[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for Shadow and Bone season 2 and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books.]
From its very inception, Netflix’s Shadow and Bone adaptation took great liberties with its source material, combining characters and storylines from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and the Six of Crows duology. In its first season, the show improved upon the books in many ways, leaving fans optimistically curious about what Shadow and Bone would do with the source material next.
Fans were particularly eager about the introduction of one of the Grishaverse’s most beloved characters: Sturmhond, the privateer “don’t call him a pirate” persona of Nikolai Lantsov, the prince of Ravka. Much of Siege and Storm follows Alina and Mal’s journey on Sturmhond’s ship, as they track down the sea whip on the Darkling’s orders and later escape from his control in a mutiny led by Sturmhond. While fans love Nikolai — enough so that he got his own duology — they also loved this time with Sturmhond. However, the condensed timeline of Shadow and Bone season 2, which covers the entirety of Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising, means that Nikolai reveals his true identity in episode 3, giving us only one episode of Sturmhond, Mal, and Alina’s sailing adventures.
It was a disappointing turn for fans of Sturmhond, who enjoy seeing the more rakish and carefree side of Nikolai that he gets to be under the privateer persona. Patrick Gibson, who plays Nikolai, said he also found it “hard to let go of Sturmhond” this season. “I had so much fun exploring the differences and the similarities between those two characters and finding that line where Nikolai starts and Sturmhond ends,” Gibson told reporters. But even after Nikolai sheds his alter ego, Gibson enjoyed finding ways of “bringing little elements of Sturmhond into Nikolai as he starts to own his power a little bit.”
In the books, Sturmhond’s royalty reveal isn’t the end of the privateer’s saga. The Shadow and Bone trilogy concludes with Nikolai ascending to the Ravkan throne, but he never retires his Sturmhond persona, even reappearing under the guise to work with Crows in Crooked Kingdom. This is where the Netflix series makes its most drastic deviation from the books yet: Shadow and Bone season 2 ends with Nikolai ascending to the throne, yes, but also finds him passing off the Sturmhond identity entirely to Archie Renaux’s Mal.
If having Sturmhond reveal his princely identity so soon was surprising to readers, Mal becoming Sturmhond probably gave fans a shock powerful enough to restart a heart. The twist is a complete break from the ending of the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which saw Alina and Mal settle down in the countryside to enjoy their happily ever after. But showrunner Eric Heisserer sees the Sturmhond change as a felicitous way to set up both Nikolai’s next challenges as king of Ravka and Mal’s exploration of identity after the revelation he was — and is no longer — the third of Morozova’s amplifiers.
For his entire life, Mal never questioned that his place was by Alina’s side. He was singularly fueled by his dedication to do anything for her, even if it meant sacrificing his own life. But after Alina destroys the Fold and he’s resurrected without his amplifier abilities, Mal finds he’s “lost his identity,” Heisserer told Polygon. “He realized that he had something that he was destined for, and fulfilled that role and had an emptiness of purpose that he needed to fill. And over the course of the season, I think we did our best to showcase his interest and affinity for sea travel, for the Volkvolny, and Hummingbird, and all that. So for him to have the opportunity to step into that and take on this role, we thought it was fitting and gave Mal a new dimension to explore and an ability for him to get comfortable with who he is before he decides to come back and pursue Alina.”
And yes, you read that right. Of course Mal will one day return to Alina. The pair are canonically endgame! For her part, Jessie Mei Li, who leads the cast as Alina, loves that the couple gets this time apart before their inevitable happy ending. Li sees this as proof of how “healthy” their relationship is. “It reminds me of a childhood romance of my own. You know, that person that you care so much about, but you do go your separate ways and you need to come back together when you choose to be together,” Li shared with reporters. “I thought it was incredibly mature and a really great choice from the writers. […] It’s so exciting to think of Mal as having his own trajectory, his own story, so that we see more of him outside of Alina, because he’s such a great character.”
And as for Nikolai, Heisserer did say the king had to “[retire] the identity of Sturmhond, at least for the foreseeable future” [emphasis our own]. So we’ll continue to hold on to our dream of seeing Nikolai in the privateer regalia again, this time once Mal is the one ready to shed a persona and embrace his true identity — one that will bring him right back to Alina’s side.
Additional reporting by Petrana Radulovic.