Into the Badlands, S2 E3: “Red Sun, Silver Moon”
Written by Michael Taylor
Directed by Toa Frazer
“It doesn’t matter how brutal the world is, if you kill enough, it hollows you out.”
Blood spatter and philosophy go together like pizza and peanut butter – except on Into the Badlands, where questioning the meaning of life provides the words while the metallic clang of sword fighting plays the music. I am mixing metaphors for a reason. Who would think that a gory martial arts dystopian splatfest would actually, underneath it all, be about finding a better way to live? These two things would not seem to go together. Yet ethics zoom into sharpest focus wherever the worst human behavior appears. Badlands elevates itself above the brutality it depicts by layering a thoughtful conversation about how – and why – to live above all the bloodletting.
Let’s start with Sunny and Bajie. For one thing, these two need a theme song. What is the point of traveling through life all alone, without someone along for the journey who irritates the shit out of you? And snores. And keeps saving your ass. Without Bajie along, Sunny would not have to worry about finding a better life. Because he would be dead.
This week’s near death experience comes courtesy of a new character, Nathaniel Moon. In comparison to Sunny’s paltry 404 clipper tattoos, Nathaniel wears 999. Though he kills a few bounty hunters chasing Sunny and Bajie early in the episode, he’s saving his 1000th tatt for some really choice kill. He’s so good at what he does that he feels nostalgic for the days when killing was a challenge. Nathaniel represents the dangers of despair. Like Sunny, he searched for a better life. Also like Sunny, he found it with a woman and a baby. And just like Sunny, he lost the family that connected him to love and happiness. The heads of Nathaniel’s wife and baby ended up on his kitchen table courtesy of some enemy, which may explain why he takes such delight in squashing and cutting off heads. Nathaniel compares himself favorably with the gods, if they exist. They’re the worst clippers of all. When living is torture, killing is a mercy. Therefore, to Nathaniel, killing people epitomizes the highest expression of his skill that he can imagine. Obviously, Nathaniel’s philosophizing foreshadows his inevitable fight with Sunny, a fight that he loses.
When Sunny refuses to execute Nathaniel, Nathaniel sneak-attacks him from behind. It seems that for all his blather about the nobility of living by the sword, world-weary Nathaniel just wants to die by the sword after all. Bajie saves Sunny by slicing off Nathaniel’s hand. They leave Nathaniel, taking his sword. He’ll be back. Sunny just gave him a new reason to live. Now Nathaniel represents the dangers of desiring revenge.
Though Sunny provides the main character, M.K. presents a kind of every-person for the series, because like almost everybody on the planet, he’s his own worst enemy. He wants to find his mother, just like Sunny wants to find his love, Veil, the mother of his child. There’s a big theme developing here of women, specifically mothers, providing the only antidotes to the hellish existence caused by constant violence. Love. Connection. Civilization. Waking to the sound of screams, M.K. investigates and finds a boy brought into the monastery in a box. Another novice tried to escape, but was caught. Strapped to a bed under a nightmarish machine, a monk tells the boy he’s going to end his pain. Ending his pain involves inserting a needle into the boy’s heart and extracting his unique gift. That contains a metaphorical lesson about how not to negotiate the difficulties of life. Don’t run away. Don’t sacrifice what makes you you. There may be worse things than pain.
Speaking of Veil, she continues to nurse Baron Quinn. Last season we learned that some malignancy grows within Quinn‘s brain, and it’s not just his unquenchable thirst for power. That tumor also plays the part of a metaphor. Veil x-rays Quinn’s head, which reveals a huge dark blot. Is the brain the seat of the soul? For some reason, Veil shows Quinn a clean x-ray. Clearly she’s playing a long game, the goal of which is not yet visible. Meanwhile, a handsome young clipper comes to her for stitches after he stumbles over his own sword. One wonders if the wound is self-inflicted; a flash of attraction flares between the two. Quinn’s brain rot doesn’t prevent him from snaring the eternal loyalty of a baby-faced recruit. After the boy is caught trying to run away, Quinn binds the boy to him by, first, letting the boy survive, and second, giving him a dagger after the boy follows Quinn’s command to cut Quinn. We’ll see this kid again. Like Veil, Quinn always keeps an eye on the long game.
This episode lays on a lot of foreshadowing. The show ends with the Widow and Waldo the Wheelchair-bound Wonder arriving for the conclave called by Baron Ryder. They make a good team. Waldo acts as the Widow’s conscience, warning her about how power seduces while wearing a disguise that looks like good intentions. Like some of the other characters, they both long for a better life. Unlike all of the others, they long for a better world not just for themselves, but for everyone. The Widow instructs Tillie – her adoptive daughter – to burn the oil fields and take care of all the women if she doesn’t survive the conclave. That motherhood theme resurfaces again here! Hopefully this scene does not also presage the Widow’s demise. The Widow’s name is Minerva, as in the heavily-armed Roman Goddess of wisdom, war, and strategy. Clearly prepared to play her own strategy for winning the long game, she rides to the conclave in a banana crème puff early ‘40’s Cadillac (’42? Can’t be sure) in perfect Barrett-Jackson condition. The close of the episode suggests that much bloodshed lies ahead. I just hope none of it splatters that freshly waxed Cadillac.