Into the Badlands Season Two: Character Review (Pt. 1)

I like how short the seasons are for this show because it means that the plot can move quickly with a minimum of filler episodes. Despite that, the show still manages to throw some surprises in our direction. One of those surprises was the re-introduction of Baron Quinn. Another pleasant surprise, was the addition to the cast, of Nick Frost as Bajie. We got some major worldbuilding going this season, as the story fleshed out the where and the when of this show. I’m going to do this in three parts because otherwise its going to get too long. I’ll start with the the top four characters, around which most of the plot revolves.

Sunny: 

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The vast majority of the plot this season concerns Sunny’s search and return to Veil who, by this time, has given birth to a boy she names Henry. Veil is currently being imprisoned by Sunny’s nemesis, and former employer, Baron Quinn. Everything  is leading to the showdown between these two pivotal characters.

This  is all about Sunny coming to grips with his demons,  and laying the spiritual foundation for him to be a father for Henry. He feels he can’t do that until he puts his past as a killer for hire behind him. From episode one (Tiger Pushes Mountain), and his theme song, I’m Only Human by Rag ‘N Bone Man, to episode seven (Black Heart White Mountain), we see Sunny dealing with all the killing he dealt out in his past, and what kind of man that makes him. Last season we were given the idea that Sunny was sort of superhuman. At the beginning of this season we see him very much humbled. We watched him fall, and now we get to watch him rise up.  In order for him to do that he needs to acknowledge certain things about himself.

He also needs to choose a side. One of the most frustrating things about Sunny’s character last season was his passivity. He simply refused to make hard decisions, and would allow things to happen  to the people around him. Not only  would he not do anything, but he often refused to pass judgment. Adopting MK was the first pro-active decision we saw him make. after that it became easier to choose things for himself and his own happiness.

But the primary catalyst for his self reflection this season, like it is for a lot of men, is the birth of his first child, and his encounter with a legendary Clipper named Silver Moon, in the episode Red Sun Silver Moon. Pay attention to the titles here, because many of them refer to Sunny, or the people he encounters, like Silver. Silver has been waiting for a worthy opponent so he can die in style, so you can guess what the Red Sun means in the title. Sunny bests him but in keeping with his new vow, doesn’t kill him.

Sunny, like Silver, had made a vow not to kill anymore, for unnecessary reasons. He’s going to fail at this, as circumstances will require he keep at it. After escaping the mines, with a new companion named Bajie, he sets out to find his wife and son.  Whereas last season he pretty much lived according to Quinn’s whim, we see him fully committing to something unabashedly selfish. His own future happiness. He has a number of adventures along the way that require him to engage in violence to defend himself, as no one in the Badlands can be trusted. His journey into the Badlands is also a journey into his past and his self.

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Sunny has always been a kind of true neutral. Last season, he often held himself aloof from moral decisions, like when he stood by and watched Quinn kill Veil’s parents. There was a kind of curious moral paralysis, which Veil called him on towards the end of the season. This new moral version of Sunny is best illustrated in  episode five, Monkey Leaps Through Mist. He makes the decision to save a young girl from being sold into prostitution. This is major moral act for Sunny, who has always tried to shy away from being a savior. I think part of Sunny realizes that “not killing” isn’t enough. He is going to have to engage with the world to make it a better place, and  can’t just stand by and do nothing, if he hopes to become the kind of man he wants to be, that his son can be proud of.

Sunny also has to learn to work with, and trust others. Last season Sunny was very much a loner. This season he meets Bajie and the two of them have to work together to get back into the Badlands, defeat the Monks who want MK returned, and find and save Sunny’s  wife and son. This is made incredibly difficult because Bajie has ulterior motives of his own, and appears utterly untrustworthy.

In Black Heart White Mountain, Sunny literally confronts the many dead he’s responsible for, after being put in a coma like state by one of the Monks. He dreams of what his life could be, but he realizes on some level that he cannot have that life until he deals with his violent past. Reunited with MK, in  Leopard Stalks In Snow, he is then prepared to acknowledge that he can’t do what he needs to do alone,  that MK is his family, and he has a responsibility to him.

