TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Paranor” and “Crimson” (S2, Eps. 5 & 6)

Full spoilers for the episode follow.

In a special double feature, our intrepid heroes Wil and Mareth continue their quest to bring the Warlock Lord’s skull back from the past, the politics of Leah grow ever more complicated, and Allanon must confront the reality that he is dying.

The Warlock Lord continues to loom as the series’ potential Big Bad, the force that will bring about the fall of the Four Lands and all of our noble (if seriously flawed) heroes. At this point, it’s pretty clear that we are going to see this figure return from the dead, though it’s equally certain that Wil will have to defeat him.

The Queen of Leah continues to be a compelling and deeply flawed character. Despite the fact that she does what she does–the scheming, the manipulating, the backhand dealing–she does for the good of her people, she inadvertently has set in motion the very destruction that she originally set out to prevent. In the end, she not only sees her ambitions come to nothing when Riga slaughters her retainers and Ander himself (which was both brutal and hear-wrenching), but she has also put her daughter at risk. The Crimson is a destructive force that will, it seems, make the Warlock Lord’s mission to bring the world into darkness that much easier. There is clearly a dark poison working its way through the bloodstream of the Four Lands, and one can hope that Wil is able to cleanse it before it does any more damage.

We finally learn the secrets of Eretria’s legacy, as one of those whose ancestors survived the Great Wars; as such she has the potential to be either a being a saviour or a demon. If I’m being completely honest, this feels a bit tacked-on, a means of giving Eretria something to do besides mope around after her sundry love interests. Don’t get me wrong: Ivana Baquero is probably one of the better actors in this show, and it’s that fact that keeps her character so continually interesting to watch.

For his part, Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery with abandon, but that’s part of what makes him one of the best things about the show. One thing The Shannara Chronicles gets right is the fact that Allanon is a ruthless manipulator, one who is willing to sacrifice anyone in his efforts to save the Four Lands. At the same time, we also get to see the toll this has begun to take, both physically and emotionally. I, for one, have no doubts that he’s not going to make it through to the end of the season, and that will actually fit well with the series’ clear intention of breaking apart the myth of the triumphant hero.

I can’t shake the feeling that the show-runners know that this is going to be the final season, and so they are pulling out all the stops (including showing two episodes in one night). It’s really a shame, though, since the series has taken some interesting turns. Still, I rather wish that they had chosen to adapt most of The Wishsong rather than doing a grab-bag of the various other parts of the Shannara mythos. Doing so has really short-circuited some of the season’s narrative threads, though fortunately “Crimson” managed to bring things together in the end. Still, it’s rather irritating to see the characters wandering about doing nothing consequential and then abruptly having a climactic moment that is moving but doesn’t really feel earned.

Overall, these two episodes were…good. However, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that the series is verging on the edge of going completely off the rails. There are just too many sub-plots going on–time travel, sinister wraiths, anti-magic users–and the show hasn’t done a great deal to bring them all together into a cohesive whole. The time travel plot in particular feels both strange and unnecessary, and I for one am glad that that plot is done with.

At this point, I will be satisfied if the series comes to a satisfactory conclusion, with all of the sundry plot threads wrapped up. I really don’t think it would be wise to leave anything hanging (as happened last season). I guess we will just have to wait to see how things pan out.

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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Dweller” (S2, Ep. 4)

Well, kids, shit got really dark on this episode of The Shannara Chronicles.

(My apologies for taking a week to respond to this episode. I was out of town for a conference.)

In the fourth episode of the second season, all of the characters have to contend with a personal crisis. Bandon has to relive the trauma of his childhood when he encounters a group of Elves who are virulently anti-magic; Jax has to relive a moment of terror during his time with the Border Legion; Wil has to see his father’s dead body and relive a traumatic memory from his past; the list goes on. These characters are put through the wringer in this episode, and none of them are left unscarred by their encounters.

