I often think about the initial impetus creators had when conceiving a television show. Matthew Weiner wanted to tell the story of how a man could have everything and still be unhappy. David Simon wanted to show the Baltimore he had seen from his reporter days — bleak and full of corruption on both sides of the law. It is unclear exactly what drove Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar to tell this Badlands story. “White Stork Spreads Wings” lacks an internal urgency and Badlands has begun to lack a discernible raison d’être. This episode marks the halfway point of the first season (it’s only six episodes) and instead of speeding up, the plot languishes, mired with rehashes of former conversations and feelings.

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Let’s look at what actually changes plot-wise from the beginning of the episode to the end: The Widow and her crew are driven out of their cool mansion to a different, dustier mansion; M.K. steals the fancy city book; Ryder doesn’t die (arguably not a change); and Sunny makes brief inroads allying with another baron. That’s it. With such limited time to tell a potentially sweeping story, it is baffling that “White Stork Spreads Wings” meanders as much as it does at this juncture. When Lydia says that “a baron’s home isn’t a sanctuary, it’s a battlefield,” all I could think was, I wish.

Much of “White Stork Spreads Wings,” as the name vaguely implies, is about M.K. becoming a colt, a Clipper apprentice, and beginning his training. Unfortunately, he goes full Anakin, distraught at how slowly Sunny is training him (and an accidental metaphor of how slowly the episode itself is moving). Multiple times M.K. sneaks off or disobeys his orders. He also gets his ass kicked by a dude in a wheelchair. Yet because there are no consequences to his actions, none of this is satisfying. He stole the secret fancy book, which seems like it will be a good thing, and it doesn’t seem like there were any negatives of him staying on the ground outside the dollhouse instead of heading the balcony as Sunny instructed.

The irascible young rogue is well-worn territory, but “White Stork Spreads Wings” doesn’t do nearly enough to create or continue even a cliche character arc. And if the lesson is that Sunny needs to loosen up on him, well, that’s not addressed at all. “You only react to what’s in front of you,” he tells M.K. Does he, though? M.K. actually seems more calculating than his Regent. Again, that story could work, but it’s not how it’s treated here. Sunny and M.K.’s relationship, which made sense in the prior two episodes, begins to fall apart. There’s a potentially interesting dynamic in both reluctantly needing each other to get out of the Badlands, but that’s not how it’s played.

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The driving story, besides M.K. and Sunny’s desire to leave the Badlands, is the ongoing battle between Quinn (The Baron) and The Widow. Quinn strikes back at The Widow, his Clippers slicing and dicing their way through the baroness’s compound. This forces the Widowers to flee to a safe house of sorts outside their normal territory. I wish I could talk more about this, but that’s basically all that happens. The Widow wants to destroy all the barons and Quinn wants to not die of his brain tumor and also kill The Widow. The Baron and The Widow engage in a gorgeous fight, but for something as epic as the two main antagonists fighting, I wanted higher stakes. The fight is a draw after The Baron gets an untimely headache and The Widow escapes.

Later, Sunny investigates the prostitute who betrayed Ryder et al. This prostitute, interrupted at work, happens to be handy with a knife and escapes out the window. Sunny, aided by some Matrix-esque acrobatics, corners her, but for reasons that will hopefully be explained at some point, she throws herself off the balcony, killing herself, a perverse interpretation of the episode’s title.

Everyone, including The Baron and M.K., seem to know about Veil and Sunny’s “secret” relationship, but the dynamic between the two characters works well. When Veil goes to The Baron’s house to help Ryder (by drilling into his brain), she and Sunny have a great seeing-your-secret-lover-at-work moment. Their chemistry feels natural and Madeline Mantock brings a heart to the show and the episode. Sunny, though high status, still has to obey orders and the two connect on having to do whatever The Baron demands despite personal reservations. Theirs is a key relationship that is refreshing to see, but not given enough weight or room to grow.

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It looks like another baron, Jacoby, will appear in the next episode, and hopefully more things will happen. It’s odd to have the main character’s chief desire, escape, to be so disconnected with what is the show’s main storyline of the barons fighting for territory. This leaves a show that feels like it’s slowing down when it should be speeding up and, this time, even the fight scenes can’t save it.

Stray observations

  • According to yet another beloved reader, M.K. actually stands for monk, not Monkey King, making my original mistake more forgivable but my most recent one even more egregious. We’ll get it right by the end of the season, folks.
  • I really enjoyed Tilda punching M.K. in the face.
  • I’m not perfect, but at least I’ve never banged my new wife one room over from the room where my original wife is keeping vigil over my dying son. That shit’s cold.

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