The women of Into The Badlands deserve better
I wrote the first draft of this analysis one day before the season two finale, and the original title was “Into The Badlands proves that you can treat women better — for now,” then one episode later they proved that my fears were right. Yes, Into The Badlands is a show with some powerful women, and yes, their portrayal got better, but the show still has much to learn.
This is an analysis of the Women in Into The Badlands. Spoilers ahead.
*I wrote it during season 2, but I didn’t feel like supporting the show after they killed Veil. Since I already had it written, I decided to post it now.
The show started really, really bad. I don’t watch shows to analyze everything, I just want to relax and enjoy. But I couldn’t simply do it watching the pilot of Into The Badlands, let me show you why.
Into The Badlands starts with the main character, Sunny, finding the cadaver of a girl. Yes, this is right, the first woman we see in the show is dead and mangled. Maybe it was a warning, “Hey, girls, this tv show isn’t for you, this show is about men grieving the death of women.” But okay, nothing new under the sun, it seems that a dead woman is a pre-requisite to start stories. How else can you show that this world is cruel and the good-hearted main character doesn’t agree with it, right?
Then Sunny finds the group (of men) responsible for it, kills everybody and finds a boy, M.K., the lone survivor (because, get this, even if this world is cruel, men will always find a way to survive). After this, he takes the boy to a place with an army of 92389328239823982398239823 more men training. And who’s the leader of all these men? That’s right, another man, The Baron.
It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m a girl, it’s not like I need to exist (alive) in stories. Post-apocalypse is great.
But you know, we do hear about women in the story, when the Baron (Quinn) talks about the perks of being a Clipper. “You get the best of everything: Food, weapons, women…”
Then the first woman alive appears (18 minutes into the show), yes!
And the conflict is: she isn’t happy that the Baron will marry another white woman.
Then we’re introduced to another character, the annoying son, and we have him bonding with his mother over the fact that they’re both watching from a distance the people that they want but can’t have.
And this is how we meet the second woman alive in the story: seeing from afar. She isn’t really a character, but just the idea of a young beautiful white girl being used as an object by the Baron and is what the son wishes he could have.
(This same girl only appears near the end, arriving naked to sleep with the son. She isn’t really a person, she isn’t treated like one by this episode, she’s just the object to fulfill their sexual desires and be source of conflict between father/son)
Then we have the third woman. Wow, this one is working? And she’s a doctor? And it looks like she will have her own story! Three seconds later she’s barely naked in bed with the main character, but she’s teaching him to read and they’re cute lovers enjoying a moment. She’s also the first black woman and appears with the “good guys,” so… okay.
Then the conflict appears: She’s pregnant.
Sunny doesn’t want it because it’s against the law even if the fact that they’ve been meeting each other is already against the law.
But they need a story, so she pushes it, revealing the purpose of this scene and the entire reason for her existence: We need to leave the badlands!
But okaaay. Veil is a black woman, and to have her as the pure and sweet love interest is a big thing.
Now back to men.
And finally, the last woman in this episode:
She has a great presentation scene. They worked the suspense through the episode, you know something is coming, something dangerous, something powerful — and when the blood smears on her gloves, you know that she’s someone you want to meet.
Red hair. Classy. Exactly like all the Black Widow types, but it’s 2017 and we still can’t resist them.
This is the first woman that isn’t presented as a background character for a man. Or is she? She’s called The Widow. Even when we don’t have any man around, she still defined by her relation to a man.
There’s only one woman in the pilot that isn’t there to serve man in any way or appears to have a typical feminine-associated role, and she’s the woman we briefly see holding the Widow’s umbrella.
You have important women, but they are all important to man — she’s a Wife, a Mother, a Sister, a Girlfriend, a Widow; and they all appear in typical “feminine” roles — She’s a healer, a cooker, a “doll.”
Now back to more men and the pilot ends.
As I said, I don’t sit there to count how many women I can find. And I was anxious to watch it. Into The Badlands was appearing on my radar for some time, I saw sites like Black Girl Nerds talking about it. I was open to love it, but by the end of the episode, I was stressed.
Entertainment, they call it, seeing yourself die and be limited to a few stereotypical roles while men can have intriguing back stories, agency and be the hero. So much fun.
But you’re reading this, which means I decided to give Into The Badlands a second chance to see where they were going with this and they improved enough to make me care.
The other relevant women of season 1 are Tilda — the first one that doesn’t seem related to men until it’s clear that she’s part of M.K.’s storyline and as that great thinker Avril Lavigne puts it:
He was boy
She was girl
how can I make it any more obvious
And even if in season 2 they decided to follow a different path, they still make them kiss and blablabla.
The other is another Clipper.
WOW. A CLIPPER WOMAN. SHE SEEMS POWERFUL. SHE HAS HER OWN GOALS AND IS TRYING TO FORGE HER PATH AND SHE’S IMPORTANT TO MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.
And she’s also… Sunny’s ex.
Can we have one woman that isn’t related to a man, please? And you can argue “But why would she give Sunny a chance if they didn’t have a backstory?” — I don’t know. Waldo didn’t have to be romantically related to the “Boat Man” to give Sunny a chance to run away.
So in general, this is it: all relevant women of Into The Badlands during season 1 have their existence defined by men.
Fortunately, as the story progresses, we do have some changes. I think the thing about stereotypes is that they can’t resist long enough because the characters have to exist.