This episode is fundamentally about the various broken characters that inhabit this world. Bandon, Ander, Wil…all of them struggle with the realities of politics and magic. Bandon comes across in this episode as someone who really is a product of his environment: tortured and imprisoned by his family, shunned by his own people, to some degree it’s no wonder that he has succumbed to the darkness inside him. The fact that he murders a child with the mask that had once been used to oppress him is both horrifying and

If the first season fell rather predictably into the epic hero pattern, this season seems to be about the deconstruction of that mythic pattern. Ander, for all that he might seem to be an epic hero, comes to understand the terrible price that that will exact, as exemplified in his execution of his childhood friend for murder and treason. He knows that it must be done, and in the end he does it without any compunction, but we’re left to wonder just how deep the psychic wounds go and how he will continue to deal with the consequences of what he has been forced to do. What’s more, we’re left to wonder whether, when all is said and done, anyone will emerge from this whole adventure intact. Adventures, like magic, seem to have a heavy price for those cursed to go on them.

This episode really plunges into a dark vision of the Shannara world. Clearly, it is tapping into the anxiety many of us feel about the rise of the alt-right, which bears some striking similarities to the Crimson. However, it’s important to remember that Brooks’s work in many ways predicted the sort of rabid brutality that has infected the American body politic, and so in that sense the series is staying true to the books that gave it birth, showing once again just how socially engaged the Shannara novels have always been. I’m just glad that the series has chosen to tap into that vein of the mythos rather than the more optimistic one.

For all of its darkness, this episode is also about the importance of family, of carving out an identity that is part of something larger than the self. At this point, none of the characters have yet found the elusive thing that they clearly desire: Shea is tormented by the fact that his father was driven mad and had to die alone; Mareth craves mentoring by Allanon, though she insists that she does not need a father; and the royal family of Leah continues to be riven by internal conflicts that may yet lead the kingdom to ruin.

Lastly, and somewhat inconsequentially, the series continues to display a visual splendour that really leaves the first season in the shade. From the sweeping vistas to the magnificent sets associated with Leah, it’s clear that Spike gave the show a lot more money. And if I’m being perfectly candid…well, Bandon makes a very dishy villain indeed. He may be a real bastard–slaying children and all–but he sure does look good with his shirt off.

Needless to say, I am really looking forward to the next episode. Clearly, there are a lot of pieces still in play, and it remains to be seen how it will all play out.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–Graymark” (S2, Ep. 3)

So, we’ve come to the third episode of The Shannara Chronicles. The last episode saw all of our characters in states of peril, and this episode moves the pieces in some interesting directions as each of them has to cope with an increasingly hostile and unstable world.

Wil, having been seriously injured by an thoroughly-evil Bandon, is at last reunited with Eretria. There’s no doubt that the two actors have some truly sparking chemistry. It’s not just a romantic connection–though that is undoubtedly there–but also the pressure that each character puts on the other. Each of them has their own personal demons, and neither seems quite able to reach the same level of closeness that they used to possess. Hopefully, they’ll be able to put aside all of the old wounds and scars and find the healing they need with one another. Both of them are also fiercely loyal to each other.

It’s nice to see the incredibly charismatic Garet Jax continue to appear. Seriously, I cannot tell you how much I really love the way that the series has interpreted this character. Like all good rogues of fantasy, he thinks that he will be able to remain distant from the conflicts engulfing all corners of the Four Lands, but there is little doubt that he will eventually be drawn in. In a world like this one, it really isn’t possible to stay unallied unless, of course, you want to end up dead.

I continue to be impressed by the sweeping visuals. The network clearly threw a lot of money at Shannara in the hopes that a larger scale will elevate the drama. And I have to say, I think that the gambit has paid off. This season has a grandness and a power to it that I rather felt was lacking in a lot of the first season, which was very typical of the epic fantasy quest in many ways. There is a greater emphasis on politics and scheming, and this is always refreshing in the fantasy genre.

Though she is (I think) one of this season’s villains, Queen Tamlin is still a very compelling character indeed. This is a woman who is ruthless and willing to do whatever it takes to protect her country and gain a little power for herself. She may not be the most sympathetic of characters, but there is definitely something attractive about the fact that she is so kickass.

There’s something especially ominous about Graymark, the fortress of the Crimson, with its double-headed red eagle emblem. There are clear echoes of the sort of neo-fascism that this group seems to espouse, which makes the series feel an especially relevant one for the troubled political times in which we live. Riga, for all that he seems to have a greater good in mind–averting the sort of  catastrophe that nearly saw his people eradicated with the release of the demons–has become something even darker and more ruthless than they were. There is no limit to what he is willing to do, and he is truly willing to inflict a tremendous amount of damage on Allanon in his attempts to gain the codex that will allow him to eradicate magic.

