Let’s open with this: Nick Frost is a gift. Not just to mankind, but very specifically to “Into the Badlands.” Added to the series in Season 2 (perhaps after creators Al Gough and Miles Millar heard one too many complaints about Season 1 lacking a sense of humor), scenes featuring the frequent Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright collaborator often involve him simultaneously slinging around quips while performing the sort of physical moves you wouldn’t believe a man of his build capable of naturally. But it’s fun to watch, especially when Bajie (Frost) teams up with Sunny (Daniel Wu) to destroy packs of guards. Wu dances his way through a battle scene, sword slicing through limbs like butter, while Frost balances that with powerful punches and faster-than-light kicks.
It’s worth singling out Frost because while the character of Sunny is at the center of the bonkers AMC drama, which returns for a third season Sunday, April 22, Bajie remains just one of the secrets to its ongoing placement at the top of our not-so-guilty pleasures list.
There is no way to recommend jumping into “Badlands” with Season 3 — the season premiere makes no effort whatsoever to re-establish the characters or scenario for new audiences. But fans who either kept up with the series during its run on AMC or discovered it on Netflix can rest assured that the narrative continues on in a relatively seamless manner.
That said, if you need a quick debrief, here goes: In a society hundreds of years devolved from the present day, technology is scarce to nonexistent, and the land is ruled over by a number of “barons.” The barons maintain control over their lands and resources with the help of “clippers” — or at least they did, until the barons went to war in Season 2 and the power structure collapsed. Oh, and everyone is very very good at fighting, and some characters, like young M.K. (Aramis Knight), may or may not have magic powers that make them even better at it.
Season 3 begins with the Widow (Emily Beecham) trying to cement her power over her new territory, while the rest of the ensemble, scattered to the winds following the events of Season 2, slowly reunite. This all happens in between semi-regular bloody fight scenes, which are executed using traditional Hong Kong martial arts techniques that lead to jaw-dropping moments of brutal honesty on a regular basis.
Oh, and also, everyone wears the coolest clothes and because the show shoots in Ireland, many scenes take place against the most jaw-dropping of visuals. “Badlands” does not invite you to ask things like, “How do the soldiers of these fiefdoms have such cool uniforms, given the resource-poor post-apocalyptic setting?” And seriously, don’t question the way in which these characters spin in the air while committing so much bloody murder. If you’re able to sit back, relax, and accept the show for the fantasy it is, “Badlands” is a great deal of fun.
Well, for the most part. The show has always had one big weakness: There are so many genre homages happening here that they have a bad habit of piling up in the writing. It’s not uncommon to hear a character say something like, “Finally, our destiny is at hand,” with no trace of irony, for example. And while there are so many wonderful weird twists and turns and betrayals that spin these characters together in unexpected ways, “Badlands” sometimes can’t escape plot cliches, never more egregiously than with the end of Season 2.
[Editor’s note: Mild spoilers for the Season 2 finale follow.]
In the final minutes of “Wolf’s Breath, Dragon Fire,” Sunny’s beloved partner Veil (Madeleine Mantock) sacrifices herself to allow her infant son and Sunny to escape, and the moment was the show’s most meaningful moment of drama to date. However, it also represented a disappointing lapse into the time-honored tradition of “fridging” the girlfriends or wives of male protagonists, to emphasize the man’s pain and drive his story forward.
The tradition of killing lady love interests extends beyond comic books and Christopher Nolan movies to the kung-fu genre, so it’s not shocking to see it here, but it still casts a shadow over the early episodes of the season, as Sunny copes with single fatherhood.
The show doesn’t wallow too much in his grief, as Season 3 seems poised to expand some of the background mythology of the series, specifically around the legend of Azra, the mysterious city that might be the salvation of this broken world — especially thanks to a new clan, led by Cressida (“Orange is the New Black’s” Lorraine Toussaint) and Pilgrim (Babou Ceesay), which offers up new insight into what might have led to the destruction of our society.
Never fear, Sunny also does stab dudes in the head — Wu remains in top form here. Meanwhile, the beginning show’s most badass character, in reality, has always been the Widow doing everything the guys did in (and sometimes with) heels, and at least one fight scene in Season 3 does showcase exactly that; Beecham deserves so much appreciation for her talents.
Loyalties may change, but one thing remains constant on “Badlands”: The giddy glee taken in the glorious and dazzling fight scenes, which are just hyperreal enough to tap into a delight over the spectacle, as opposed to dismay over the deaths that ensue. When rating children’s’ programming for families, both the MPAA and the TV parental guidelines make a distinction between realistic violence and “fantasy violence” — with the fantasy violence, supposedly, meant to be more palatable. “Badlands” is definitely not for kids, but the same principle applies here. Because if you’re able to buy in, the cast flies through the air with swords drawn, childlike glee is the natural reaction.
“Into the Badlands” Season 3 premieres Sunday, April 22 at 10 p.m. on AMC.