[Review] The Shannara Chronicles Episode 1×09: “Safehold”

written by Noel Thingvall

SPOILER WARNINGS ARE IN EFFECT

Things are definitely pulling together for a huge climax next week, and this episode is packed with oodles of stuff going on. Let me try to break it all down.

I’ve gone on well enough already about how much I enjoy the way this series plays with anachronisms, but I love how this episode opens with a typical epic fantasy shot – our heroes, following a map, climb through ruins on a shoreline and see a lost city across the water – and makes it feel fresh and new again as, in their leather and swords, the ruins they climb are concrete and rusted steel, the map they hold in a current transit map, and the city looks like Seattle, with a space needle and a collapsed bridge. I don’t actually know if it’s Seattle, but I love Wil finding a road sign with the green and white paint flecked away as he connects the surviving letters “SA*F* *O**L*D” to “Safehold”.

I am a little disappointed that we never actually get to see our heroes explore the ruins of the city, but budgets being what they are on a show that’s already pulled off some impressive feats, I understand them instead veering into a dungeon quest as, with the bridge out, our heroes cross the water through an underground series of tunnels. Remember the very first promo shot released for the show?

https://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/m4arnjbqjlcvfovoxiqa.jpg

Yeah, this is the episode it’s from. Our heroes decide to split the group (never a good idea, I’m told), but it’s thankfully brief, mostly giving Wil and Eretria a chance to hash things out and apologize to each other over some barbs that were thrown in the last episode. We also get a nice bit addressing the Cephelo twist from last week, where Eretria doesn’t know how to feel about having been saved by the man she hated and spent her whole life trying to escape from. “People are complicated,” says Wil as he relates a story about his drunken mess of a father and how he still doesn’t know how to feel about learning that man was once a legendary hero who lost his mind to the very magic he used to save everyone. It’s a nice reflective beat that doesn’t try to give any answers one way or another, just acknowledges the types of questions that can linger with people. It still doesn’t in any way justify the writers having Cephelo attempt to rape Amberle, as this conflicted viewpoint could have worked just as well with any number of the other scoundrelly things he did.

It’s not long before Amberle rejoins them and reveals she’s found a tunnel full of sleeping trolls (have I mentioned I love the design of the trolls, with their layers of fur and Giger gas masks?), and on the wall at the very end, the exact same symbol tattooed on Eretria’s shoulder! I don’t think I mentioned that one before, but during the Eretria/Amberle bath scene in the hated episode 6, they started laying in a mysterious origin story for Eretria, which last week added to as she started hearing the line, “Your body is the vessel, your blood is the key.” Knowing what happens to a certain member of the trio in the book (we’ll likely get there next week), I was wondering if they decided to flip which character that outcome happened to for some reason, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ll get there in a second.

First comes a scene of our heroes having to cross the path of sleeping trolls by shimmying along the overhead pipes. Eretria sheds her jacket for some reason while the others keep theirs. Wil has a fun beat where he drops the Elfstones right on a meaty troll thigh and has to retrieve them. It’s fun, and once our heroes pass, they find a room with books about the fabled Bloodfire and Eretria starts remembering…something. Before the others can ask, she sees a mural on the wall, her eyes cloud over, and when she comes to, the tattoo burns outward over her shoulder and along her arm, forming a map. It has a very circuitry look to it, so I was wondering if they were laying in some old-world tech that her hidden knowledge is tied to, but no, it’s just a map. Using it, they find the chamber of the Bloodfire.

This sequence starts off a little loose, with everyone trying to stand where they were in the vision, then seeing symbols and a giant juicer and wondering what it all means. Then the Guardians of the Bloodfire appear. I can’t tell if they’re demons tied to the forces of the Dagda Mor or something older, but I love them. They’re a pair of sisters in twisted gowns and powder wigs, swirling around our heroes with twitchy gestures, alluring voices, and occasionally skeletal faces as they start playing on our heroes’ insecurities and breaking up their bonds. Which is painful to see as this trio have been through a lot, and up until this point in the episode, have gotten to that perfect team point of knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses, putting their heads together, acting as one. They’re a well oiled party who have been through quite a few rolls of the dice. Here, it all starts tearing down. Wil fights it. Amberle fights it. Eretria, though, she’s still the one with the most doubts.

