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In Defense of Netflix’s “Figure It Out” Approach to World-Building

Fantasy shows like ‘Shadow and Bone’ and ‘The Witcher’ are full of knotty mythology, unintelligible language, and unfamiliar geography—but learning how their worlds work is part of the experience

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

The main character of Shadow and Bone, Netflix’s latest fantasy series, adapted from Leigh Bardugo’s YA novels, which premiered in April, starts out as a cartographer. It’s an important position in the kingdom of Ravka, a nation split in two by something called the Shadow Fold, a vast expanse of darkness that’s treacherous to navigate on account of all the winged, flesh-eating monsters lurking within. (Ravka is like Imperial Russia, but where magic exists.) With accurate mapping, units crossing through the Fold can safely transport people and goods from East Ravka to West Ravka (and vice versa), running into as few setbacks and monsters as possible.

It’s during a trip into the Fold that our protagonist, Alina Starkov (played by newcomer Jessie Mei Li), discovers that she’s also a prophetic Grisha—the in-universe term for someone with magical abilities—who can conjure light. As it often goes with such Chosen One premises, if Alina—who is also referred to as the “Sun Summoner”—can harness her unique powers, she’ll be able to destroy the Fold and repair her fractured homeland. Now, if you’re wondering why Ravka’s citizens can’t just go around this creepy abyss, that’s because there are other nations that don’t want anyone crossing their borders on each side of the Fold. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the case.

It’s difficult to keep track of the two halves of Ravka, the different types of non-messianic Grisha—some can summon fire, others harness wind; wait, is this show just Avatar: The Last Airbender?—a brooding “Shadow Summoner” general named Aleksander (Ben Barnes) whose ancestor inadvertently created the Fold in the first place, and a bunch of secondary characters whose importance to the story is just as unclear as where they’re literally located in the world. And don’t even get me started on a subplot concerning an imprisoned Grisha and her hunky Viking-like captor that is so disjointed from the rest of the narrative until the final scene of the season that I honestly assumed some fan-fiction writer had won a contest to put their steamy story line into the show.

Meanwhile, discerning the geography of this fictional universe is nearly impossible at the onset—and like Game of Thrones, geography is extremely important in understanding Shadow and Bone. (Unlike Thrones, though, there isn’t a helpful opening credits sequence that reminds the viewer just how much distance separates the characters and conflicts.) It’s not like turning on the subtitles will help much, either, as you’ll then have to Google what a “Fjerdan Drüskelle” means at least four times. Perhaps sensing the sheer WTF-ness of the Shadow and Bone experience, Netflix tweeted out a map of the world a few days after the show’s premiere. (There’s also a companion website with an interactive map and other tidbits worth diving into.)

The map is helpful, but it’s also confirmation of just how lost in the dark (er, the Fold?) I was watching the eight-episode first season—as in, I completely didn’t realize a trio of characters began the series not in West Ravka, but on a small island nation called Kerch. (From what I understand, Kerch is to Shadow and Bone what Tortuga is to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.)

But rather than a barrier to entry, Shadow and Bone’s richly detailed universe, filled with a glossary’s worth of terms, languages, and cultural practices, makes for immersive viewing because the world feels immediately and genuinely lived in. There’s something to admire about a series so confident in the steady progression of its intricate world-building that it doesn’t mind potentially alienating some of its audience by dropping them into the proceedings without a guiding, expositional hand.

This has become something of a calling card for Netflix as it continues to expand its output in certain genres. Not that a company like Netflix, with its fingers in so many different types of programming, has one unifying strategy, but when it comes to fantasy and science fiction, the goal seems to be making shows “for real heads only.” These are shows where attention to detail and faithfulness matters more than simplifying things in order to reach the widest possible audience. Shadow and Bone, confusing as it may be in moments, feels like a cakewalk compared to The Witcher, a fantasy series that’s disorienting as all hell even before it becomes apparent that it’s juggling multiple timelines. (Not helping matters is that some of the Witcher characters, including its titular Witcher, don’t age across decades.) But with The Witcher, the absurdity is part of the appeal, especially when it’s delivered with batshit conviction by Henry Cavill in a wig grunting and muttering “fuck” to himself as he travels through a realm littered with otherworldly monsters and, at one point, a golden dragon communicating telepathically with a British accent.

Shows like The Witcher or Shadow and Bone remain accessible so long as the viewer is willing to soak in their meticulous fantasy worlds like a sponge and accept that they might never grasp every detail within. Initial bewilderment is part of the experience—and soon, that bewilderment gives way to discovery. Unlike a series like Westworld, where obfuscation is embedded into the show’s mystery-box DNA, these Netflix fantasy shows reward a viewer putting effort into the immersive experience. Give Shadow and Bone enough of your time, and you’ll know that Fjerdan Drüskelle is a shorthand for “hot Viking dudes from a Baltic-like nation who hunt Grisha.”

This “just let the vibes wash over you” sentiment extends to some of Netflix’s strongest (and strangest) sci-fi offerings. Altered Carbon, a hugely expensive cyberpunk series where a human being’s consciousness can be transported between bodies on a glorified floppy disk, has a protagonist played by a combination of Joel Kinnaman, Anthony Mackie, and Will Yun Lee across two ass-kicking seasons. (If that’s not strange enough, one of the supporting characters is an A.I. who runs a hotel and whose human avatar is modeled after Edgar Allan Poe.) Somehow, Altered Carbon’s WTF-ery pales in comparison to that of Dark, a German sci-fi series so purposefully confusing that my colleague Brian Phillips fashioned an entire essay in its time-hopping style; or The OA, whose fandom protested its cancellation with interpretive dance flash mobs in the spirit of the show.

Though it’s not a foolproof strategy for making sci-fi and fantasy—unfortunately, Altered Carbon has joined The OA on the cancellation block—it can produce shows popular enough to carve out a successful corner in Netflix’s ever-expanding library, even if none of them ever become the “next Game of Thrones.” By many accounts, The Witcher was still über-popular despite being one of the most bonkers shows the streamer’s made to date; its second season will arrive later in 2021 with even more fanfare. Shadow and Bone, meanwhile, hasn’t been renewed yet, but as of this writing it’s lurking in Netflix’s Top 10 most viewed programs, nearly two weeks after its release. An official announcement, especially on the heels of speculation that Netflix already green-lit Season 2 a month before Shadow and Bone premiered, should only be a matter of time.

Like The Witcher, which endured brutal reviews from some critics, Shadow and Bone isn’t going to be for everyone. But fantasy enthusiasts willing to plunge into the deep end of an immersive world containing element-wielding sorcerers, witch-hunting Viking types, and mythical animals with magical bones (hence the title) won’t come away disappointed. If anything, experiencing Shadow and Bone as a non-reader mirrors the journey of its heroine: wander through the shadows long enough, and you’ll start to see the light.