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In Sting of the Scorpion’s Tale, Sunny makes and breaks alliances with Baron Chau (the only other prominent Asian woman we’ve seen), and The Widow. Taken prisoner by Chau who is in hiding from the Widow, he convinces her that they have one thing in common, they both want Quinn and The Widow dead. Upon contact with the Widow, she convinces Snuny to spare her life, because she knows where Veil is, so he allies with her. That alliance is broken when he discovers she betrayed Veil to form an alliance with Quinn.

Unable to trust the Widow, and having lost MK again, he prepares to go it alone, after entrusting Bajie to find and care for his protege. He’s come a long way since the first episode when he could barely bring himself to look at, or even speak, to Bajie.

Sunny finally makes it to Veil’s side and we get the reunion we’ve all been waiting for, with  lots of kissing, soaring music, twirling cameras, and some tears. But its not to last, and we should’ve known that happiness, normality, and a white picket fence on a farm was never going to be in Sunny’s future.

 

Veil:

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Veil has been one of the most frustrating characters but I was starting   to understand her and why Sunny fell in love with her. Its not just her pleasant nature. We saw in season one, that she was willing to challenge others when she was in a position to do so. She was never a floormat when she could help it. The key to understanding Veil is that she was a relatively powerless individual. She had no martial skills, she had no political power, and no kind of social clout, but what power she did have she wielded carefully.

How she operated in the Badlands was by showing a level of integrity, and honesty, that many of the other character’s entirely lacked. Jade, Lydia, Quinn, all the people that Sunny knows, are people willing to manipulate and deceive to gain their own ends in the Badlands. Veil was unwilling to do any of those things, was unwilling to compromise her principles to get ahead. Her moral compass remained strong.  Sunny gravitated to her because he could trust her. She was the one steady component in his life. She was honest with him in ways no one else was and so he trusted her like no one else.

Its not that Veil didn’t engage in immoral behavior. She did occasionally try to lie. But only  as a form of self defense, or to protect Henry, and usually  her attempts at deception weren’t successful.  She occasionally relied on her helplessness to win mercy from others which we saw in Palm of the Iron Fox, where she lies to, poisons, and eventually kills a Clipper named Edgar, when the poison doesn’t work. Later, she tries to claim she killed him because he  attempted to rape her, only to be told that was unlikely because Edgar was gay. So she does engage in immoral behavior sometimes, but it never proves profitable for her, and she is never rewarded for it.

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Her moral certitude is illustrated best in  Sting of the Scorpion’s Tale, when Quinn forces her to marry him so that he can claim her son as his own. All pretense she made of caring about Quinn in her efforts to protect Baby Henry earlier, fall to the side. She makes no secret of her fear and contempt of Quinn, and shows little patience for the foolishness he keeps spouting to her and Henry. Eventually he has to lock her away to control her.

I have to admit, I was getting very frustrated with her inability to simply go along to get along, in the hopes of getting Henry away. That she would just chill and pretend she liked Quinn like before, but I get now why she didn’t do that. That kind of manipulative behavior simply does not come naturally to her, and she has no talent for it really. Her deceptions are always uncovered. In episode three, Red Sun Silver Moon, we find that she’s been lying to Quinn about his x-rays, substituting healthy x-rays for his, and that deception gets discovered in the next episode. I understand she’s been doing that because if Quinn doesn’t think she’s curing him he might kill her and Henry.

By the end of the season, Veil has formed an alliance with Lydia, against Quinn, and I have to applaud the show for writing it this way. Lydia is well used to manipulating and deceiving Quinn, and Veil needs someone like her, and I like that the writers show these women as allies against  their oppressor, rather than as competition for his attention. There’s a reason for Lydia’s behavior which I’ll get to in a moment.

I also liked that Veil got to be a love interest at all. The show definitely had that Django Unchained/Ring of the Nibelung vibe, where Sunny has to walk through ten kinds of Hell, the Widow’s  Butterflies, and Quinn’s wingnut Clippers, to win back his beloved, and I’m all kinds of here for that when its a Black woman, because we rarely get treated like that in genre narratives. That’s something that’s been the sole province of White women, and I have it on good authority that they find that shit kinda chafing. Its very interesting that neither Jade, nor Lydia, got that kind of treatment in the story.

