Comic book fans will likely recognize the names Miles Millar and Alfred Gough from their roles as co-creators and executive producers on the the Superman television series, “Smallville.” The creative duo teamed up with producers Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg, Stephen Fung and Daniel Wu to bring “Into the Badlands” one of the most interesting and entertaining martial arts series to television. Premiering on AMC in the winter of 2015, “Into the Badlands” brought a decidedly different take on the post-apocalyptic genre of storytelling.
The second season of the show, which will be 10 episodes, recently began airing in March and given that the first season is also available on Netflix, now is the perfect time to catch up with the series. To that end here are 15 reasons we think you should be watching “Into the Badlands.”
15. REALISTIC GORE
Television shows have long sanitized the results of their violence for broadcast television. The birth of first cable and then streaming programming has allowed creators to portray a higher level of violence and gore in their shows. Often, since they can go further, they use gore that is gratuitous and unnecessary for the stories, devolving into being little more than torture porn. Not every show needs to be as bloody as “Dexter” or as violent as “Game of Thrones.” Even AMC’s flagship series “The Walking Dead” often goes above and beyond with the gore because they can get away with it based on the conflict between zombies and humans.
“Into the Badlands” presents a world full of melee weapons and a relative peace maintained by forces of warriors. By nature, this story is going to revolve heavily around the violence that results from the rival factions coming into conflict. There is plenty of blood in the series, but it is realistic in the depiction of damage that the weapons used could do. When the show lingers on a scene of blood and gore, it does so for a reason like with Veil’s parents in the episode “Fist Like a Bullet.”
14. BEST FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY ON TV
If you are going to hang your hat on being a martial arts series, then you need to do it right. Bringing in Hong Kong film veterans like Stephen Fung to co-executive produce and Daniel Wu to produce and star in the series was a great start, but the real secret may be the addition of martial arts coordinator Huan-Chiu Ku. The crew under the leadership of Ku, who is nicknamed Master Didi takes a different approach to the series’ fight choreography, running two production teams simultaneously a “drama unit” and a “fight unit.” This two-track production approach allows the fight unit to spend up to eight days filming the fight sequences for each episode.
Ku has the actors learn and film the fight sequences in short segments of 10-12 moves, this allows them to not have to memorize long sequences that can feel over rehearsed. The result of this approach is an impressive level of explosive fight scenes throughout the series.
13. SHORT FIRST SEASON
The first season aired in 2015 from November through December and yes that is not a typo. Season one consisted of only six episodes, which is short even for what fans have become accustomed to in this sort of limited series format. At under 45 minutes for each episode, that means you can catch up on season one in a pretty manageable four and a half hour binge session.
For fans who watched season one as it aired, this means that there was a really long wait for new episodes from December 2015 until March 2017, but for folks who are just now discovering the series, it is great news. With very little effort, you will be able to catch up on season one and the early episodes of season two before we reach the 10th and final episode of season two. If you did watch the first season before, this also lends the season to easy re-watching as a refresher before you start season two.
Diversity is a hot topic in entertainment right now and “Into the Badlands” handles this issue deftly. Set at an unspecified point far in the future, the series features a diverse cast of actors and actresses. The young lead character M.K. is played by Aramis Knight who has a mixed ethnic heritage of German, East Indian and Pakistani, while the adult lead of Sunny is played by Daniel Wu who is Chinese-American. This diversity extends to the rest of the cast as the female doctor Veil (Madeleine Mantock), the River King (Lance E. Nichols) and the Baron Jacobee are all played by actors of color. Disability is also addressed with the wheelchair bound character of Waldo played by actor Stephen Lang.
Each barony features a mixtures of races and sexes, though the Widow’s features a much higher percentage of women. The show doesn’t spend a great deal of time dealing with the racial or ethnic diversity that it portrays on screen, but it does for story reasons address both gender and physical handicap rather explicitly. The show handles these issues in a way that doesn’t take you out of the story, it all seems to fit well within the universe of the show.
11. LIVED IN UNIVERSE
Houses, cars, motorcycles and other technology has survived in the Badlands but the ability to advance and mass produce technological items seems to have been lost to the ages. From medicine to agriculture, even to societal structure, everything seems like a throwback to an earlier ages in world history. There remains bits and pieces of modern society that seem almost anachronistic in the world, from plastic chairs stacked in the background to Waldo’s tin of collectibles that includes a green plastic army man.
