In East Ravka, Alina Starkov is a cartographer who is reunited with her childhood friend Mal Oretsev. Mal is chosen to be a part of the team who will cross the Fold, an extremely dangerous journey as the Fold swarms with flying monsters named Volcra. Unwilling to be separated from Mal again, Alina burns the maps, so the cartographers have to cross as well. The team enters the Fold just as General Kirigan, leader of the Second Army and the Shadow Summoner, arrives at the camp. Shortly after entering the Fold, they are attacked by Volcra. Alexi, another cartographer, escapes. Alina discovers her Sun Summoner abilities by unintentionally letting off a burst of light to fight off the Volcra. In Ketterdam, Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa, and Jesper Fahey compete with mob-boss Pekka Rollins for a job that pays one million kruge. When it is discovered that Dreesen first needs a Heartrender, Kaz beats Pekka to the only known one. Dreesen reveals to Kaz that he has captured Alexi. The Heartrender gets Alexi to reveal that Alina is a Sun Summoner, and Dreesen reveals that kidnapping Alina is the job.
Netflix’s The Shadow and the Bone proves that now is the time to adapt great fantasy books into mainstream television. They have secured a solid project which is showing its dividends nicely. As a first-time viewer who has never read the books but was aware of them, this show is quite good in introducing the viewer to this rich and illustrious fantasy-inspired Russian setting. I, for one, welcome this. It is a refreshing setting. So now that’s out of the way, let’s summarise the plot in a nutshell: Alina Starkov is a Grisha, and the Grisha are the equivalent of witches that train in the arts of the small sciences and are divided into three classes. But let’s not concern ourselves now with too much of the lore. Moving back to the point, the Grisha are powerful witches, and there are entire armies of them in the Kingdom of Ravka. Much like Lord of the Rings, Ravka has a mysterious dark Shadow fold that surrounds its borders. And that’s very much a threat. It’s the equivalent of Mordor being the next-door neighbor to Gondor. That’s pretty much where we’ll start with. We’ll focus on Alina and then slowly expand into other characters throughout the episode.
The Dark Shadow fold, of course, has its mysterious purposes. The orphanage owner explains to young Alina at an early age that if people wanted to go around, well, the North completely hates the concept of Grishas, which is not that far from actual history. I can sense some obvious historical comparisons, but we’ll leave it there. Then there’s the South guarding its mountains. While not enough information was given for this moment, I can assume that is why we see Alina at the start riding in a coach with other cartographers to the borders of where the Kingdom of Ravka meets the Dark Cloud, is why the Kingdom of Ravka is spending so much time, and effort to map the entire area. Eventually, they will get rid of this cloud. Nothing mystical lasts forever now, does it? Or is that an assumption? Alina is an expert at her cartographer skills, clearly sketching a map while others gawk, look, or are silent. A cartographer questions how she can do it. She replies that bumps across the road help her. I suppose it would. We are, of course, then introduced to another jealous, insecure cartographer that says she looks like the enemy. Shu-Han. Because her mother was part of the Shu-Han. I didn’t find the scenes I needed to show why she is hated for her ethnicity. Indeed, I think this was a missed opportunity in the episode to show why she’s being hated for absolutely nothing.
Mal comes in to save Alina, and the two have been friends since they were children at the estate in which they grew up. Alina has always fascinated Mal, and as you can see through this episode, Mal continues to care for Alina, no matter what. I don’t see the beginnings of a romantic relationship just yet, as the seasons that come ahead will need time to focus on what the characters want and how the books lead to it. The coach stops, and when they arrive at the Shadow Cloud. A dialogue speaks: ‘We will never see it go away. This abomination is here forever.’ Okay, you might say. But I sense the opposite. I sense that something else is going to happen. It is clever dialogue foreshadowing something, a hint, maybe? The cartographers boast to each other, saying that a Saint could burn the dark cloud, others looking in fear, awe, and misery. There is more to this dark cloud. More about its history than we could ever possibly imagine.
An excellent flashback provides the limelight of Mal’s childhood and his chemistry with Alina. A boy comes in demanding and harsh to Mal, hurling racial insults such as half-breed and rice eater. Of course, adults often influence children. The lady on the estate, I assume, is a more caring woman than we give her credit for. I’m judging this purely based on the episode and not the books. It shows Mal’s reluctance to fight with other people, and he often runs away like a coward, but who can blame him? When young boys/girls get bullied, the world is not there to save them. Then we cut to Mal fighting against a soldier in a wrestling match with soldiers throwing bets, cheering, and whooping. It goes to show how much Mal has secured, but inside, that spark of fear rests inside of him. Yes, he’s grown strong, good-looking, which never hurts, and he’s a good man. A good man of nature, but he’s not naïve. Mal, I think sometimes, always looks for the better in others. However, he does not always act for himself, which I think is a flaw. But then, there are people like that in real life as well.
