written by Dayna Abel and Noel Thingvall
DAYNA: Welcome to The Shannara Chronicles Season One post-mortem! Noel and I are gonna go over the good, the bad and the demonic for this adaptation of Terry Brooks’ The Elfstones Of Shannara. SPOILERS, SPOILERS EVERYWHERE, OH GOD THEY’RE IN MY ORIFICES Noel how about you start us off on a positive note while I take several showers?
NOEL: My favorite thing about the series, by far, is the anachronistic world-building of a high fantasy setting that’s grown atop the ruins of our own. Humanity almost died. I don’t know the entire specifics of how as I haven’t yet read the Word & Void and Genesis Of Shannara books (easy on spoilers, please, as I still want to), but I do know from the original trilogy, which was written in the midst of the Cold War, that it was sudden and nukes were involved. What humanity survived mutated along various branches, leading to trolls, gnomes, etc, and what unaffected humans survived had to fight for survival in a world they no longer remembered the history of. I absolutely love how the series not only captures this, but emphasizes it. Lost cities in the form of vine-covered Seattle. Ancient maps in the form of once widely available transit guides. Clothes of leather and tunics cut in modern styles. Dungeon quests among sewer systems. My two favorites of this season were finding the town that still has working generators and uses that power to hold nightly raves, and wandering the dead halls of a high school still decked out for a reunion likely cut short by Armageddon. The world is not short on high fantasy epics, nor on post-apocalyptic fantasies. Shannara was always clever in how it fused the two, and it’s great to see how well the TV series has captured it. And yes, I even liked the music choices, openly embracing the anachronistic beats of techno and pop rock, often blending it with the more classical score and some great folk tracks.
I also like how elf culture is entirely separate from this, and yet anachronistic in its own way in their art deco designs and attitudes. They returned and rose up after the fall of humanity, so they’re not only free of its influence, but look down on it as a lesser, failed society of primitive screwheads. There’s a slickness and polish of affluence to their city, almost a snobbish entitlement in how their castle blooms atop a mountain surrounded by woods littered with roving humans who have to fight and scrape and thieve for any scraps of food and wealth they can get. They are the elite, who are slow to get it through their heads that the collapse of their world is imminent because they’re clad in their gowns and suits and lounging at stuffy parties. Everything is elegant, everything is pristine, because they have the luxury to make it so. Humanity, they don’t have that luxury anymore. They threw it away when they tore their world down.
Still, I think there’s more they could have done to incorporate scraps of the old world. Like have an elf or two who finds
muggle human culture compelling, or Eretria having a small collection of worn action figures, or Wil having a heavy metal poster on his wall even though he knows nothing of the music that band produced. While the old world is there, it’s still a separate, alien thing that’s always a surprise when it comes to light instead of its scraps continuing to linger in disparate threads. Which isn’t to say I don’t like what we get here, I just think it’s something another season could dig into even deeper.
DAYNA: Where do I even start? Good god, the cinematography should get a fucking Emmy. I mean it’s hard to make New Zealand look ugly, but every frame just popped. Huge kudos there. And the sets, oh man. Arborlon and the Ellcrys. Breathtaking.
The actors nailed it. All of them. I love Terry Brooks but he excels at scenery and has trouble making his characters feel like people, you know? You get past Heritage and they get a little cardboard. But man, everyone just amped the characters up to eleven, distinct personalities and motivations and just, I don’t even know how to say anything except nailed it. I enjoyed them more in the show than in the book, and I love that book.
I enjoyed the changes made to the characters to give them those personality injections. Wil has a droll comedic side, Amberle has moxie, Eretria has always been badass, Allanon is way more of a fighter, and for the most part the original characters were neat. I think where it failed to deliver was the villains, but we’ll get to that.
Playing up the post-apocalypse angle was a good move, as it’s part of what makes the Shannara books unique. I still can’t decide whether turning the San Francisco/Oakland sign into “SAFEHOLD” was groan-worthy or genius, but it was clever to say the least. I don’t entirely buy paper records surviving a nuclear apocalypse, but it didn’t draw me out of the narrative too badly.
Most of all, I adored the relationship between Wil, Amberle and Eretria. This was by far the show’s biggest strength, but it’s also its biggest liability, simply because I don’t think anyone recognized how refreshingly unique that portrayal was, nor did they count on the power of the shippers. Which they really should have, because MTV.
