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Understanding amplifiers is key to Shadow and Bone season 2

Here’s what you need to know

In an image from Shadow and Bone season 1, Alina Starkov (Jesse Mei Li) stands wearing a cloack with her left hand outstretched and touching the nose of a great stag. Magic light radiates out from the stag and surrounds them. Photo: Netflix
Sadie Gennis is the managing editor of Polygon. She’s been covering TV and entertainment for nearly 15 years, with her work appearing in TV Guide, Variety, and Vulture.

Shadow and Bone has a lot of complex lore, blending storylines and mythology from all seven of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books. Season 2 puts one particular aspect of Grisha culture at the heart of things, as Alina (Jessie Mei Li) and Mal (Archie Renaux) take on the mission of tracking down amplifiers in order to destroy the Fold. Their quest uncovers startling truths that create ripple effects that go far beyond the anticipated and set the stage for a potential third season that would wade into new Grishaverse territory.

Understanding the history of amplifiers and how they work is key to understanding this season of Shadow and Bone — particularly the ending. So let’s break down everything you need to know about amplifiers, including that final twist.

What is an amplifier?

Amplifiers can be traced back to Ilya Morozova, one of the first known Grisha. Hundreds of years ago, Morozova set out to create a way of increasing Grisha power to help them better protect themselves from persecution — which is the same line of faux altruism Kirigan hides his own hunt for power behind. Also known as the Bonesmith, Morozova used merzost and his finger bones to create impressively powerful animals that, when killed and fused into a Grisha’s body, boosts their power. At the moment the amplifier is fused with a Grisha, they’re able to see the creature’s final memories, which sounds like a very unpleasant experience since these tend to be the animal’s POV of being murdered.

While rare, there are several amplifiers in existence, including humans, such as Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) and General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), whose bones can also be used to create amplifiers. However, this practice is considered heresy for obvious reasons.

The extent to which an amplifier magnifies a Grisha’s power varies depending on the animal. Some only increase a Grisha’s power a minimal amount. There are three legendary amplifiers — Morozova’s beasts — that are so powerful, though, that most believe they only exist in children’s stories. But like so much Ravkan folklore, these stories are firmly rooted in truth.

Because amplifiers were created using merzost, Grisha only ever take one amplifier in their lifetime, believing that having multiple would cause them to lose control of their powers. But with so much at stake, Shadow and Bone season 2 finds Alina racing to collect all three of Morozova’s amplifiers, convinced that she’s destined to bring them together to destroy the Fold, regardless of the risk to herself.

What are Morozova’s amplifiers?

In an image from Shadow and Bone season 1, an angry Alina Starkov (Jesse Mei Li) stands glowering wearing a formal dress inside a tent. Two stag antlers protrude out of her clavicles. Photo: Netflix

The stag

The stag played a prominent role in the first season of Shadow and Bone. Alina dreamed of the creature throughout the season, but it was Kirigan who led the hunt for it — not to destroy the Fold, as he claimed, but to expand it and further establish his control over Ravka.

In the books, it’s said the stag is part of “the making of the heart of the world,” which is the source of all Grisha power. Ravkan folklore also paints the stag as a kind being who grants wishes and can talk. Unfortunately, that last part is not true — though the stag’s benevolence is.

When Mal and Alina find the stag, Alina discovers she doesn’t need to kill it, since the stag chooses to share its power with her. While she’s in the process of bonding with the stag, Kirigan and his supporters arrive and shoot Mal up with arrows. Alina is then given the choice: save Mal or prevent Kirigan from killing the stag. A distressed Alina chooses Mal, and Kirigan decapitates the mythic stag as a grieving Alina watches on.

Kirigin forces David (Luke Pasqualino) to fuse the stag’s antlers into Alina’s upper chest, but they don’t fully absorb into her body. Horrifyingly, the antlers remain protruding out of her clavicles. Kirigan also has a small piece of antler embedded into his own hand to forge a connection allowing him to control Alina’s powers. (In the books, David makes an unbreakable collar for Alina, which is enough for the Darkling to control her powers and saves us all from the disturbing imagery of chest antlers.)

[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for Shadow and Bone season 2.]

Once Kirigan and Alina are inside the Fold, she takes back control of her abilities when she cuts the bit of antler out of his hand. With the stag’s power now her own, the rest of the antlers are fully absorbed into Alina’s body (hallelujah). However, some residue of the stag remains in Kirigan’s hand, creating a psychic link between him and Alina that persists until Baghra cuts off his hand in her dying moments in season 2.

