By: Gwynn Van Houten
The latest show in AMC’s lineup, Into the Badlands, aims to fill a void that appeared before comic book lovers when The Walking Dead proved to be a poor adaptation of its source, for better or for worse. This original post-apocalyptic action series, based loosely on 16th-century-Chinese novel Journey to the West, is a kind of neo-noir, sci-fi Western with distinctly Eastern influence. It’s Mad Max with a Southern setting and everyone kung fu fighting. And so far, this combination is working.
In summary, an as-of-now nondescript war wiped out most of civilization, leaving it in a rather archaic, hierarchy-based state, for some reason. In the Badlands, seven Barons govern affairs and own plantations along with legions of slaves. Also under the Barons’ command are Clippers, assassins trained in martial arts who have vowed undying loyalty to their masters’ interests. Our protagonist, Sunny (Daniel Wu), is a dual katana-wielding Clipper servicing a powerful Baron, Quinn, in charge of a poppy plantation. He’s cold and pretty devoid of personality, but understandably so: he happens to be the deadliest Clipper in the Badlands, evidenced by the amount of tally marks inked into his back, each representing a kill.
Still, Sunny isn’t heartless as early on, he rescues a boy, M.K., who was taken from his homeland and kidnapped by nomads. Sunny helps him train to be a Clipper and avoid capture by The Widow, another Baron, who’s after him for a supernatural ability he possesses: superhuman reflexes, bestowed on him whenever he begins to bleed, though this doesn’t last for more than a minute.
The show’s cinematography is fantastic, being closer to what you’d expect from a movie than a TV series. The vibrant, contrasting hues seem odd for a post-apocalyptic story (especially when compared to the solemn grays of Walking Dead) but indeed give the show the quality of something lifted from a comic. The awesome opening animation, featuring music by Mike Shinoda, certainly bolsters this vibe.
Within minutes of the pilot, it becomes brilliantly obvious as to what the show’s selling point is: its fight scenes. For reasons unknown (like a lot of things in Badlands), guns are banned, but that’s OK. What we do have are witty, over-the-top, extremely Matrix-esque martial arts/sword fights, complete with the occasional slow motion sequence and side-scrolling camera angles. It’s entirely unrealistic, but fun to watch and the kind of thing people love to geek over.
But that’s not to say Badlands doesn’t have its own slew of issues. Dialogue is rather bland and riddled with all the clichés of gritty action scripts. The drama is also standard fare at best for a show of its type — the Barons and their families are at odds with one another, kind of like Game of Thrones but with less intrigue and no throne. And before we really get to know her, Sunny’s love interest, Veil, a citizen, is revealed to be pregnant, which is — surprise! — going to prove itself to be a complication for Sunny’s loyalties in the future. Quinn himself is married to two women (which is normal, even encouraged, here), the younger of which has also seduced his son (uh-oh). This family becomes so horrendously dysfunctional that scenes featuring only them seem to move slower than molasses; there’s just no reason to care about them. Thankfully, the main cast isn’t without excellent female characters, but they seem pretty scarce in the story’s world and many of them come across as manipulative and scheming. I suppose that’s understandable, though, considering the backwards society they live in.
Still, the show’s drama element seriously needs to improve in order to suit its bold style and worldbuilding.
But in the end, Into the Badlands is a good supplement for fans of comics, anime, and cheesy martial arts movies. It’s also refreshing to see an Asian-American with a leading role in a Western program. And while it won’t earn the accolades of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or The Walking Dead, it guarantees to be one thrilling ride.