Into the Badlands
“A program fares only as well as its creators are diverse. Into the Badlands falls cleanly into this convention.”
Title: Into the Badlands - Season 1 (2015)
Creators: Alfred Gough 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Miles Millar 👨🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Paco Cabezas 👨🏽🇪🇸, David Dobkin 👨🏼🇺🇸, Guy Ferland 👨🏼🇺🇸, etc.
Executive Producers: Nick Copus 👨🏼🇬🇧, Henry Bronchtein 👨🏼🇺🇸, Stephen Fung 👨🏻🇭🇰, Daniel Wu 👨🏻🇺🇸, etc.
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Into the Badlands is a pulpy, martial arts drama that remixes steampunk Victorian-futurism with authentic Hong Kong fight choreography, taped together with a plot to find the Promised Land and set against a dystopian backdrop à la Mad Max.
Yes, it’s as jumbled and borrowed as it sounds. But if you’re a sucker for comic book levels of gruesome action like I am, with an appreciation for camp and the ability to turn a blind eye to stilted acting and boring expository between superb fight sequences, then chances are you’ll get into this short, 6-episode season with as much relish as I did.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
This series knows its target demographic—teenage fanboys—and panders to them without batting an eyelash. Unfortunately, this does not translate into any semblance of modern feminism. Instead, the all-male creators clumsily write “strong women” by strapping them into 4” stiletto heels and having an all-female army slay men with aplomb. To break it down:
- GOOD: Numbers - several women represented, nearly reaching parity with male characters
- GOOD: Variation - a wide array of characterizations for women, if none particularly complex
- GOOD: Sisterhood - I loved the instances where women team up and scheme, though it’s balanced with other ladies being manipulative and backstabbing. Still, Into the Badlands is all about power plays and I appreciated that women were agents in their own maneuverings.
- BAD: Women as Sex Symbols - clichéd to a fault, women use sex as power and are clad in thigh-high boots, skin-tight leather, etc.
- BAD: Victimization - clichéd dynamic between the sexes, as women experience brutality and sexual abuse at the hands of men. For once, I’d like to watch some badass women who haven’t been abused as part of their backstory. It simply perpetuates the victimization of women.
Overall, the main weaknesses on Gender can be attributed to simplistic writing which affects both men and women alike. For example, Sunny (played by Daniel Wu) is equally one-dimensional and riddled with tropes: the stoic anti-hero killer with a heart of gold who’s just trying to get out of a bad situation. Haven’t we seen this all before?
The diversity is up front and in your face, and I couldn’t appreciate it more. There’s a lot of nuance to cover here though, so read on.
Obviously, Sunny jumps to mind as an Asian man in a leading role, which is unusual enough it would score well on that alone. Moreover, the other protagonists are largely non-White—Sunny’s protégé M.K. is played by Aramis Knight, who is mixed-race German and South Asian. Sunny’s girlfriend Veil is played by Madeleine Mantock, who is mixed-race Hispanic, Black, and British.
It’s true that White actors still comprise the majority of background and support characters, but you’ll easily find Black and a few Asian extras in every crowd shot. Characters with political power are diverse as well—warlords and their Regents (second-in-command) consist of 1 White man, 1 Asian man, 1 Black man, and 3 White women.
This does, however, lead me to point out that ethnic diversity evaporates among female characters. Veil is the only woman of color with any lines and her actress is part-White. Meanwhile, the Widow’s army is almost all White, a huge contrast to the diverse soldiers in Baron Quinn’s army.
Also not great: cultural appropriation among the women. I largely gave this a pass due to Asian representation behind and in front of the camera, plus the original story was based on a Chinese folktale so we could see this as an homage, rather than erasure; still, the optics were awkward. The Widow’s army of White women wear Japanese kimonos and her daughter Tilda (played by Ally Ioannides) sports a black-haired bob that has been appropriated in the past for other White women playing martial artists (such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell or Chloë Grace Moretz in Kick-Ass). The most cringe-worthy moment for me was watching the beautiful, blonde Jade (played by Sarah Bolger) don a traditional Chinese qipao as she crouches in an opium field, extracting poppy milk from a plant. Yikes.
Last note: where the Hispanics at? Like so many—too many—of our reviews, Hispanic men and women were ignored entirely. It’s boggling to me as they make up the largest non-White contingency of our country, yet they are overlooked, time and time again.
I’m doing something a bit different for this section. While there was no LGBTQ representation in the first season of Into the Badlands, I’m swapping out this category for something this show does include: a meaningful character who uses a wheelchair.
Waldo (played by Stephen Lang) is a grizzled, sarcastic mentor to Sunny and his fighting chops are proven in the first scene we’re introduced to him. Refreshingly, Waldo is not just a one-dimensional character whose disability gives him superpowers (I’m eyeing you, Chirrut of Rogue One). Instead, he’s one of the more complex characters we see as we’re not totally sure where Waldo’s allegiance lies, but we know that he’s an ethical man who cares about Sunny.
We also see cursory nods to amputees; in one of the show’s earliest scenes, we see Veil creating prosthetics for injured soldiers. It isn’t much, but it’s more inclusive of people with disabilities than I normally see so I wanted to give Into the Badlands its fair due.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.88/5
Into the Badlands is a wonderful show for a niche audience. Since I fall into this category of a nerd who loves a good martial arts beat-em-up, I happily tore through this short season.
As for its Diversity Grade, we’ve noticed a recurring theme across all media that a program fares only as well as its creators are diverse. Into the Badlands falls cleanly into this convention. The all-male creators come from a strong mix of ethnic and national backgrounds—Asian, British, and Spanish among some of the key players—so it follows naturally that we see Race represented well. Meanwhile, the absence of women behind the camera translates into flat, clichéd characterizations.
At Mediaversity, we maintain that inclusion begins at the inception of a project; not just at the casting call. By then, it’s usually too late to infuse a TV series or film with any sense of meaningful inclusion if the excluded party was absent from the start. We see that here with Into the Badlands and though it scores well overall on diversity, there’s still room for improvement.