Sword fights, intrigue, superpowers, and opium. These are the cornerstones of Into the Badlands, the new and intriguing dystopian martial arts drama on AMC, which is very loosely based on the classic Chinese tale Journey to the West. For a network that has produced such hit shows as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead, a foray into the martial arts genre is an interesting choice. Into the Badlands is a story of a man and his charge journeying, against all odds, in search of both escape from their pasts and enlightenment into the true nature of what surrounds them. And that is a tale I very much want to watch unfold in this grim, ruthless expanse of a possible future.
The world of Into the Badlands seems simple enough at first. There are seven feudal overlords, known as barons, who train elite martial arts units called “clippers,” enforcers of order in the region. These barons arose after a period of never-ending war, taking control and offering a peaceful life to the inhabitants of the land. But even as they began as protectors, their power soon turned them into enslavers. The star of the show, Sunny (Daniel Wu), is a clipper for the Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas) who is essentially an opium kingpin. All of the inhabitants are told that there is no world beyond the Badlands, but there are signs this may not be true.
The pilot opens with Sunny riding on his motorcycle through the poppy fields. He sees a caravan that has been overturned and all its occupants executed. This horrific scene gives us our first sense of the show’s graphic nature: bodies display slit throats and faces bear frozen expressions of pain. Sunny discovers a smoke plume in the distance and walks into a nomad camp. Naturally the nomads do not take kindly to him, and immediately a fight ensues. At this point the show completely embraces its dark portrayal of violence and we are overcome with the sounds of cracking bones and twisting limbs. The fight choreography is nothing short of breathtaking, filmed expertly for maximum impact with realistic sound editing. Having a background myself in Taekwondo and fencing, I appreciate the style of fighting the creators deftly showcase. While the battles are clearly theatrical, there is far less showboating than in typical television fight sequences. Death comes painfully but quickly, and the sequences are not extended beyond what is reasonable.
Upon defeating the nomads, Sunny opens a chest they had stolen and finds a boy of unknown origins, who, he soon learns, is wanted by another of the Barons, The Widow (Emily Beecham). Sunny takes the boy, M.K. (Aramis Knight), back to Quinn’s fort and submits him for training as a clipper. It quickly becomes apparent that there is something special about this boy and that the show will follow both him and Sunny as they strive to learn what is beyond the Badlands. Only time will tell if the subplots involving struggles among the Barons will become as intriguing as this main storyline.
The cinematography is beautiful, from intimate close-ups of the characters to sweeping landscapes capturing a sense of place. The brilliant colors from the poppy fields are a welcome, colorful addition to the otherwise neutral palate of this dystopian future. While the environment is incredibly believable, the same cannot be said for the acting. The actors have room for improvement as they become more comfortable with their characters. Daniel Wu in particular comes off a little stiff, but, given how other AMC shows have grown into themselves, I am confident the acting will get better. The plot is a bit shallow in the first episode; plot development initially takes a back seat to establishing background and setting as the show introduces viewers to a new world. And what a world it is. The Badlands of Into the Badlands is currently the most interesting aspect of the show.
This was by far one of the most enjoyable pilots I have watched during the Fall 2015 premier season. Was it perfect? Far from it, but where it had weaknesses it also showed great potential for growth. What have I learned from watching AMC dramas? Never pass judgment on them too soon.
Grade: B+ Give it a chance, AMC network rarely lets its viewers down.
Rating: TV-MA Because apparently when you slit someone’s throat, people are shocked by the blood.
Into the Badlands, Sundays 10/9C, AMC