Allanon continues to have to cope with the law of uintended consequences. Though he clearly did not intend for Bandon to become a scion of the Warlock Lord and lead the world to the brink of total ruin, that seems to be exactly what is happening. What’s more, he doesn’t seem terribly capable of getting himself out of the mess that he is created. This is an Allanon who is significantly more vulnerable than his novel counterpart, but that actually works well for the universe that the television series has created. I’m not sure the seemingly-invulnerable Allanon that Brooks originally created would fit in with our current world, where such things seem hopelessly antiquated. Who knows, though. He might just become a hero in his own right. We know that he is willing to sacrifice the lives of other’s for the greater good, which is both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that this season is a hell of a lot darker than the last one. The bodies of our heroes are as subject to torture and pain as any other’s, and that allows a distinct sense of unease and disquiet to permeate the episodes so far. Let’s hope they keep it up.

I remain quite enamoured of this series, and I really hope that the network sees that this show is worth the continuing investment. If so, it could well prove to be a truly worthy adaptation of Terry Brooks’s magnificent work.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Wraith” (S2, Ep. 2)

Having escaped from the dark spirits sent to murder him, Wil attempts to save his uncle Flick from the imminent danger he faces, while Alannon leads King Ander to the kingdom of Leah to seek the aid of its queen. The Crimson continue their quest to destroy those who wield magic, and Mareth wants to find her father (allegedly Allanon). And of course the Mord Wraiths persist in their quest to destroy Wil and resurrect the Warlock Lord.

The series continues to move along at a brisk pace. For those familiar with Brooks’s novels, this is in keeping with the Shannara universe, in which the action is always tightly woven and driven by a powerful momentum, and the episode both poses several enigmatic questions about the past and the future, forcing each of the characters to confront the secrets of their identities and their histories.

Despite its brisk pacing, the series continues to ask a fundamental question: is there price that is too high for heroism? One of the characters states that “history is made by those who survive,” a rather bleak assessment of the future of these characters. Having barely recovered from a near-apocalypse, they still have to keep going, no matter how many lives are lost in the process. (Needless to say, this season is much grimmer than the last, and that is definitely a good thing).

This episode introduces us to two new characters. The first if the weapons master (and bounty hunter) Garet Jax. The other is Queen Tamlin of Leah, a formidable political player determined to make sure that she gets the best out of every bargain. Both of these characters remain enigmas, with their own murky motivations, and one of the episode’s strengths is that it doesn’t tell us too much about them just yet.

One of the things I love the most about this adaptation is its willingness to cast people of colour in roles that don’t render them as simply a fetish or a projection of orientalist fantasies (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Garet Jax truly shines in this episode and, given that he’s always been a favourite of the fan-base, I’m going to assume that people are happy with his portrayal here. I’m going to be quite honest: he’s gorgeous, and if you don’t like him, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The Shannara Chronicles continues to showcase its obviously-substantial budget, with some gorgeous scenery and a lush colour palette that is truly a feast for the eyes. The palace of Queen Tamlin is truly resplendent, a stunning confection of gold and light. I know the series rather gaudy techno aesthetic isn’t to everyone’s liking, but I for one find it a unique take on Brooks’s imaginary world. It might not have the grandeur or dignity of some other fantasy adaptations, but that doesn’t make it any less pleasurable to watch.

If there is one casualty of this season, it’s Allanon. While Manu Bennett is still as badass as always, he does seem to be a bit out of his depth. When he is struck down by the Crimson and taken away, it’s hard not to see it as a sign of his growing weakness in the face of the threats assaulting the Four Lands. I do wonder if he will make it out of this season alive, and whether he will be able to defeat Bandon (who, for his part, continues to combine beauty and evil in equal measure. One wonders whether he is beyond redemption or if there is some hope for him).

