Shadow and Bone Season 2 is Even More Game of Thrones and Even More Romantic
The Netflix series may be growing up, but it's leaning heavily on its YA roots.
Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse YA series, is scratching two main itches for its audience. First, it’s an epic fantasy with complex intrigue, filling the Game of Thrones void that in 2023 is now joined by a House of the Dragon void. But it’s also the story of a humble girl who finds herself in a magic world after she’s revealed to be The Chosen One, a very familiar story for a post-Harry-Potter post-Hunger-Games generation.
In Season 2, the series delivers once again, amping up both aspects of Season 1 that made it successful and growing the series into more than just a Game of Thrones and Harry Potter successor — but something entirely new itself.
Season 1 of the series did all the hard work. It established the world of Ravka, torn in two by a mystical dark cloud full of terrifying creatures. It established Grisha, the people blessed with magical gifts like controlling elements, healing, manipulating hearts, even metallurgy. Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li,) once a humble cartographer, is revealed to be the mythical Sun Summoner, and her powers are put at odds with Kirigan, aka The Darkling (Ben Barnes, perfecting his brooding game).
Season 2 picks up where Season 1 left off — Alina is on the run with her best friend and faithful companion Mal (Archic Renaux) and as they try to run from the enemies they’ve created they embark on a much grander adventure looking for “amplifiers” to boost Alina’s sun powers. This kingdom-hopping is shown through cuts to a map, an interesting nod to Alina’s cartographer past.
But these map framing shots are more than just a motif from Alina’s past — it’s also a handy device to handle the biggest flaw in the series. The action of this series is now spread across multiple storylines, each entirely unrelated to the other. In one storyline, Alina and Mal are on the hunt for amplifiers with Nikolai Lantsov (the immediately charming Patrick Gibson), the rogueish pirate prince much anticipated by fans of the book. In another, The Darkling tries to regain his power after a devastating loss that’s resulted in some great supervillain facial scars. In yet another storyline, the gang of Crows plan heist after heist.
Though these plotlines eventually do intersect, there’s no unifying theme for each episode across the series, so the result is a soap-opera-style hodgepodge of stories. It’s the same issue Game of Thrones ran into pretty much instantly, and it’s nothing the show could have avoided — it’s simply part and parcel with telling an epic tale.
But while Shadow and Bone may have stumbled into using a soap opera structure, it very deliberately takes another element from the genre: romance tropes. From the very first episode when Mal and Alina charter a boat and find there’s only one bed, it’s clear this series isn’t afraid to lean on the YA romance a little harder than Season 1.
There is a veritable harbor’s worth of ships, ranging from an engagement of convenience, friends-to-lovers, doomed lovers, dark-cloud-and-sunshine, old lovers, and lots and lots of yearning. That’s not even mentioning the strange psychic bond between Alina and the Darkling that screams Rey and Kylo.
It’s fortuitous that this season covers the search for amplifiers, because every element of Shadow and Bone Season 2 turns up the volume. Magic is now more important, action is more heartracing, stakes are higher, and losses are more (but not always) permanent. It’s also clear there’s still room to turn things up to 11 — the series ends with a terrifying cliffhanger that changes everything.
Shadow and Bone may be growing up, but it’s not in a go-to-college-do-your-taxes way. Instead, it’s showing self-awareness in its own adolescence, admitting that it can handle serious matters but also embracing its own love for romantic tension and smooching.
It’s late-stage Game of Thrones, but it’s also late-stage Buffy the Vampire Slayer too — and neither side overpowers the other. In a post-YA franchise world, this sophomore season may be the closest thing we have to a successor, and it couldn’t be better equipped for 2023 audiences.