In the very opening scene of AMC’s Into the Badlands, a young man’s voice (Aramis Knight) tells us all we need to know about the history and structure of this world:
The wars were so long ago nobody even remembers. Darkness and fear ruled until the time of the barons, seven men and women who forged order out of chaos. People flocked to them for protection. That protection became servitude. They banished guns and trained armies of lethal fighters they called Clippers. This world is built on blood. Nobody is innocent here. Welcome to the Badlands.
Immediately, we are introduced to the hero, Sunny (Daniel Wu), as he rides into a Nomad camp where he quickly and brutally dispatches the all-male raiding party in the name of Baron Quinn (Marton Csokas), and rescues a boy they had locked in a trunk. Not a whole lot of gender equality representation so far, right?
And yet, despite the seeming male dominance of the premise and plot, Into the Badlands has proven to be insidiously clever in building in female counterbalances and foils to every major male role through its first season, and continues to do so into its second. It’s a brilliant exercise in contrasting styles of power and the dynamics of societal norms where, personal motivations aside, the central players line up in beautifully paired yin-yang matches with the women demonstrating that they can play smarter, harder, and just as viciously as the men.
First and foremost, we have The Widow (Emily Beecham) who was known as Minerva when she married the Baron of Oil, earning her new moniker when she killed her husband, assumed his role, and reorganized the household under the Butterfly sigil so that her inner guard is a deadly force of female warriors who refer to her as “Mother.” In The Widow, we are given a situational foil to Ryder (Oliver Stark), son of Quinn, Baron of Opium, who assumes his father’s position (as well as two other baronies) under false pretensions of power.
Neither Ryder nor Minerva had any “right” to their baronies. It is established early on that there is no line of inheritance. Baronies are taken by the strongest candidate, usually by killing the predecessor. By this logic and tradition, Minerva has more claim to her barony than Ryder does, but the other barons hate her as an outsider and actively seek her downfall. Ryder demonstrates neither the political aptitude nor the physical prowess to hold power but the barons are willing, even eager, to believe that he killed his father and Baron Jacobee (Edi Gathegi) on his word and give him a seat at the conclave.
We can’t dismiss this difference in peer acceptance as straightforward sexism as Baroness Chau (Eleanor Matsuura) sits on that very conclave of barons and disapproves of The Widow as much as her male compatriots. Here, the difference lies in the preservation of the status quo. Baron Chau is a product of the system. She served as a Clipper for her father, and out-fought and out-survived her sisters to win her seat. She reigns as Baron of Cogs, essentially the slave-trader of the conclave, and The Widow’s goal of destroying the hierarchical system, freeing the Cogs of indentured servitude, threatens the Fox Baron’s way of life. Chau may not respect Ryder, but he poses no threat to her business. Even while admitting that Minerva’s late husband was a monster, she still preferred him to the revolution that The Widow seeks to stoke because he was part of the system she seeks to preserve. Sisterhood obviously has little value to Baron Chau when she probably had to literally kill her biological sisters in order to win the barony.
The next obvious female counterbalance on Into the Badlands is Tilda (Ally Ioannides), currently serving as The Widow’s Regent, or Captain of the Guard. She is young, impetuous, and conflicted. Although in a position of considerable authority and deeply loyal to Mother, she lacks the experience to temper her impulses with strategic thought. She stands in comparison to the series’ young hero, M.K. (Knight), who has the powers of a “Dark One,” mystical and almost uncontrollable martial abilities that are triggered by being cut. While Tilda has to learn to manipulate and have some faith in the world around her, M.K.’s challenge is to control and trust his inner powers. In both cases, the young people are provided with powerful mentors to try and train them and again, these parallel roles are divided along gender lines. Tilda’s mentor, Waldo (Stephen Lang), is Quinn’s ex-Regent, wheelchair-bound – yet still lethal – and backing The Widow’s efforts to burn down the old guard while M.K. finds himself apprenticed to The Master (Chipo Chung) who promises to train him to use his powers and let him go once he has conquered himself. Neither mentor will have an easy time preparing their charges for the challenges ahead.
Both The Widow and Tilda draw attention as central combatants in the series, demonstrating strength and cunning in overt situations. Where the mirrored pairs become really interesting is in examining who can contrast Sunny’s struggles since his plotline is overwhelmingly central to the series. That attempt to become someone else for the sake of a better life is most apparent in Quinn’s first wife, Lydia (Orla Brady). After being thrown out of her home by her husband and son, she tries to return to live in the community of her childhood, a pacifist Totemist commune led by her father, Penrith (Lance Henriksen). When they are attacked by Nomads, she fights back, and is ostracized for her violence by Penrith and the community. While Sunny seeks to leave behind his life of killing in order to be with his family, Lydia has been abandoned by her family and must learn to fight in order to survive on her own. As Quinn’s Baroness, she was skilled with poisons, typically seen as a woman’s means of killing. As her father’s daughter, she was a priestess of peace. In losing both these titles, Lydia is as without identity as Sunny is without his sword and master. She is a subtle shadow of the show’s hero but her role has grown recently to hint at being a potential game-changer.
The most unique central female representation in Into the Badlands is Sunny’s lover and Quinn’s saviour, Veil (Madeleine Mantock). The adopted daughter of the Baron’s doctor, she served as physician to the Cogs of the barony but was called on by her childhood friend, Jade, to save Ryder’s life, and then revived Quinn after what should’ve been a fatal encounter with Sunny. In a series preoccupied with death, dying, and all the violence that the world requires for survival, Veil stands as the only character concerned with life and living. She saves people that she has good reason to hate. She gives birth to Sunny’s child, not knowing if Sunny will ever return for them. When she has to resort to violence in an attempt to free herself and her son from Quinn’s captivity, it is abundantly clear that it is the absolute antithesis of her being to do harm to another living thing, making it one of the hardest scenes to stomach so far in the series. As such, she is quite singular, with no male doppelgänger except perhaps the preacher Penrith whose faith tasks him to undergo hardships counter to his well-being in a similar way that Veil’s drive to heal leads her to save the lives of those who are a danger to her.
With half of the second season yet to unfold, Into the Badlands continues to expand its physical geography as well as its metaphysicality. With both Sunny and M.K. stranded outside the actual Badlands, it is the women who have taken on the protagonist roles at “home” as it were. As revolutionary leader, ingénue, lone wild card, and the moral anchor, respectively, the women of the Badlands don’t just hold up half the sky, they have the power to tear it down too.
Photos Courtesy of AMC