[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Shadow and Bone.]
With Shadow and Bone now streaming on Netflix, an entirely new audience has been introduced to the complicated dynamic between the characters of Alina Starkov and The Darkling that was first unveiled in author Leigh Bardugo’s book trilogy. In the series, Jessie Mei Li plays Alina as an unassuming yet confident young woman who suddenly gets thrust into the spotlight when she exhibits a magical power that unveils her as “the Sun Summoner,” a long-rumored being with the power to conjure light.
The Sun Summoner is important to the Grishaverse because the Fold, a massive dark magical force, splits the country of Ravka in half. If one tries to travel through it, one encounters hideous creatures who thrive on darkness and kill on sight. The Fold has disrupted the entire country and the region that surrounds it, but a Sun Summoner could potentially destroy the Fold and bring an end to a period of inequality and suffering.
When Alina first exhibits her power, she immediately comes to the attention of General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), the general of the Grisha Army and a Shadow Summoner – one who has the power to conjure darkness. It is eventually revealed that Kirigan is actually the Darkling, the Grisha who created the Fold in the first place ages ago, and who now wants to use Alina’s power to control it and enact revenge on those who are prejudiced against (and have hunted down) Grisha.
But before Alina learns of Kirigan’s true nature, a bit of a romance strikes up between Alina and the Darkling, and they even share a pretty heated kiss. The question then is, does the Darkling actually care for Alina, or was he using her all along? I recently had the chance to interview Bardugo about Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series (on which she is an executive producer), and as the creator of these characters I asked her about making Kirigan a complex villain whose point of view you could kind of understand:
“Look, I don’t think villains are interesting when you can’t tell where they’re coming from. There should be a moment, and I certainly had plenty of them, when you think, ‘Oh, this guy’s making a pretty good argument.’ And the issue for Kirigan, for the Darkling, is not his motive, which is a good one, to protect his people and to protect his nation. The problem is that he has lived so long, that he has lost his humanity, and so much so that he is taken aback and surprised by it when it rears its head. He doesn’t know how to parse the actual emotions he’s feeling toward Alina, and he does not know how to combat her humanity. So, he fundamentally misunderstands her connection to other people and how that empowers her.”
So yes, it seems like the Darkling really does care about Alina, but Bardugo pointed out that she didn’t want to make her antagonist one-note because in real-life, villains rarely announce themselves as such:
“The Darkling is probably the most, maybe second to Kaz, the most popular character I’ve written. And I think that’s because something so compelling about somebody with that much power, and with that much conviction. And the fact that he’s very attractive doesn’t hurt either. But I also think, it’s important for us to see antagonists who aren’t caricatures, because I’ve found that the most dangerous people in our lives do not enter twirling a mustache, evil tattooed on their foreheads. They’re people who are beautiful, and wounded, and compelling, but who can still do a lot of damage all the same.”
The show’s biggest swing in terms of humanizing the Darkling is a flashback to a time just before he created the Fold, in which we see him having very genuine, serious feelings for another Grisha woman. Bardugo says this scene was invented by the show’s writers, but again stressed the importance of humanizing the character:
“I think there’s still some humanity in him, despite the many years and the many crimes. But that is a scene that was invented by the writers. It doesn’t exist in the books. There is a short story called ‘Demon in the Wood,’ that is about the Darkling at a much younger age, and his supervillain origin story. And to me, I remember a friend said to me, when I gave it to her to read, she said, ‘What are you doing? Everybody who loves him is just going to love him more. Even I like him now.’ And I said, ‘That’s the fight that I’m asking people to take on.’ I always want people to be able to sympathize with this character, even if they decide he’s not worthy of redemption, and not worthy of affection or humanity. I, at least, want them to know what he could have become in a different world if Ravka had been different.”
Ben Barnes himself agrees, as he relayed in a separate interview with Collider’s Christina Radish in which he admits that he finds the Darkling’s abuse of power disturbing, but also believes the Darkling genuinely fell for Alina:
“I certainly judged the character. I think I’m allowed to judge the character, particularly in today’s context, in terms of that abuse of power. He’s at the top of this structure, in terms of the hierarchy of the world, and he abuses that power to take advantage of our protagonist who is a literal representation of hope and sunshine, in order to pursue his agenda. In today’s world, that is obviously something that I can’t find a way to condone, but it doesn’t mean it’s not my job, as an actor, to justify why he thinks it’s all right, considering that he believes in going to any lengths to pursue his cause, which he believes is for the greater good, he believes is protecting his people, and he believes is necessary. It doesn’t make it any more condone-able that he might be genuinely falling for this person. It might be this person that could give hope and light to him again in the future. Those questions are interesting to pose.”
Barnes addressed a famous line from the books that shows up in the series, in which Kirigan says to Alina, “Fine, make me your villain.” The actor revealed that he wanted to put a slightly different spin on it:
“I see him as the antagonist. I don’t know whether I see him as necessarily the villain. I love words, and there’s a line that is beloved by people who have read the books, which is when he says to Alina, at one point, ‘Fine, make me your villain.’ I find the word ‘make’ very interesting in that sentence. It was described in the book, how he said that line, and I wanted to say it a bit differently to how it’s described. He throws it away, and I wanted it to mean more to him.”
When I spoke to showrunner Eric Heisserer in a separate interview about the series, he said the writers looked to famous characters like X-Men’s Magneto and Black Panther’s Kilmonger as inspiration for how to tackle the Darkling:
“The writer’s room talked often about characters like Magneto, Kilmonger, villains that you see clearly what either their political or personal point of view is and you can’t argue that those wounds aren’t real for them. And that’s really where all of the villainous Kirigan stuff emerged, is that we need to make sure that while he knows he’s being cruel, it’s because he has tried other means and they have not worked out for him.”
The end result is an antagonist who is both formidable and compelling, and for whom you feel some degree of empathy even while you’re disgusted by their actions. It all started on the page with Bardugo’s first novel, but it’s great to see the spirit of that character thrive in the Netflix series as Bardugo, Heisserer, and Barnes were all clearly on the same page.
Look for much more Shadow and Bone coverage on Collider soon.
Additional reporting by Christina Radish.
The film is inspired by one of the most sensational cases from the Warrens’ files.
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