Joss Whedon started out his big-screen finale, Serenity, of his small-screen show Firefly with a long, continuous, point-of-view take snaking through the titular ship in order to give the viewer a sense of space, an awareness of the physical area the characters occupied. “Fist Like A Bullet” accomplishes the same without any lengthy Steadicam shot. Bar fights are tight and tense; the fields confining and endless; the bathtub both welcome and menacing—a solitary island in the large room. It all works so well for a show that continues to rely on everything except story and dialogue, both of which continue to drag flat. However, “Fist Like A Bullet” losses up more so than the debut and the show is better for it.

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The episode starts, sadly, with a chauvinistic pan up of The Widow, leather boots first. She’s in a strip club recruiting her ex-Regent to take down The Baron. (Quick refresher: Barons are fiefs, The Baron is Quinn, who is our hero, Sunny’s, boss, and The Widow is the antagonistic baroness. Clippers are barons’ assassins and Regents are the head Clippers). They exchange words, make a deal, and the ex-Regent is promptly killed. It’s actually a nice little twist, one that logically prompts a fight. And it’s a hell of a fight, ripping straight from Kill Bill and its many influences. The shot from behind of The Widow gratuitously slashing the front of her opponent felt like pure Yakuza gangster flicks. Into The Badlands ably dips into the deep well of the martial arts oeuvre.

But back to that small scene between The Widow and her ex-Regent, because I think it typifies the problems currently saddling Into The Badlands. It’s clear Smallville creators Miles Millar and Alfred Gough were binging some Game of Thrones while writing these episodes. The pattern of exposition, fight, emotional or character-defining scene, and then back to exposition is on display here. But Into The Badlands has not earned the right of formulaic exposition. The viewer doesn’t care about the ex-Regent, we’ve never met him before, and the dialogue isn’t sexy or snappy enough to change that. There is nothing interesting in that exchange, no hook, nothing to illicit emotion when her plan dies. The fights are the medicine that makes the exposition go down.

M.K., the magical boy from outside the Badlands, escapes the Baron’s Fort with Sunny’s help and finds himself in the clutches of The Widow and her badass daughter, Tilda. The first episode established that when M.K. bleeds, he blacks out and goes into beast mode. The Widow, somehow aware this type of boy might exist, wants to capture him and use him to take down the other barons. She is big time into taking down the other barons. So mommy Widow has Tilda slice M.K., but, oh my, Tilda only pretends to do so and makeshifts an inconceivably convincing slash wound on his face. The fake-out works. But, now useless to The Window, M.K. is placed into the hands of nomads who can collect on bounty The Baron has set.

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The Baron, essentially a much tamer version of Robert Baratheon, takes Sunny to his doctor’s house, who delivers some bad news: The Baron has a brain tumor and he’s going to die. Coincidentally, the doctor happens to be Sunny’s secret pregnant girlfriend’s parents. No big deal, except The Baron wants the doctor and his wife dead. Sunny refuses. “I never give someone a second chance,” The Baron says. In a brilliant creative move, the camera stays outside as The Baron walks back into the house and kills the doctor and his wife. For a show unafraid of blood, it was more terrifying to stay with Sunny, who is unable to see and can only hear the horror inside.

On the way to the doctor, The Baron tells a story about how his farmer father was killed in front of him; the son never even raised a hand to try to stop it. Saddled with that hurt and guilt, he joined the Clippers and was put in the pit where he immediately killed a bigger, older boy. “That was the first time I felt alive,” he says. “Fist Like A Bullet” toys with the theme of killing bringing the characters closer to themselves, a path towards life even as they cause death. There’s another nice scene with Tilda where her mother offers up her life if the nomads can just lay a hand on her. They can’t and she kills them all. Does Tilda feel alive in that moment? Is she proud? Scared? We don’t get to know, but the hints at these larger themes show promise.

Sunny does a lot of errands with other people this episode, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for his own development. The Widow sets a trap for The Baron’s dumb son and he falls into it head over feet. Sunny is with him and a huge warehouse fight takes place, probably the best the series has served up thus far. Sunny fights on a beam grid, singlehandedly dispatching an army of nomads The Widow hired. Ryder is strung up by a chain, emasculated as he takes the place normally reserved for the distressed damsel, and Sunny fights both for his life but also for the obnoxious son’s. And, of course, it’s M.K. that saves the day in the end, in a tidy twist of fate.

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They make a pact to get the fuck out of the Badlands and Sunny takes him on as a padawan. The show has made clear what its characters want, but it fails in the why. Into The Badlands will have to go more than skin-deep to succeed in the way that other action and fantasy shows have.

“Fist Like A Bullet” is a fine second episode, but the show desperately needs emotional stakes and a story goal more propulsive than just trying to leave a place. I’m hesitantly optimistic that Into The Badlands can find its heart amidst all the bodies.

Stray observations

  • Last week I failed to realize that M.K. = Monkey King, which makes me not smart. Thank you, dear readers, for showing me the light.
  • The Widow’s triple stab up the side of that guy in the first fight was fantastic.
  • Sometimes it feels like they wanted the actors to improv, but nothing happened: *Matilda hands M.K. a bar of soap.* “Use it, you stink,” she says. *A few beats* “Okay,” he says. Snappy!
  • Old wise men always keep birds as pets. Always.

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