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Unfortunately this is all we’re ever  getting about Veil, since she dies in the season finale, protecting Henry. I feel some kind of way about this and not just because I’m so tired of women of color being ‘fridged and watching  the show runners  sit back and make up bullshit excuses for why that happened.

But to be fair though, I wasn’t watching the show for her. I didn’t even know who Madeline Mantock was before watching it,  but I faithfully reported on her activities, gave her the benefit of the doubt, and followed what little of an arc she had. My faith in the showrunners was entirely misguided though, believing they might want, at some point, to do something with this character besides kill her off, but Gough and Millar seem unable to see much purpose in having PoC in their narratives except as cannon fodder.

Of the three Black people in the show this season, who had any lines,  they’ve all been killed. Edgar had a handful of lines, attacked Veil, and was killed. There was a Black Butterfly in The Widow’s camp, and she was unnecessarily singled out, and unceremoniously killed, by one of Quinn’s Clippers. I know a lot of women had feelings about that scene. And then there’s Veil. She’s been locked away, betrayed, assaulted multiple times, nearly raped, and then she sacrificed herself to kill Quinn. I think I saw the writing on the wall as soon as she walked into that room with Sunny, who was about to fight Quinn.

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This will not stop me from watching the show next season. I wasn’t watching the show to see Veil, but I was happy about her presence. Unlike some people I never had the luxury of just picking and choosing  which shows I was going to boycott. I grew up in a time of genre scarcity, where EVERYTHING I watched had problems, and nothing and no one was enlightened. I’m not going to boycott a series for one or two problematic elements. (It would have to be a really bad problem like what happened with Sleepy Hollow, or whitewashing, like with Ghost in the Shell.) I’ll watch the series and just keep complaining as loud as possible about the one problem. My attitude towards this type of thing is to reward the good behavior, and beat Hollywood with a rolled up newspaper, when they act a fool.

 

The Widow:

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We spent the bulk of our time this season shuttling back and forth between the Widow, Sunny and Quinn, the three major players in the narrative. We watched as the Widow connived, lied, and killed to consolidate her power, falling  even further into the dark side.

I must admit I was dismayed to see what became of Minerva this season. Its not that I ever thought she was a good person, but I was championing her cause. I believed in it. But it turns out that she really isn’t any better than the Barons she hopes to succeed. It turns out that power corrupts because the Widow had the most disappointing character arc of the season and has mostly just gone darkside at this point.

With Waldo (Sunny’s former Clipper teacher) as her adviser, she was willing to try diplomacy. When Ryder calls a Conclave of all the Barons in Palm of the Iron Fox, to assess what rules the Widow has broken in her rise to the top, she tries to play the game the way Waldo asks, but she is betrayed by the other Barons, who either attack her, or flee. She is saved by Tilda, who disobeyed a direct order to stay behind.  The event seemed to  crystallize something in Minerva, and she rejects Waldo’s advice, and starts following her own decisions from that point forward.

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Unfortunately, the Widow  doesn’t have a very good moral compass to follow. She makes all the wrong decisions. Decisions that both Waldo, and Tilda, two people with much stronger morality than her, attempt to talk her out of. She forms an alliance with Quinn which was galling enough to Waldo, but to do that, she returned Veil back to his custody, which Tilda found untenable. I never thought of her as a good person, as she always had an “ends justifies the means” attitude, but she lost me as a fan when she displayed complete hypocrisy in returning Veil  and Henry to  Quinn, in Leopard Stalks in Snow.

This is a woman who has championed the rights of Cogs and Women all of last season. I suppose I should have seen the writing on the wall after she kidnapped Veil in season one, as that was a bit extra. She cannot talk about protecting the women of the Badlands and be willing to send another woman into bondage for power. Not only that but it has also become clear that she has been using her emotional link to Tilda to get her to serve her cause. Its not that she doesn’t care about Tilda, but just as Veil said, she is willing to send little girls to fight and die for her cause. this makes her little different from Quinn.

