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Shadow and Bone: Unpacking the Darkling and Alina's complicated, 'problematic' relationship
As far as adaptations of popular book series go, Netflix's Shadow and Bone is not only faithfully translating author Leigh Bardugo's story and characters to the small screen, but it's also working to build on them — be it building a more inclusive world within the show, or delving deeper into the dynamics between some of the main characters.
**SPOILER WARNING: This story contains spoilers for Netflix's Shadow and Bone.**
Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationship that develops between Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a mapmaker from the kingdom of Ravka who discovers that she's a Grisha with the ability to bend and manipulate light to make it as bright and hot as the sun, and General Kirigan (aka the "Darkling") (Ben Barnes), the head of the Ravkan army and a powerful Grisha with the ability to summon utter darkness. Just as in Bardugo's novel, upon learning of her abilities, Kirigan brings Alina to Ravka's capitol in order to keep her safe from any enemies and so she can learn to control her new gifts.
Much like in the first book of the trilogy of the same name — the show follows its storyline for this first season — Alina finds herself drawn to the Darkling during their time in the palace, wrestling with both her feelings for this older man and those she harbors for her fellow orphan and childhood best friend, army tracker Malyen "Mal" Oretsev (Archie Renaux), who she finds herself separated from upon the discovery of her newfound abilities.
"Kirigan and Mal both represent very different parts of Alina," series star Jessie Mei Li told SYFY WIRE and other members of the press before the series' April 23 premiere about Alina's conflicted feelings. "Mal is her home and her heart and he is everything that is good, strong, and moral, and that's very much a part of Alina. They've grown up together. But then, unlike Mal, Alina has a certain darkness to her and this certain weakness and need to be important and to be loved and to have power. So she's very much drawn to Kirigan."
In particular, it's this desire to be understood and to feel like a part of something that really attracts Alina to the Darkling, especially with the on-screen version of the character being half-Shu (half Asian within the context of the series), and thus considered a perpetual outsider by both her fellow Ravkans (Grisha and non-Grisha alike). It also doesn't help that she feels a growing distance from Mal, who she's been around her whole life.
"He makes her feel special and like an equal for the first time," says Mei Li about the Darkling and Alina's growing bond as the first season progresses. "She's been no one. She's hidden away from the world and suddenly this incredibly powerful person is making her feel special... It's no surprise that she's completely hypnotized by him and completely drawn in."
This is what makes the eventual revelation that the Darkling has been lying so painful, and it was important to both Mei Li and the writers that this betrayal of Alina's trust be explored and given appropriate weight, especially with her having acted on her feelings and having kissed him without all the necessary facts.
"It was important that we did have her being strong and making the first move and elements of consent in terms of their relationship because then it feels like more of a betrayal," Mei Li says. "It's her decision. She has agency. She's not some blushing virgin who gets taken advantage of. She makes this decision and she has been hoodwinked. And that was really important. To make sure that despite the nature of this being a problematic relationship, [she] still wanted it."
She goes on to add: "We all wanted to make sure that we had consent and we had a healthy environment for this relationship to blossom essentially. Because we don't see that so much, we don't see characters stop right through an intimate scene and someone say, 'Are you sure about this?' And there needs to be more of that. That needs to be normalized. So, it's a really complex relationship and I hope that it's one that people talk about and raises questions."
Actor Ben Barnes (Westworld), who plays the Darkling agrees with this sentiment and how it relates back to his character, who he sees as a complicated villain — albeit one who has a few more gray shades to him, as the series goes on to reveal.
"He's by no stretch of the imagination an antihero or anything like that," Barnes says of the Darkling. "He's intriguing because his actions seem unforgivable and un-condonable, especially [when] viewing [them] through a 2021 lens in terms of his abuse of power and his explicit manipulation of a young woman who doesn't really have an agency at the beginning of the story."
And while Alina does kiss him, believing herself to have full agency in terms of her actions, Barnes notes that she doesn't truly have it, seeing as the Darkling hasn't told her the full truth.
"Sometimes the point is you don't know when you're being manipulated and sometimes that kind of power is attractive and that's OK for some people," he explains. "It's that power being abused that's important to highlight, and he is certainly doing that whilst also there being a gray area of him starting to have feelings for her potentially and starting to really kind of care about her despite his efforts to hoodwink her. That's what's so interesting about it to me. It should be problematic. And we should mark it as [such] and still find it interesting."
But what about the extent of the Darkling's own feelings for Alina? While he may have his own end goals that he's working toward, he does also seem to view her differently than he does others, while also claiming to understand how she feels.
"Whilst that can be seen as manipulation, it's also true for him," Barnes says. "He believes he can make her feel safe and he can draw out what is special in her and have her understand that. And the fact that he means those things is confusing.
Shadow and Bone premieres on Netflix on April 23.