The sea whip

From left to right, Tolya (Lewis Tan), Mal (Archie Renaux), Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy), and Alina (Jessie Mei Li) stand knee deep in a water-filled cave in Shadow and Bone season 2. Toylya holds a sword, Tamar an axe, and Mal a gun, while Alina’s hands are bar her side signaling them to hold their places. Photo: Dávid Lukács/Netflix

The second of Morozova’s beasts is the sea whip. With the help of Nikolai (Patrick Gibson) and his crew, Mal and Alina track down the ice dragon in the caves of a remote island. Alina gives the order to capture it alive, confident that the sea whip will choose to bestow its power on her the same way the stag did. But when the sea whip attacks Mal, Alina kills it — once again choosing an amplifier’s death to preserve Mal’s life. Alina has two of the sea whip’s scales fused into her body, though unlike the antlers, they remain visible on her wrist like an embedded bracelet.

In the books, we’re given a bit more backstory on the sea whip. The legend says the creature is a cursed dragon prince named Rusalye. Forever stuck in the form of the sea serpent, Rusalye is made to guard the waters bordering the Bone Road, a northern portion of the True Sea. While this tale may seem tragic, Rusalye isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure: According to folklore, Rusalye routinely kidnapped women to be his underwater companions, but since there was nothing to feed them beneath the sea, they all starved to death.

The firebird

This is where things get complicated and a bit weird. The last of Morozova’s beasts is the firebird. But the firebird isn’t the third amplifier; Mal is.

A closeup image of Archie Renaux as Mal in Shadow and Bone. Photo: David Appleby/Netflix

Wait. How is Mal the firebird?

As it turns out, people just assumed the firebird was the third amplifier. Joke’s on them, though, since the third amplifier was Baghra’s previously unmentioned sister.

In season 2, Baghra reveals that she’s Morozova’s daughter, but that he never accepted her due to her shadow abilities. When Baghra’s sister broke her cherished clay swan, the only gift her father ever gave her, Baghra lost control of her powers and killed her. Morozova resurrected the girl using merzost and his finger bone — the same way he resurrected the stag and sea whip — and turned Baghra’s younger sister into the third amplifier. This power was then passed down through her bloodline, and ultimately to her descendant, Mal.

Being a Morozova is news to Mal, who remembers nothing about his biological family. But the signs were there all along: After his parents were killed in the war, a young Mal wandered the country looking for an orphanage and passed several before choosing Keramzin, which he says “felt like home.” Mal being subconsciously drawn to Keramzin, where Alina was, and his heightened tracking ability are consequences of him being one of Morozova’s amplifiers. This revelation leads Mal to question whether he and Alina are truly meant to be together romantically, or if he’s only a tool to serve in her journey to bigger, better things.

Overall, we have to say that Mal takes the revelation of being an amplifier fairly well — or at least a whole let better than Alina does. Having killed the stag and sea whip to save Mal, Alina’s devastated to learn she’s now supposed to kill Mal to save Ravka. Martyr Mal is ready to sacrifice himself, but Alina is still convinced there’s another way.

Unfortunately, the decision is taken out of Mal and Alina’s hands when he’s injured during the final battle with Kirigan. As Mal lays dying, Alina stabs him in the heart in order to use his amplifier powers to destroy the Fold. Alina then kills Kirigan and has Nina (Danielle Galligan) attempt to resurrect Mal using her Heartrender skills. But it’s Alina’s secret use of merzost that ultimately restores him. Though Mal gets his life back, he loses his abilities as an amplifier, and with it his tracking abilities and innate sense of his “true north.” Alina also must pay the cost of using merzost. In a big break from the books, Alina discovers she no longer has the powers of the saintly Sun Summoner but has taken on the feared shadow abilities of Kirigan.

So there isn’t even a firebird at all?

In the show, no. In the books, yes. However, the firebird isn’t entirely a bird.

According to myths, Sankta Vasilka became the first firebird after using her Grisha powers to weave herself wings that allowed her to escape a power-hungry sorcerer trying to force her into marriage. This total slay is what earned Vasilka the title of Saint of Unwed Women.

Firebird lore doesn’t stop there. The creature is considered the symbol of Ravka and tied tightly to its history. According to legends, the firebird’s flight path is what drew Ravka’s original borders and the Lantsov family is even said to be descended from the creature. (This myth makes a lot more sense knowing that the firebird has — or at least had — a human form.) There are also tales saying the firebird can weep diamond tears, its feathers heal any wound, its wings show you the future, and that it can sing an army to sleep like one big, fiery Jigglypuff.

The firebird briefly even appears in Ruin and Rising when it attacks Mal and Alina, who manage to track it down. But after Mal’s amplifier powers are activated, the firebird leaves them be, understanding they’re no longer a threat to its life.

The firebird has pretty impressive resume and skill set, so no wonder people thought it was the third amplifier instead of the lovesick himbo with a startlingly keen sense of direction.