In Nightingale Sings No More we get some backstory on the Widow (Minerva). How she used to be like MK, was kidnapped by the same Monks who took MK, and they drained her powers from her. Part of the reason she wants so desperately to decipher the book in her possession is she believes it can give her her powers back. That book that everyone has been passing about, that no one could read, is actually something that belongs to her. She owned it as a child, when she first encountered Bajie, a Monk who named her Flea.

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Baron Chau

We also get the mother /daughter fight that’s been long in the making. This has been coming since season one. Tilda always had the privilege of speaking freely with her, and the Widow trusted her like no other. We started seeing the cracks in their union in the first season when Tilda questioned her mother’s warmongering.

This time, Tilda, because she has a much clearer sense of morality than her mother, rightfully calls her out for betraying Veil, and challenges her mother to a duel, which she loses. Minerva can’t bring herself to kill her though, even though Tilda challenges her to do it. She locks her up instead. Tilda is rescued by a young woman named Odessa.

After she beat up Tilda,  Waldo turns his back on her too, believing her to be as corrupt as the other Barons. I guess next season we’ll have a brand new Big Bad as the Widow consolidates her  power.

 

Quinn:

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He’s the one person everyone seems to be hunting at some point. Yes, he’s still dying, and still insane.  He spent the first part of the season quietly terrorizing Veil and Henry,  losing it completely after he kills Ryder at a Conclave of the Barons, that Ryder arranged in Palm of the Iron Fox. After that, he must have been haunted by what he’d done  because Ryder’s hallucination taunts him for the entirety of the next episode, Monkey Leaps through Mist. Why his tumor hadn’t killed him yet is anybody’s guess. Why is Quinn still alive? That tumor was the size of a golf ball.

Lydia’s attempted capture of Quinn sets off explosives that he booby trapped throughout the compound, (an old transit station) and in the confusion, Veil escapes and goes to the Widow. Quinn forms an alliance with the The Widow, to take down the other Barons in exchange for Veil’s return, in Leopard Stalks in Snow, but the alliance doesn’t last  long. Neither of them can remotely trust the other, and  turn against one another at the first opportunity.

 

I’ve always been somewhat in awe of Quinn’s ability to talk complete bullshit and have it be believed, and  we get to see it in full force, up close and personal, all season. We saw him doing this last season but the only people he managed to hold in thrall were all Clippers. Lydia, Jade and Sunny all appeared to be immune to this superpower. I think this says a lot about the Clipper mentality, really.

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Quinn gets a lot of speech time, hissing, whispering, and conniving to anyone within earshot, to get what he wants. We get to watch him Jedi a young man named Gabriel, his entire Clipper force, and even tries his wiles on Veil, although I think she might have some immunity. His alliance with the Widow comes to an abrupt halt after he talks Gabriel into a terrorist attack in the Widow’s courtyard. He spends the rest of the next two episodes, Nightingale Sings No More, and Wolf’s Breath Dragon Fire, wiring the entire compound with explosives, waiting for Sunny to arrive.

It takes Sunny four tries to kill Quinn! At one point I was simply screaming at my TV because, for some reason, Sunny simply would not take this asshole’s head. Every time he thought the Baron was down, he would wander off and drop his weapon, and Quinn would just get back up, and cause more mischief. This complete inability to finish him off, was the reason  Quinn was alive at all. I was also pretty salty at the writers because it was all rather clumsily done. I really don’t want to have to look at Quinn all of next season again. I was getting pretty tired of all his speechifying. Not that I don’t like Martin Csokas. He played the Hell out of this character. Its just that a little bit of Quinn goes a long way and in this season was a bit too much.

In Part 2: Bajie, Tilda and MK get character reviews along with Lydia, one the few other people from season one, who survives to see a third season.

Into the Badlands : Two Tigers Subdue Dragons

 

I’ve read that this series  is based on a Chinese story called” Journey to the West”, which was written in the 16th century, during the Ming Dynasty, about a Buddhist monk who has mystical adventures, while traveling to India to pick up some sacred scrolls. No, I haven’t read it or seen the movie, (although it seems to be in my Netflix queue), but my Google-Fu was strong last week, which is where I picked up this little tidbit.

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You’re welcome! Go forth and tell your friends!