In lashing out at the others, she’s accidentally cut, and that’s when her blood starts floating in the air and that quote again kicks into her head. So she runs over to the giant juicer, slams her hand on its needlepoint, and squirms as her blood runs down its edges and the pillar of Bloodfire appears. I love this. Not only is it a gorgeous sequence, especially with the added layer of Wil fighting and slaying the Guardians with the Elfstones, but it again shows Eretria rising above her doubts and throwing in with her friends. She’s a part of this, and she’s done running away.

And then it punches us right in the gut. Amberle steps into the Bloodfire to retrieve the Seed…and then the pillar just vanishes, taking her with it. When he turns to Eretria, she’s slumped on the floor. No response. No pulse. Seemingly bled dry. Everything he’s gained over this season is gone as he just sits there cradling Eretria, tears in his eyes, with no clue what to do now. Yeah yeah, I’m sure she’ll be fine, but it’s still a great cliffhanger to cut us out on.

Now we get to Arborlon, where things are a mess. Ander knows his claim to the throne will be challenged by Kael and her fellow senators, so he hatches a plan with Commander Tilton. What he doesn’t know is that he’s being fully deposed and chained up in the dungeon. Tilton goes through with her plan, meeting up with Slanter, King of the Gnomes, and offering him a treaty to fight against the Dagda Mor alongside the other elves. I didn’t mention Slanter in my review of episode 6. Heck, I didn’t mention much in my review of episode 6. It had many, many problems that deserved fixating on. I’m not huge on the makeup design of the gnomes but, like trolls, I do like them being a radiation-mutated offshoot of humanity, with a very Morlocks vibe in their white clothes and tunneling gear. The Riddick goggles are a great touch, too. Slanter returns to the kingdom and agrees to the treaty, but only under the rule of King Ander, and Kael has lost her bid for power. I really dig the rise of Ander. He’s always been a likeable character, but I like how they kept him looming in the background, always acting as support to his brother and niece, then suddenly dropped this weight of responsibility on his shoulders. I like that it’s taken some time for him to warm to it, but pulling this off is a great first step under his rule.

My least favorite thread of the week is Bandon. His connection to the Dagda Mor still seems to be in effect as he ignores Allanon’s instructions to start building barriers in his mind. As visions of a leering Scorpius Harvey Dagda Mor keeps sliding into his vision, quietly commanding him to kill and maim and take down those who don’t respect him, Bandon starts folding to it. First, he nearly kills Ander during a strange and forced scene of sword practice. Then he brings about yet another TRIGGER WARNING scene of sexual violence. Because really, show. Seriously, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph. They’ve been building for a while a quiet romance between Bandon and Catania, the handmaiden of Amberle. Here, they finally have their kiss, then get heavier, as as he writhes atop her, Bandon starts choking her out, his leer matching that of the Dagda Mor. It doesn’t go away as, after Allanon has Catania taken away to safety, Bandon starts obsessing over her and demanding to have her back. I get it, he’s been corrupted and is having this evil stuff done though him, but it’s still a really disturbing and nasty place for any series to go, let alone one that’s supposed to be an adaptation of a book many people first discovered even before they hit their teens.

I raised the question in the last episode of whether Bandon was being set up to replace Allanon, and how this felt like a strangely early spot so early in the series to have it go that direction given how key to the books Allanon has often been. As the two start fighting and flinging magic at one another, and Allanon is forced to knock Bandon out, I wonder if what they’re really setting up is an early failure. A replacement who doesn’t work out and makes Allanon wary of the idea of forcing his life on a new pupil, which can definitely be called back to in future seasons when such a plot (according to Dayna tossing Heritage my way) is likely to occur. I can go with that as it is an interesting thread, I’m just really not fond of how it’s executed in this episode. Manu Bennett continues to shine as Allanon, though, and his rage, his disappointment, his sorrow, all bottled up as he focuses on the threat at hand, it’s magnificent.

And it brings us to the final scene of the episode, as Allanon, Ander, Slanter, and elves and gnomes alike gather at the base of the Ellcrys, as we follow the last leaf as it drifts to the ground and burns away. Cut to the Dagda Mor as his henge flares and he roars in victory, which is matched by cheers from his now complete horde.

Bring it on, finale.

The Shannara Chronicles airs Tuesday nights on MTV at 9 pm Central and can also be viewed online at http://www.mtv.com/shows/shannara.

Noel can be found on Twitter as @NoelCT.

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