Not many shows in television history have put martial arts front and center to this degree, but “Into the Badlands” has stood out against the crowd since the very beginning. The series, created by Al Gough and Miles Millar and directly inspired by classic samurai films like “Yojimbo” and “Harakiri,” depicts a bleak universe centuries in the future, where the survivors struggle in a bloody feudalistic landscape.
Best way to survive? Be totally awesome at martial arts, like reformed assassin Sunny (Daniel Wu) and the many other unique characters who occupy this brutal land. And oh, how they battle it out in some of the best-executed action scenes on television, which invoke the top of Hong Kong in technique.
As dense as the mythology surrounding the show might be, “Into the Badlands” oftentimes uses it merely as a backdrop to the beautiful violence on display.
There have been consequences to this: Season 1 of “Badlands,” if you ignored its fight scenes, was at times a more fun show in concept than it was in execution. But it also suffered from a need to cram in an entire universe’s worth of execution into six episodes. Season 2 doesn’t have this dilemma, and while some of its plot decisions verge on the wacky, there’s a perceivable increase in both the actual plotting of the show and the on-screen action, including some stand-out fight sequences that are more inventively bloody fun than ever.
Due to the events of last season, the core ensemble is largely scattered to the winds, but in some cases this gives the characters some quite welcome focus. Sunny, for example, lacked much in the way of drive at the beginning of Season 1, but now his quest to return to his lover and child gives his narrative real energy. And M.K. (Aramis Knight) is now not just seeking to understand the source of his mysterious powers, but use them to relocate his mother.
Not only do the early episodes of the season play up some deliciously “Mad Max”-esque weirdness, but visually, the locations this season also get a major upgrade thanks to the production’s relocation from New Orleans to Ireland, bringing some rich greenery to the show’s palette that makes its already striking use of color stand out even more.
Another major change to the series is the addition of just a little more levity than before, courtesy of Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead”) as a new ally for Sunny. His particular brand of quick wit and physical ability makes him a perfect fit for the show’s oddball tone, which also finds moments of humor in the below-the-line details. From the extravagant costumes to the imaginative sets — like a mining facility devoted to unearthing lost artifacts of the past, and a lair built in the wreckage of an abandoned train station — there’s a lot to appreciate on screen.
The worst thing about the show’s return is the fact that, rather than put effort into re-establishing the status quo for audiences, the first episode of Season 2 takes it on faith that you remember where all the members of this ensemble landed at the end of Season 1, and leaps forward into the action.
Given just how scattered the original cast has become, more of a recap might have been appreciated — though it’s worth noting that the episode titles echo how the plot just keeps going: Episode 1 of the new season is entitled Chapter 7, and so forth. (This is the only thing “Into the Badlands” has in common with the CW series “Jane the Virgin”… so far, that is.) In a broadcast schedule context, this is a handicap, but “Badlands” almost feels like the definition of a show meant to be discovered for binge-viewing, and future viewers will likely appreciate the streamlined serialization.
“Badlands” deserves to be discussed on its own merits, but it’s hard to watch it just after plowing through 13 episodes of “Marvel’s Iron Fist” and not draw comparisons. These are of course two different shows to a large extent — not just with two different aesthetics, but with different goals and challenges. It’s a far different thing to make a completely original oddball like “Badlands” than it is to create a stand-alone narrative based on decades worth of pre-existing material that also has to fit into a massive cinematic universe.
Admittedly, “Iron Fist” isn’t borrowing from the wuxia genre on the level that “Badlands” does, taking a more grounded approach. But even compared to “Daredevil” and other Marvel shows, it was a bland disappointment, frustrating not just in its inability to push beyond the superficial aspects of Danny Rand’s superhero journey due to its pedestrian execution.
Meanwhile, “Badlands” is a wilder, richer adventure in every respect, while also engaging with big themes about what it means to be a good person in a terrible world. And it does it with a beautiful and blood-soaked style all its own.
“Into the Badlands” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. Season 2 premieres Sunday, March 19 at 10 p.m. on AMC.