The episode starts by showing Mal and Alina’s story with each other. Mal often looks out for Alina whenever she gets in trouble. The camp set-up is realistic enough to give you the feeling that there is a separate world from Mal and Alina, and the Russian-style-inspired uniforms give it a distinct feel. We’re also introduced to Mal’s two funny sidekicks, whom I felt we got little a glimpse of. They didn’t fulfill their roles as they needed to, acting as comic relief sometimes – the roles were not heavy enough for them to do it. I felt the colors were a lot more mundane than they could have been. A roll-call out is called out where Mal is selected to accompany a ship to go through the Fold. The episode does show glimpses of Alina’s shock and horror when Mal is selected. What the episode doesn’t do is show enough scenes of why Alina burns the maps. Thus, she condemns the rest of the cartography crew to come with her simply because she wanted to be with Mal and not leave him alone. In one sense, she committed her crew to the Fold. And who is to say that they will all come back alive and safe? There weren’t enough scenes justifying why she did this because, in the back of Alina’s mind, she knows she’s taking the Cartographers into certain doom. There was a contradiction here, and I wasn’t sure why this wasn’t addressed. Perhaps I’ve not read the books yet, but I could see a plot hole here.
Most of the scene’s structure lies on the Fold’s monsters known as the Volcra ambushing the ship. And it is well directed. Actors show fear on their faces when one monster growls behind a soldier when he lights a lantern. The actor turns around and is taken away, screaming. One cartographer escapes, though how he gets out of the fold is another question. Eventually, a storm of chaos and fear descends upon the ship as the ship’s monsters take turns to hunt and kill the rest of the soldiers. I am not an expert at realism for depicting naval battles, or I suppose a battle. But I could see some realism when a monster grabbed a cowering cartographer and slammed her body through the deck of the ship. That was well done. The cinematography was decent, but the major problem I had was how dark this episode was when we entered the Fold.
Even Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man’s Chest were darker, and it often showed much clearer lighting. So in the next episode, I hope that’s improved. I also wanted to see more of what the Fold’s monsters looked like because often, in fantasy shows, you only get a glimpse of them. Alina and Mal fight them off bravely. But Alina’s actress did an excellent job displaying the actual fear of someone going through their first time in the Fold. She isn’t scared. It’s that she doesn’t know how to react. Give or take, the humans on either side of the fold could easily send bandits or mercenaries to hunt down monsters and experiment on them. But that is my speculation and nothing more. However, Mal warned Alina not to come, and for a good reason. Alina is a loyal friend, though, and she sticks with him through thick and thin. In the end, she transforms into a Sun Summoner. It doesn’t feel that natural to me.
Moving towards the Ketterdamn arc, introducing Kaz Brekker is brilliantly portrayed by Freddy Carter. They show Brekker as manipulative but also caring at the same time. He expertly talks with people, handles business affairs, and is clever and intelligent. We’re also introduced to Jesper, who can shoot a coin with his gun, and that’s difficult to do. Inej has her arc, under the employment of Brekker, of course. They compete with another mob boss in Ketterdamn, the horrible Pekka Rollins. That man is no fool, of course, and he threatens and harasses people at his will. All because of a contract to find a Heartrinder, an entrepreneur named Dressen would pay for. There are twists and turns, character arcs, and a lot of good dialogue written as well. But sometimes, it felt out of place. Sometimes it felt stiff no matter how hard the actors tried to make it not sound like it.
When Brekker and Dressen negotiate over the capture of the Heartrender, there is a good power play between the two characters. I felt the camera angles could have been more fixated rather than moving all the time. Finally, we get to the more heart-breaking aspects that one cartographer named Alexi escaped the ship from the fold and got out of it alone. However, Dressen has him chained up, tortured, and uses Alexi as a bargaining tool against Brekker, revealing that Alexi had been captured two weeks ago and saw the Sun Summoner. It leads to a more interesting backdrop; once the Heartrender finds out that Alina, the Sun Summoner is the actual target, Dressen gets rid of Alexi. Dressen states that if they want the job for one million kruge, they’d better find the Sun Summoner and get a ship back and forth through the Fold. Either that or the job goes to Pekka Rollins. Dressen clearly states his power through here, as he does not like the inexperience of youth triumphing over his vast accumulation of power.
Overall, this episode was well done, but it suffered from too many cuts, too many camera angles, and it didn’t put enough focus on simplifying the world for a bit. The episode’s strengths were easy to follow a story, the actors putting their great effort into making the world come alive. In addition, the music, cinematography, and script were well written. I enjoyed this episode and can’t wait for episode 2!