Before we get into this, I think perhaps it’s best to paint an honest picture of where the following opinions are coming from. Because in my own fandom experience, people interpret things in their own personal ways. Film and books and television are like fine art – the final product isn’t finished until it is viewed and interpreted by its audience, and even then there’s no guarantee it will be viewed by each person the same way. That’s the joy of it. We each have our own unique experience. Something to call our own.
I met these characters all the way back in 2007 – and because apparently, I like to remind myself of how old I am, that’s almost ten years ago, folks. I was looking for my next reader high after plowing through the Twilight series (don’t you dare judge me), and I found that within The Mortal Instruments. Being much younger at the time and devouring each one too fast to comprehend fully, I interpreted them in a certain way – ways my current self no longer does. Which is why I’ll honestly say that in my own heart of hearts, had the television show been made an exact replica of the book series, I would have been sorely disappointed. I grew up, and I outgrew what I once loved. It happens.
Shadowhunters then, for me, is a fitting solution because it is the same world I fell in love with back in 2007, but translated in a way that the person I am now can thoroughly enjoy. I loved season one for multiple reasons, while also acknowledging it had room for improvement as a show in its infancy. So I was incredibly excited when the series received more money, stretching space and production talent to work with. I was suddenly on the hope train – could this show really become the screen adaption I always wanted?
Short answer: Let me breathe and pause for dramatic effect. Yes.
Season 2.0 sets the new tone right out of the gate by dropping you into a vat of grim uncertainty. Everything is darker, grittier. Save for a bizarre choice of scene music, the season’s opening minutes are everything you could want in a show about angelic warriors. It’s hard-hitting, ferocious and intense, and it leaves you giddy, on-edge, and a little exhausted: kind of like you just went three rounds with a decent horror film. For a show that is cranking itself up to be a brutal, villainous ride, that’s exactly the effect you want to have on your audience.
This season is geared to focus on the inevitable rise of Valentine Morgenstern and the war he intends to wage against the Shadow World. His son Jace, having reluctantly handed himself over to preserve the lives of his family and friends in the final moments of season one, is learning what it means to be by his father’s side. Alone, afraid and twisting beneath Valentine’s will, what Jace knows and believes is being dismantled one cruelty at a time.
At home, the Institute has been taken over by Clave representative Victor Aldertree (Nick Sagar), and with a passive aggressive charm that belies the elitist Clave mentality he possesses beneath, he is no one’s friend. As he leads the investigation into Jace’s disappearance, the rest of the Shadowhunters are grasping at straws: namely Alec, who feels the absence of his Parabatai heavily. His anger, hopelessness and panic make him unreasonable to deal with, and he rubs more than a few people the wrong way.
Meanwhile, Clary is learning to reconcile what she previously knew of her newly conscious mother, Jocelyn, and the feisty Shadowhunter-in-hiding she’s been all along. As everyone else confronts their own issues, days-old vampire Simon is still coming to grips with his place in this new world and the abilities he now possesses.
The answer to how it all goes down is not easily summarized, but ‘This Guilty Blood’ bodes well – so well – for the future of this show that I can barely contain my excitement.
So, how does one summarize?
Firstly, major qualms out of the way. The episode was close to being almost perfect for me, and it would have been helped further along had the show dropped it’s occasional out-of-place music choices. With video game music composer Jack Wall (Call Of Duty, Mass Effect) and Emmy Award-winning composer Trevor Morris (The Tudors, The Borgias, Vikings) in charge of scoring the series, the show is already well equipped to do its thing. And for a show trying to be something more, it is far better off aiming for the likes of Game of Thrones than it is dwelling among the numerous music-stuffed teen dramas of the world.
Besides a teeny smidge of flat acting outside our main cast, that’s it. Those are my qualms.
New showrunners Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer have named this season a ‘reboot’ of the show we know. For all intents and purposes, it should be treated as such. The difference between seasons one and two is jarring, to say the least, but do your best to leave your hang-ups at the door. The change is entirely welcome.
