Into The Badlands (AMC, Sundays, 10/9C) brings martial arts mayhem back to television in a way that works beyond all expectations. To quote from AMC’s website, ‘Five hundred years after the end of the world, seven Barons control the Badlands. To protect what is theirs, each Baron has recruited an army of Clippers, deadly fighters trained in the art of killing.’
Sunny is the best/worst of the Clippers but circumstances arise that make him consider leaving his Baron’s turf and striking out away from the Badlands. Those circumstances include a mysterious boy with a dark secret; Sunny’s girlfriend (serious relationships are a no-no for Clippers) and the fact that he’s about to become a father, and a growing coalition between the other Barons to oust his boss.
From the opening teaser, with Sunny (Daniel Wu, Shinjuku Incident, The Man with the Iron Fists) discovering a group of dead bodies – chained together, but with one shackle broken – we realize that Into The Badlands is mad martial arts drama. He tracks down the nomads who did it and – in mere moments – dispatches them… without even using his sword.
He discovers a boy locked in a trunk – he calls himself M.K. (Aramis Knight, General Hospital, Dexter) – and learns that someone called The Widow (Emily Beecham, 28 Weeks Later, The Village) paid them to find him for her.
Sunny takes him back to his Baron’s fort where he finds himself in the barracks where Quinn welcomes his new recruits. After telling Quinn he doesn’t know why the Widow wanted him, M.K. winds up in the training pit where another Colt (Clipper trainee) grabs a pendant he’s wearing. M.K. Throws down with him over it, and Sunny breaks it up – taking the pendant with him because he recognizes an etching of a city skyline on one side.
A conversation between Quinn and Lydia (Orla Brady, Fringe, American Odyssey), his wife, reveals that Quinn is ailing and that neither of them thinks their son, Ryder (Oliver Stark), is ready to succeed him in the event it’s necessary – though she notes that he is stronger than Quinn thinks. We soon have reason to suspect that Quinn’s position is more about Ryder’s lack of wisdom…
Ryder walks in on sunny looking at the pendant – and takes it after arguing with him about striking at the Widow – something Quinn refuses to do.
But Sunny has his own secrets – Veil (Madeleine Mantock, Edge of Tomorrow, The Tomorrow People) a woman he loves (who is teaching him to read!) and a child on the way (all very much contrary to Quinn’s laws). The suggestion that they might leave the Badlands is floated but Sunny says stories of safe places beyond the Badlands are just that – stories.
Then Sunny discovers M.K.’s secret – and everything changes. Beginning with Sunny making M.K. his personal Colt…
The first episode of Into The Badlands, The Fort, was written by series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville, Shanghai Noon) and directed by David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers). It sets the stage well – introducing core characters; setting up the world of the Badlands (showing the balance between the baronies – for example: Quinn produces poppies which are processed by machines using oil acquired from the Widow; hinting at political shifts that could be worsened by learning that Quinn isn’t 100%, etc.) and establishing the look of the show – balancing the medieval feudal system with a bright, sunny world that contrasts with the system’s brutality; introducing cultural shifts – the banning of guns in favor of a more personal, martial arts kind of violence.
The martial arts aspect of Into The Badlands (choreography by Steven Fung) is head and shoulders above the usual – and very entertaining in and of itself – but it is just one aspect of the show. The personal relationships that are shown – at various stages of development – look and feel real: Sunny is the son Quinn wanted; Lydia knows she has Quinn’s heart and mind and, thus, doesn’t mind his relationship with his mistress, Jade (Sarah Bolger, The Tudors, Once Upon a Time); Sunny and Veil are relatively new to love and it’s still pretty intense, and so on.
Then there’s the political situation with the Widow hiring nomads to capture M.K. who was part of a shipment of Cogs (indentured servants/slaves belonging to Quinn) and various Barons declining to attend Quinn’s upcoming wedding to Jade – and Ryder’s insistence on taking on the Widow in the face of potentially turning the other five barons against them.
There’s a lot going on in The Fort (and, by the way, the actual fort is more like a city-sized plantation with an actual town adjoining it) and most of it complex.
Into The Badlands is a solid drama with a great martial arts edge (check out the great ambush in the rain that sets up the conclusion of the premiere – it’s as amazing as that first fight). It’s like nothing else on television – and that’s a Good Thing.
Final Grade: A