NOEL: Oh yes, we’ll definitely get to the villains. And yes, the hero cast is fantastic. I do think it took them a little while to grow and really show what they were going for, and I wonder if that’s why the ratings took a dip early. People kept thinking Wil was the typical Luke Skywalker when he isn’t. He’s not the hero of this story, he’s hero support. He’s not the key to beating the Big Bad, just key to getting the Seed where it needs to go. He has a humble, “golly-shucks” humor, and I love that, instead of this leading to him becoming the new champion of the people, as soon as the threat has been resolved, he’s all set to wash his hands of it and leave. He’s glad the world is saved, but devastated by what needed to be done to save it and everything that was lost in the process. This isn’t a life he wants, which makes me even more curious where a second season would go with him.
What I love is that the square-jawed, “always charging into danger” heroics were instead given to Amberle as she was the one often running down the wrong course as a way to learn the right one, and ultimately having to sacrifice herself to get there. I do have problems with how the show implemented this, often having her Pauline into extreme situations of peril where she’s brutally tortured and repeatedly threatened with rape, which we’ll especially get into more when we reach Cephelo. However, I do like how it starts the story, as she’s the most important person in the plot, the key to saving everything…and wait, whoa, where the hell did she run off to, quick everyone find her! That’s a great setup, and I like how they tie it to her heroism, that she thinks she’s protecting everyone by running away. I also like how they end her arc, with having to let go of everything that’s holding her back and accept that she can’t run from the one act that’s needed to save everyone. It’s a shitty situation she finds herself in, but damn if she isn’t going to hero up and face it head on. That’s what she does, she’s the hero, the last of the Chosen, the princess knight of Arborlon who will do anything to save her people. I just wish they didn’t feel they had to take it where they did in the middle, as none of what she does or where she goes in any way needed rape threats to get her there. I’ll maybe give them the torture chair, but even that was wildly misfocused in its motivations and rapidly devolved into pure trash.
The most compelling to me is definitely Eretria, yet it didn’t start that way. She was cool and I love the actress (Pan’s Labyrinth!), but it felt up front like they were trying so hard to push the badass “I’ve got a counter for every single thing you say” angle that it did become tiring. Around the time she had to break into Arborlon is when things started to take a turn. She was captured, yet was she was still being given chances by people she screwed over. It left her in a position she wasn’t used to, where people were showing her trust despite knowing her true nature, and she was beginning to show hesitation and regret as she continued screwing them over. And then came the zipline in the mountains, where she finally has to make that choice between having these friends and returning to the toxic family she thought she could never escape…and she chose her friends. Even then, she still had doubts and almost gave in to the allure of Utopia, but she still chose her friends. Loyalty, compassion, friendship. These all finally meant something to her and she became just as dedicated to the cause as the others, to the point of bleeding herself dry and sacrificing herself so they could keep going. That’s one hell of an arc.
As a trio, again, I wonder if people jumped ship early on because they thought it was just going to be a typical triangle with Wil swinging one way or the other. It took an interesting turn when he and Eretria slept together by episode four, stripping away the forced chastity we’re usually stuck with. That’s when I started paying closer attention. As it went along, he had his ups and downs with both, but they all kept working their issues out together. And instead of continuing to be rivals, Amberle and Eretria pulled close together as well. This became a genuine, unexpected exploration of a poly relationship where all three formed a tight emotional bond with one another, and when Amberle emerges from the Bloodfire, you don’t get the typical moment of her and Wil falling into one another’s arms, or her faltering as she sees him with Eretria. No, they all pull together in one big three-way embrace. Not only is this important in terms of representation, but it’s an improvement on the book. Dayna, am I wrong in remembering that Brooks largely had the relationship be between Wil and Amberle, and Eretria kinda became his rebound love in the end? Here, Eretria is an equal element of that relationship and in how they relate to her, and you know she and Wil won’t just go off and live happily ever after when he finds her, because they’ve both lost someone equally important to them and they’ll have to do some serious working out of how this affects any dynamic they continue to explore. If we get a season 2, seeing how this might play out is what intrigues me the most.
Before we go to the villains, Dayna, what did you think of the elves, the gnomes, and the twisted game of thrones everyone finds themselves in?
DAYNA: Political intrigue is not actually my favorite part of epic fantasy; I’m basically onboard for wizards and magical doohickeys and shit, aside from memorable characters. And I agree that Wil was more or less the Han Solo of the group and Amberle the hero with the inevitable fate, but Eretria was absolutely the one with the most personal growth in her arc. From sexy thief to noble heroine, from Amberle’s rival to her best friend, Eretria’s expanded role in the show made her steal every scene she was in. Ivana Baquero did an A+ job here.