Weapons and possessions of the Barons seem very well maintained and cared for but there is very little in this world that feels new. A real-world parallel is old automobiles in Cuba and how they are kept in use. This approach to technology allows for a production design that makes a large portion of the Badlands world recognizable without having to spend narrative time explaining what and how certain things exist.
10. THE PARADISE MYSTERY
There are two central and related mysteries in the series, the first comes in the form of the mysterious place known as Azra. A city or possibly a larger area that is rumored to exist outside of the Badlands, and is believed to be the home of M.K. and other people who possess special abilities. M.K.’s motivation in the first season is to escape the Badlands and find a way to get to a home he doesn’t really remember.
Three of the main characters in the series have an item with the shining city of Azra depicted on it, M.K., Sunny and the Widow. M.K. possesses a medallion with the image, Sunny a compass and the Widow a book. Whether this place really exists or if it is a mythological place akin to the lost kingdom of Atlantis is yet to be explained. The search for a way to Azra will likely be a plot point that continues through most of the series.
9. THE SECRET POWER MYSTERY
The second major mystery is the exact nature and origin of M.K.’s special powers. When M.K. is cut deep enough to bleed, his eyes turn black and he loses control. He becomes a one-man wrecking crew possessing superhuman strength, agility and fighting skills. With seemingly no control over his actions and little memory of what happens after he is cut, the power is as much a mystery to M.K. as it is to those around him.
The transformation is only temporary, however, and eventually M.K. reverts back to normal, except that after each use, he is physically exhausted and weakened. The Widow hints at some knowledge of the power and as the first season goes on, we learn more and more about it. There is also Penrith played by Lance Henriksen: a religious leader unaligned with any Baron and the estranged father-in-law to the Baron Quinn. Penrith has some knowledge about these special powers but the extent of his knowledge is not revealed. The first season ends with a promise of more exploration of this power in season two.
8. SOAP OPERA WITH SWORDS
“Into the Badlands” balances the heavy doses of action with a large cast of characters arraigned in a complex web of relationships. Romantic entanglements are all over the place and characters have conflicting duties between what they may want and what they are duty bound to do on behalf of their Barons. There are also relationships and back channels between the Baron’s chief deputies, the Regents like Sunny and Zephyr who represent Quinn and Jacobee respectively.
In season one the biggest drama centers around Quinn, his two current wives Lydia and Jade and his son Ryder. To say the family dynamics here are complicated would be an understatement. Quinn is an unforgiving Baron who controls his territory through violence and fear. His relationship history with Lydia is long and complicated while his relationship with Jade is fresher and more invigorating. Ryder’s closeness to his mother and relationship with Jade further complicates everything and helps fuels one of the major plots of the first season. All of this relationship drama would fit right in on any daytime soap opera.
7. LESS IS MORE WORLDBUILDING
Television shows often get in trouble when they attempt to create overly elaborate worlds. Worldbuilding that’s this elaborate takes lots of screen time and dialogue, expository and info dump after info dump gets in the way of both plot and character development in a show. This approach can also create a barrier of entry for viewers who don’t watch every episode but it can also fail with dedicated viewers when the show doesn’t pay off for some elements or simply ignores rules of the world that have been created.
The beauty of “Into the Badlands” is that it does enough world building to orient you, but doesn’t get bogged down in it. The opening narration to the series basically says it all: “The wars were so long ago nobody even remembers. Darkness and fear ruled until the time of the Barons, seven men and women who forged order out of chaos. People flocked to them for protection. That protection became servitude. They banished guns and trained armies of lethal fighters they called Clippers. This world is built on blood. Nobody is innocent here. Welcome to the Badlands.”
6. FATE VERSUS CHOICE
We enter the Badlands very much in media res. Baron Quinn is thinking about the future of his rule, the Widow has deposed her husband and taken his place as a Baron, M.K. bursts onto the scene and an already volatile situation is ignited. There are undercurrents of shifting power in the Badlands as allegiances are up for grabs and a new generation is feeling ready to take more control.
One of the central themes that these conflicts explore is the idea of fate versus choice, do you have control over your own destiny or are you a slave to it. In their own ways, almost every character in the series has to wrestle with this question. Tilda has to wrestle with her duty to her mother versus her feelings for a new acquaintance. Ryder needs to wrestle with his duty to his father versus his hunger for power. But the clearest example is Sunny and whether his role as Regent is all he is ever fated to be or can he have more can he have his own free life.
