Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
In the broadest sense, the 16th century Chinese novel that AMC’s Into The Badlands is based off, Journey to the West, can be seen in a large swath of popular culture. The guts of the tale – essentially four heroes who must traverse dangers and mysteries at each turn as they travel towards India to receive enlightenment and answers at the hands of Buddha – can be found in everything from movies like The Wizard of Oz and books like The Dark Tower and The Lord of the Rings to the 2010 video game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
AMC’s take on the material keeps the quest structure that the original story is known for, but it fails in multiple categories that other, more inspired works managed to capture. Its world is lavish and mysterious, and its overarching plot of get to the mysterious city is quite easy to grasp onto, but without real characters to journey with along the way, not to mention a level of violence that borders on the fetishistic, Into the Badlands may not be the feudal road trip you were looking for.
A quick voiceover sets the world up haphazardly (there are “barons” and “clippers” and someone calls someone else a “cog” and you’ll understand zero percent of it), but the jist is that Sunny (Daniel Wu) is a good guy whose job is to do bad things to bad people. Some of those bad people are holding a young boy named M.K. (Aramis Knight) prisoner after slaughtering his entire clan, a troublesome omission that causes Sunny to drag the boy back to The Fort. That’s where his boss The Baron, aka Quinn (Marton Csokas), reigns supreme over a small fiefdom in the middle of what looks alarmingly like southern Mississippi: towering oaks, draping moss, all leading up to a giant plantation house guarded by a field of blood-red roses.
In what’s probably Into the Badlands‘ coolest trick, the show is drenched in feudal Japan iconography but slapped up against a cast of southern drawl-spewing elite characters and a debatably problematic slavery theme. (The Baron and his wife Lydia (Orla Brady) and son Ryder (Oliver Stark) prosper over the success of the muddied, caustic gang of “Clippers.”) In The Fort, Sunny helps run a school for young boys who hope to one day get as many back tattoos as he has (one for each kill, and he’s running out of room!), but none of it is compelling or believable.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t delve down into the minutiae and intricacies of its weird world after that brief introduction. It provides glimpses and teases of truly trippy surrealism, and the immediate question of how did the world get this way? pulls you in more than any of its characters, but it’s all more fleeting than truly felt. The show is disappointingly docile in existing as a simple checklist of individual genre ideas than its own kooky iteration on those tropes.