The newest season of Shadow and Bone is full of some… big surprises, to say the least.
Put simply, the second season of Netflix’s YA adaptation doesn’t just adapt the next book in the series. No, it pulls from the next two books — along with some tangential adventures created just for the show, in order to give every part of the massive cast some screen time. It’s a lot of characters and a lot of plot, but we’re homing in on the heart of the show: Sun Summoner Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and tracker Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux).
Their romance was a cornerstone of the books, but not without criticism from fans, who would’ve rather seen Alina smooch the brooding Darkling or the charming Nikolai instead of dealing with Mal’s jealous ass. The first season of the show ironed out some of the more contentious parts of Mal and Alina’s relationship, turning it into a deep friendship we could actually root for. But where does it go from here? How does season 2 handle this version of Mal and Alina? And does it work?
Three Polygon staffers sat down to talk about all the big changes to the Grishaverse’s most important — and somehow most controversial — couple.
[Ed. note: This post contains massive spoilers for the Grishaverse books and both seasons of Shadow and Bone.]
Nicole: Should we share which books we’ve read, or if we’ve read the books? I can go first: I’ve read the Six of Crows duology… twice. Love that series. Then I went back to read the original Grishaverse trilogy, starting with Shadow and Bone, which I thought was fine. I haven’t read any of the King of Scars books.
Petrana: Like many people, I also started with Six of Crows and its sequel, which rule. And then I went back to the main trilogy, which as Nicole said, is incredibly and deeply fine — Leigh Bardugo’s writing only gets better from that first book, which suffers from stereotypical YA protagonist energy. And I also read the King of Scars books, which I adore, because I adore Nikolai and Zoya, both of whom are heavily featured in them. Some people don’t like them, because they get in the weeds about the Grishaverse politics, but that was a feature, not a bug, to me.
Austen: I’ve definitely got the shortest answer here since I haven’t read any of the books at all. So I’ll be coming at this with the show’s two seasons as my only context.
Petrana: I want to kick things off by talking about the foundation of Mal and Alina that we got in season 1 — and how much better it was than the books. One of the big things about the books that always aggravated me (and many others out there) is that Mal and Alina just weren’t very good friends! When we first meet them, Alina is like, Wow, Mal is so handsome and cool and all the girls love him… Can’t believe he is friends with a brown-haired brown-eyed scrawny nobody like me! (Told you that first book suffers from YA protagonist energy.) And when Alina gets whisked off to the Little Palace, Mal gets really angry that she dares leave him. That jealousy only continues and gets worse throughout their entire relationship. It makes any tension they have superficial, and ruins the friends-to-lovers dynamic because they just aren’t good pals!
But the first season of the show completely eliminates that jealousy and weird petty tension. Mal is not a handsome cool guy, but a scrappy lad, cut from the same cloth as Alina. They just make more sense as a duo. They have a devotion and dedication to each other that won’t be hindered by stupid jealousy. Any romantic feelings they have are built on years and years of friendship that actually feels like it’s there! Show Malina is far superior to book Malina.
Nicole: Hello, it’s me, a “many others out there,” who also found Mal aggravating in the books — for all of the same reasons that Petrana mentions.
That foundation of loyalty and dedication made much more sense to me in the show, and really foregrounded the storytelling as a romantic drama. In the books, I was more into the idea of the love triangle, and the notion that maybe one of Alina’s other suitors could be a better fit for her. The show had me fully invested in Malina, by divesting of the petty jealousy and “I’m unworthy” subplots and tropes from the OG book trilogy, and making it clear that the two had a foundation of deep friendship.
It’s also worth pointing out that Archie Renaux gives a really great performance of down-to-earth scrappiness that makes his character more of a Will Turner type. There is something enduring about the “man who will follow his love interest to the ends of the Earth” trope that just works for me. It’s always been a very romance-forward plot, but I think there’s something beautiful to the idea that you’d chase your best friend — your chosen family — to the ends of the Earth too.
(I won’t get ahead of myself, but this is also part of why the second season unraveled for me too.)
