It’s Over 9000
Into The Badlands is back for season two — and it’s anime as fuck. AMC’s original genre-bending martial arts drama felt experimental when it first aired in 2015, a tribute to executive producer Daniel Wu’s love of Jet Li movies and Japanese action animation. Now, after a 15 month hiatus perfecting its special techniques, Badlands is more confident, more colourful, more eccentric, more comedic, and much more violent. Characters still speak with deadpan cartoonish energy, boasting of their own lethal prowess as they periodically divulge the histories of legendary places, people, and obscure politics. Which is to say, it still watches like a live action anime, only somehow even moreso this time around.
The super-stylized aesthetic of Into The Badlands still seems jarring when compared to other shows that trade in violence. The show speaks its own stylistic language made from its pulpy influences. It purposefully deviates from tired old shorthands for prestige television established by mediocre shows seeking to be the next Breaking Bad, and if you are willing to allow Badlands to confidently tell its story the way it wants to, then you will be rewarded with a beautiful, bloody dance that is just not available elsewhere on TV.
Everything fans loved about the original episodes is here: the high octane kung fu choreography, the straight-faced melodrama, the hyper-violence, and the high-as-heaven concept. The camera work framing the show’s myriad action sequences elevates Sunny, M.K., Tilda, The Widow, and the rest of the show’s dramatic personae to operatic levels of archetype rarely pulled off in live action TV, and even less commonly with original characters. Into The Badlands is still very much the same show it was in 2015, but bigger, better fleshed out, and more confident in tone.
We rejoin Sunny (Daniel Wu), after the cliffhanger of last season has already been resolved. The most lethal clipper in the Badlands is now outside of the titular region, sold into slave labour as a miner in an ancient landfill. He is chained to a fellow prisoner, Bajie (Nick Frost), and immediately begins to hatch an escape plan. He is driven to make his way back (dare I say it?) into the Badlands, and reunite with his romantic partner Veil (Madeleine Mantock) and their newborn child.
Sunny’s protege M.K. (Aramis Knight), meanwhile, is in a secret temple for youth with hidden mystical powers. He is training to control the darkness of mass destruction within him—a mysterious force that bubbles to the surface any time he bleeds and results in the brutal dismemberment of any poor souls in his vicinity. Here, M.K. meets other students of mass destruction and encounters the incredibly powerful master of the temple, who is magical, immune to the dark-powers of the children, and can use origami paper crafts as weapons.
Back in the Badlands, The Widow (Emily Beecham) continues to wage a campaign of liberation against her fellow barons, using her signature two-sharp-swords method of diplomacy to free slaves and conquer territory.
There are a lot of moving pieces, and while separating the main cast might at first seem like folly, the first few episodes of season two make excellent use of an opportunity to build out the show’s speculative setting. The master and students of the temple deepen the magic systems at play, The Widow’s story line further defines the show’s political landscape, and Sunny’s journey with Bajie goes toward exploring the actual space of the series’ Midwestern wasteland. Frost’s character in particular, a former opium smuggler, also brings a welcome dose of humour to the proceedings beyond the layer of irony through which Badlands is best watched. Playing the irreverent goofball wise guy to Sunny’s lethal straight man, Bajie brings out a new side of the show’s stoic protagonist while also offering the perspective of an outsider to the mythology.
The result of all of this universe-expansion is a feeling of tangible history to characters and places which grounds the fantasy so that the show’s constant life and death stakes have weight. It’s proof that the fun genre-jargon and pretty production design isn’t just a fancy facade, but is actually built on a foundation of story.
All of the world building and character exploration of this season is stitched together with thread of non-stop action that feels like it ought to be impossible for a cable TV drama. Where the first season often felt like the drama of each episode was built around one or two big action set pieces, the show is now in near-constant motion. The showstopping set pieces are still there, and they are glorious, but in between them are smaller fights and stunts that are no less impressive.
The series’ martial arts coordinator is Huan-Chiu Ku (Master Dee Dee), who famously worked on Tai Chi Master and Kill Bill, and his pedigree is on full display. The actors are doing most of their own stunts, performing fight sequences that feel organic in motion without sacrificing flash and dramatic flare. The camera frames it all in a way that shows off the show’s influences. The samurai western, Shonen anime, 90s kung fu flicks, Mad Max, even Street Fighter are all recalled by the show’s robust visual language that by the third episode of this season comes to feel like an epic poem written in punches and kicks.
While epic might be an overused word when it comes to describing action media, I mean it in a true sense in reference to Into The Badlands. The various elements that made it unique and eccentric have come together so that we are learning the history of a new nation, following the path of legendary heroes, and even at moments being moved to inspiration, all the while being entertained, jaws on the floor in amazement. The only prerequisite is that you let that story be told on its own terms — you have to watch it like an anime.
Into the Badlands Season 2 premieres Sunday, March 19 at 10:00p.m. ET/PT on AMC.