Lastly, I’d like to note that one thing I particularly appreciate about this series is the way in which it plays with sexuality. This is, I think I can say without fear of contradiction, one of the most straightforwardly queer fantasy series I’ve seen on television. It’s not just that the characters entertain same-sex attraction; it’s that there is a free-wheeling play with gender and sexuality that I find truly refreshing. It feels honest rather than merely titillating.

Overall, this was another strong episode. I’m curious to see how it will continue to adapt Brooks’s oeuvre, especially since they seem to be using the vast timeline of the book series (which covers multiple generations and several hundred years) as the basic ingredients for very different stories. As a longtime reader of the books, I find this approach to be a uniquely enjoyable one; though I have an inkling as to how the entire season will end up, I am just as in the dark as non-novel readers. Truly exciting stuff!

 

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”–“Druid” (S2, Ep. 1)

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but The Shannara Chronicles has at last returned, now on Spike rather than on MTV. I admit to being a little skeptical going in, but overall I’m quite pleased with the result. This is a series that has truly grown from its beginnings and that shows a lot of potential for the future.

To enjoy this series, you have to accept this basic premise: the show is not, in any way shape or form, a direct translation of Brooks’s work to the screen. It is instead an adaptation of the various books combined, with each season drawing on various narrative threads from different books. This lends the series a vitality and energy that it might not have had were it a simple adaptation. I know that I may not be popular with the many fans of the original series, but I’m sticking to it.

This season takes us into some darker territory than the preceding one, with our three remaining leads pursuing their own lives. Eretria has settled into life with a community led by the former Druid Cogline, while Wil has taken up with a group of Gnome healers.  King Ander from the last season has begun to grow into his role as the ruler of the Elves, while Allanon continues to fight against the forces of evil that would see the ruination of the Four Lands. The stakes seem to have never been higher, and it remains uncertain who will make it out of this season alive.

The heroes are matched by two malevolent forces. On the supernatural side, the seer Bandon from the previous season leads a band of followers to the Skull Kingdom, initiating them into weapons of hate and destruction known as Mord Wraiths, all in the service of continuing the efforts of the undead Warlock Lord. In the world of mortals, the heroes are faced with the Crimson, a group determined to weed magic out of the world. Both are intent on finding and destroying our beloved Wil, and they will harm or kill anyone who dares to get in their way.

The first episode does see the introduction of some new characters that are fan favourites from the books, such as Cogline, the disgraced Druid who believes more in the power of science than in that of magic. It remains unclear what his motivations are other than his vow to Eretria’s mother , but it seems he may be a bit more menacing this his book counterpart. The other major addition is the young woman Mareth who is, to be quite honest, a total badass. If there’s one redeeming thing about this show, it’s the abundance of great female characters. Given the problematic way in which many other fantasy series treat their female characters, this is definitely a breath of fresh air.

This first episode also featured some truly beautiful scenery, including an aerial shot of a post-apocalyptic shot of San Francisco (which, for what it’s worth, is also the setting for the post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes). The world in this season feels more fleshed-out than in the first, and we get a better sense of its contours, as well as the conflicts that will rage across it. It remains to be seen how the conflicts among the various races will take shape, with consequences that will potentially be deadly for everyone involved.

Just as importantly, the characters also feel richer and more textured, and this no doubt stems from the fact that the actors themselves have matured. While Manu Bennett continues to chew scenery as the irrepressible and indomitable Druid Allanon, both Austin Butler and Ivana Baquero have really matured as actors since the first season. This is not to say that they weren’t perfectly capable in the first season, but in that case they definitely seemed a bit more of what one might expect from MTV. These characters feel like they actually belong in the grand landscapes in which they appear; in my view, this definitely bodes well for the development of both their characters and the series a whole.

All in all, this second season of The Shannara Chronicles feels like a more mature series. I’m sure that many of the Brooks purists out there will not be pleased, but as someone who has read the books for over 2 decades, I’m pleased with it. There’s a certain pleasure to be gained from the changes, and since the series has Brooks’s approval, I’m happy to go along with it.

