‘Shadow and Bone’ Season 2: It’s Always Darkest Before The Dawn (REVIEW)

Shadow and Bone has always been a superior book-to-TV adaptation. I’d go as far as to put it up there with the Hunger Games series and (hopefully) the new Percy Jackson series for Disney+. I’ve been a big fan of the Shadow and Bone books for a while, and the show only rekindled my love for them – and more importantly, the characters – when it premiered in 2021. Now, with Shadow and Bone Season 2 approaching, I find myself yearning to return to the world of the Grishaverse and meet some of my favorite characters as they make their first appearances this season.

However, what caught my attention rather quickly was just how much the show has changed its source material to service the story the series wants to tell. While that isn’t at all bad, the experience of watching Shadow and Bone Season 2 became overshadowed by my knowledge of the books, by the constant nagging from moments I already knew and loved and that are now used to push the story along. This felt like a disservice to these characters and all that they can do. After all, this is Shadow and Bone, not Six of Crows. While Season 2’s discrepancies didn’t ruin my watching experience, they did sour my mood.

Until they didn’t.

*Spoilers for Shadow and Bone Season 2 below.*

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Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Season 2 (COURTESY: Netflix)

If Season 1 was all about falling prey to deceitful men who seek to use you for their gain, Season 2 of Shadow and Bone deals with the aftermath of that abuse. The women at the forefront are all desperately trying to find themselves and reconnect with their power. That is the core of the season: empowerment, and what it means to trust again. It’s exciting to see that the show has now doubled down on issues it’s dealt with from the beginning. A lot of what drew me to Shadow and Bone books in the first place was just how much Alina’s (Jessie Mei Li) story related to my own experiences as a young woman and the turbulent relationships we find ourselves in with men who prey on our want for attention. 

Alina’s journey is one of rediscovery, of dealing with the trauma left behind from the previous season’s events and trying desperately to find a way forward with Mal (Archie Renaux). But the gnawing feeling of leaving things unfinished beckons her back into adventure…or, rather, a suicide mission. In an effort to not feel powerless anymore, Alina overcorrects, determined to find the two remaining Morozova amplifiers and become so powerful that no one will ever be able to hurt her again. If she can tear down the Fold and reunite Ravka in the process, that’s just a plus. Her reaction is a valid response to trauma, but it’s also a solitary path that leaves no room for her loved ones to walk beside her.

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Patrick Gibson as Sturhmond in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Season 2 (COURTESY: Netflix)

Mal’s desire for a life of freedom directly conflicts with Alina’s righteous path to liberate her country. He’s her friend, the love of her life – but what is he to be outside of that? Mal knows from the start that their relationship won’t survive; but, unlike the books, it doesn’t hit rocky waters due to a certain love triangle. Instead, it’s because Mal understands they both need to find themselves before they can come back together to their true north. As painful as that is, it needs to be done.

Alina finds herself yearning for more power. She’s unafraid to step with ease into the persona of a confident leader, especially when Alina finds herself making bargains with pirate – I mean, privateer – Sturmhond (Patrick Gibson). The second I saw his face, I let out the most unhinged scream ever. Patrick Gibson is Nikolai; you feel his charisma all the way through. When Sturmhond appears in the books, he quickly makes his way into your heart, and I can say that it’s the exact same way in Netflix’s adaptation. With more power, though, comes more conflict – between who you want to be and who you’re supposed to become. Both Alina, and, later, Nikolai (Patrick Gibson) will have to learn that the hard way.

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Lewis Tan as Tolya and Anna Leong Brophy as Tamar in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone (COURTESY: Netflix)

Two unsurprising standouts this season were Tolya (Lewis Tan) and Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy). They’ve been some of my favorite characters in the books, and they came into the show fully developed and ready to steal hearts. The chemistry between Tan and Leong Brophy is phenomenal. Tolya’s love of food and poetry make him the ultimate man written by women, and there’s this great food lovers connection between Tolya and Nina (Danielle Galligan) that made me lose it completely. On the other hand, Tamar is just the embodiment of badassery, and her queerness is the cherry on top.

On the other end of this journey we have the abuser, Aleksander (Ben Barnes), who also managed to survive the Fold. Old habits die hard, and they return tenfold when you come back to life. The Darkling returns with a vengeance, his greed for power having only grown as his use of Merzost has created powerful shadow monsters, nichevo’ya, that cannot be killed by Grisha or otkazat’sya. However, the power Aleksander has acquired came at a very steep price: his life. He doesn’t have long to live; out of the desire to reclaim Alina as his own, he seeks out imprisoned Grisha to rebuild his Second Army.