The world is a little dustier, weathered, New York. The overall color grading of the show has dropped down a few tiny notches. Valentine’s ship, in particular, makes an ideal prison for Jace with it’s bleak, dystopian atmosphere. There’s also blood, and gore, and Downworld monsters that make you think twice about your own safety behind your television screen – all things that had been a little lacking from a show about demon killing soldiers. One particular moment made me wonder if Freeform is trying to push the boundaries of the show’s TV-14 rating in the same vein that other genre shows do. If it is, hell yeah. I’m in.
The fight scenes no longer play out like a jilted dance but are intense, vicious and loud, full of frustrated yelling and challenge. The weapons have also been overhauled to be sharper, sleeker, almost elvish in style and completely befitting of the Nephilim that carry them. The way the blade inscriptions light up is a lovely touch reminiscent of the source material, as if the angelic power they are imbued with is a live entity. There are also sparks when blade hits blade, as if used with real, deadly intention. These characters are powerful supernatural beings that kill things, and it’s the little touches that throw some much welcome weight to the concept.
With a season behind them and more room to flex, the cast performances feel more cohesive and natural. It’s also apparent that premiere and series director Matt Hastings’ has a vision for how he wants to frame the show and it’s characters. His camera work has a particular flavor that better closes in on performance and takes full advantage of the upgraded set pieces with multiple wide shots. He brings season one’s frenetic film pace right back down to something that isn’t a struggle to take in. He also manages to get a few new exciting nuances out of the cast.
Katherine McNamara’s Clary Fray has settled in with a performance that is centered and organic. Clary has never been one of my favorite characters, source material or otherwise, but now she is not only palatable but enjoyable, and fierce. Matthew Daddario’s Alec Lightwood is an erratic time bomb, blowing fuses left and right, and he’s tapping into some serious emotional tanks that will make Alec’s development going forward thrilling to watch. Harry Shum Jr. throws one wall up while tearing down another as the ever compelling Magnus Bane, holding scene pauses in the palm of his hand like a king and injecting them with beautiful poignancy. The cast is clearly taking advantage of looser time restraints to play with their characters – wonderfully showcased at several points – though it is perhaps most prominent when Daddario and Shum Jr. share the screen. Their overwhelming, natural chemistry either hits you square in the face or creeps on like a blush. Great thought has been used in every aspect of their portrayals – noticeably in the simple way they speak through touch – and the results are quietly moving. As a ‘Malec’ fan, I was on the floor absolutely beside myself. As an objective viewer, some moments looked far too real to be scripted (you may or may not see Alec Lightwood actually blush). I would not be surprised to learn the two were ad-libbing.
Emeraude Toubia carries the same feminine warmth and viper-like warrior mentality as Isabelle Lightwood, reluctantly playing by the new rules of her broken home. Unfortunately, her screen time is limited, but her sneakiness alludes to a greater character arc in the making. Alberto Rosende’s Simon Lewis gets more than a few moments to shine, bringing an even softer, heartfelt layer to a boy learning the lonely restrictions of his new life. In sharing the screen with Katherine, the two compliment the bond between Clary and Simon with a deeper warmth and ease, giving a sense of history and familiarity that is absolutely joyous to witness. Alberto will give you many a pang while also having you in stitches throughout, especially his teased ‘Encanto’ scene, which is twice as long and three times funnier than previously hinted. He’s a welcome breath of sarcastic undead air in a new show tone that is otherwise committed to dropping your stomach through the floor.
Alan Van Sprang’s Valentine is finally allowed to be the villain we’ve been anticipating – dark and deeply demented, almost gleefully so, yet utterly believable as a loving father doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Valentine owns the villain he is like a cross to bear, unwavering in his belief, and spends much of the episode urging Jace, his heir apparent, to claim his long-awaited seat beside him. As for Dominic Sherwood’s Jace, he’s doing his best to survive under the abusive, psychological warfare his father employs against him. His performance during Jace’s torture scene is physically and emotionally difficult to watch, as he fluctuates between masked bravado and hints of genuine terror. It’s a matter of obedience, but at times I couldn’t help think they were trying to kill him instead. I watched, pained, with my hand over my mouth, and no relief found me when it was over.