Book Review: “The Black Elfstone”(Book 1 of “The Fall of Shannara”) by Terry Brooks

It’s a rare thing that I finish a book in three days, but that is just what happened with fantasy maestro Terry Brooks’ most recent book The Black Elfstone, the first in a planned tetralogy titled The Fall of Shannara. Set roughly two hundred years after the loosely connected Defenders of Shannara series,  this novel sees the Four Lands under assault from a mysterious invader, one that possesses a form of magic that stymies even the Druids. These mysterious invaders, led by a powerful young woman, overcome anyone who stand in their path, including a Druid delegation. As a result, they threaten the very stability and order of the entire Four Lands.

The exiled Ard Rhys Drisker Arc, one of the story’s four protagonists, gradually finds himself drawn into this conflict. At the same time, he also takes on an apprentice in the form of Tarsha Kaynin, a young woman blessed (or cursed) with the power of the wishsong, who desperately wishes to tame its power so that she can save her afflicted elder brother Tavo. Meanwhile, the High Druid’s Blade Dar Leah has to contend with a Druid order that appears poised on the brink of chaos. All of them, in one way or another, will clearly be drawn into a conflict that might well bring to an end the entire world that they have so far taken for granted.

The pacing in this new novel is as breakneck as anything that Brooks has written, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the pace of the events unfolding. While we are only given tantalizing glimpses of the invaders that seem poised to conquer the entire Four Lands–and while the many schemes and plots, particularly those undertaken by the Druids, are still only half-glimpsed–that only makes the novel that much more tantalizing. Brooks has always been a master at plotting, and this novel proves to be no exception. While some might complain that he always ends his books on a cliffhanger, I personally find that that heightens the anticipation for the next novel (at least we don’t have to wait more than a year for the next installment).

Some have criticized Brooks’ recent work for being repetitive, but I tend to see this as a deliberate attempt on his part to show the ways in which history, and those caught up in it, often can’t help but repeat the mistakes that came before. This is most clear with the Druids, who once again seem so entangled in their internal squabbles and power-plays that they can’t see the larger threat that may sweep them away in its wake until it is too late. The ongoing tale of the Shannara bloodline reveals the brutally cyclical nature of history. Just as humankind seems to have lifted itself out of its own petty squabbles and achieved some measure of stability, its own folly and desire for destruction seems to plunge it right back into its darker nature.

While the Shannara books have always been marked by a fair measure of violence, Brooks looks to be striking out on some new territory here, showing us that the Four Lands have become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. The Elves have retreated, once again, into their own enclaves, content to let the rest of the world succumb to its own folly. The border city of Varfleet is as seedy as ever, and there are entire guilds devoted to nothing but the taking of human life. This is not a world for the faint of heart.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that this kind of world produces some very broken and troubled characters, chief among them Tarsha’s brother Tavo. Unlike his sister, for whom the wishsong is a blessing, for him it is a curse, a titanic force that he cannot control and that slowly drives him mad with rage and bloodlust. While they are disturbing, the chapters devoted to his perspective are some of the most compelling in the entire novel. He is a person who is fundamentally shattered in his psychology, misunderstood by his parents and tormented by practically anyone else. Is it any wonder that, in his fractured state, he should see his sister as his enemy? We don’t know yet what his part will be in the climax, but my guess is it won’t be pretty. I do hope, though, that he is offered at least a measure of salvation or redemption.

The writing here is lean, and Brooks tends to not spend too much time describing meals or clothing (a foible that sometimes bogs down otherwise quite compelling works of fantasy). However, no one has quite the ability to describe a landscape as he does, and the Four Lands remains one of the most exquisitely described landscapes in the history of epic fantasy. These are lands that have outlasted many of the characters that we have grown to know and love, and so there is something both comfortingly familiar and yet strange about them.

While I’m sad that Shannara is coming to a chronological end, I’m glad that Brooks is doing it on his own terms, and I am supremely glad that it is off to such a strong and stirring start. As someone who has grown increasingly irritated with George R.R. Martin’s chronic inability to produce a volume in anything resembling a reliable manner (and as someone who has been disappointed with the declining quality), I find Brooks reliability to be a great boon. What’s more, he has also stated that this won’t be the end of Shannara altogether, as there are still several bits of history that he may flesh out. Presumably, this means that we may yet get to see the formation of the First Druid Council under the Elf Galaphile, along with a number of other stories.

