shadow and bone Season 2 kicks off with a bang – or to be more precise, with a kiss. Mal and Alina finally lock lips and pay for the sexual tension the show has built up after a season of following Mal and faking for his best friend. Although it took a cheesy pickup line to bring the two together, I still rewind and rewatch the moment. Finally the two discovered it.
I’ve been waiting for this moment: Season 1 established Mal and Alina’s deep friendship and loyalty to each other. And their romance, in Season 2, acts as a grounding, familiar force in contrast to the magical – and often violent – storytelling that dominates the TV adaptation of the Grishaverse. I’m also just juice for young adult and new adult novels, where emotions are heightened and characters get to know each other by falling in love with someone else. Set these romances against a backdrop of intense action – young people fighting for their lives and their country – and it’s a pressure cooker for entertaining drama.
But shadow and bone season 2 quickly loses track in its portrayals of romance, juggling so many romantic arcs that none of them can really shine, let alone really burn. This is largely because it alters so many source texts – Siege and Storm, Ruin and rise, as well as romance content for the Six of Crows team. There are so many couples in it: Jesper and Wylan, Nina and Matthias, Genya and David, of course Mal and Alina (and maybe briefly Alina and Nikolai), and Kaz and Inej, although their relationship is less straightforward than the others. The adaptation makes some mind-boggling choices about how it compresses its romantic storylines to fit into a TV season.
[Ed. note: This story discusses romantic pairings throughout Shadow and Bone season 2, including a spoiler regarding Mal and Alina in the finale.]
The main problem is simply the amount of information that circulates during the season. That number of couples would be a generous number, even for a show that doesn’t run through so many action-packed books. But the season moves on, beating plot after plot in a juggling act that makes the storyline frenetic. Each of these romance arcs are compressed to fit smaller timelines, making everyone feel rushed. Take Jesper and Wylan: The Series features Wylan for just a few episodes before the two romantically embrace and cook up a one-night stand in an effort to make their chemistry more believable.
When played this way, each combination is all fire but no hissing, as if we were meant to believe that a fire can roar without any kindling. Romance stories generally follow a familiar pattern: couples meet, fall in love – whether they’re facing challenges together or just flirting – encounter an obstacle, then find a way to be together again. The most climactic beats in a romance are the most memorable, like the Pride and Prejudice scene where a drenched Mr. Darcy proclaims his love or the Mahjong scene inside Crazy Rich Asians where Rachel pleads her case. But it’s ultimately the interstitial moments where the stories build tension and anticipation through intimacy and flirtation that give these pivotal scenes their reward. It’s Mr. Darcy who adores and clearly shares his younger sister’s witty flirtation with Lizzie Bennet despite their “hate” for each other. It’s Rachel and Nick having a drink at a bar, flying together, and making affectionate eye contact with their friends’ over-the-top wedding.
I’m not suggesting that shadow and bone Season 2 picks up some of the most beloved romance movies in recent memory. But it’s worth pointing out how this season of the show spends as little time as possible building relationships between the romantic couples — after all, there’s so much material to take in — and instead bringing those romantic arcs back to their peak moments, even though he had an entire season of television to work with. As a result, it feels like the couples on the show are constantly going through some version of the big fight or the big gesture. But without other scenes in between, where the characters build suspense and anticipation, these big moments don’t have the same reward – making these couples’ romantic moments flat and superficial.
Genya and David suffer from it. Season 1 begins to burn slowly, with Genya staring at an unconscious David. It is entirely believable that they have become closer over the years in the Petit Palais. But there’s a huge gap between this moment in season 1 and season 2 Genya sacrificing himself to the terrifying nichevoja to buy time for David’s escape in Episode 3. The series implies that the two have a connection as they are trapped under General Kirigan’s command, but don’t give much screen time to moments when they work together.
When the two reunite as part of Alina’s Underground Rebellion, David is suddenly much more forward and open to pursuing Genya and expressing his feelings. Between finding his freedom and reuniting, he realizes that he has romantic feelings for her – and that his act of sacrifice has clarified those feelings. But without more context, without going into it see their relationship is blossoming (and considering his horrific actions towards Alina in season one), it’s hard to believe. Their short-lived romance is a bright spot in an otherwise stark series of episodes, but it also ends up feeling more obligatory than compelling or believable.
This season even unveils Mal and Alina’s tenuous romance. As always, Mal stays by Alina’s side and helps her locate the Amplifiers so she becomes powerful enough to destroy the Fold. They share a few tender moments before embarking on something dangerous, or after learning crucial news. shadow and bone keeps looking at the same images of Mal and Alina as children lying together in a meadow. Despite some convoluted subplots – including Mal’s brief kidnapping – the two eventually evolve into a couple and grow apart as the friction between Alina’s power and Mal’s desire to live a normal life increases.
But the couple’s separation at the end of the season comes completely out of the blue – especially as a grand gesture, without any hookups or smaller, contemplative plots in between. Apparently Mal’s magical bloodline destined him to meet Alina, and he wants to know if he still loves her now that his stalking impulses are gone. After almost two full seasons of constantly chasing her, he wants to leave her behind. It’s hard to bridge the gap between this Evil and the Evil that was ready to die for Alina just an episode before – especially on a show that treated this relationship as its focal point. Again, the show seems to assume that big moments work as emotional inflection points, even if they only exist in a vacuum.
If the show were to be renewed for a third season, some of these other couples would still have room to grow. Kaz and Inej, the heart of the Crow crew, are also two who have suffered trauma, for whom intimacy is a major obstacle. The sexual tension between the pair built over two seasons, culminating in one of Inej’s most famous lines, “I want you without the armor, Kaz Brekker.” Or I don’t want you at all. This poses a challenge for the third season to overcome – let’s hope the show takes the time to strip down their romances in the same way.
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