Into the Badlands: The Fort

Into the Badlands, AMC’s latest foray into the post-apocalyptic genre, begins its six-episode limited run with “The Fort,” which could double as a forty-five minute attempt at rebooting “Firefly” with a multi-ethnic cast and apparently fewer spaceships.

Badlands stars Daniel Wu as Sunny, an enforcer (a Clipper, in the show’s vocabulary) for the local despot. We meet him as he rides his big bad motorcycle past lush poppy field, as a voiceover explains when and where we are: the indeterminate Badlands, in the time of the barons. As I know from half-remembered history classes, the only things barons are good for is amassing wealth, ruling over serfs, warmongering, and limiting the power of kings, so this is probably going to be pretty pleasant for everyone.

Sunny’s got some cool-ass Laurence Fishburne-worthy shades and a really well-maintained red leather duster. He removes the shades for a better look at a line of dead bodies on the side of the road. They’re all shackled together and have clearly been executed, but at the end of the chain: one manacle is empty. Sunny pulls out a brass spyglass — because of course he has a brass spyglass — and spots smoke way off in the trees.

The smoke is from a cookfire surrounded by a bunch of dirty, eyeliner-wearing dudes in pseudo-Civil War-era clothing and fun patterns painted on their faces like a bunch of Really Lost Boys. Sunny rides up, leans his katana against his bike, and makes threatening noises. It seems his boss owned the “cogs” being transported and now dead on the side of the road. The head Really Lost Boy explains that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the dead cogs and he is definitely not sitting on a trunk containing the last not-yet-dead one. Sunny is not an idiot and so he doesn’t believe it for a second.

A pretty awesome (if a little on the long side) kung-fu fight scene ensues, in which Sunny cracks heads, breaks limbs, and literally folds one guy in half by bending him over backward. All without picking up his katana! This show is probably going to be a massive hit.

In the detritus of the camp, Sunny finds a medallion that he examines pensively. Or he might be in a little bit of pain from all the wire work he just did. Next, he breaks open the head Really Lost Boy’s trunk to reveal an actual teenage boy (Aramis Knight) who is not dead! The boy tries to run. Sunny knocks him out.

When the boy comes to, Sunny has ditched the coat and is burying the cogs while wearing a bad-ass leather vest. He questions the boy, who admits that someone named The Widow paid the Really Lost Boys to find him.

Sunny and the boy ride up to a massive pair of gates at the end of a poppy field, which open at Sunny’s command. They drive down a long tree-lined avenue that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever watched any Civil War-era movie or miniseries. Through another pair of gates they find a troop of men going through practice drills in front of a huge white antebellum mansion. There’s something extra disheartening about a dismal future imagined in such instantly recognizable trappings, no matter how gorgeously saturated the show looks.

Also, we’re more than ten minutes in and the only women so far are dead or offscreen. Here’s hoping that’s not indicative of the whole!

The boy seems confused by the mass of men and boys throwing punches and each other. Sunny explains that they’re recruits, or Colts, and every boy is given the chance to join them to train up to be a Clipper. I’m already tired of the worldbuilding, but now we have to see the baron Quinn (Marton Csokas) greet the new recruits in a syrupy Southern drawl and give them a standard now-boys-you’re-special speech about loyalty and not getting emotionally attached to whatever you have sex with. Great! The boy, M.K., watches with equal parts rapt attention and misapprehension. But the scene does give us the chance to see Sunny vest-less, as he reveals his proliferation of tattoos — one mark for every person he’s killed. It’s, uh, it’s a lot of marks.

Quinn questions M.K., who has no idea why anyone would want him, let alone The Widow. When M.K. doesn’t offer any useful information, Quinn has him sent to the fighting pit. Quinn’s son Ryder (Oliver Stark) comes running up to let us all know that The Widow killed her baron husband and has pretensions of power which no other baron seems willing to indulge.

In the pit, M.K. meets his first frenemy, Ajax, who rips off M.K.’s amulet and gets a punch to the face for his trouble. Sunny breaks up the fight and stares transfixed at the amulet’s symbol. M.K. meets his second frenemy, Bale, who infodumps about Ajax’s bad attitude and offers to watch M.K.’s back in return for the same.

Quinn strides elegantly to the house where he meets his first wife, Lydia (Orla Brady), who complains about all the RSVP rejections she’s getting for the baron’s upcoming wedding to his newest wife, which she is arranging. Barons, they’re just like us! The two of them argue further about their son, who Quinn thinks is too weak to be any use.