Still, I know that I will be shedding more than a few tears as I make my way through this chronological end of one of epic fantasy’s greatest sagas.

Book Review: “The Sorcerer’s Daughter” (Terry Brooks)

Though I finished Terry Brooks’s most recent book some time ago, I’ve just now got around to writing my review of it. This book, The Sorcerer’s Daughter, focuses on two parallel plots:  one traces the adventure of Leofur, the daughter of the malevolent sorcerer Arcannen, as she attempts to rescue her friend Chrysallin. The other, unsurprisingly, follows Paxon Leah as he attempts to save a Druid delegation pursued by Federation soldiers.

There is much to love about this rather slim, briskly paced novel. Most of the characters are ones that we have met in the previous two novels, but it was quite refreshing to see both Chrysallin and Leofur get their own narrative arcs. Brooks has always excelled at blending together firm characterization with well-laid plots, and The Sorcerer’s Daughter is no exception.

I have been reading Brooks’s work for over twenty years, and even now I’m still astounded at his marvelous ability to conjure spaces and places that are truly, viscerally terrifying. The Murk Sink, the lair of a particularly nasty witch, is one such place. Full of monstrous creatures whose size dwarfs anything that we’ve seen in quite some time (Mr. Teeth is a particularly terrifying creation, precisely because he is such an unpredictable and deadly leviathan). Though this world may be our future, it is a terrifying future, one filled with creatures the likes of which we cannot, at this moment, imagine.

All of this reinforces the sense that the world of the Four Lands continues to exist in an unstable relationship between chaos and order. On the one hand, the possibility of a rapprochement between the Druids and their allies on the one hand and the Federation on the other implies that this world might at last find a measure of peace. On the other, forces such as the sorcerer Arcannen continue to pose a threat to this order, the dark lure of chaos always lurking just around the corner.

What interested me most about the novel, however, was its remarkable queerness. I mean this not only in reference to the same-sex couple that appears (albeit briefly) in the novel, but also to Imric Cort’s experience as a shapeshifter. To me, at least, the inner turmoil that Cort repeatedly faces was the emotional heart of this novel, as he struggles with the sense that he is not who he should be, that he always has to keep a part of himself hidden from the rest of the world. Any queer person (by which I mean LGBTQIA+) knows this experience well. We live in a heteronormative world, and we are always conscious that the way we are exists as the flip side of everything that culture tells is “normal.” In this novel, Brooks manages to capture this sense and while Cort is, strictly speaking, “straight,” his experience is certainly not. Just as importantly, his relationship with Leofur does not “cure” him of his shapeshifting tendency; instead, she is an anchor that allows him to be who he is without guilt or self-hatred. It really is a stunningly beautiful relationship that Brooks has crafted here, perhaps one of the most emotionally resonant and complex that he has ever created.

If I have one complaint about Brooks’s latest outing, it’s that I wish there were more of it. In this concluding novel of this informal trilogy he has given us a satisfactory conclusion to a number of the ongoing trials of Paxon, but the ending is bittersweet. I actually find it rather refreshing that Brooks avoided the easier path of a happy romantic ending for his hero, opting instead to show us that, sometimes, life does not quite end up as we would like it to. Instead, we must sometimes rely on our friends to see us through those dark points in our life.

All in all, I would say that The Sorcerer’s Daughter nicely sets the stage for the epic showdown that seems to be looming in the near future. Now that we know, per Brooks’s own words, that the chronological end of Shannara is near, we can get a clearer sense of the final trajectory. Perhaps, finally, the people of the Four Lands may find some level of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

But then again, perhaps not.

Only time will tell.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Safehold”

So, here we are. The penultimate episode of The Shannara Chronicles has dawned, and it was definitely one of the finest episodes (if not the finest) that the series has produced so far. In this episode, the brave fellowship of young people finally make their way to Safehold and the Bloodfire, while Allanon ensures that Ander at last takes the throne that is rightfully his. And, of course, the last leaf at last falls from the Ellcrys, ensuring that the Dagda Mor is now free to march on Arborlon with his demon army at his back.

