Major spoilers for Shadow and Bone on Netflix are ahead. In preparation for writing this story, I rewatched a section of Shadow and Bone’s fifth episode, “Show Me Who You Are.” Just before the 38-minute mark, General Kirigan (Ben Barnes), confidently strides into frame and announces “I’ll take her from here,” produces a bouquet of bright blue flowers for the “her” in question (Jessie Mei Li’s Shadow and Bone protagonist Alina Starkov), looks Alina dead in her eyes, growls “For you,” and smoothly offers Alina his arm before gliding off-camera. Upon initial rewatch, all I could do was scream, “What a man!” out loud at my kitchen table; the second time, I almost choked on my granola.
The barely contained heat of this moment is overwhelming — and not even the scene that is actually meant to leave you hot under the collar in Shadow and Bone season 1's “Show Me Who You Are.” That sequence comes minutes later, when Kirigan whisks Alina into a private study for some private studying, if you catch my squall. If the ensuing hookup — and near-sex scene — between Alina and Kirigan feels particularly passionate from both sides, that was the point, according to Alina’s portrayer, Jessie Mei Li.
“The changes that were made from the books to make it more of Alina’s decision are really interesting,” Mei Li told Refinery29 over Zoom earlier this month. When you watch Alina and Kirigan’s first romantic scene, her interest in him is impossible to ignore. Alina leans in towards Kirigan, waiting for him to kiss her. Once the makeout begins, she leans back, opening the experience up from a kiss towards something possibly more intimate. When Kirigan pulls back and asks, “Are you sure?,” it’s Alina who enthusiastically nods yes. She also comfortably laughs when they’re interrupted, unashamed of their intense connection.
“For sure [she’s a sexual being],” Mei Li agreed with Refinery29 over the experience. “Sometimes it gets on my nerves when we see a female protagonist who’s virginal and blushing. Alina’s lived a life. She’s an orphan. She’s gone into the army.”
While Alina has been “othered” due to her race, as Mei Li recognized, she knows Alina has likely had romantic and sexual experiences at this stage in her life. As we see over the course of Shadow and Bone season 1, Alina’s “friend” Malyen “Mal” Oretsev (Archie Renaux) has big, complicated feelings for her. The Darkling is immediately smitten. It’s impossible other people haven’t come before with similar emotions for Alina. If Shadow and Bone was going to comment on a woman’s sexuality, Mei Li hoped to embody something she “believes” in.
“I wanted to move away from that ‘Oh! I don’t know what I’m doing’ way [of showing women characters]. It’s not realistic,” she continued. “That’s not my experience. That’s not the experience of many women in my life. Agency and sex positivity are really important as well … I hope that lots of people can see themselves in Alina. Or see the way that Alina is and think, ‘I can be like that!’ Because you can.”
The Shadow and Bone team put in a lot of work to bring those empowering themes to light — and make everyone comfortable on set. While Mei Li was a “bit” nervous knowing how “vulnerable” other actors can be in these situations, every nearly movement in the encounter was written in the script and blocked before filming. Mei Li and scene partner Ben Barnes’ off-screen relationship also helped, as the former remarked, “By that point, Ben and I were such good friends. It was just hilarious and I felt super comfortable. I felt very safe in that environment.”
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Alina. Her hookup with Kirigan is abruptly interrupted due to deadly chaos in the Little Palace. With Kirigan out of the study, Grisha mentor Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker) appears to shatter Alina’s lovestruck bubble. It’s here that Alina finds out the man she was just about to sleep with is the historical Darkling, who created the Shadow Fold and now has a dastardly plan for Alina. Kirigan’s story about being The Darkling’s unfairly maligned descendant is a lie.
I hope that lots of people can see .... the way that Alina is and think, ‘I can be like that!’ Because you can.
Jessie Mei Li
“The audience goes through exactly what Alina goes through — elation and then suddenly like, ‘What,’” Mei Li said. Despite the shock of the reveal, even Mei Li recognizes Alina and Kirrigan continue to be “tied together” for the remainder of the season as equals' with immense chemistry. As an example, Mei Li pointed to the moment Kirigan has Alina implanted with the Morozova's Stag amplifier in seventh episode “The Unsea.” Although Kirigan is the architect of this terrible moment, “There’s concern. And he turns away,” Mei Li said, suggesting that character choice says a lot about his relationship with Alina.
“When the betrayal becomes apparent and he does these awful, awful things, we, the audience, are conflicted,” she explained of the relationship, “I think that Alina feels very betrayed, but there’s a part of her that does kind of want to be near him still. We see tiny flashes of it in the last two episodes, where she’s of two minds. That’s interesting. I hope people get into real, heated arguments.”
A lot of Shadow and Bone is unpredictable. One thing that is not: the inevitable shipping-based arguments about Netflix's take on Alina and Kirigan. At least they’ll always have that study in the Little Palace.