probably why it feels so anticlimactic when Alina takes down the Fold on the show. The story hurtling to this point at breakneck speed doesn’t help; keep in mind that that season 1 covers only the first book in the trilogy while season 2 covers books two and three, in addition to pulling elements from four other Grishaverse books. But the lack of consequences hurts even more.
In the books, it’s a huge moment when we learn that Mal, not the Fire Bird, is the third amplifier. Alina is horrified that Mal must be killed to unlock the power of the amplifier. But what is even more horrifying is that she still finds herself yearning for that power. She wants it. And that terrifies her.
Alina struggles with this kind of thing constantly in the books, feeling that she must seek out power to save her country even as she loses parts of herself with every step. In Ruin & Rising, Alina says, “They [the Soldat Sol] wanted a Grisha queen. Mal wanted a commoner queen. And what did I want? Peace for Ravka. A chance to sleep easy in my bed without fear. An end to the guilt and dread that I woke to every morning. There were old wants too, to be loved for who I was, not what I could do, to lie in a meadow with a boy’s arms around me and watch the wind move the clouds.” Alina enjoys summoning sunlight, but she hates the extra baggage that comes with being a symbol for Ravka. She chases down more power to save her country, but is distressed by how this takes her further from the life she actually wants, and is fearful for what this power could do to her.
When Alina kills Mal to defeat the Darkling, there are consequences. In attempting to gain power she has been told no one should have, Alina loses her powers entirely. What brings the Fold down is not the powerful Grisha Alina, but hundreds of new Sun Summoners created in the wake of her losing her powers. As they stand in the Fold, sunlight powers pouring out of them, the Fold comes down. It is a hugely symbolic moment; a power that was weighing down on Alina is now borne by hundreds of people. When the burden is shared among so many, it isn’t so bad.
The show does away with this; Alina retains her powers and takes down the Fold by herself. The series showed zero understanding of this journey we’re meant to have gone on. By the time the Fold comes down, Alina is tired. She feels used and manipulated and exhausted, and what she actually wants is a peaceful life with Mal. When he is brought back to life by Tolya and Tamar (in the books Alina brings him back using merzost), Mal has lost his tracking abilities just as Alina has lost her powers. Both characters have lost a part of themselves in their fight to save their country.
In season 2, Mal comes back to life unsure of his relationship with Alina. In the book, he is certain: “Whatever there is between us, we forged it. It belongs to us.” They fake their own deaths and leave the madness of court life behind, quietly marrying and rebuilding the orphanage at Keramzin, where they live “an ordinary life, full of ordinary things, if love can ever be called that” while raising orphans and collecting intel to pass back to Nikolai. Whilst they mourn the part of themselves they have lost, both Alina and Mal see that loss as a chance to claim the life they actually want together. Power comes at a price, and they have paid it.
Shadow and Bone and disappointment and apathy
Alina’s arc in the Grisha trilogy is about the corruptive nature of power. It’s about a girl discovering what it is that she wants out of life. It is a story of a girl gaining confidence, of seeking peace for herself and her country, and how she can’t have it without consequences. On Netflix, season 2 of Shadow and Bone may have been visually stunning and had some entertaining moments, but it fundamentally misunderstood Alina’s character and motivation. She is now at court, essentially a Queen in waiting, with no consequences to her actions and once again separated from Mal. Her smile at the end of the final episode as she realizes she has summoned shadows as opposed to light says it all; the book version of Alina would be horrified.
Maybe we will get some closure if Netflix gives us a third season. But at this point, we have to be honest and say that Shadow and Bone is a fanfiction version of the books. And maybe that’s why the fanbase feels so apathetic about season 2. It’s just quite hard to feel strong emotions either way for an adaptation that strayed so far from the source material.