Austen: I actually do more or less like their relationship at the beginning of the show, but mostly the parts we don’t see. I’m on board with the orphanage storyline and the idea of these two scrappy troublemakers who have been friends as long as they can remember; it’s a great setup. But by the time we met them in season 1 there was so much flirting that I was genuinely confused about them for a while. I mean, I get the whole “best friends” thing but in the brief time they’re together those air quotes are doing some heavy lifting. But even that’s good enough of a setup that it makes Alina’s infatuation with Aleksander and the business of the Little Palace a surprise that makes sense, and Mal’s turn toward total simp at the end of the season understandable and fun.
My problems with their relationship really start in season 2, where the show seems genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of them together. In fact, it doesn’t take more than a few episodes before Alina’s excitedly (fake) betrothed to Nikolai. So with all our season 1 feelings in the open, how do you feel like the show did with moving that relationship forward and maintaining it?
Petrana: Mmmmmmmmmmm, I am of two minds on this. On one hand, I don’t like how fast-tracked it all felt. This season stuffed in two books and an extra plotline and just didn’t give any of those big plot points time to breathe. It’s a huge whiplash to go from Mal and Alina having a “Gasp! There was only one bed!” moment and then her getting ready for her engagement party in, like, three episodes.
However, for the most part, I am glad they tweaked the source of tension between Mal and Alina. There has to be some middle-of-the-story hurdles to overcome. In the books, this was jealousy. Mal resented Nikolai and Alina’s fake engagement and was so mad about it that he joined a fight club to channel his rage. He gets the most cringe tattoo in the entire world because he is so angsty. They cannot have a conversation without him blowing up.
But in the show, the tension shifts to Alina ready to do anything and everything for Ravka, and Mal wanting to be at her side but also understandably not wanting her to destroy herself. I love that dynamic in fiction. Love a “I would follow you to hell and back, but I wish you’d stop going there.” That’s some good shit! If only… they… did it better…
Nicole: I think it’s hysterical that the show made time to give us an “only one bed” moment — you might say the show did not leave any chances untaken — only to sea whip us across the face with a full two books of plot, plus new Six of Crows activity.
I don’t remember a whole lot of specifics from the second book, just the broad strokes. Because the season dropped the jealousy subplot, it still feels like an improvement in that it moves away from early-aughts tropes that have not necessarily stood the test of time. (I still can’t decide whether I’m happy or upset that it got rid of Mal’s incredible “I am become a blade” tattoo.)
But it’s a funny contrast against the plot points that the season does choose to replicate on screen, and how it metabolizes them into the Malina relationship. The season moves so quickly that it makes me wonder what purpose some of these plot beats serve, beyond “this is how the original story went.” The fake Nikolai marriage plot is a blip. Vasily Lantsov’s participation is so brief, he kidnaps Mal — and then Mal simply shows up later once they’re hunkered underground, which contributes to a tiny bit of angst. That would have felt substantial, were that section of the story extended so that his loss was felt, or if the season emphasized the tenuousness of the insurgency and how it put Alina at a major disadvantage, but it didn’t!
It’s a pretty good distillation of the season’s repeated missteps: perfunctory inclusion of plot information, rushed through quickly. Romance plots that are more or less fenced in by these quick plot beats. It stops feeling like how people actually interact with each other.
Austen: I love hearing that there was so much jealousy in the books both because that sounds exhausting and kind of horrible and because it explains why it seemed like there was such a massive hole in this love triangle for me. It just seems like they took the jealousy out (great choice, excellent work!) but didn’t replace it with anything at all. It feels like, in an attempt to remove some of the unnecessary tension, they got rid of all the tension entirely, and now there’s just some casual flirting in all directions and everyone moves on with their day because they’ve got a shadow wizard to fight.
I think your thoughts about unnecessary plots and baffling decisions on what to keep are dead on, Nicole. Why not just skip the fake marriage entirely if it doesn’t lend anything else to the story? Or better yet, since it’s mostly used as a tease for the next season, why not just save the whole plotline for the interminable and meandering final episode?
