So far, The Shannara Chronicles’ biggest strength has been the crispness of its action sequences. Unburdened with over-stylization, each battle has been visually clear and precise in its choreography. A high-fantasy series—a high-fantasy series on MTV nonetheless—could easily devolve into disorienting sword fights and overstimulated editing. But whether the heroes are chasing a Changeling or getting pummeled by a Reaper, the viewer is always aware—and often thrilled by—the clarity of the combat.
So it shouldn’t be a shock that the series’ best episode has more action in it than talking, most of it with a new band of baddies called The Elf Hunters. Apparently, an elf’s ear is the Four Lands equivalent to a rhino’s horn, believed by gnomes to cure a variety of ailments. After getting separated from Amberle and Eretria during the fight with the Reaper (who appears to finally be dead), Wil comes to the rescue of one of the Hunters’ recent victims: a newly one-eared Wing Rider—think giant bird- or dragon-tamer—named Perk (Stuart Shacklock).
Somewhat of a goodnatured space cadet in the novel, Perk has a dark edge here, vengeful to the point that, when he and Wil finally overtake the hunters’ leader (Samson Chan Boon), he promptly slits his throat. Wil thinks it’s merely going to be an eye for an eye (or an ear for an ear), and recoils in shock when he sees how much bloodlust his new friend really has.
Now, I realize I’m praising the show for two things I’ve previously criticized it for: the frequent detours and the addition of darkness. But The Elf Hunters work where Pykon did not because of their simplicity. Wil and Perk don’t spend a lot of time sitting around and talking with the villains; once they know what their enemies are capable of—which, thanks to the bloody hole on the side of Perk’s face, is right away—they get right down to business. The Hunters have a singular enough mission that we believe in the threat they pose, and thus, we believe in the risk of each action sequence. And as far as Perk’s darkness goes, it adds a duality that he doesn’t have in the novel. Because he consistently helps out Wil, even as he’s carving through the Elf Hunter’s neck, we understand that he can be both good yet bloodthirsty; loyal yet explosive; helpful yet also dangerous if he snaps. Also, none of his negative traits automatically make him a complete creep, as is the case with Cephelo.
Amberle and Eretria also have a run-in with the Elf Hunters with talkier (i.e. less effective) results. Upon fleeing from the antagonists, they fall beneath the earth and into an abandoned high-school gym, decked out for prom back when the nuclear apocalypse wiped everything out. Since they aren’t sure how to get out, that gives them plenty of time to (groan) reveal more of their respective backstories and insecurities to each other. The problem is most of their conversation revolves around similarities between the two that we (and they) already know: “I know how it feels to be trapped by your own life,” “We’re orphans,” “We’re both hot for the same guy,” etc. It’s as if MTV has no faith in their audience’s concept of subtext, or even meat-and-potatoes storytelling. Only when an Elf Hunter named Zora (Zoe Robbins) finds them does their pow-wow come to a merciful halt. But this being The Shannara Chronicles, Zora can’t just be after Amberle’s ears—she has the ulterior motive of wanting to hurt the Rover, who broke her heart once upon a time.
Robbins struggles with the cardboard tough-guy dialogue the same way Ivana Baquero did in the earlier episodes, clenching it out through gritted teeth and pauses big enough to drive a Mack truck through. This makes their verbal barbs with each other feel slower than they ought to, sped up only when the two start kicking and slicing the hell out of each other.
The other saving grace of the gymnasium scenes is the gymnasium itself. Unlike the Terry Brooks novel on which it’s based, The Shannara Chronicles has never been discreet about The Four Lands being a future version of Earth. Seeing Amberle and Eretria walking with swords and armor amidst a more modern (yet actually historic) era, one characterized by the prom cliches of balloons, homemade banners, and tinsel, achieves a visual resonance not reached by walks through elven palaces and stoney castles. The knockout moment comes when Amberle finds Dungeons & Dragons dice in one of the hallways. As she turns over the dusted artifacts in her hands, marveling over how they look so similar to the Elfstones, it’s a tender and intelligent homage, a way for her to connect with the types of fans likely responsible for the popularity of the books she was birthed from.
Although the B-story back in Arbolon stays more rooted in traditional sword and sorcery, it finally makes some narrative progress. After he gets tricked by his own daddy issues into taking on the Dagda Mor, Arion bites it, all while his brother looks on with a slow-motion “Nooo!” This reveals King Eventine as being the Changeling, who gets slain by Ander once Allanon returns after a period of healing. While all of this feels about as rushed and clunky as it sounds, the house-cleaning at least clears the path for the story to continue gaining momentum. And unlike before, I wouldn’t mind if that means some new villains in the show’s future.
- As much as I mostly enjoyed The Elf Hunters, they could stand to look a little more imposing. They remind me of a hybrid between the Lost Boys from Hook and the Lost Boys from The Lost Boys.
- I wonder if the production team decided to use a David Bowie lyric as a prom slogan before or after he died.
- “That’s my ear!”
- A Shade of Bremen gets its Obi-Wan Kenobi moment, appearing to Allanon and helping him heal.
- In the novels, Perk’s steed is more like a giant falcon or eagle than a fell beast from The Return Of The King, but the latter is also acceptable.
- I’m wondering if we’ll end up getting any of the epic battle scenes in Elfstones.