Temperature Take: AMC's 'Into the Badlands' Sports the Best Action Sequences on TV
Welcome to Temperature Take, a recurring column here at Pajiba wherein I check on a show during its current season. For the latest installment, I’ll be checking in on AMC’s Into The Badlands, which just passed the halfway point in its penultimate season.
I haven’t seen you utter a single word about this show all season. Why check in now?
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about the show much since watching the screeners for the first season back in 2015. I thought it had some decent action but thin characters, and didn’t have much reason to return. The fact that Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who inflicted ten seasons of Smallville into my eyeballs, were producers did not exactly inspire me with confidence either.
Could you write 4,000 words about why you watched ten seasons of Smallville even though you believed only two seasons were even close to decent?
I could, but not today. Let’s just say Peak TV hadn’t come along yet, although to be fair I’d probably still find a way to make time for it were in airing today and still hate myself for watching it. Somebody saaaaaavvveeeee meeeeeeee ……
You have told us countless times that you don’t even have time for TV you know you’d probably like. Why dip back into a show that you were skeptical about in the first place?
The reason I even gave it a second shot was Twitter, which lit up like a Christmas tree upon its return and suggested the show had overcome a lot of its initial problems. So I went back and started with the fourth episode of the first season, where I left off. Having a six-episode season worked in the show’s favor, and I was able to catch up fairly quickly once I got to a certain level of engagement.
What level was that?
I operate on a few basic assumptions when watching the show: I don’t get overly concerned with its post-apocalyptic mythology, pay as little attention to M.K. as possible, and revel in the show’s insane action, which pound for pound might be the best on TV right now.
Is there a show that almost no one watched to which you compare this show by the time you finished catching up?
Almost no one watched STARZ’ Spartacus, but that show is one of my favorites of this century. I don’t think Badlands measures up to it, but it got increasingly Spartacus-esque crinkles watching Season 2, which gets super confident super fast. Like Spartacus, Badlands excels when it creates clean obstacles for characters with whom you largely sympathize to overcome. The feudal system baked into the show’s DNA offers plenty of opportunities for interesting clashes of castes to occur around every corner, and the vast narrative landscape of season two fills like it’s filling the world in rather than stretch it past its breaking point.
Do you think Nicholas Cage hatewatches this show because he’s not playing Quinn?
It’s something I’ve thought about more than anything else in April 2017. I love what Marton Csokas is doing in this role, and I’m pleased as hell he didn’t die at the end of season one even if the “how” of that stretches credulity to the breaking point. But the show is more fun with him in it, and I’d rather have a fun show than a realistic one any day of the week.
What’s the show’s secret weapon?
It’s almost banal approach to inclusivity: This show has more women and people of color filling out each frame than just about anything else right now. This is something the best sci-fi/speculative fiction does: Strip away any preconceived notions about how things are “supposed” to work and present them as they might be. Now, this world isn’t depicting a utopia of togetherness by any stretch of the imagination: In the character of The Widow, the show gets to depict how nuclear winter didn’t exactly wash away the stain of sexism. But The Widow is also one of the most formidable figures in the Badlands, and the ethos she espouses is one that threatens to undo the caste system that emerged when society reformed itself after…
… you’re totally just skimming the Wikipedia page to pretend like you know the mythology, aren’t you?
So so so much. But here’s the thing: I don’t need to know the intricacies of the mythology to understand why Sunny is trying to get back to Veil, why Quinn and his son wound each other on an atomic level, or why Tilda wants so badly to please her mother. The show gets those details so right that the rest is just window dressing. It’s gorgeous, gorgeous window dressing to be sure: Each set is overstuffed with details that suggest hundreds of years of history and new customs that emerged after the fall of civilization. But that’s just decoration if the people in the forefront of the frame didn’t work. And luckily, they absolutely do.
Why haven’t you said anything about Nick Frost being in this season?
Look, pairing Bajie up with Sunny was a stroke of damn genius. Daniel Wu works better the less he has to talk. He’s like Taylor Kitsch that way, and probably the only way in which these two men have anything in common. Letting Frost be Frost as the pair work their way back to Veil has given the show a light touch sorely missing in the first season: Yes, the stakes are high here, but they can’t be SUPER HIGH ALL THE TIME. That goes for any show, really, and Badlands risked devolving into self-parody without a corrective force like Frost to ground things. Into The Badlands is a post-apocalyptic show which you can actually have fun watching. Unlike, you know, a certain other post-apocalyptic show on AMC.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE FIGHTS THOUGH?
Look, I fashion myself an intellectual chap. I love me some critical analysis and theory. I go deep into theme, allegory, and morality. I think television is the single most powerful cultural force on the planet, and its misuse physically pains me. I’ll die on the hill that this medium should always and ever be striving to make the world a better place.
But sometimes, I just wanna see people wire-fu the living fuck out of each other.
When people ask me my favorite action scene in Into The Badlands, my answer is always the same: “The last one.” It’s a useful answer, and generally a true one. There seems to be a behind-the-scenes game of “Can you top THIS?” which absolutely delights me as a viewer. Granted, I’m a pretty easy audience when it comes to action sequences, but there’s something about the scope, ambition, and visual capture of these fights that constantly astounds me. Sets are constructed almost like boss fight levels in open-world videogames, and the inhabitants of this world (whether they be Sonny, The Widow, three dozen Clippers, or…sigh…M.K.) just go buckwild within those edifices. The fights seem less choreographed and more captured, almost as if the actors are improvisers and the editors just insert the best takes.
I don’t mean to diminish the skill of the show’s fight choreographers by saying this. In fact, I’m trying to praise them, because these sequences feel anything but perfunctory. Into The Badlands posits a world in which bodies are honed to a hypersensitive nature to combat the tentative, fragile nature of existence itself. These fights aren’t just meant for show but demonstrate the essence of what it means to survive even a day in this world. The heroes of this world don’t fight to kill; they fight to stay alive.
The fact that they refuse to call themselves heroes doesn’t sink the show into a morass of self-loathing losers. Rather, it highlights that while there is an extremely small chance of happiness in this world, it’s worth fighting for.
Hey remember that Season 4 Smallville ep “Sacred” which turned into Crouching Tiger, Hidden Lana Lang for reasons?
Fuck right off.
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