According to the dystopian future of AMC’s Into the Badlands, we can look forward to more mascara for men, kilts, and polygamy. But, there’s also a touch of wuxia. It’s that last part that elevates Into the Badlands’ story, which is based ever so slightly on the Chinese tale Journey to the West. Like that story, the badlands are controlled by seven ruthless feudal barons who, if Marton Csokas’ Quinn and Emily Beecham’s The Widow are any indication, are really into the costumed styling of 18th century stage plays.
Everything about Into the Badlands is over-the-top, and to its credit, that does make it interesting. AMC has pushed its new series hard as a companion to The Walking Dead, and regarding its brutality and gore, it fits. Also like The Walking Dead, the story is about wanderers — who aren’t so by choice — searching, and hoping against hope that a place exists somewhere with peace, and offers more than the chaotic horror of their current lives.
Administrating some of that horror in this story is Sunny (Daniel Wu), who is Baron Quinn’s “Clipper,” a kind of sergeant within his army of fighters who protects the Baron’s interests. The show wisely kicks off with Sunny destroying a whole encampment of nomads, because it highlights the series’ fighting style that is refreshingly and unmistakably Eastern in its flourishes and slightly mystical hyper-realism. Sunny is renown as a loyal and feared killer, but when his lover gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby (punishable by death), Sunny starts to reconsider his position and tap into his deeper humanity, looking for an escape for his family.
All of this comes, conveniently of course, at the same time that a young nomad called M.K. (Aramis Knight) stumbles onto the scene. Coming from a place outside of the badlands, he is the series’ Chosen One, with special fighting powers that make him a target for both Baron Quinn and The Widow, who see his potential. But a connection to an unexpected shared past makes Sunny and others protective of M.K., and the mystery of his powers (as well as the promise of a “city beyond”) is the show’s driving force.
All of this is familiar (the special child, the stoic warrior, the unhinged warlord) if still archetypically good stuff, but it’s Wu who gives Into the Badlands a heart, and the show’s unique styling makes the rest intriguing enough to want to stick with, even when it it falters. At its best, Into the Badlands feels like a mishmash of a steampunk Western and a wuxia tale, with a comicbook aesthetic (even though it’s not based on one). Yet …
These elements should add up to something fantastic, but for every step forward Into the Badlands takes (there’s a particularly interesting arc about The Widow’s cultivation of a kickass squad of female warriors), its focus on action and style leave most of its characters too one-dimensional and not particularly compelling (Wu, again, is the exception). Further, the show’s preoccupation with shock and violence (there’s a dead child shown within the first few minutes of the series, which really sets a stage) seems artificially ratcheted up to appeal to fans of more hardcore television. But Into the Badlands doesn’t need it. In its second episode, a brutal killing takes place off screen, and it’s all the more powerful because of it.
Ultimately, despite some of its larger flaws, Into the Badlands seems worth pursuing — if just for Wu and the strength of the show’s choreography. Its story is a bit of a slow burn, though the violence unfolds in quick bursts. And yet, it’s stylized in a way that highlights its biggest (and occasionally most gruesome) moments in a visually interesting way. Life is desperate in the badlands, and it’s desperate for TV watchers looking for a sign of something that will shake up the creative landscape and provide intrigue. We’re still fighting in the badlands with this one, but there’s also an undeniable glimmer of hope.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Into the Badlands premieres Sunday, November 15th on AMC after The Walking Dead.