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mal and alina standing on a ship, close together Photo: Attila Szvacsek/Netflix

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How did Shadow and Bone season 2 mess up its ships so badly?

The series is known for its romantic ships, but the season rushes through them

Shadow and Bone season 2 starts with a bang — or to be more accurate, with a kiss. Mal and Alina finally lock lips, paying off the sexual tension the show built toward after a season of Mal tracking and simping for his best friend. Though it took a corny pickup line to get the two together, I still rewound and watched the moment again. Finally the two figured it out.

I had been waiting for this moment: Season 1 established Mal and Alina’s deep friendship and loyalty to one another. And their romance, in season 2, acts as a grounding and familiar force contrasted against the magical — and often violent — storytelling that dominates the TV adaptation of the Grishaverse. I’m also just a sap for young adult and new adult romances, where emotions are heightened and characters are learning about themselves through the process of falling for someone else. Set these romances against the backdrop of intense action — young people who are fighting for their lives and their countries — and it’s a pressure cooker for entertaining drama.

But Shadow and Bone season 2 promptly loses the thread in its portrayals of romance, by juggling so many romantic arcs that none of them really get to shine, let alone truly burn. This is largely because it is adapting so many source texts — Siege and Storm, Ruin and Rising, plus some novella content for the Six of Crows crew. Packed in there are so many couples: Jesper and Wylan, Nina and Matthias, Genya and David, of course Mal and Alina (and perhaps briefly Alina and Nikolai), and Kaz and Inej, though their relationship is less straightforward than the others. The adaptation makes some baffling choices around the way it compresses its romantic plots to fit into one season of television.

[Ed. note: This story discusses romantic pairings throughout Shadow and Bone season 2, including a spoiler regarding Mal and Alina in the finale.]

jesper on top of wylan; wylan looks shocked as jesper puts a finger to his own lips, indicating that they should be quiet Image: Netflix

The main issue is simply the volume of information the season runs through. This many couples would be a generous number, even for a show that isn’t also speeding through so many books’ worth of action-packed material. But the season barrels forward, hitting plot beat after plot beat in a juggling act that makes the script feel frenetic. Each of these romantic arcs gets compressed to fit into smaller timelines, which makes every single one of them feel rushed. Take Jesper and Wylan: The show introduces Wylan for just a few episodes before the two become romantically entangled, concocting a one-night-stand backstory in an attempt to make their chemistry more believable.

When played like this, each pairing is all flame but no sizzle, as if we’re meant to believe a fire can roar without any kindling. Romance narratives tend to follow a familiar pattern: Couples meet, fall in love — whether through weathering challenges together or through simple flirtation — encounter an obstacle, then find a way to be together again. A romance’s most climactic beats are its most memorable, like the Pride and Prejudice scene where a rain-drenched Mr. Darcy proclaims his love or the Mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians where Rachel makes her case. But it’s ultimately the interstitial moments where stories create tension and anticipation through intimacy and flirtation that give these pivotal scenes their payoff. It’s Mr. Darcy clearly doting on his younger sister and sharing witty flirtation with Lizzie Bennet despite their “hatred” of one another. It’s Rachel and Nick sharing drinks at a bar, flying together, and making loving eye contact at their friends’ over-the-top wedding.

I’m not suggesting that Shadow and Bone season 2 stand up to some of the most beloved romance films in recent history. But it’s worth pointing out how this season of the show dedicates minimal time to building rapport between romantic pairings — after all, there’s so much material to fit in — and instead pares down those romantic arcs to their most climactic moments, even though it had a whole season of TV to work with. As a result, it feels like the show’s couples are constantly going through some version of the Big Fight or the Grand Gesture. But without other scenes in between, where characters create tension and anticipation, those big moments don’t have the same payoff — making these couples’ romantic moments feel flat and perfunctory.

genya embraces david in a cold forest Image: Netflix

Genya and David suffer from this. Season 1 kicks off a slow burn, as Genya makes eyes at an oblivious David. It’s entirely believable that they’ve grown close over the years at the Little Palace. But there’s an enormous gulf between this season 1 moment to season 2 Genya sacrificing herself to the terrifying nichevo’ya to buy time for David’s escape in episode 3. The show implies the two bonded over being trapped within General Kirigan’s command, but doesn’t actually give much screen time to the moments they work together.

When the two reunite as part of Alina’s underground insurgency, David is suddenly much more forward and outspoken about chasing Genya down and voicing his feelings. Somewhere between finding his freedom and reuniting, he’s realized he has romantic feelings for her — and that her act of sacrifice clarified these feelings. But without more context, without getting to see their relationship blossom (and given his horrifying actions toward Alina in the first season), it’s hard to buy in. Their short-lived romance is a bright spot in an otherwise dour series of episodes, but it also ends up feeling more obligatory than compelling or believable.

In this season, even Mal and Alina’s tenuous romance unravels. As ever, Mal sticks by Alina’s side, helping her locate the amplifiers so that she becomes powerful enough to destroy the Fold. They share a few tender moments before jumping into something dangerous, or after learning pivotal news. Shadow and Bone continues to revisit the same footage of Mal and Alina as children laying in a meadow together. Despite a few convoluted subplots — including Mal’s brief kidnapping — the two ultimately progress as a couple, growing apart as the friction intensifies between Alina’s power and Mal’s desire for a normal life.

kaz standing very close to inej Image: Netflix

But the couple’s separation at the end of the season is completely out of the blue — especially as a grand gesture, without any lead-up or smaller, contemplative plot beats in between. Evidently Mal’s magical bloodline fated him to meet Alina, and he wants to know if he still likes her now that his tracking impulses are gone. After nearly two full seasons of constantly chasing her down, he wants to leave her behind. It’s hard to reconcile the gulf between this Mal and the Mal that was willing to die for Alina just an episode before — especially in a show that treated this relationship as its focal point. Once again, the show seems to assume big moments work as emotional inflection points, even if they just exist in a vacuum.

Should the show be renewed for a third season, there’s still space for some of these other couples to grow. Kaz and Inej, the heart of the Crows crew, are also two who have endured trauma, for whom intimacy represents a significant hurdle. The sexual tension between the pair has built up over the course of two seasons, culminating in one of Inej’s most famous lines: “I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.” It sets up a challenge for the third season to fulfill — hopefully the show can take the time to undress their romances the same way.

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