Now, here’s where I think the showrunners fucked up the second-most (the rape threats and torture pulled me right off the show for half the episodes): the book is basically a budding romance between Amberle and Wil with Eretria as a consolation prize. The show chucked that and tied Eretria to the quest in an awesome way – the “Child Of the Armageddon” bit with her blood is an awesome original mystery/twist I’d love to delve into more – but they made her important to Wil and Amberle on top of the quest. That’s what really mattered. And yeah, as a bisexual woman in a polyamorous relationship, I was shipping PrincessRoverHalfling pretty hard because I haaaaaate love triangles, and hey! Representation!
But the big problem is that by giving us bisexual Eretria and hints of a poly relationship while knowing all the while what Amberle’s fate had to be in the end, it amounted to nothing more than another case of cheap queerbaiting, and I hated how inevitable that was. Amberle becomes the Ellcrys. That’s the whole point of her hero’s journey. You can’t change that. So why introduce something you know for a fact you can’t deliver on? I can’t even imagine what it was like for the PrincessRover shippers out there who didn’t read the novel and had no idea what was coming. I’m really angry that they had this thing that was so well-executed and equally well-received – so popular beyond their expectations but no way to deliver on those subtle promises once they realized it. I’m glad it was there, but goddamn was it ever just a huge pile of shitty queerbait.
NOEL: Before picking up on that great point, I’ll put a pin in my own raising of the political side of things. I loved the clever casting of old king John Rhys-Davies. There was a tiredness to Eventine, a contentment I love, but then the warrior king rose back to the surface as he held his throne. When he died, it was a big punch in the gut, and I love how they kept twisting that knife by keeping his impostor around for a while. In the last couple of posts, I got into the rise of the new King Ander, so I won’t repeat myself here. I want to like Commander Tilton and Councilor Kael, but they never really get fleshed out beyond their roles in the narrative, and we never get to know them as people. I still hate Prince Manbun and think he got exactly the fate he deserved, but that’s about it. Amberle’s boyfriend was killed early, the Asian soldier dude never got to do much before an abrupt death. The key players are cool, but the rest are just kinda there, like the faceless helmeted guards. I do also like Slanter, but the rest of the gnomes are just as uniform and indistinguishable as what few trolls we come across.
As to your point about queerbaiting, this is definitely where my ignorance comes into play, and reflecting on it some more, I very much agree with you. Not about having tied things to a relationship where someone dies. Death and tragedy are very much a part of storytelling and there’s been a movement to shame it and shield characters from it, which I do feel does more harm than it does good. That’s not to say “grimdark, kill ’em all”, as one still needs to be careful about how and why such things are done, and I do agree that this aspect was definitely dealt with poorly. Which is a shame, because I still like the inevitable fate of Amberle and how it ends things with Wil, but with Eretria, I was so focused on their strong bond that I didn’t realize that, yeah, there was no actual romance there, despite them teasing and suggesting such a thing, which is the very definition of queerbaiting. There’s no intimacy, no culmination of their feeling like both women have with Wil. The one and only moment of sexuality between them is the bath scene, from before Eretria made her choice, as she’s again using sex as a tool to try to control and screw people over. Aside from a few women making out during the rave which doesn’t count, the only other queer character we encounter is Zora, who isn’t exactly a positive as she’s A) a horrible person, B) yet another person Eretria preyed on, screwed over, and left behind, and C) is in just one episode before dying. Other than that, no, there are no other queer relationships on the show. I’d be hard-pressed to say which ones could have been improved by having been written as such as every single relationship ends in tragedy (Allanon and Pyria, Ander and Tilton, Eretria and Tye, Catania and Bandon, the Dagda Mor and the Changeling).
Which ties into a broader representation issue I mentioned all the way back in the comments of episode one. Aside from the Spanish Ivana Baquero and Maori Manu Bennett, there is zero ethnic diversity among the lead cast, which is weird because this is set in America. In the future! Why does Wil have to be a blue-eyed, blonde farmboy? Why can’t the royal family be POC or multiple generations of biracial? Yes, good, there are elves of color, but Tilton is, again, a minor, undeveloped character, and the one Asian dude is bumped off early. Even the rovers and inhabitants of Utopia were predominantly white. You know who, sadly, was the most diverse group in the series? The hunters who collected ears to sell as gnome boner tea. That’s not something to be proud of.
Dayna, now that we’re digging into the negatives, are you ready to take the full plunge into where this show was at its worst?
DAYNA: That’s very unfortunate phrasing, considering where it went, but yeah. Elfstones Of Shannara is a wonderful, sweeping fantasy epic. I don’t understand who looks at that and says “You know what this needs? Rape threats and torture.” I’m placing that blame squarely at the feet of Al Gough and Miles Millar, but do you know what truly breaks my heart? The countless interviews where Terry Brooks says he approved every change made for the sake of the adaptation. I’ve tweeted and emailed them all a couple times about why they felt this was necessary, but as of this writing, I’ve gotten no answer.