Either way, we could probably spend a hundred of these responses on the little ways this relationship could have changed, but I want to see you two yell about the big ones: Let’s talk about the firebird.
Petrana: We were robbed of an actual bird! Because in the books there is an actual bird. It is just one big fiery red herring. Bird aside, they do find out Mal is the third amplifier and they do go through the song and dance of Mal being like, Babe, you gotta kill me, and Alina being like, Nauuuur, there must be another way!
However — and this is one of the few Malina interactions that the books did better — Alina does end up killing Mal, but not when he is already dying. That was a cop-out!
Nicole: Yeah, the modifications to the ending were odd, and seemed like they were intentionally setting up a third season. I understand that impulse to keep the main characters in play, and I do think they made some interesting changes, at least in the abstract. But I also really liked the third book’s ending, which allowed Mal and Alina to actually settle down — Mal’s dream! — while also subverting the Chosen One trope, by stripping Alina of her magical abilities and instead having those Sun Summoner powers distributed to others. In a season that is quite literally bookended by this all-encompassing romantic love, it feels like a lost opportunity for the show to say something about the friction between power and the intimacy of a simple life.
Given this turn, and the cop-out with Alina killing Mal you mentioned — it seems like they were trying to do something poetic there about how many times she tried to learn “the cut,” only to have it turn out tragically. But I miss the Alina that did horrible things because she had to; she was a more interesting, less flat character. It’s sort of funny how this season really laid out a Star Wars-esque black-and-white sense of morality for its main characters. I think this lack of emotional depth and complexity is actually what I feel most robbed of.
Petrana: What I keep coming back to is the fact that the ending where Mal and Alina part ways in order to keep ’em around for season 3 could make sense — if they had remotely built up to it. Everything just happened so fast, which I guess is what happens when you’re stuffing in two books’ worth of plot and trying to set up the fan-favorite book in the next season.
Unlike the books, where Alina fakes her own death and she and Mal take over their orphanage, the show ends with Mal losing his weird psychic tracker bond with Alina and deciding that means he doesn’t??? love her the same way??? Anyway, he takes up the Sturmhond privateer identity and sails off into the night, while Alina presumably keeps on being engaged to Nikolai and becoming a figurehead for Ravka.
Here is the thing: I think I would’ve liked the changed ending, if it felt more like the decision was based on two of them trying to figure out who they are without each other. They’ve been through hell together and maybe they just both need a moment to reflect on who they are and what they want out of life, without the pressures of war and whatnot. However, that is the sort of thing that needs waaay more lead-up, because right up until the last episode, Mal was literally willing to die for Alina. And you’re telling me that was only because of some magical bond?!
Austen: This is exactly the point that bothers me most about the second season’s finale. Undermining the show’s entire central love story in service of either a third season that should just be about the Crows anyway, or a misplaced sense of romantic tragedy. Which is a catastrophic choice that makes the whole thing feel pointless — especially when the romance was a little lacking already.
Petrana’s exactly right that there’s a real chance at something interesting with the setup to separate them. By giving them each time apart to develop as people, the show could have found something interesting to say about the way love and couples function in YA literature and how often they’re nothing but an extension of Chosen One plotlines. Instead, the show does the opposite, letting us know that they were never in love to begin with, Mal just came from a weird family and was secretly a bird. But a quick stab to the chest and he realized that Alina never meant anything to him to begin with.
This is like ending the season on an “it was all a dream” twist, except worse. Rather than the whole thing being a dream, we’re told that their whole relationship really did happen, it just didn’t matter at all.
Petrana: I guess the one thing that can be said of this ending is that it at least keeps Alina and Mal in play for a hypothetical third season. The showrunners have already pulled the Crows back for this storyline, so why not put Mal and Alina in the Crows’ story somehow? I don’t know. They gotta keep ’em around, but also tossing them in a cottage in the countryside of Ravka and having most of the world think they are dead wouldn’t really let them be main players at all.
The characters in Shadow and Bone make a lot of sacrifices for their causes… and I guess also for a third season, should that manifest.
Shadow and Bone season 2 is out on Netflix now.