Into the Badlands promised sweet as hell action and delivered with bloody, elegantly choreographed Kill Bill and The Raid-esque brutality in the premiere episode, “The Fort.”
But hiding in plain sight is a very accessible, easy-to-understand power struggle with the build of a soap opera brewing at the center. Believe it or not, Into the Badlands is a show whose gory action might actually take a backseat to story.
Luring viewers in with action and keeping them with compelling characters has been the M.O. of AMC’s other genre series The Walking Dead and the king of all genre today, Game of Thrones. But neither show ever made any pretense they would tap into preconceived grindhouse or fantasy conventions for long. You knew at some point they’d do some Emmy-worthy shit. The ads for Into the Badlands promised a whole season of grindhouse pizzazz with little resembling anything of King Lear.
The premiere episode, “The Fort,” is like King Lear with katanas.
At the tippy top of Into the Badlands’ feudal hierarchy is Quinn, played by Marton Csokas. He’s the Baron of his slice of the Badlands and commands the strongest Clipper army — loyal soldiers outfitted in his crimson gang colors — while possessing production of the most potent resource in the new apocalypse: opium.
But his household is falling apart.
Quinn’s marriage to Lydia (Orla Brady) has become fragile and his infatuation with a younger woman, Jade, threatens Lydia’s pride and dignity. Their son Ryder is an arrogant prick and a disappointment who instills zero confidence that he could succeed daddy’s place. He’s eager to lead an invasion of a rival Baron, The Widow (Emily Beecham), and butts heads with Daniel Wu’s Sunny, Quinn’s best swordsman whom he considers more of a son than Ryder. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Sunny has broken the Clipper oath and impregnated a beautiful speciality doctor, Veil (Madeleine Mantock), prompting him to dream of freedom outside the Badlands.
Meanwhile, The Widow seeks a young boy who has arrived in the Badlands and is said to wield unparalleled power which The Widow wants to use to topple Quinn. That’s M.K. (Aramis Knight), who was held prisoner by traffickers until Sunny rescued him. Taken in by Quinn, he finds kinship with Sunny and he’ll be trained by him. In just 40 minutes Sunny went from taking care of himself to caring for three, all while trying to secretly escape the clutches of the Barons.
And the cherry on top of this soap opera sundae: Jade is cheating on Quinn, with Ryder.
In its first hour Into the Badlands showed rich characters and dynamic relationships that contextualize the awesome action. But don’t mistake Into the Badlands as worthy of an Emmy just yet. It may be a few notches more exciting and better choreographed than Game of Thrones per diem — each episode of Badlands guarantees action set-pieces that Thrones has a few times per season — but Thrones still takes the crown for smarter, more artistic political science. Into the Badlands’ political landscape is less nuanced by a wide margin, and it’s not as morally gray as it thinks it is. If Game of Thrones is a master’s degree in poli-sci, Badlands is a high school textbook summary.
But so much could go wrong, and like a good soap opera you’ll want to find out what’s next. What’s Lydia planning? What will happen to Ryder when his father finds out his son is sleeping with his lover? Will he do the same to Veil when he finds out Sunny has broken his oath? And would any of it matter if M.K., who has escaped Quinn’s compound, winds up as a weapon of destruction for The Widow? And what will the shared history between M.K. and Sunny reveal?
Lots of questions for next week. Lots of action for right now.