Into the Badlands Season 3, Episode 1: “Enter the Phoenix”
Into the Badlands is a series that is coming into its own while still having much to prove to its fans. The show, which was lauded for its diversity, seemingly followed the well-worn path of killing people of color, when it made the unpopular choice to kill off Sunny’s wife, Veil, in the Season 2 finale.
In the long term, removing that stabilizing factor in Sunny’s life is what is best to tell his story, but that is little consolation for a corner of the fandom that embraced the series largely because this was the only outpost in television where you could see an Asian man and a black woman in a romantic relationship.
If anything, “Enter the Phoenix” serves as a revised mission statement for Into the Badlands. Diversity is still important to the core of the series, but Badlands has very little interest in looking back. To make up for this shift, it has ratcheted up just about everything else: the scale is grander, the colors more vivid and the fights have more of a stylized flourish.
It’s going to be nearly impossible for the series to keep up this level grand, intense action throughout the full 16-episode order, and it’s going to have to fall back on its character relationships to sustain itself, but the season premiere makes a definitive statement that it’s a new day in the Badlands, and while things are different than before, it still believes it’s worthy of your attention.
Instead of being far-flung across the land, this season starts off with the characters clustered together, as war ravages the Badlands:
The Widow serves as a framing device to set the stage for this season. It’s been six months since the events of the Season 2 finale. What was once a land broken into many fiefdoms, is now reduced to two: forces loyal to The Widow, and those of the banner of Chau.
As with most leaders in the world, the Widow has been required to compromise her ideals in order to get the job done. A woman who once preached freedom, now keeps her people behind the “safety” of the walls of the plantation that Quinn ruled. She claims that freedom will come once the war is over, and she genuinely believes it. However, the Widow seems oblivious to the fact that waging peace is far more difficult than war ever was, and the people are toiling in the same way as before; it’s just the color of the banners on the walls that’s different.
Locked in a battle of attrition, the Widow seeks a new regent to turn the tide of the war to her favor. She finds herself at the tower where Moon is trying to lay low, following his defeat at the hands of Sunny. The Widow comes with the promise of an opportunity for Moon to restore his honor in her service. They fight a breathtaking one-on-one battle that sees the combatants powerful, yet weightless at the same time. Widow and Moon come to a stalemate at the top of the tower, and negotiate terms.
MK is in the Widow’s compound, living in the most lavish prison accommodations this side of Pablo Escobar. The bars MK exists behind seem overkill, because he has imprisoned himself in other ways. The man who once resisted the violent power within him, is now a hollow shell, without it. He spends his days in his silk and velvet jail, indulging in women and opium, all but given up on life. His confrontation with Widow reveals she has lost key allies over these last few months, and that there may be a fair amount of rot under her shiny façade.
Tilda and the Refugees
Tilda has left the Widow’s service and struck out on her own. It’s safe to assume that Tilda broke with her adoptive mother over ideological reasons, since Tilda is playing Robin Hood for an ever-growing camp of refugees.
Her group, the Iron Rabbits hits supply runs, sending essentials to the troops on the front lines. One of those jobs serves as a second action set-piece. While she battles for control of the truck, Tilda is knocked into the back, where Bajie sits as a prisoner in a resplendent purple suit that is a far cry from the burlap tunic he wore for much last season.
They all end up at the refugee camp that’s being run by Lydia and the member of the church/cult her father founded. Lydia is also in a difficult leadership position, because the longer the war rages, the more refugees stream into the camp. Keeping them all fed, clothed, and healthy under the radar of the two warring factions has been made more difficult now that Tilda accidentally hit a prisoner transport, instead of a supply truck.
Sunny and Henry
Without Veil as his anchor, Sunny is adrift in more ways than one. He’s a doting father, carrying his adorable baby on his back wherever he goes. But, life on their own isn’t easy for the clipper and his boy. Sunny is still a wanted man, so gathering essentials like food is complicated.
When Henry calms down for the night, Sunny tries to drown his sorrows with a flask. He clearly hasn’t had time to properly mourn Veil, and her death is weighing on him.
The baby wakes up burning up with fever, but that is the least of Sunny’s worries, as a gang of thugs rush his camper in an effort to collect the bounty on his head. Sunny dispatches the goons with a closed quarters battle that has become a hallmark of the show.
Back on the run and in desperate need of a healer for Henry, Sunny finds his way into Lydia’s refugee camp, and stumbles on Bajie fleecing refugees for drinks. The source of Henry’s fever is discovered to be the same mysterious power that MK, Widow and Bajie all once had. Bajie says it’s highly unusual for the power to manifest itself in a child so young. Sunny wonders if finding Azra is the key to his son’s salvation, but Bajie is skeptical because he spent months in that lighthouse, waiting for Azra to respond to his call for help, with no reply.
The episode wraps with another group guided by an Azra compass. This is a quasi-religious group, spreading salvation at the point of a spear. Its charismatic figurehead is flanked by two warriors who both have the eye-blackening power, and they make quick work of a Chau-controlled checkpoint.
They are the big mystery for this season, and their entrance to the stage grabs attention.
Thoughts and Impressions
The season premiere encased an establishing episode in some of the prettiest wrapping it could find. The hour has no less than five major battle sequences that were all either grander in scale, more intense, or more balletic than anything we’ve seen in the two previous seasons. It’s hard to believe that Into the Badlands will be able to sustain this level of grandeur and intensity over the course of its longest round of episodes yet.
Last season, the show started off with a similar splash and settled into a groove that featured one major battle, one smaller one, and a lot of character work in-between. It wouldn’t be surprising if the majority of this season fell into a similar groove. The test of this season will be how it fills that character time, now that the relationship that was once the center of Sunny’s world is no longer there. The premiere more than earned the audience’s attention; the challenge will be how it maintains it.