Into the Badlands, S2 E1 “Tiger Pushes Mountain”
Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar
Directed by Nick Copus
“Who the hell wants to grow old in this world?”
Our eyes open to a world in which crazed, psychopathic robber barons control all resources, infrastructure crumbles into dust, and human life comprises the very cheapest of commodities. No, wait, I’m talking about a TV show, and it’s not Rachel Maddow! When the first season of Into the Badlands aired in Fall 2015, its setting in a dystopian post-Trump landscape felt like some far distant future in a parallel universe. Now, less than a year and a half later, AMC’s martial arts extravaganza feels like it could be happening here next week. Luckily, though the contemporary situation has changed in the nation, all the good things that Badlands had going for it then also continue into the second season. In the beginning of this episode, Sunny fights in an incredible scene while he is encumbered by a yoke. And later, the Widow shreds about fifty clippers like only a fed-up feminist can.
The first episode opens six months after season one ended. Sunny, our favorite martial arts assassin, spent all of season one trying to escape the Badlands. He succeeded, though not in the way that he intended: literally sold up the river, Sunny washes up as slave labor in a mine. Badlands inserts a few fun comments amidst the fight scenes – the mine looks like the site of an old shopping mall, and the “ore” for which the pickers dig looks like stuff that came from the jewelry and housewares departments of Nordstrom’s. In this unlikely setting, Sunny makes a friend! One thing that this show didn’t need but which will make a welcome addition is a sidekick. This one is large, hairy, and speaks with a British accent. True to Badlands criteria, though, Bajie is not a gentle, jolly giant whose only purpose is to make jokes. When a female picker finds a gold ring in the dirt, he punches her in the face and takes it from her. Further, when Sunny declines to invite Bajie along should he ever escape, Bajie immediately sells him out. Bajie describes himself as an opportunist; although he serves typical sidekick functions like introducing Sunny (and us) to the unfamiliar world in which he finds himself, he also provides another layer of menace. For Bajie, having Sonny’s back also means having Sunny in his sights at all times.
Time to digress. The post-apocalyptic setting, whether caused by zombies, vampires, ecological disaster, or plague, provides the background for every movie and TV show that isn’t a family oriented sitcom. This paradigm has been around since the early 1800s and has become an ingrained part of humanity’s psyche. While this worldview does provide great fantasy and Science Fiction material, perhaps we should attempt to replace it with something new. I fear that if we cannot imagine something better than complete collapse for the future, we are doomed to live out our worst nightmares and most terrifying computer games. Anyway, that dystopian future shares universal characteristics with contemporary society which have come down to us through history from the beginning of time and apparently will last until the end of eternity. Specifically, I’m talking about sadistic middle managers. Perhaps they cannot be erased from even our most optimistic daydreams. The mine where Sunny and Bajie labor suffers under the control of a greasy, giggling little sociopath with bad piercings. This nasty piece of work showcases cage fights in which pickers who don’t make quota fall victim to a huge fighter who likes squashing people’s heads. Sunny sees an opportunity in this, so he gives away his diggings and sets himself up for confrontation. The man who spent all of last season trying to get out of the Badlands is going to spend all of this season trying to get back in.
M.K., who started and finished the first season locked in a box, now lives and trains at a Shaolin-like monastery in the mountains. He wants to learn how to control and use his powers right now, and like all young hotshots he has no patience for school. Though he trains under a female Abbott, he possesses the innate sexism of many talented, cocky young men who assume that only a man could be better than him and have something to teach him. He keeps demanding to see the master and can’t hide his surprise when the master turns out to be female. They duel, and though M.K. receives his comeuppance, the master hides the fact that M.K. broke her arm. Unlike M.K., the master can use her energy to heal as well as to harm. That is a skill that he would do well to learn, because in this world I think he’s going to need it.
The girls are back in town! During the long, long, very long hiatus between season one and season two, I had to console myself for the lack of Widow fight scenes with all the Donnie Yen movies on Netflix. Luckily there are a lot of those. The Widow gets all the best choreography on this show. Before we even find out that she survived the wounds she suffered in the fight with Sunny in season one, Tillie enters. Bodies start dropping before we even catch full sight of her. Tillie and the Widow stage a bloody raid at the oil refineries. Quinn’s son Ryder claimed them for himself after the death of his father, but he can’t hold them against the Widow’s onslaught. All his best clippers die in a bloodbath. The Widow even gets to use her killer heels. She catches Jade but lets her go so she can tell Ryder that the Widow wants her goodies back.
Despite her awesome fighting prowess, the Widow dreams of a more peaceful and egalitarian world. She dares to imagine, if not a utopia, then at least a less patriarchal dystopia. She welcomes refugees fleeing from the other barons, and has set up feeding stations for anyone who has need of them. She wants to be a leader as well as a fighter. Among the people who have gathered under her are the former prostitutes from Quinn’s brothel, as well as some of his former clippers. One of the clippers challenges the Widow’s authority, and she tells him that he and the other clippers are free to leave. They do, only to be confronted by Tillie and her Amazons on the road. At first it seems that the Widow has changed her mind about freedom but it turns out this is not about the clippers freedom. It’s about justice. The clippers did bad (unspecified) things to the prostitutes, appropriately called “dolls” on the show. Apparently the clippers treated them like dolls rather than human beings and Tillie feels some payback is in order. None of the clippers survive that payback.
The episode closes on Veil, who has just given birth to a son. The person who informs us of this is none other than… surprise, Baron Quinn. Somehow he survived what looked like a fatal attack in the season one finale. While this is going to be hard to explain away, I don’t think anyone will be disappointed that the most charismatic and complex killer on a show full of killers returns for a second season. Let the slaughter begin.