There’s nothing redeemable about Aleksander as a character, but Ben Barnes does an incredible job of playing a man with nothing and everything to lose. Aleksander’s need to control everything unravels him as his own children cannot be bent to his will and he tries desperately to torment Alina through their shared connection due to the Stag. I do think that the Darkling’s Grisha army was incredibly dull. The characters working for him were just stereotypical bad guys. They came across as cringy and almost too YA, to the point where they felt like caricatures of their opponents. It was as if Shadow and Bone couldn’t be bothered with nuanced reasons for their allegiance and settled on giving them goth-ish looks complimented by almost witch-like laughs. 

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Danielle Galligan as Nina Zenik, Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker, Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa, Kit Young as Jesper Fahey, and Jack Wolfe as Wylan in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Season 2 (COURTESY: Netflix)

To the south, we reconnect with our favorite band of thieves as they return to Ketterdam to find their entire world turned upside down. The Crow club now belongs to Kaz Brekker’s (Freddy Carter) rival Pekka Rollins (Dean Lennox Kelly), who has also set them up with false murder charges. Show Kaz has always come across as a not-fully-developed Dirtyhands. It’s as though we’re watching him become the demjin we all know and hate to love through this show. His emotional outbursts and the mistakes they engender come across as contradictory to who Kaz actually is. The problem with an underdeveloped Kaz is that because he’s the plan maker, leader, and visionary, if he’s not on top of his game, his crew won’t get to shine, either.

Kaz’s vision is blurred by revenge (and if you’ve read the books, you know how much of a payoff this is after Six of Crows). In the Shadow and Bone books, Kaz is always smart enough to mess with Pekka Rollins in small ways – to, in his words, destroy Pekka’s empire “brick by brick.” But in the Netflix series, Kaz appears to have lost his ability to think a hundred steps ahead. He lets his raw emotions cloud his judgment, and, in a completely out-of-character move, destroys the Crow Club that he spent so much time building simply because he didn’t want Pekka to have it. While I do understand Kaz’s reasoning behind, he’s never been one to start a fire he doesn’t know how to put out, control, or bend to his will. And because Kaz comes across as a disorganized fool, so too do Inej, Jesper (Kit Young) – and, later, Nina and Wylan (Jack Wolfe). 

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Freddy Carter as Kaz Brekker, and Amita Suman as Inej Ghafa in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Season 2 (COURTESY: Netflix)

In the first half of Shadow and Bone Season 2, the Crows manage to do everything from Crooked Kingdom without having gone on the Ice Court job, sans Kuwei or jurda parem. The result is incredibly underwhelming. The brawl that Kaz instigates to regain control of the Dregs is lowered in scale drastically; what in the books is an impressive feat is here nothing more than a small footnote in their “elaborate” plan to clear their names and best Pekka. I still believe it was a complete disservice to cram the Crows into the series, given that they are easily the most interesting characters in the Grishaverse.

There were also moments in Season 2 when I found myself beyond confused by the reasoning that led the Crows to the middle of an outright Grisha war. Characters are reconnecting after being apart for some time, but it doesn’t feel like a satisfying reunion. My continuing hope for Shadow and Bone Season 3 is that the Crows finally get a much-needed glow up – especially Kaz Brekker. He needs to be elevated to his rightful status as a cunning mastermind who isn’t afraid to get his gloves dirty. 

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Archie Renaux as Malyen Oretsev, and Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov in Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Season 2 (COURTESY: Netflix)

Shadow and Bone is a phenomenal series. If it weren’t for the even better books, I would only sing praise. As an adaptation, though, it does leave me wanting more. At least, it did until Season 2 finale. The last half hour of Episode 8 brought me back to life and reignited my love for the entire series and each of these characters. Until then, the adaptation’s executive decision to combine all of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books into one show made zero sense. But when I saw the clever character pairings it set up for Season 3, the plan clicked into place for me. Between the changes to Alina’s ending and her entering her Reputation era, the Six of Crows and King of Scars set up, and Mal’s new life – I finally get it.

And I await Season 3 with impatience, fervor, and excitement. 

Rating: 8/10

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