This episode, despite the awesome title, was not as strong as some  previous episodes because of the introduction of some personal intrigues about the denizens of Quinn’s house (and I could always not care about that.) It is notable for two other things that do not bode well for MK and Ryder and one thing that I’d sort of been waiting for, the introduction of more PoC into this  ‘verse.

A close watching of the last four episodes reveals some interesting word-building. Having studied some Japanese history, I keep seeing  how much the social arrangements and costumes mirror feudal Japan, and not China, (although I admit I haven’t studied as much Chinese history). I’m going to take a wild guess and say this is a deliberate choice.

I do wonder about things in the Badlands and I suppose we’ll get to some of that information as the journeys of the main characters continue, I hope, next year. Like: Where does everyone’s clothing come from? For example, all the gorgeous, matching outfits the Clippers wear. Who is feeding all those baby Clippers, that we never see doing any other work, beyond learning to beat each other up?

I guess Quinn makes enough money or whatever to pay for all this but here’s another set of things I casually wonder about at 3AM:Does Sunny get paid for what he does”And if so, how much? Does the Baron pay for everything, including the fuel for his motorcycle? Do the cogs get paid?I know that money in the form of gold coins exist in this world but who mints them and where do they go and come from? Is there some far away, centralized government, that has some kind of non-interference policy for  the Badlands?

Where do they procure gas for the handful of vehicles we’ve seen? We’ve seen that there is a kind of frontier like town because there are brothels and saloons, where the Nomads hang out, and Veil has to be doctoring on someone. We’ve seen Quinn riding horses everywhere but at some point we forget that Sunny rides a motorcycle, and The Widow owns at least a couple of vehicles. There must be somewhere that dispenses gas and  and fixes old vehicles. (I’m guessing Cogs are too poor to do anything but walk, although I still don’t understand why there are no bicycles, though.)

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In a previous episode we saw that Ryder wears a prosthesis for his missing toes and I wonder what disease he has, that his toes are gone. Was it an accident? Leprosy? Diabetes?  And who made the prosthesis? Is this the reason Quinn disregards him as his successor.? Because he’s imperfect? In one of the earlier episodes MK mentioned Tobacco farmers, so there are other things being grown in this world bsides poppies. At one point, Quinn mentions his father was killed for stealing an ear of corn.

We get a slightly larger glimpse of the world outside  Quinn’s Fort when we meet  Jacobee himself, and The River King, both black men (although we have yet to see any Asian or Hispanic people.) We do get a brief look at the housing situation  of the Cogs who toil on the Baron’s grounds and learn they can be easily bribed with gold.

The Widow begins the second part of her trap to bring down Quinn, but Quinn is on to her contrivance to come between his and Jacobee’s alliance, by stealing one of Jacobee’s gold shipments and framing Quinn for it. He only needs to prove this to Jacobee ,before Jacobee becomes irate about it.

Sunny is training Mk when he is interrupted by Quinn to give him a War Pep Talk. The widow does the same thing when she catches her young ladies dancing in the foyer of the old mansion she’s moved  them into. This scene is actually pretty funny because the girls find an old record player and figure out how to work it. I don’t know the record they’re playing but it sounds like some funky seventies disco, which is completely incongruous with the setting of this show.  Well anyway, the Widow must hate that song because she storms in a breaks the record, after which Tilda has something she needs to get off her chest.

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We learn why the Widow is a widow and why she seeks to “overturn the patriarchy” of the Badlands, and I bet you can guess that sexual assault played a part in these decisions, as she reminds Tilda why her father is dead now. The Widow runs things very differently in her house compared to Quinn. In  episode two,  in the scene where she interrogates MK about his past, she mentions having a son and MK says he didn’t see any boys in the house. There are men in the Widow’s employ, though. We saw them during the fight scenes in the house, but maybe the men aren’t welcome indoors. It would explain the Widow’s reaction to watching her daughter kissing MK in a previous episode.

Lydia and Jade are still planning Jade’s wedding to Quinn. She better hurry up because she won’t have long before she’s a destitute widow. Lydia tells  Jade she knows about her affair with Ryder.