Speaking of! Ryder stomps into Sunny’s quarters (which are rebuilt slave cabins on the baron’s antebellum estate, make no mistake about it. This show is as subtle as a two-by-four to the face). Sunny hides the two identical amulets he was comparing, M.K.’s and the one he apparently owns. Ryder brings up Quinn’s headaches, and the two argue about something that sounds ominous but doesn’t really make any sense. It will later, I’m sure!

When we return from commercial break, we see Quinn embrace his new bride, Jade (Sarah Bolger), while Lydia and Ryder watch from a distance. To steal a phrase from the late Television Without Pity: blah blah jealousycakes.

That night, Sunny heads into town, where he meets up with the local prosthetic-fitter, Veil (Madeline Mantock), who is also his secret, pregnant girlfriend and reading tutor. Which would be great, except that it’s illegal for a Clipper to have a family and possibly illegal for Veil to be pregnant at all. It’s probably also illegal for Sunny to know how to read, is my guess. Veil tries to convince Sunny to escape with her but he’s not having any of it. The world ends at the Badlands boundaries as far as he’s concerned.

In the recruit barracks, Ajax blindsides M.K. who wipes blood off his face and turns into some kind of supernaturally talented fighter, capable of kicking a teenager across a fairly large room and plucking a flying shard of glass out of the air. How he sees it after his eyes turn totally black, I do not know! Sunny, who caught the end of the fight, seems to know, though.

M.K. tells Sunny he doesn’t know what the ability is or why he has it. “It’s like something takes control of me. When I wake up, someone’s been hurt. Or worse,” he says. It also only happens when he sees blood, and it’s the reason why he has been separated from his mother. Sunny holds up his own amulet, and M.K. tells him the symbol is of his hometown, Azra. It lies beyond the Badlands and M.K. doesn’t remember how to get there. Sunny looks like maybe he needs to go apologize to Veil for doubting her stories of a safe place to escape to.

The next night, Sunny goes to Veil’s but changes his mind before he opens her door. Walking away, he realizes he’s been cornered by a handful of fighters and a cool old car. He draws both his swords, the rain looks like it turns to milk, and we get another amazing action sequence. Even though I was home alone watching the show, I could hear a thousand fanboy squeals of joy in my head like I’m some kind of pop culture Jedi Master. Sunny takes on four bad guys at once, swords ringing, blood dripping, milk puddling. He slices and dices and even manages to pierce the car with his sword.

It’s all very impressive! Even The Widow thinks so. She even gets out of the car to compliment him. Oh, and to tell him she wants M.K. delivered to her. Sunny refuses. Both The Widow and I know it won’t be for long.

Bale tells M.K. where Ryder’s room is in the house so he can steal back his amulet. Bale warns M.K. not to get caught, so he immediately gets caught as soon as he picks up the amulet. I forgot to be worried about it, though, because there was an old computer in Ryder’s room and I had to Google it. (It was a Zenith Z-19, possibly. Hello, I am an old.) Ryder and Lydia agree a fitting punishment for M.K. is death. Obviously!

(Side note: how long until we find out that Ryder is either a vampire or dying of consumption or its baron-era equivalent?)

Sunny goes to see M.K. and argues with him about Azra for a little bit. M.K. asks Sunny to find his mother and apologize on his behalf. Sunny can’t make that promise, but he can help M.K. escape so he can do it himself. Aww!

The baron calls Sunny up to the house, but not about the escape (which Lydia saw). Instead, the baron reassures Sunny that there’s no need to stare mournfully into the distance in the mornings because there’s nothing beyond the badlands. He wants Sunny to move closer to the house, to help defend his family against the inevitable war with the other barons. He also tells Sunny how lucky he is not to have any children. Somewhere, Veil’s ears are ringing.

Elsewhere in the house, we see Jade make her way through the dark corridors in her nightgown. She enters Ryder’s room and gets naked almost immediately, to the surprise of probably no one else in the house.

After this first episode, I’m still pretty excited about the show as a whole — and to be recapping it for The Televixen! Hopefully over the next five weeks Into the Badlands will lean more into its strengths — Wu’s Sunny, the graceful yet explosive action, and the strange connection between M.K. and Sunny — and away from the long and ponderous exposition scenes and strange worldbuilding choices. More bluegrass and blues in the soundtrack wouldn’t hurt, either. Let me know how you feel about the show in the comments, and join us on Sunday for another recap!

Photo Courtesy of AMC

About Lisa Shininger

Lisa Shininger spends way too much time thinking about fictional characters but, somehow, it's never enough. She co-hosts Bossy Britches, and yells about pop culture at lisashininger.com and on Twitter @ohseafarer.