On a much happier note, Luke Garroway is as charming as ever. With Jocelyn awake, he’s both visibly relaxed and right back into co-parenting mode like two peas and a red-headed pod child. Isaiah Mustafa plays him with a self-awareness previously missing and an alpha-male warmth to die for, giving off the undeniable assurance that if you don’t piss him off, you are equal and safe under his watch. But if you do piss him off, you had better walk.
The special effects – now with Folks VFX at the helm – have been thoughtfully re-imagined and are overwhelming in their advancement. The appearance of Simon’s vampire speed is seamless (and he’s even faster than before). The runes are no longer burned from the outside but triggered by the connection between Stele and the angelic power inside. The show’s portals have been redesigned to look, sound and even react differently. In fact, everything requiring special effects seems to have it’s own individual behavior, which adds an incredible realism to the show’s supernatural elements.
Magnus’ magic has also been overhauled, now an icy blue that sparkles like liquid diamonds; lively, reactionary and very much a part of him, moving with Harry Shum Jr.’s impressive choreography like never before. Even the sound of his magic has been redesigned – where season one’s magic sounded tinny and airy, now it is electrical, sizzling through beats of wind with every movement he makes. It’s mesmerizing, beautiful and oddly soothing, and an extension of our favorite High Warlock that is utterly worthy of him. Also worthy are his new cat’s eyes, which appear a little more fey, more dangerous. They come on slower too, which gives the unnerving impression of a real demonic entity lounging within him.
Book fans will get to see exciting little touches of the Shadow World scattered throughout production. From time to time, you’ll notice characters are more visually aware of the mundane world around them. You get to see what it’s like to go through a glamour. Everything looks more like New York. You’ll see the outside of Magnus’ apartment building, and it looks like Magnus’ apartment building.
Series composers Jack Wall and Trevor Morris give the show a new feeling altogether. Ben Decter’s season one score was reminiscent in places of Atli Örvarsson’s 2013 effort for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, which was one of the few things I enjoyed about the film. The new musical tone, however, moves between warped, pulse-inducing beats of danger nearby, to the emotionally swaying Nordic strings that Trevor Morris is known for. What you get is a score that is both modern and timeless, adding both power and audible history to the Shadow World. It’s everything you didn’t realize you wanted.
Each piece of the puzzle works together to present a new and exciting vision of the show we know and love, while keeping what we love. But this would all be only half the victory if it weren’t for the storytelling.
Michael Reisz is responsible for writing the season premiere, and it’s noticeably tighter, logical and heavy with purpose where necessary. His world building is impressive, but his writing shines most with the characters, giving each of them a voice that is true to who they are. Many parts of season one’s characterization felt a little written for the audience’s sake. Now, they feel written for the characters themselves. Also, as self-proclaimed supervisor of ‘Malec,’ Reisz injects the show’s most popular couple with appreciated, authentic motive. There’s a tense push-pull happening that isn’t always pleasant to witness (one particular moment had my jaw on the floor), but it fully realizes their own separate truths with a careful reverence often void in LGBT representation. It’s not always agreeable, but it’s important to understand it’s realistic – as it should be. And my god, it is so worth it.
It feels like the writer’s room have acknowledged their hits and misses and torn their season one work apart to build it back stronger, because there are subtle fixes within the story to better fit the relevant canon of the world they pull from. It should also be noted that the connection between writer’s room and director feels more in sync; everything is more in sync and on the right track, aiming for the same station, and all signs point to promising.
I had a pattern I followed over the course of season one: Episode release. Viewer high. Inevitable drop back to reality. Hope for next time. It’s awfully telling then that where I should be picking myself up, I’m not. There is no drop this time. I paused my way through my viewing of the premiere to ensure I took it in with honest, unbiased analysis, and I still walked away gobsmacked: “Holy shit. Did that just happen? Was that really my show?”
It sure is. And I couldn’t be prouder.
Welcome to Season Two.
Shadowhunters returns January 2nd at 8/7c on Freeform, and January 3rd internationally on Netflix.