For me, personally, rape and torture have no place in my entertainment. Can it be written well? Sure, I suppose, if it’s handled respectfully with regards to the survivors. Granted, they never went so far as to actually rape Amberle thanks to some last-minute saves, but what the fuck was the point? To show off how evil Cephelo and Remo were? You said it yourself, we knew that already. It didn’t need reinforcing with a lazy and potentially triggering trope. Not to mention it was never addressed afterwards! Everyone acted like it never happened and then they had the gall to try to give Cephelo a Big Damn Hero moment. It was bullshit, it was thoroughly unnecessary, poorly handled and ultimately disrespectful to the audience. There are jackasses online who can mock “trigger warnings” all they want, but this was just thoughtlessly shoehorned in without considering how it would affect their audience. You don’t know who’s a rape survivor and how something like that could affect them. Completely, disgustingly unnecessary.
NOEL: I absolutely agree, and I think this speaks to a broader tonal issue for the show. For those who don’t remember, much of the crew for this series also worked on Legend Of the Seeker, a prior New Zealand-shot fantasy adventure series based on the Sword Of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind. I know he has his fans, but Goodkind also has a reputation for novels which are excessively cruel and filled to the brim with rape. I speak from experience as I made it through the first book okay as it’s still largely adventure-based, then started grinding gears on the second, then said fuck it all about forty pages into the third. His books are gross, cheap trash playing to some really nasty power fantasy fetishes. Surprisingly, the television series is wonderful, largely because it sheds most of the shock factor and ick, focusing on the fantasy adventure aspects and building new stories around them. It still had an edge to it, but the show was fun. The Shannara Chronicles is the reverse, where they’ve taken a fun book and started grafting all this gore and cruelty and rape to it. It’s like they forgot which Terry they were adapting, or they found the leftovers from one in a box and reused it on the next. It boggles my mind that this is a contrast which exists.
And yet, I do understand it to some degree. I don’t sympathize with Gough & Millar (writers I’ve really enjoyed in the past), nor Brooks over their defense of it, but I know how hard it is to sell certain shows in the current television market. I can see the pitch meetings in my head where they have to start jumping on trend after trend in order to find a network (unsurprisingly MTV) who will sign off. Game Of Thrones and Spartacus are popular? Let’s throw in rape, T&A, and levels of gore where every sword hit gushes out gooey blood, a character spends a literal minute of screen time beating someone’s head in with heavy chains, and one episode has so many decapitations it’s like they had a box of heads lying around with a note to use them before they expire. Saw and Hostel are hits with the teen crowd? Let’s have a spooky guy with a rickety torture chair. Mad Max is out? Let’s make the Rovers all nasty and punk up a band of hunters who collect ears.
Now, this isn’t always bad, as straying from the material is what gave us the expanded character of Eretria, as well as enhanced the post-apocalyptic angle we both enjoyed. And there are times – the hunters, the Dagda Mor, the gnomes – where I do think having a little bite and edge is a good thing. But it feels rushed and sloppy in how they just yank off in random directions without really thinking any of it through or exploring meaningful consequences. I’ve defended above the necessity of death and tragedy in storytelling, and there are still some here which are very effective, but they get so kill-happy that every single relationship ends in blood and pain. How much more poignant would it have been for Allanon to reunite with his former love Pyria, only to have to turn her away again because of his mission?. Instead, she’s ripped apart by a demon. How much more interesting would it have been for Tilton to survive only for her relationship with Ander to run into his unexpected rise to the throne and the political ramifications of continuing to openly see one another? Instead, she’s gutted by a possessed Arion in a capper which added nothing new to his thread and wasn’t required. Hell, even Eretria leaving behind old flames in the form of Zora and Tye lacks weight because they’re quickly killed off.
And then there’s rape. Yes, there are stories where exploring and examining rape and its effects is not only appropriate but important and necessary. Those stories are few and far between and need to be extremely careful about why and how they go where they do. Jessica Jones is a recent example of a show which explores this issue thoroughly and intelligently. The Shannara Chronicles is not. There was zero reason for any of the threatened rapes in this story, and as Dayna adds, zero consequence for any of it. It was pure shock value. If you want to make Cephelo a complicated character who ends on a hero moment, you don’t make him an evil rapist. You don’t. Period. You make him a selfish scoundrel always out for himself, because he then acts as a counterpoint for Eretria in terms of how she starts out and where she ends up. He chooses betrayal, she chooses loyalty.
