When The Shannara Chronicles was announced, I was pretty excited for it. The only other epic fantasy on TV at the moment is Game of Thrones, which is a) on HBO which I don’t have and b) more of a political costume drama than a fantasy story, if you really think about it. Shannara looked to be the first traditional quest style fantasy that’s been on TV for a while. I’ve never read the books, but for that reason I still wanted to check it out.
The show finished its first season on Tuesday, and I wanted to share my thoughts on what I thought worked and what I didn’t think was so successful. At some point in the future I may do a show-vs-book comparison like I did with The Expanse at some point in the future, so that’s something else to look out for eventually…whenever I actually get around to reading the Shannara books.
If you haven’t seen the show yet, then there are some pretty significant spoilers in this article. This is really about sharing my thoughts with other people who have seen the show, so if you haven’t, read on at your own risk.
But let’s get on with it…
The world of Shannara separates itself from some other fantasy settings due to the fact that it actually takes place on our Earth in the future. All of the traditional fantasy races (elves, gnomes, and trolls) are actually mutated humans who have evolved into different races following some sort of post-apocalyptic event. While I’ve heard this isn’t readily apparent in the books, the TV show jumps into this aspect of the setting right away. A lot of the shots feature debris of Earth’s past like wrecked trucks or ruined buildings. Scavengers, whether human or troll, wear an interesting mesh of clothing or equipment, like leather jackets and gas masks, that call back to 21st-Century Earth. There are even some great humorous aspects to his, like how some humans have found old footage of Star Trek that they think is a portrayal of history (in which the Vulcans are elves, naturally). I thought the way that the show was able to feature these aspects of the Shannara setting was really cool and visually made it stand out from other fantasy films or shows.
The Palace Intrigue:
The Shannara Chronicles isn’t really a political show, certainly it is no Game of Thrones, and most of the action revolves around the mishaps of the young trio of heroes on a quest to save the world. That being said, I think some of the more interesting scenes took place in the Elven Palace between the different members of the royalty. A lot of this probably has to do with the presence of John Rhys Davies, one of the few veteran actors in the cast, who of course had great presence in his role as King Eventine Elessedil. That being said, Aaron Jakubenko and Daniel MacPherson, the actors who played his sons, had pretty good chemistry, which made their scenes more interesting.
I thought the seer, Bandon (Marcus Vanco), was a really interesting character, and I thought his interactions with Allanon (Manu Bennett) were really great. I figured he would either be a throwaway character or another ally sent on the quest, but things didn’t turn out that way. Then it was teased that he might be the next druid, but instead he is set up to be the prime villain of next season, which I think is great. Bandon’s internal struggle of trying to remain good was already compelling, but featuring that struggle in a villain is a great decision. His fall also shows that Allanon isn’t infallible and that he too makes some pretty terrible mistakes.
I actually thought Austin Butler, who played the male lead Wil Ohmsford, was mostly appealing in his role. It’s the sort of farm-boy-becomes-hero trope that we are very used to seeing in any kind of epic fantasy story, but I thought Butler brought some life and humor to the role that I don’t always see. Some actors end up feeling very bland or boring when playing this sort of character, but I thought he played it well. I especially liked his exchanges with Bennett’s Allanon, and I wish that the story had been structured to give them more opportunities to interact. I’ll get to this later, but the story lines with the two female leads were a little hit or miss for me, and I wasn’t a huge fan of some of the writing decisions there. Still, as I said, overall I thought Butler did a good job.
I thought the final episode of The Shannara Chronicles was really strong. As I said before, I haven’t read the books, but I was expecting an ending that brought everything together more-or-less happily. Instead the story turned on its head and became one about sacrifice, in which Amberle must give up her life, or at least her life as an elf, in order to restore the Ellcrys and save the world. I thought this was a powerful ending, and that combined with Bandon becoming a villain rather than being saved made for a really strong finish for this first season of the show. That being said, as we transition into some of the parts of the show I wasn’t as fond of, I think a bit more could have been done leading up to this that would’ve made that ending even stronger.
The Love Triangle:
I think love triangles can work, but in this case I wasn’t a fan. I feel like the writers of the show were trying to pander to the MTV audience by having this romance drama between the three young lead characters (even to the point of Eritrea making a pass at Amberle), but I really don’t think it helped the story all too much. I think this is even more true given the ending. Since Amberle sacrifices herself to save the world, I think it would have made more sense to have Wil simply be in love with her the whole time without any real contest from Eritrea. More time spent building their relationship would’ve made her decision at the end even more tragic and emotionally resonant. Given that the show is also only ten episodes, I think this stood out even more. In a longer season the love triangle may have been effective, but in this shorter season I feel like it just chewed up time that could have been spent developing Wil and Amberle’s love for each other.
Even if Wil ultimately ends up with Eritrea later in the story because Amberle is…well, a tree, I think that relationship could have been developed in the second season rather than being toyed throughout the first. I don’t think there was a huge need to create a tension between the three characters in that way when Wil can spend future episodes trying to negotiate his lingering feelings for Amberle and perhaps new found feelings for Eritrea.
The Leads Were…Flat?:
So, I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure why this is, but I felt like the leading trio of the show sometimes came across as flat when they were interacting with each other. There were points where I really liked all of them, but there were also points where I didn’t find them super compelling. I think maybe it was because their roles weren’t quite fully-formed enough. As I mentioned, I thought Butler broke away a bit from the stereotypical farm boy character by bringing his own set of charm and humor to the part, but Ivana Baquero (Eritrea) and Poppy Drayton (Amberle) seemed a bit more trapped in their roles as edgy thief and Elven princess, respectively.
This was a bit disappointing to me, especially because Baquero was the actor I was most excited about seeing in action (for those who are unfamiliar, she was the lead in Pan’s Labyrinth, and I was super hyped to see her in an English-speaking role, especially one that is actually in a genre I like). Aside from not having the opportunity to break the mold, I also felt like she had some trouble delivering the sharper, wittier lines that the rogue character is meant to bring to this type of show. That may have to do more with the script or direction than her, but I felt she was at her strongest when she was playing the earnest side of Eritrea rather than the roguish one. I actually kind of want to see a version of this show where Drayton plays Eritrea (I don’t have any proof of this, but I get the sense she could play a good rogue) and Baquero plays Amberle so that we could see her tap into this more earnest, loving character full-stop. Sadly, I can only speculate on how awesome this casting mix-up would be.
C’est la vie.
Though the show had its ups and downs throughout the season, I am really hoping that it gets renewed. I thought the final episode was very strong, and I think it left a lot of great conflicts open for second season. Where this season’s villain, the Dagda Mor, was generically evil, Bandon has the opportunity to be a truly compelling character, struggling to be good while slipping further into evil, or perhaps doing bad things that he thinks are justifiable (like how he “saved” Catania from the Elven guard before escaping).
It would also appear that the whole love triangle set-up will be dropped as Wil returns to Safe Hold to try and save Eritrea. If there is still a love triangle, it would probably be one between Eritrea and perhaps Amberle in some sort of spiritual form, which could work and would be arguably more compelling…since one of the women is actually there and the other can’t be. Whatever the case, I’m sure the unresolved plot around Eritrea is going to lead to some interesting developments, whether there’s romance involved or not.
If you haven’t seen The Shannara Chronicles already, I think it’s worth a look. It’s not the greatest show, but it was a fun watch, and I do think it has even more potential moving forward.
If you have seen the show, what were your thoughts? Feel free to leave them in the comments and let me know if you agree you with my analysis, disagree with any/all of the points I’ve made, or have anything to add. Thank you for reading.