When “Into the Badlands” launched in 2015, its existence was relatively insane: a high-octane sci-fi martial arts series, that the creators of the WB’s “Smallville” weren’t adapting from a book or a comic — they were inventing whole cloth. Four years later, this is also insane but true: after approximately the other eleven billionity shows that have followed in its wake, it still remains unique.
That’s a massive accomplishment on its own. So is the show lasting for as long as it has, especially given that there are plenty of other out-there concepts which never made it past their first seasons.
However, it’s still going to be sad to say goodbye to the AMC drama, which returns for its final run of episodes on Monday, March 25. It arguably might be said there was more life left in this show, even — that it’s too soon for farewells.
In its first season, “Badlands” began with a relatively simple narrative: In a post-apocalyptic landscape, a warrior (Daniel Wu) takes on the cause of helping a boy with unexplained magic powers as rival rulers tried to harness his abilities. The world surrounding them was rich with details and a rich and colorful aesthetic, and the ensemble included fascinating characters (including some truly powerful women), and all of them got to fight each other in some of TV’s most creative fight sequences, every episode.
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Midway through Season 3, it’s a lot less easy to describe what’s going on, as over the course of the previous 24 episodes countless alliances have been destroyed, with presumed heroes finding their dark side and presumed baddies revealing their decent hearts. The character work was always relatively blunt from scene to scene, mostly for the sake of efficiency given how much each episode had to pack in, but it was just as present as the beautifully designed costumes and gorgeous scenery.
All with the constant promise of great action, rooted in Hong Kong traditions, bloody and brutal and jaw-dropping. While every nuance of a “Game of Thrones” battle sequence gets picked over, “Badlands” has been quietly delivering epic-scale violence with its own unique aesthetic for years. However, while literally half of the production on this show is devoted to the action scenes, if you were just to fast-forward to those scenes, you’d still be missing a lot.
“Badlands” has grown over the seasons, learning from its mistakes when it can — such as the first season’s relative dearth of humor, which the producers addressed nimbly by adding “Shaun of the Dead” star Nick Frost to the cast. Frost’s role in the series has become easily one of its most important elements: Not just comic relief, he has proven himself as a dramatic player, and in (with, of course, no shortage of help from the show’s stunt team) come to hold his own in the fights. He’s not the only major addition to the cast over the course of its run, but it’s impossible to imagine the show without him now.
It’s those other cast additions in general which contribute to the show’s biggest ongoing challenge, as it tries to keep in balance so many wild elements. The action, the mythology, the character stories are all stretched across what can be at least four storylines an episode featuring a dozen characters. As it’s progressed, it’s at times gotten arguably too scattered, but Season 3 does have some focus in trying to bring together that ensemble for the promised confrontation against Pilgrim (Babou Ceesay), whose fascination with the gifts that both haunt and help people like MK (Aramis Knight) could have world-shaking consequences.
That focus, unfortunately, isn’t quite enough to make the complex nature of the narrative feel as cohesive as it could be, and the sprawling nature of the various storylines may be a factor in why things are wrapping up with this season — it’s easy to imagine that a fourth season would get even more convoluted. However, that complicated landscape speaks to the depth of the world that’s been created, and the fact that each character still left breathing has more story in them to be told.
This season, the big theme is on slavish devotion to a cause — evangelicism, one might say — at the expense of what matters: family. No one seems to be a stranger at this stage in the series, which has really become about literal and found families trying to survive. Love exists, but more often than not ends in tragedy; it’s brotherhood and sisterhood which are the most worthwhile causes.
It’s been almost a year since the first half of the third season of “Into the Badlands” actually premiered, and at that stage, it wasn’t officially announced whether or not the show would be back for a fourth — watching then was a reason to get excited for what was to come. These final eight episodes, meanwhile, launch with at least a tinge of sadness. When the third season ends, it’s small comfort to say that at least the show continues to exist on Netflix as an undiscovered gem for potential new fans, and no spoilers, but current fans will have to decide for themselves how they feel about the ending.
No show has ever looked like “Into the Badlands” before, and no show will ever look like “Into the Badlands” again. That is a tragedy for television.
“Into the Badlands” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on AMC.