As early as its pilot, The Shannara Chronicles proved it can at least do fantasy action sequences well. So you’d think that, in the penultimate episode of its first season, the show would start doubling down on its strongest element. But nope, the series is still concerned with sluggish negotiations, unnecessary side stories, and new plot elements that continue to kill any momentum moving towards the finale.

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All of this easily trimmable fat happens back at—who’d have thunk?—Arbolon, where King Ander continues trying to convince himself that he’s capable of defeating the Dagda Mor and his eventual onslaught of demons. But just when it seems like he’s finally going to rally the troops and start preparing for battle, yet another threat gets introduced: elves. Yes, elves. More elves! They look exactly like the elves we’ve spent eight episodes with, but their leader, Kael (a steely Miranda Wilson) seeks the throne, not believing Ander to be up to snuff as a military commander. After seeing him hem, haw, and drink over his supposed lack of prowess for these past few weeks, I can’t say I blame her.

But that doesn’t mean I need to see her storyline unfold like it does. Regardless of my feelings towards Ander as a character, I’m tired and more than ready to see him and his soldiers gear up to kick some demon ass, not have Commander Tilton negotiate—always with the goddamn negotiations on this show—with Slanter’s gnome forces to help free the king from Kael’s clutches. But that’s what happens, making for another episode without the saving grace of a single cool demon fight. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of business with Bandon!

Oh, Bandon. It’s not Marcus Vanco’s fault. He does a fine job with what he has to work with, which is to say not much at all. It’s not that he’s an original character written just for the show. It’s not even that he’s slowly being taken over by the Dagda Mor; that actually has the potential to be a unique threat in the first season’s final weeks. The problem is that, outside of his ability and his possession by the fallen Druid, we don’t know anything about his personality. After he was dropped in to the show rather clumsily, we were told by the writers that he bonded with Amberle and Wil on their way back to Arbolon. But we never saw their relationship develop. We never got any sense of what Bandon’s like as a character, which severely cripples any investment in his current arc. Why should we care about Bandon being possessed when we don’t care about Bandon?

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The only storyline of “Safehold” to make any kind of significant (and interesting) progress is the journey of Amberle, Wil, and Eretria. With the Amish cowboy rave of last week a distant memory (I hope), they finally near the location of the episode’s title, a church in what used to be San Francisco. In another clever touch from our world, the word “Safehold” comes from an old highway sign pointing to San Francisco and Oakland, where several of the letters have been eroded by time. Knowing that they’ve almost reached their destination, the trio descends into the tunnels of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

Their jaunt through the bowels of the city works because, rather than branch off into another detour or pile on more story elements, it relies on a nuts-and-bolts adventure sequence. Seeing the three characters shimmy across a pipe to avoid the trolls slumbering beneath them isn’t exactly revolutionary fantasy—“Sneak Past The Sleeping Monster” has been played by everyone from Odysseus to Bilbo Baggins—but it’s shot with enough time-tested story tricks (the creatures stirring, Wil accidentally dropping the Elfstones, etc.) for there to be palpable tension.

The two witchy guardians of the Bloodfire aren’t quite as effective—any potential horror gets undercut by them looking like cheap Cenobite knockoffs—but they still give the characters a huge shove towards completing their mission by testing their worthiness to enter the flames. Wil unwillingly assists them when, after the guardians try to turn Amberle and Eretria against each other, he gets between his two friends/love interests and accidentally slices Eretria’s hand. Her blood gets all Apollo 13 on her, floating towards a glowing statue in digitized globs. Remembering the one-eyed dude’s word from last week about her body being a vessel, she jams her hand onto the statue’s spike, her blood throwing through its pathways and recalling the show’s title sequence. This unleashes the fire itself, which Amberle walks into before vanishing.

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Unlike anything that happens back at Arbolon, it’s a simultaneously violent and hypnotic scene, mostly due to its rapid pace and it being the culmination of a quest the show has been building up for quite some time. To put it crassly, shit actually happens in the church. Even after all of the pit stops in Pykon and Utopia and wherever the hell else, the Bloodfire feels like a release, a defibrillator to a series whose heart rarely beats fast or steadily enough. With the fates of Amberle and Eretria and limbo and the demons closing in on Arbolon, let’s hope the season finale of The Shannara Chronicles doesn’t need a pacemaker.

Stray observations

  • So I guess “elven” is actually spelled “elvin” in The Four Lands?
  • I desperately want to see what those stupid trolls’ stupid troll faces look like.
  • I’m wondering if Perk and his fell beast/dragon/bird-thing will be back for the finale. I hope so.

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The Spoilers Of Shannara

  • A quick Google search of Kael tells me that in the novels, she’s a man, and figures prominently into The Voyage Of The Jerle Shannara trilogy. Can any Terry Brooks fans confirm this?
  • Also, one of the guardians refers to Eretria as a “child of the armageddon.” That has to be a nod to the prequel novel of roughly the same name, right?
  • Speaking of the later books, I’m almost done with The Scions Of Shannara and am enjoying it quite a bit. After the Heritage tetralogy, which subsequent novels are worth checking out, if any?
  • While Amberle is the sole character to be involved in the Bloodfire ritual in The Elfstones Of Shannara, I appreciate that the series makes it a (somewhat begrudging) cooperation between her and Amberle.

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