Strip away all the CGI smoke monsters and cultural pastiches and invented languages from “Shadow and Bone” and it’s still, at its heart, a tale of Chosen One vs. Dark Lord. Now in its Season 2, the Netflix series is the kind of handsomely made fantasy epic that networks could once build a whole lineup around. There’s a dense mythology of lore and palace intrigue and a love triangle or two for good measure. The show debuted in early 2021 in the midst of a TV world still dotted by question marks and pointed to a possible future for effects-driven literary adaptations.
But for all its heroes and villains linked by destiny — living saint Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) mentally communicating with her sworn enemy the Darkling (Ben Barnes) — and CGI centerpieces — a massive dark-matter entity called The Fold that divides an entire nation in two — there’s a better show underneath all those shiny genre trappings. Season 2 of “Shadow and Bone” is worth it for The Crows.
Parallel to all that talk of Alina and The Darkling either saving or destroying all living things is the far simpler story of a handful of crafty criminals trying to make their way through a seedy underworld. The group is led in spirit, if not always in action, by the enigmatic, gloved Kaz Brekker (Freddy Carter), a stoic ringleader with connections all throughout the seaside scum-and-villainy hub of Ketterdam. Along for the ride with Kaz on his various journeys are the sharpshooting, wisecracking Jesper (Kit Young) and the nimble, ghostlike Inej (Amita Suman). This season, the crew takes on demolitions expert Wylan (Jack Wolfe) and Nina (Danielle Galligan), who has the gift of being able to hear and control people’s hearts.
There’s a noticeable difference every time “Shadow and Bone” hops from the Alina storyline to what’s happening closer to Ketterdam’s organized crime hub The Barrel. What is repetitive and plodding in the story threads that dominate the rest of the show becomes much freer and agile when attention shifts to the “crew on a mission” side of things. If it feels like two different shows, they almost are by necessity. Leigh Bardugo’s original trilogy novels track the physical and metaphysical wars over The Fold in the main series that gave the show its title. Kaz and Co. come more from a series of side tales told in two separate books that make up a coexisting series.
Putting all them together is the tricky, delicate balance of “Shadow and Bone.” And, to be fair, Season 2 does gradually find ways for them to interact so that they don’t feel like they’re completely in their own atmospheric silos. But there’s something so much more compelling in watching people use superhuman skills for a heist than for total domination. For them, the job isn’t having to figure out the rules for wielding a magical artifact with mystical powers. The job is sneaking into a heavily-guarded building, snatching up that artifact, and getting out alive.
“Shadow and Bone” goes for scale more often than not, yet its strengths lie in painting with smaller strokes. Last season, series creator Eric Heisserer spoke about the amount of work that went into making sure that the playing cards in a casino-type club felt true to this fictional world and not just something picked up from our own. Kaz, Jesper, and Inej give the show a better chance to appreciate those details, freed from having to worry about massive mythical beasts or complicated conversations about the logistics of power-strengthening ceremonies.
Even the Ketterdam fight sequences feel more grounded than the “fighting against a tennis ball” feel of some of the other big “Shadow and Bone” Season 2 setpieces. For those in and around The Barrel who are Grisha (people with narrowly defined but strong magic-like powers), the biggest special effect is a wave of the hands. Watching someone clutch their chest because the person across from them has activated the power to stop their heart is just as satisfying (if not more) than watching a group of people run away from a giant menacing sea dragon. For a show that has a character who can summon infinite power of blinding, brilliant light, it’s the other half of “Shadow and Bone” that often feels more like a magic trick.
Much of that also comes from the Crows also being incredibly charming, both individually and as a unit. Li and Barnes have their own brooding, stewing energy that serves their half well. It still doesn’t compare to the quick-paced, quippy life that Young, Galligan, and Suman bring to theirs. They’re the kind of group that can be compelling even when they’re looking at a far-off explosion from a rooftop.
The tinier parts of everyday life — the small prayers whispered over dead enemies, the mottos spoken before embarking on a job, the simple flick of a knife in and out of its sheath — then make the big, steampunk-adjacent design choices stand out even more. An assassin’s wrist-mounted gun is the kind of detail that easily gets lost in the darkness of trying to overcome a centuries-old warlock. But in the bare-knuckle streets of scrappy coastal capital? It’s something to take note of.
Balancing the small and the universal, the light-hearted and the doomed, is a problem that’s saturated the biggest forms of entertainment right now. So it’s not surprising to see a dependable Netflix series with franchise-like ambitions get stuck between those two worlds. If anything, though, The Crows are a reminder that in the world of adaptations and sparkly genre spectacle, bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes, all you need is the right crew.
“Shadow and Bone” Season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.