Even in the era of Peak TV™, some shows still rise to become King of the Mountain. Currently, those shows are The Walking Dead on AMC and Game of Thrones on HBO. Both feature ensemble casts playing characters thrust into extraordinary circumstances in hostile and fantastical worlds. Both have deep wells of source material from which the showrunners can pull lore, plot lines, and character development to make their universes feel more real. But both series are also getting long in the tooth. The Walking Dead has finally hit a slump in its seventh year, while Game of Thrones is sprinting towards the finish line with two truncated seasons. Once those two titans of live-watching instead of binge-watching are gone, where will fans of expansive universes full of danger and intrigue turn? May I suggest Into the Badlands?
From the minds of Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville), with the help of veteran martial art choreographer Ku Huen-chiu, filmmaker Stephen Fung, and actor/producer Daniel Wu, Into the Badlands merges the visual of East and West to create something wholly new. As with The Walking Dead, AMC gave Badlands a shortened first season to hedge its bet. The network even went so far as to have the martial arts apocalypse air immediately after The Walking Dead to bolster eyeballs. The ploy worked. The show might not have pulled in zombie numbers, it averaged over 2 millions viewers a week. With a ten-episode sophomore season, that’s plenty of time to expand the universe created last year and draw in the genre audience who craves worlds with their own maps. You know what I’m talking about. The kind of maps found in the front of novels heavy enough to kill a man.
Maps like this:
Now, offering up any show as a replacement for the imminent Game of Thrones-shaped hole in our collective hearts is not one to be made lightly. George R.R. Martin has dedicated decades of his life to the series. But with only a handful of episodes, Into the Badlands set the stage to become a contender. There are dozens of factions and kingdoms, all vying for limited resources. There’s love and betrayal. There’s a mythical city. There’s even magic. All set in our world, only centuries in the future. Into the Badlands takes the low fantasy of Martin’s world, mixes in the post-apocalypse dystopias we love so much, throws in amazingly choreographed marital arts fights scenes and a pinch of feminism and shakes vigorously. The official AMC synopsis is tantalizing in and of itself.
After a succession of catastrophic disasters — some natural, others man-made — human civilization was virtually wiped out. Without electricity, resources, or manpower, the great cities of the world fell into ruin. The survivors returned to the fields where they farmed or foraged, and the world descended into a period of chaotic regression.
Approximately 500 years later, a feudal society evolved — six men and women known as “Barons” control the Badlands, each governing specific regions and resources vital to survival.
The map above is of said feudal society, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. An actual wall cuts the Badlands off from the South while impassable wasteland to the North keeps the Barons from expanding further. Into this setting, co-creators Gough and Miller have woven a dense web of background both current and ancient.
Within the Badlands themselves, the Barons are constantly at war, either overtly or through Machiavellian scheming. Each has a standing army, known as Clippers, raised from childhood in battle and who are experts at martial arts. Each barony has their own style of fighting, guarded as jealously as any state secret. With guns outlawed for yet unknown reasons, being an expert at hand-to-hand combat and swordplay is the only way to survive. Meanwhile, the grunt work of making civilization turn falls onto the indentured servants known as cogs. These souls work on the farms, the Baron’s houses, the oil fields, and the towns. Each territory also has its share of Dolls (prostitutes) and Makers, folks who scavenge ancient knowledge to heal the sick and create new feats of engineering.
But, obviously, the Barons have a limited scope of control. Outside their territories, other pockets of tyranny have flourished. There’s the River King who controls the waterways and the piles of concrete rubble (remnants of American cities and highways) that are mined by enslaved cogs for any profitable detritus that may be buried within.
Not everything in this far-future is awful though. The mythical kingdom of Azra is said to be a shining beacon of democracy and hope, though few believe is truly exists. Allegedly, M.K. (Aramis Knight) hails from there, a tantalizing prospect as the teenager exhibits uncontrollable and seemingly magic powers. Kidnapped by a mysterious order of monks who also exhibit these abilities, but with control, this adds a mystical element to Into the Badlands (though it could also be remnant gene manipulation or some other science leftover from the long-dead ancients).
All of this plays as the background noise as the characters try to survive both the natural world and the players within it. Betrayals and reveals are commonplace and, like all good fantasy media, death isn’t as permanent as it seems.
The first season focuses on Sunny (Daniel Wu), the best Clipper in the territories and head of the army of Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas). What at first glance appears to be a life of luxury is ultimately revealed to be a gilded cage that Sunny chafes against. Finding M.K. and a mysterious coin amongst the nomads, Sunny takes it upon himself to take the boy under his wing in the hopes of finding the mythical city of Azra. Only there does Sunny believe he and his sweetheart Veil (Madeleine Mantock) can raise their unborn child in peace.
Intertwined with this story of salvation is the power struggle between Quinn and his son Ryder (Oliver Stark) and the other Barons. But perhaps the best part of Into the Badlands are the story arcs about the women. From Quinn’s wife Lydia (Orla Brady) struggling to maintain her position of power in the face of her husband’s latest conquest, Jade (Sarah Bolger) to The Widow (Emily Beecham) turning the Badlands on their head in her quest for justice and equality for the all women living under the oppressive feudal regime, the series is another win for the “Females are strong as hell” narrative.
Without getting into spoilery details, the second season premiere expanded on all this in a way that implies the writers have only barely touched the surface. The first season was confined to the Badlands themselves, but now the world has opened up to include new places and factions. The Widow is solidly positioned as the face of a brighter tomorrow while her daughter Tilda (Ally Ioannides) does the dirty work. Sunny’s physical location hints audiences will see even more remnants of what remains of American half a millennia after its collapse. And, of course, M.K. is no longer under the impression his abilities are a fluke: what does it mean that there are dozens or hundreds of people with magical fighting prowess in a world that is otherwise grounded in reality? These questions and more just open up path after path of new potential story arcs, the hallmark of health for any fantasy franchise.
So if you’ve been looking for something to watch while you wake for the return of Game of Thrones, or just need another fictional universe to become overly invested in, AMC’s Into the Badlands is waiting for you.