THE FOLD — All I care about now are the Crows. And discovering my latent Grisha powers. Ben Barnes with tears in his eyes. When I casually started watching Shadow and Bone on Netflix last Friday, I thought "meh, this will probably be kind of dumb," because it's really, really hard to get fantasy right. By the time I finished season one a few days later, I was not only impressed, I was a disciple, largely thanks to this incredible cast.
Leigh Bardugo's fantasy series (three in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, two in the Six of Crows duology) is drawing all kinds of comparisons (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) but truly belongs nowhere near either of those fantasy behemoths. Which is a huge relief. After the disappointment of GoT and the disgusting prejudice of JK Rowling, fantasy fans need something un-problemetic that will engross and move them, but also just be a lot of fun.
The show starts like this: Alina Starkov is magic, but she only recently discovered this. Furthermore: she can wield the kind of big magic that can be used to defeat the shadowy territory that has divided her country. That's the setup. Entertainment Weekly has a great guide to the basics of the Grishaverse, if you'd like to explore.
The execution of Shadow and Bone, however, goes way beyond its simple premise. The costumes are rich, the settings are detailed — and neither are inspired (like your usual old timey fantasy show) by medieval England, but old Russia. Just that fact makes it fresh, and is certainly a contributing factor to the fact that Shadow and Bone has been in Netflix's top ten for two weeks in a row. But the characters, well-formed by Bardugo's books, totally pop on screen.
Jesper, Inej and Kaz (pictured above and portrayed by Kit Young, Amita Suman, and Freddy Carter respectively) are not in the Shadow and Bone saga — they are part of their own story in Six of Crows. But since they exist in the same universe, the show decided to bring all these beloved characters together. And the casting of these three was ... just inspired. Young along carries enough charisma as Jesper to wipe out an entire CW show's worth of hotties. Suman displays incredible control as the deadly but principled Inej. And Carter is doing something I can't even explain. The performance is so compelling and strange, it will hold you captive. The absolute confidence and swagger that all three of them bring to these roles is incredibly fun.
Jessie Mei Li plays Alina, and avoids the sometimes-problem of a genre show female lead being forgettable, by keeping enough edge to be interesting and enough kindness to root for her. She is surrounded in The Little Palace (where her fellow Grisha live) by a range of characters with questionable moral centers who all contribute to the various conflicts in the show. Like Daisy Head, who plays Genya, and turns out to be *spoiler* more than she seems.
Somewhat secondarily are Danielle Galligan (who will get a full post here, later) as Nina, Calahan Skogman as Matthias, and Archie Renaux as Mal. They're all fantastic. Everyone is fantastic.
But the best, best, best member of this cast is Ben Barnes. He plays the hottie slash villain The Darkling, and the story of his casting is absolutely hilarious. As told in Polygon, Barnes had been fan cast in this role on Tumblr for years. The showrunner was unaware of this, citing a connection he had to Barnes through his wife as the reason he asked Barnes to audition. They were looking for the right actor, but also someone who could be a good mentor figure for the younger cast. He mentioned Barnes to Bardugo, who sent him the fan edit as a joke.
"While (Eric) Heisserer was only aware of Barnes’ connection to the character through Bardugo, it turned out that the actor himself had a little more awareness of the phenomenon.
'Toward the end of the lunch, Ben slid over his phone at me,' recounts Heisserer. 'And it was the same Tumblr post, [and he was] like, ‘You’re gonna hire me now, aren’t you?’'"