5. MENTOR-PROTEGE RELATIONSHIP
The Barons enforce their rule through the power of their Clippers, a class of warriors trained in both fighting and loyalty from youth. These Clippers begin as Colts, the Colts are the young initiates who the Barons select to begin the training. A Colt is taken by a Clipper as an apprentice to be given individual training outside of the group training that occurs.
When Sunny discovers the unusual powers that M.K. possesses, he takes him as his Colt, a move that is unusual for Sunny and raises the attention of Baron Quinn. The relationship between Sunny and M.K. is one that builds throughout the season, Sunny is conflicted between his duties to the Baron and to his protege, while M.K. unsure of how much he can trust his new mentor. Both characters have something they need from the other, but are slow to trust in a relationship. This dynamic is really the heart of the show’s first season.
4. STRONG CORE CAST
Season one introduces us to a large cast of characters such as Sunny (Daniel Wu), M.K. (Aramis Knight), Quinn (Marton Csokas), Ryder (Oliver Stark), Lydia (Orla Brady), Jade (Sarah Bolger), the Widow (Emily Beecham), her daughter Tilda (Ally Ioannides), and Veil (Madeleine Mantock). We also get a bunch of very interesting secondary characters such as Penrith (Lance Henriksen), Waldo (Stephen Lang) and Zephyr (Ellen Hollman) who help populate the world. In the second season, actor Nick Frost is introduced as Bajie and is a welcome addition to the cast.
The performances are strong across the board, but Beecham and Ioannides in particular as the Widow and Tilda deliver tremendous performances. The Widow possesses a history that is hinted at and a fighting skill that rivals Sunny, Beecham plays her as cunning and ruthless. Tilda is extremely capable but not as scarred as her mother, Ioannides players her in a way that shows some trace of innocence remains within this fierce killer. Both ladies deliver in the drama and action departments and serve as a great counterpoint to the work of Wu and Knight.
3. NO ONE IS A PURE HERO
In a world as harsh as the Badlands, it seems nearly impossible for anyone to remain pure. The characters on the show are ones who inhabit a moral grey area simply as a necessary means of survival. Quinn rose up from a youth in the poppy fields, but now brutally enforces his rule, Sunny ritually tattoos himself after each kill and the Widow killed her own husband.
Even the characters who you think could or should be heroic commit morally questionable acts or have checkered pasts. Veil is a doctor and in a loving relationship with Sunny, but she is not above directly poisoning or at least suggesting the poisoning of people. M.K., the relative innocent youth at the center of the story, has killed and has willingly used his dark power even though he doesn’t fully control it and knows it can lead to horrible results. Everyone is enshrouded by the darkness of the Badlands and this makes for a very interesting storytelling.
2. SWORDS AND MORE SWORDS AND NINJA STARS
The world of the Badlands sets up a reality where guns are no longer used. This absence of firearms allows for a return of weapons predominant in earlier eras of history, such as swords, axes, knives and throwing stars. The most common weapon among the elite classes are swords that feature unique designs applied to traditional styles of weapons.
The Widow wields a modified Chinese double jain, which is an ancient design featuring a double edged straight blade of around 30″ in length. These swords are very lightweight and wielded with a one-handed technique, and can fit two swords in one scabbard. Tilda is most known for her modified throwing stars that are in the shape of a butterfly. These butterfly shuriken are perhaps the most beautiful weapons on the show. Sunny wields two swords in season one — a longer modified katana and a shorter modified wakizashi — and he can wield the long sword alone or both swords together when he is facing multiple opponents.
1. DANIEL WU
Every show needs a star and even though “Into the Badlands” has a great cast of actors, it is indisputable that the star of the show is Daniel Wu. The California-born actor has parents who immigrated from Shanghai, China. He visited Hong Kong in 1997 and began modeling there, which led to acting and a career in the Chinese film industry.
While the majority of his career is outside of Hollywood, he did play Gul’dan in “Warcraft: The Beginning” and has a role in the forthcoming “Tomb Raider” reboot. For many fans, “Into the Badlands” will be their first exposure to Wu as an actor and it is easy to see why he is so popular overseas. He is a dynamic actor whose real martial arts skills shine through and has even earned him the respect and friendship of fellow martial arts star Jackie Chan. Daniel Wu possesses all the qualities to have a huge second act of his career in America.
Are you watching “Into the Badlands?” Let us know what your take on it is in the comments!