This episode had a lot of gems for those fans of Brooks’ novels. Those who have read the entirety of his oeuvre recognize in the rhetoric about the children of the armageddon (of which Eretria is a descendant) the Genesis of Shannara trilogy which revealed that the world of the Four Lands is indeed our world in the distant future. Furthermore, the emphasis on Eretria’s blood–it ultimately unlocks the Bloodfire–suggests that it may be her heritage, as much as Wil’s, that will influence the fate of her children and their many descendants.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This series has really done wonders bringing Eretria to magnificent life. While she was certainly a feisty and compelling character in the original novel, Ivana Banquero manages to convey both her phenomenal strength and her intimate vulnerability. Even now, as they near the end of the quest, she still feels the pangs of love for Wil (which she believes are not reciprocated), and it is this deep, and very human, need for love and acceptance that grants her character such depth.

And how amazing was it that we (we being Brooks’s faithful readers) finally have a solution to the mystery of Safehold’s location. We can now say with certainty that it is in the ruins of San Francisco/Oakland (Wil uses a stone to scratch in the missing letters on an old street sign). This is a bit of a mixed blessing, as it clears up one of the most enduring mysteries of Brooks’s world, and yet there is something a bit bittersweet about learning the exact location of this mysterious form. Fortunately, the series also leaves a great many questions unanswered (we still don’t know exactly what the Bloodfire is, for example, nor do we know why it’s located in the ruins of San Francisco).

If there was one thing I did not particularly like about this episode, ti was the way in which the witch sisters Morag and Mallenroh appeared. They were always one of my favourite parts about the novel, precisely because we knew so little about them and yet they seemed like such an integral part of the world Brooks had created. They were, according to the mythos, part of a coven, and they had long existed in a stalemate of hatred. None of that complex backstory made its way into the adaptation, alas, with the two witches appearing as straightforward guardians of the Bloodfire.

That minor quibble aside, this episode managed to bring out the very best that this series has to offer. We got some politics, the fulfillment (almost) of the quest, and the climactic death of the Ellcrys. This is the kind of storytelling that the series should have focused on all along. Indeed, I would argue that it really does best dramatically when it stays true to the epic roots from which it so clearly draws. With this kind of emphasis, it gives the characters, and their arcs, more depth and heft than they have gained (up until this episode, that is). Hopefully, this is a lesson that the writers will take into account if the series is granted another season by the powers that be.

Given the strength of this episode, I can say without a doubt that I am eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this first season. I will also admit that I am fervently hoping that it will be renewed for a second season. With the vast tapestry of Brooks’s work to draw on, especially the intergenerational component, the series could easily fit into the anthology model that has become increasingly popular and common in the cable media sphere.

Are you listening, MTV?

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Utopia”

Events on The Shannara Chronicles continue to speed forward in “Utopia,” as Amberle and Wil set out to save Eretria from the clutches of the Elf-hunters and from a group of peace-seeking humans in a settlement called Utopia. Meanwhile, Ander must finally make the choice of whether to become the king that the Elves need, while Allanon braces for his final confrontation with the Dagda Mor.

While Wil and Amberle are supposedly the narrative and character center points of this series, this episode showed why both Eretria and Ander have always threatened to steal the show. Both are broken in their own way, she from the cruel and heartless treatment from her “father” Cephelo and he from the fact that he is the youngest, and most disappointing son of an illustrious dynasty. Now, they both have opportunities and risks to face. She ultimately has to decide whether she will throw her lot in with Wil and Amberle or stay with the (ultimately corrupt) denizens of Utopia. He must decide whether he will take up the mantle of kingship that was never meant to be his. In many ways, their drama seems to be much more compelling than that of Amberle and Wil, and while this may seem like a good thing, I’m not entirely sure it’s what the series intended.

In many ways, it’s hard to believe that we’ve almost reached the ending of this first (but hopefully not last) season of The Shannara Chronicles. We haven’t even attained the Bloodfire yet, and the Demons have yet to launch their all-out assault on Arborlon, and yet there are only two episodes left until the season is over. It seems like the series has opted to focus (understandably, given the way in which it conceptualizes its target demographic), on the personal rather than the epic scope. Unfortunately, this has the effect of sometimes emptying out the larger scale drama of its significance. This is not to say that the epic and the personal cannot be intertwined, only that the series has not been terribly effective at bringing them together.

