Into the Badlands – S01E01
Title: The Fort
There are few series in recent years that I have eagerly anticipated more than that of AMC’s Into the Badlands (2015). The series stars Hong Kong’s own Daniel Wu as a powerful soldier in a post-apocalyptic era that serves under the control of one of several powerful Barons. The program, produced in part by both Wu and fellow Hong Kong filmmaker (and Gen X-er) Steven Fung, is pitched as a reimagining of the classic Chinese mythological fiction Journey to the West.
Into the spoiler lands! (Spoilers below)
From the opening narration we learn that the story is taking place in a somewhat ravaged post-apocalyptic world that is now controlled by seven Barons. Daniel Wu plays Sunny, the lead enforcer (or Clipper) for Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas).
Sunny is out scouting for a missing transport of cogs (a.k.a. slaves) due to work his Baron’s poppy fields. He tracks down the transport to find all of the cogs seemingly slain. From there he follows the trail to a group of nomads and some fisticuffs ensue. Sunny’s deft work in dispatching this group quickly establishes two things, that he’s indeed a badass, and the somewhat graphic tone the show is going for in terms of action and violence.
After the fight, Sunny discovers the sole surviving cog, a teenage boy named M.K., locked in a large box. After tasking him to help bury the slain cogs, he proceeds to take him back to Baron Quinn’s compound (The Fort), which looks a bit like a Southern plantation that was renovated by Mr. Han from Enter the Dragon.
Seeing a certain spark inside M.K., Sunny takes him to the fighting grounds to get trained as a clipper. It is here that M.K. first sees Baron Quinn who regales him and the other young recruits with promises of family and provision in return for loyalty. He goes on to cite Sunny as the top Clipper in all the land and his penultimate exemplar with some 400+ kills, each one etched as a tattoo on his back.
An early altercation over M.K.’s amulet, which seemingly Sunny recognizes, leads to some trouble with an older recruit. This ends up building to a solo confrontation in a bathroom (good to know the pluming still works after the apocalypse) where M.K. zones out and something inside takes over, making short work of the bully-boy nemesis, but also rendering M.K. unconscious.
Having witnessed the ‘fight’, Sunny takes M.K. back to his barracks. We learn that he did indeed recognize the amulet, and he has a compass with a similar symbol engraved within. The symbol is the cityscape of Azra, a place that lies beyond the badlands and M.K.’s home, but Sunny seems to have no knowledge of this place. We also learn that M.K. apparently hulks-out whenever he bleeds (ok, so no blood donations from you). Sunny advises M.K. to keep his mouth shut and keep his head down, but M.K. is not having it and makes plans to get his amulet back from Ryder, Baron Quinn’s son who now has it.
While Sunny heads back to visit the local doctor (also his pregnant girlfriend, now there’s a twist not in the classic) he gets accosted by four assassins. This leads us into the second slightly longer fight sequence of the episode and one that is reminiscent of many similar rain soaked sequences from various Hong Kong films.
The bowler hat wearing assassins were a nice thematic touch of world building, and out of place just enough that they worked really well.
The assassins were sent courtesy of The Widow, a new Baron(ess) on the scene, who apparently knows there is something special about M.K. and was responsible for the hit on Quinn’s cog caravan in an attempt to get him. The Widow confronts Sunny who is powerless to harm her because she is a Baron. The reason for this isn’t really explained, but one guess is that it is due to the political blowback to Baron Quinn (a common device in triad films, underlings can’t take out heads). But this point seems a bit odd since Sunny already found definitive proof that she was behind the caravan raid (The Widow’s own minted coins used to pay the nomads). Her agenda is clear, she wants M.K. and she seems to know more about Sunny that she is letting on in the scene.
Meanwhile, M.K. gets caught by Ryder while trying to get his amulet back, but Sunny decides to help him escape. Leading him to a secret tunnel that leads outside of the fort, Sunny claims he is helping M.K. because he wants to give him “the choice that I never had”. While M.K. makes his escape, Quinn summons Sunny and asks him to move closer to the plantation house, stating that he knows the other Barons are coming for him soon.
An ending montage gives us views of several of the characters introduced in the episode and includes a couple of reveals that bodes of some political subterfuge in episodes to come.
O Monkey, Where Art Thou?
Being a huge fan of the Journey to the West story, my brain was constantly trying to identify just how much of what was being presented was being adapted over from the classic Chinese text. It would seem that our leading man, Sunny and his martial prowess are positioned as the Monkey King, and his name is derivative of Sun Wukong in some ways. As the (seemingly) central character Daniel does a fine job. He’s good at the action, and he’s also best used in underplayed roles like this.
By extension, this would make M.K. into a parallel for Xuanzang (a.k.a Tripitaka) and his inner power would seem to be the object of desire of at least one character already. In the classic, Xuanzang was a constant target for being eaten by demons, in an effort to acquire his inner power, so it will be interesting to see how they play out this aspect in the show.
Other, less direct, connections would place Baron Quinn possibly as the Bull King, Monkey’s sometimes friend, sometimes rival. Quinn’s first wife Lydia would then be positioned as Princess Iron Fan. This in turn places Ryder her son as Red Boy from the books. Another player is that of The Widow, a new Baron(ess) whose name is both indicative of her marital status but also evokes the idea of the spider demons from film variations such as Cave of the Silken Web. It seems more than likely that character representations of both Piggy and Friar Sand are due to make an appearance in the series at some point (I am hoping for Stephen Fung to show up on screen in a cameo of some sort as well).
While the connections are clear, the characterizations are less defined. If Sunny is indeed Monkey, thus far there has been a lack of the mischievous and aloof nature that is integral to the character. Sunny is clearly a powerful martial artist, but one wonders if some of the more mystical and supernatural aspects of Monkey will be drawn out over the course of the show.
Shaving Mr. Wu
On the whole, Daniel is making the show work for me (with Marton Csokas a close second). But if I have a complaint it also lies with Daniel who almost looks too good for the setting. Clean shaven and nearly scar-less (save for a few I spotted mixed in with his tattooed kill count on his back), at times he looks as if he could’ve just walked off from a men’s product commercial shoot.
Another aspect that rubbed me the wrong way was the music. The opening theme is fine, but the song they use in the final montage (Oh Lord Live Inside Me by Jaime N. Commons) was already used in The Walking Dead (S03E12) as a closing song. The decision to use it here again (on another AMC show even) is a less than stellar choice for setting a ‘unique’ musical tone for the series. We’ve five more episodes to go, so let’s hope they can find some more solid footing where the music is concerned.