That’s good. Making him a rapist completely ruins it, and again has nothing to do with any subsequent encounters with Amberle. You still want him to threaten her with something awful while she’s his prisoner? Fine. Have him pull a knife and talk about the value of her ears as an early setup for the elf hunters. As for his return and hero’s ending, that’s just complete bull. If we’re going to keep following Wil and Eretria for another season, why are you even killing Cephelo off when you can bring him back again when Eretria has fully settled into her path, as a reminder of the person she’s glad she no longer is? And as for old man Remo, I don’t even know what they were thinking with that. I went with the torture chair at first, because if they want to explore the cruel side of the elves’ rise to power and atrocities they left in their wake, that’s fine. But it didn’t need to be Amberle once again in peril, and for it to suddenly yank out of nowhere the direction it did was like someone defecating themselves mid-lecture and expecting you to still take them seriously. It was pathetic.
And then there’s Bandon.
DAYNA: Bandon is one of the original characters, and honestly, I…kind of liked his arc? A big part of Allanon’s story throughout the original trilogy was that he was getting too old for this shit and needed to find a successor to take up the protection of the Four Lands. It happens eventually, in The Druid Of Shannara, but I like the addition here of seeing what would have happened if Allanon had picked the wrong successor out of desperation.
Bandon, bless him, he does try, but the Dagda Mor got his hooks into him before Allanon could teach him to resist. It was just too much too soon for the poor guy, and in the end we have a brand new Warlock Lord. Which might be cool in a second season! I’ve said before that Sword Of Shannara works better as background legend. But if Bandon is the new Warlock Lord, it’d be a real treat to see a little of Sword and a little of Wishsong mixed together in a plot casserole. The audience is clearly invested in Wil and Eretria now, so I suppose they could end up being substitutes for Brin and Jair. Time jumps work great in the books, but I don’t think it’ll fly in a series which has unexpectedly vibrant, living characters upon whom the audience latched hard.
Wrapping things up a bit, if we get a Season Two of The Shannara Chronicles, what would you like to see the most and why is it Garet Jax?
NOEL: I like the idea of Bandon’s arc, the actor, and how they play him for the first half of his story. That’s good stuff, setting up a compelling character, the promise of a way out for Allanon, and they do make good use of his visions. Where they lose me is in his possession and corruption by the Dagda Mor. I don’t like it because then it makes the failure of a new druid entirely the result of an outside force taking control of Bandon instead of coming as a result of his own choices and how he chooses to use powers he’s being trained in. It’s just not compelling to me, and I further feel they do a disservice to Catania in terms of how she’s used. Her assault, the way she comes back to set him free, the scene of him bashing that guard’s head in, it all left a sour taste in my mouth and ruined for me an arc that I wanted to like. Setting all that aside and just accepting that he’s our new Big Bad, sure, I’ll go with it for a season, and I even like that he made off with that sword Arion fucked everything up over.
For season two, I mostly want them to get a much better handle on tone and be much more thoughtful about where they go with things, why they go there, and consequences which play out as a result. Story-wise, bringing in elements of Wishsong would be cool, especially as I love what they’ve done with music on this show and am eager to see how they’d execute that form of magic. I also want to see more of the world, actually walk among abandoned cities, some of which are likely being reclaimed and rebuilt. I want to get deeper into the gnomes and the trolls. I also want more of a fellowship quest just to pull together some of the oddball characters you can create in this genre mishmash world. And fuck yes, Garet Jax! They can take it even further with him being a master of all weapons given that the show has established old-world weapons are still around.
Overall, it’s a frustrating season. I really loved the first few episodes, they mostly won me back for the last few, but that middle stretch, where they dragged themselves down to unnecessarily deep pits of nastiness, that is a huge mar on the show, and none of the enjoyment I had with how things wrapped up was free from that sour aftertaste. I want to see more, but I challenge them to do it a hell of a lot better and smarter than how they went about things here.
DAYNA: Look, I just want more Eretria. They added so much to her and I want it explored. Besides, they let Amberle’s character branch out.
NOEL: And we’ll just leaf it at that.
DAYNA: Yeah, I’d make another tree pun but honestly, I’m stumped.
Thanks everyone, for reading this wall of text and letting us go off on The Shannara Chronicles. Noel, you did a great job subbing in for me, and I hope I can bribe you into reviewing the Shannara books as you give ’em a good re-read. Which you should do.
NOEL: No promises, but I’m thinking about it. Thanks to you and Made of Fail for the opportunity, Dayna. I’m glad I could help and it’s been nice being able to swing by the old haunt for a visit. I still have some great memories from my time here.
DAYNA: It was good to have you back, Noel. Hope to see you grace our website again.
Noel can be found on Twitter as @NoelCT.