I’m Not Sure That I Really Get Shadow & Bone, But I Do Know That Ben Barnes Looks Good

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
The latest book-to-television adaptation to hit Netflix is Shadow & Bone, a sprawling magical universe dreamed up by fantasy writer Leigh Bardugo. In the new series (which has already secured its place at the top of the streamer's Top 10 list), you'll encounter sorcery, adventure, and an epic love story. Get ready — your age-old crush on Ben Barnes will probably be reignited.
The story of Shadow & Bone takes place in Ravka, a Russian-esque country split in half by the existence of a dark presence called the Shadow Fold. Because the Shadow Fold is full of monsters and other frightening dangers, no one ever crosses it, thus keeping East and West Ravka almost completely separate. However, legend has it that there is a person with the power to defeat the Fold and unify the country for the first time in centuries: a Sun Summoner named Alina Starkov (Jessie Mae Li).
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But Alina can't take on the Fold and all its horrors alone — that's where General Kirigan (Barnes) comes in. While Alina is just barely grasping the full scope of her power as a Grisha, the general/Darkling has been honing his particular skillset for quite some time. His abilities are the inversion of our protagonist's; she summons and controls light (including heat from the sun), and he manipulates darkness and shadows.
General Kirigan is very good at what he does, and that capability is just one of the many reasons Shadow & Bone fans are currently obsessing over him, even though he's technically not the good guy. In the books, his connection with Alina is almost undercut by his tendency towards cruelty, but the TV version of the character is so enchanting that you might find yourself shipping #Darklina despite it all. That, good people, is the Ben Barnes effect.
Your crush for the British actor has probably ebbed and flowed over the past few years depending on the project; Westworld, Dorian Gray, or any of The Chronicles of Narnia films might have done you in. But Barnes is in top form as the Darkling in Shadow & Bone, displaying a level of charm that is irresistible. Sure, part of you wants to root for Alina's old friend Mal (played by Archie Renaux, who is also fine), but he's just not giving the same energy. Barnes-as-Darkling has a certain je ne sais quoi, if you will.
Part of the thirst for the actor is definitely rooted in his thorough understanding and enthusiasm for the novels that inspired his Netflix series. Shadow & Bone has a very complicated, meaty canon, and real fans of the books have been pleasantly surprised to see that Barnes has embraced the storyline and found ways to make it his own. In conversation with Decider, Barnes shared his unique approach to bringing the Darkling to life, which involved a lot of empathy and improvising.
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"My aim was to keep him ambiguous and mysterious, and to keep some of that sort of grey territory between the dark and the light that he navigates," Barnes told the site of his method. "I need to find the war in him. In the way that the Shadow Fold is this dark, shadowy thing, which has these sort of bristling lightning, acts of light through it, I want him to be the human version of that."
This layered perception of the character also allowed him to work with his co-star in a more nuanced way. General Kirigan and Alina have a complex connection and power dynamic, and Barnes wanted to really pull out that tension in his scenes with Li. That hot and heavy moment in the library that you can't stop going back to? (No judgment!) Yeah, he improvised that because he wanted Alina's agency in that moment to be crystal clear.
"The two things that I would say I was keen to contribute was I thought that if he’s this ancient and he is abusing this power…how does she have agency in this situation?" Barnes explained. "[Alina] makes that move. Whether [Kirigan] drew her into wanting to do that or not with his loneliness and his power and all that stuff…I wanted to make sure that was there, but also, you know, I wanted to bring something of myself to the warmth of it."
Given the dark turn of the finale, that same warmth probably won't be present in Kirigan going forward; should Netflix green light a second season of Shadow & Bone, we could be seeing his full transformation into a sexy but very wicked supervillain. Which...I wouldn't mind. I feel like Barnes has the range.
Shadow & Bone is now streaming on Netflix.

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