Veil proposes a form of chemotherapy to Quinn, saying it will make him sick before it kills the tumor and its not a guarantee. Had he not killed the  original doctor, who knew how to solve this problem, he would not now be at her doorstep, making demands.

Later that night Sunny watches as MK decides whether or not to cut himself while training, just to see what happens. We all wait with breathless anticipation for MK to Hulk but he’s just teasing us and doesn’t do it. Actually,  he’s too terrified to try it on his own, so Sunny decides to test him the next day. He takes MK out to a secluded area, talks to him about focus and control, cuts him and… promptly gets knocked on his ass. Mk passes out,too. I don’t know why but I think its hilarious that they’re both just laying on the ground, unconscious, in the middle of nowhere. Sunny really should have planned this better.

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Quinn manipulates Ryder into going out to parley with Jacobee alone. He’s really good at getting people to do what he wants. The only people this superpower doesn’t seem to work on is Lydia and Sunny. He also tells Ryder he knows about him and Jade.

Later, MK goes to visit Veil to see if she has translated any of the book. He thinks it’s a map through the badlands, though. When Sunny finds out that MK stole the book from his room, and that he does not know how to get to Azra, like he told him, he’s pretty pissed. MK is really trying his patience with all the sneaking about. (I think MK’s ninja skills  are  incredibly funny, but I can afford to laugh cuz he ain’t been sneakin’ in my house.) Veil informs Sunny that they need to leave quickly because Quinn’s tumor is making him insane.Yeah, Sunny needs to quit waffling about this.

Ryder meets with Zephyr, Jacobee’s Regent, for the time and  location of the parley.

Sunny asks Waldo for advice on leaving the Badlands. Waldo says he needs: Passage up the river, a map of the Badlands, and nothing to lose. Well he’s getting close to having nothing to lose, he may have a map of the Badlands according to MK, and now he needs safe passage. To get that, he needs to  have an audience with the River King. Waldo gives him a small totem, a plastic soldier,  that should gain him access, as the River KIng owes him a favor.

Ryder returns with the information, the parley will take place on neutral ground, in one of the local cemeteries.

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Quinn  and Sunny make preparations for the parley, choosing which men will go. Sunny deliberately skips over MK, once again giving him the cut direct. This pisses off MK who, naturally, decides to disobey Sunny and go anyway, because disobeying Sunny is one of his superpowers.

At the cemetery we finally get to meet Jacobee who turns out to be a beautifully dressed dandy. No, seriously! I loved his outfit, which had a distinct, 18th century, New Orleans flavor in blue plaid, echoed by his Clippers and Regent, Zephyr. It’s heartening to see this, because I was wondering if this was one of those depressing futures  where black people were all slaves, or had left the planet, or something, like in The Hunger Games and Divergent movies.

The Widow attempts to stir a war between Quinn and Jacobee by having Tilda anonymously attack Quinn and the fight is on. MK sees Tilda and tries to stop her, so he can make some accusations. She accidentally cuts him and he Hulks out and nearly kills her.

The key word is “nearly”.

He stops himself at the sound of her voice, as she pleads with him, (the way he did in his first fight with her,) not to hurt her. I guess he found his “focus”, but his control is still pretty shaky and he still passes out afterward. Taking Tilda’s butterfly, Sunny proves to Jacobee that the Widow started the whole mess. Jacobee agrees to a truce, but Quinn has to bring the Widow to heel before he’ll agree to be his ally.

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During the parley, the Widow attacks the Fort and kills the Colts and Clippers. She offers gold to the Cogs, who all run away. I like her, just fine. She’s a good strategist. She just tries every plan until something sticks. It really is like a chess game between her and Quinn and she seems way ahead of him. Quinn is just not as smart as he thinks he is.

Sunny goes to see the  River King, who is willing to give him safe passage, if he finds and kills the person who slaughtered a cargo full of Cogs, he was transporting upriver. Conveniently he has a picture and gives Sunny a drawing of MK.

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In the epilogue we learn that Ryder has been kidnapped by Zephyr and the Widow. Zephyr is working to overthrow her own Baron and the widow has a proposal to make to Ryder.

So, we have only two episodes left in the season and I’m pretty sure the writers are going to piss us off with a horrible cliffhanger , so we’ll come back next year.