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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Darker doesn’t mean better on the latest episode of The Shannara Chronicles

Illustration for article titled Darker doesn’t mean better on the latest episode of iThe Shannara Chronicles/i
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When you’re a teenager, when every emotion feels amplified—especially the negative ones—it’s easy to mistake darkness for quality. For example, I was a huge Alkaline Trio fan back in high school (still am), and when their album Good Mourning came out, I immediately praised it for how dark it was. It didn’t matter that a line like “I shat the bed and laid there in it/thinking of you wide awake for days” ranked among the weaker lyrics on the record. To me, it was dark, and that meant it was good.

Even if The Shannara Chronicles wasn’t on MTV—a network geared specifically towards teenagers—it would probably still be darker than Terry Brooks’ books, if only because of the nature of its medium. TV shows are more visual than novels, meaning they tend to leave less to the imagination. If someone gets stabbed, you’re more likely to see blood, a blade going through flesh, someone yowling out a painful groan, or all three. But what about the characters? Does it work when a show’s writers take an already existing literary creation and simply make that person darker? It certainly can. Darkness can add dimension. It can add complexity. And humans are complex. Also, it can be just plain entertaining to watch a bad guy do what they’re good at.


Unfortunately, the changes to the character of Cephelo accomplish none of these things. First a roguish thief in The Elfstones Of Shannara, the first four episodes of The Shannara Chronicles altered him into someone who’s a bit more dangerous, a bit more violent; more of a traditional villain than a traveling scoundrel. In “Reaper,” however, he becomes a full-on rapist. After capturing Wil and Amberle (again!), he releases Eretria for seemingly helping him once more, but not before coming onto her. When she refuses and gallops away on horseback, Cephelo drags Amberle into his tent and tries to force himself upon her instead, all while confirming through his dialogue that he’s done this sort of thing many times before. While Eretria comes back to save Amberle (only after the elven princess offers 20 times what the Rover lord paid her, it’s worth noting) before things can get scarier than they already are, the damage has been done: we now hate Cephelo.

That would be fine if not for his role in the episode’s climax. After getting attacked by the hulking demon of the title, Wil seeks Cephelo’s aid in (supposedly) killing the creature, never mind what he did to Amberle. In a move taken directly from the novel, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (along with fellow writers Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard) suddenly reframe the Rover as being capable of redemption. Since he’s now decided to help out the heroes, he can potentially be forgiven. But if a high-fantasy TV series is going to transform an antihero into a sexually violent piece of shit, why try to redeem him at all? Or, if the writers know they’re going to keep the source material’s redemption move, why make him a sexually violent piece of shit in the first place? Adding shock value to an adaptation can have merit if it’s entertaining, but watching James Remar sexually harassing a young woman isn’t exactly my idea of riveting television. And even if I hadn’t read Elfstones, I wouldn’t buy his change of heart once the Reaper appears. The show’s already made him too much of a slime-ball by that point.


Character ickiness aside, there’s another risk a writer takes when they seek to make things darker: stripping away any built-up mystery. That’s what happens in the episode’s second plot, which involves Slanter, a gnome who’s revealed to have assassinated Amberle’s father. All of this plays out in a lengthy pre-credits flashback that shows the villain’s face, the murder, the whole shebang. Years later, when Ander decides to release Slanter from the dungeon for his assistance in a reconnaissance mission, it’s meant to be suspenseful. The prison door opens on the gnome, shackled to the ceiling with his back to the elven prince. Ominous music swells, he purrs grossly, then slowly turns his head to face the enemy. It’s shot as if we’re seeing Slanter for the first time, and that’s how it should be. But because we’ve witnessed his crimes in full for 10 minutes at the top of the episode instead of hearing them whispered about in the halls of Arborlon, his uneasy truce with the elves becomes less shocking. We already know what the gnome is like. We’ve already seen him in action.

It’s yet another example of The Shannara Chronicles pointlessly expanding a section of story that needs no expansion, further stalling the progression of the central arc. Until they encounter the Reaper, Wil and Amberle are exactly where they were only two episodes ago: in the clutches of the Rovers. Since they’ve escaped them once already, the threat never feels serious. The same goes for the final moments, where the Changeling—who the elf kingdom had to face just last week—reappears to take King Eventine’s place at the throne. So what was the point of the previous episode then? Dammit, that means the Reaper will probably be back, too. To quote another genre series, this has happened before and it will happen again. Only it will be (unnecessarily) darker.


Stray observations

  • Tonight also sees a romance blossoming between Bandon and Catania (Brooke Williams), because of course we need more time devoted to characters who are inconsequential to the story.
  • I’ve been watching screeners for all of these reviews, and “Reaper” is the first one that included the opening theme, which I hadn’t seen before. Like every fantasy show currently on TV, the graphics ape Game Of Thrones, but I appreciated how they laid out a truncated history of the Four Lands.
  • The Reaper, once it does finally show up, is suitably imposing, somewhere between a Balrog and a Viking warlord.
  • Plenty of implied Dagda Mor/Changeling boning tonight, for anyone who likes that sort of thing.

The Spoilers Of Shannara

  • I always pictured the Gnomes being more hunched over and sniveling, but the evil Harry And The Hendersons thing works well, too.
  • Slanter’s voice, on the other hand, could do with 95% less modulation.
  • The show’s poison-gas approach is admittedly a much cooler way to dispatch a Reaper than collapsing a bridge, as Wil and Amberle do in the novel (the first time, anyway; Brooks loves bringing back his villains).
  • Before getting stabbed by the Changeling, Eventine keeps wondering where Manx is. I wonder if we’re meant to think the dog has actually been the Changeling for quite some time.

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