While I liked the introduction of the sarcastically titled city of Utopia, this again felt like a plot twist too quickly resolved to have any lasting impact. We’re briefly introduced to yet another set of vaguely malicious and unscrupulous characters, only to have them consumed by Trolls at the end of the episode. While this sort of structure works to keep each episode moving along, it doesn’t really add up to anything, and the disappearance of the Demons from the narrative only exacerbates this narrative problem.

Speaking of Trolls…I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the series’ treatment of them. In the novels, the Trolls, while primitive in some respects, do have a solid social structure, and they don’t go about hunting and eating Elves. Given that, I’m not sure that the series will ever be able to do anything truly meaningful with them, but I could be wrong. Given the substantial role that Trolls play in several of Brooks’s later works, I sincerely hope that they give this particular Race more development in future seasons.

This was, all in all, a very satisfying episode, though I do worry that the last two episodes are going to feel rushed and therefore unsatisfying. Hopefully, should the series get a second season, the writers will develop a better sense of pacing and characterization, so that we don’t spend so much time in trite (and not very compelling) drama and move into the truly interesting bits at the heart of Brooks’s epic vision.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Breakline”

Now that The Shannara Chronicles has finally discovered the meaning of momentum, things are happening at a pretty good clip. In this episode, the company is scattered (after their encounter with the Reaper). Amberle and Eretria discover a long-lost remnant of the Old World, while Wil gets assistance from Perk, a Roc-riding Elf. Meanwhile, Arion and Ander confront the Dagda Mor. Though Allanon arrives, fully healed, in time to save the younger prince, the elder son is killed by the Demon lord. Utterly bereft, Ander nevertheless manages to kill the Changeling. After a deadly encounter with the Elf-hunters, Amberle is saved by Wil, while Eretria falls into their hands.

The addition of Elf-hunters seemed a bit ham-handed, and the idea of them cutting off Elf ears in order to sell them to Gnomes verges on the silly. However, I’ve begun to notice that the series, understandably, has taken some of the larger threats portrayed in Brooks’s novel and channeled them into more human obstructions. While they don’t always pan out as well as the writers no doubt thought they would (the obvious sexual tension between Eretria and the Elf-hunter Zora seems designed to titillate more than add nunace to Eretria’s character), they are understandable responses to a limited budget.

Speaking of Eretria…she is slowly emerging as the most compelling and complexly drawn of the three young leads. She’s a broken person, and this quest seems to hold out the promise that she might somehow be able to put herself back together again. Those who have read the books know how her story ends up, but for those who don’t…well, I won’t give it away. I will say that the series does a great job of making us care about her, as well as inspiring in us a wish and a desire that she will somehow find happiness, whether or not that ends up being with Wil (who, by the way, didn’t seem to have much to do in this episode).

The revelation of the party hall was a nice touch, both appealing to the show’s target audience and also making clear the essentially ephemeral nature of both youth and human accomplishment more generally. It is one of the few genuinely reflective moments in the series so far, in which we as viewers are led to experience, at least for a moment, an almost terrifying sense of our own impending destruction. Could it actually be that we are trembling on the threshold of doom, all unknowing? It’s a frightening question, and I give the show a lot of credit for daring to ask it.

I was immensely pleased with Allanon’s healing scene, which allowed us a glimpse of his father and mentor Bremen. While not exactly as I imagined him, he is nevertheless a stern and imposing presence, and it is clear that he continues to exert a powerful (one might even say inexorable) force on Allanon’s life. While the younger Druid seems to feel overwhelmed by his burdens and by the refusal of those in the Four Lands to heed his warnings, Bremen reminds him that that is part of what it means to serve.

And I am also glad to see the Changeling storyline finally resolved and to finally get Arion out of the way. Ander is one of the series’ more fully-fleshed characters, and it will be interesting to see him change and develop into a king in his own right. After all, he now has the unenviable burden of overseeing the defense of the Elves and their homeland against the horde that is preparing to sweep down upon them.

All in all, I found this to be the most satisfying episode so far. There was a bit of everything on offer, and it did a great deal to not only move the plot forward, but also show us what the show can do when it really hits its stride. Let’s just hope they can keep that momentum going for the next three episodes.