Will I jinx the state of the television universe if I said AMC is unstoppable? Almost everything it touches turns to gold. The network’s newest drama, Into the Badlands, might not reach the same Emmy-adored levels as Breaking Bad or Mad Men (yet — we’re just one episode in), but not since The Walking Dead have they taken such a creative leap of faith.
Into the Badlands, loosely based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West, is a martial arts/post-apocalyptic genre mash-up set within a steampunk-infused future. After a nuclear war destroys most of the population, seven feudal Barons rule different portions of what lands and people remain. Guns are outlawed and men are tools — main character Sunny is an assassin warrior known as a Clipper, a tool of his Baron for killing, intimidation, and enforcement. Said Clippers live in cramped, poorly maintained soldier barracks, while the Barons reside richly in their Civil War-esque plantation farms, earning profits off the backs of workers. In this ruthless hierarchy of inequality, loyalty to your Baron is sacred above all else. Sunny is the most loyal, the most skilled, and the most troubled, with over four hundred deaths to his name. Killing for his lord no longer brings him joy, and a strange boy with mysterious powers (oooooo!) may lead him onto a journey of self-discovery.
We’ll see how everything unfolds over a season, obviously, but it shows a lot of promise. The mythology is dense and refreshingly original in a mediascape overrun by both apocalypses and swords-and-horses fantasy, and although it indulges in several cliches, it seems self-aware enough to underplay them. In fact, it’s overall a restrained effort; although the cinematography is sweeping and the visuals superb (sets that were built! Green grass and poppy flowers! What a blessed change from too much CGI and barren dark colors, respectively), it’s not trying anything too fancy. Just good old-fashioned quality.
The style’s clearly rooted in the Bruce Lee 1970s movie tradition, with fights filmed and choreographed as dance pieces performed by actual artists. The action carries the, well, action, rather than relying on fast cuts only to create energy. Everything is solid, from concept to acting to aesthetics. It doesn’t overplay its hand, although hell if it doesn’t have fun, too. After massacring a group of renegades, Sunny literally dusts dirt off his shoulder. And who doesn’t want to watch a slo-mo, close-up, eye-poppingly gorgeous fight scene in the rain? Bueller?
As for the women, we haven’t seen enough of them in action to decide my feelings on their writing. I have a suspicion they’ll go the “trapped women fighting against patriarchy” route with their futuristic world, which I’m more than a bit tired of when it’s used for exploitation and violence. So please do the opposite. There’s potential in the three leads for certain: the Baron’s wife Lydia seems the strategic power behind the throne, the Widow has taken over her dead husband’s title, and Jade has ambitions for power brewing behind those sweet eyes. I’ve been a fan of Sarah Bolger’s since The Tudors, so I’m particularly interested in Jade. Bolger’s a underrated actress and I’d love to see her land a meaty role.*
If you’re looking for a more entertaining, visually scrumptious show to indulge in this season, you won’t find it.
*(My affection also stems from the fact she’s my dream actress to play the main character in one of my kinda-sorta book ideas. She and Mads Mikkelsen would make a fabulous romantic pair, don’t you agree?)