One of the things that I liked was seeing the beautiful young white girl (sexual object), Jade, start to grow into her role. She takes her opportunities to become a leader, even better than Quinn’s son, and she deals with the smart old wife. I don’t like this narrative about two wives fighting for a man, but they fix the “one story danger” in season 2 when we see how different is the relationship between Lydia/Veil.
The characters become intriguing, complex and they have their own arc that is bigger than any man.
And I love when they do things together. These moments show me how rare are stories on tv, even more action stories, where you have a woman doing anything with another woman. You know, how Jade brings Veil (because she’s a doctor and they grew up together, nothing related to Sunny) and then Veil starts to have her own arc.
Then later it’s the Widow that needs Veil (because she’s a doctor. and it looks like she’s the only one in the badlands), and you have Veil giving to Tilda the chance to kill the Widow.
It’s all woman having agency over their own destiny. They make complex decisions. They move the story forward. They fight for their lives — with their hands or words or brain. They have flaws. They have desires.
So yes, Into The Badland was far from good during the first season, but they developed it enough that the women are more than background objects. And I really liked Veil and Tilda and the Widow. It made me want to give a chance to season 2.
So then Season 2 came.
And I really think that the writers stopped to pay attention to what they did. I don’t know if they read critics, or hired more women to write or started hearing the ones they had. Maybe it’s just the natural development of what they wrote — like I said, stereotypes don’t hold that long when the character is one of the main characters. But it feels like they saw what they did and wanted to do better.
And in S2 they certainly did.
The first episode already feels like “wait, this is a big show, this is a great show, this can even be my favorite show.” But I’m here to talk about how they treat women.
We have a new girl (not related to any man, but it feels like a Tilda 2.0. Pros: She didn’t become a love interest. Cons: They fridged her to further MK’s story) and the Master — finally, finally a woman that is there to be just her own a character, to be someone powerful* or interesting in this world. It’d be sad if she were just a background character and disappeared for the biggest part of the season.
obs: I’m using powerful a lot here, but I think what I’m trying to say is a relevant character + that has agency + and an exciting role. Baije, for example, is powerful in that sense. (I love Baije, but he’s an example of a background character that appeared in season 2 and is developed/interesting in a way that any woman of this show couldn’t be.)
Jade also stars far better — the story is still about Quinn’s son, but she seems to be turning into a great leader. For a moment there I even thought that the Widow would align with her since the Widow wasn’t comfortable with becoming a leader, but for some reason, they just threw Jade away after Quinn’s son died at the same time the Widow retreated to her old ways. I don’t know if they never intended to move forward with this and it was “accidental” character development, or if in the middle of the season they realized that they didn’t want to follow this path. But it says a lot that as soon as Quinn’s son dies, Jade loses her relevance to the story.
Then we have Tilda and The Widow being badasses, the moment I was waiting. Also, they finally start developing them and their goal to “free” the people, pointing the problems in this patriarchy.
To finish, the “surprise”: the white man never really dies. And Veil is fucked because of it.
I think that the difference from the pilot in season one is that the pilot says “Here, these are the men and this is their story. Oh, and there’s some woman related to them in the middle of the way.”
The first episode of season two says “Here, these are the main characters, you have Sunny and MK, but also the Widow and Tilda, and Veil and Quinn and Jade and Quinn’s son, this is their story.”
All of the women are better. Tilda had an upgrade, from the “interesting girl in the boy’s story” to her own person. Sometimes I feel like I wanted to see her more. She’s there, but often she’s in the background while the Widow is the star. And she had what? Five scenes during the season for her own development?
I miss seeing more of Tilda existing. In season 1 we had this scene where she dances with the girls, this is the type of thing that makes the characters seem real. Now in season 2 she meets MK and says “I have a friend. She makes me happy.” Where? When did this happen? And yes, she kissed a girl and it was good, but still — it feels more like Odessa is there to push her forward than to exist as her own character. Compare this to how Humans treats Niska/Astrid, so the problem is not that this is a background relationship.
But ignoring that something was off in general, Tilda was great and her battle against the Widow is one of my favorite scenes ever. It’s this scene (and the lack of badass LGBT+ warriors elsewhere) that will make me give a third chance to Into The Badlands.
I think Tilda is the only woman in the show that has been given the opportunity to grow as the hero of her own story. And still, we have to enjoy her in the background while the men take over everything else.
Now we have The Widow. She was already a main character in season one, but now she’s even better.
The other day I was writing about the Commander Lexa (the character that The 100 killed instead of seeing the potential) and noting how we don’t see many women receiving the “hero” treatment. You know, MK is the boy with mysterious powers who was found in a chest, there’s mythology surrounding his powers and secrets to discover. The same goes for Sunny, he’s the lone killer in a deadly post-apocalyptic world, trying to find peace. There’s a mythology around the clippers, he goes on adventures and deals with impossible tasks.
And when there’s a woman, she is: the wife.
This is her story. She can even be a fighter and have a good fighting scene, but that’s it. No inspiring tale about her.
The best thing we get are stories like Tilda has: dramatic background (Rape), punctual character development, some hard choices to make and even a powerful hero scene, but no tale for you, girl.
Then we have The Widow, she’s the evolution of Tilda. She’s the intriguing villain/antagonist. And during season two, she got closer to have her own tale.
Unfortunately, it seems that they’ll take the path of turning her into a villain, which was always the problem with her character since the start. They decide to create a sexist world and the one character that decides to change it is portrayed as a villain. I’m all for questioning values and seeing characters learn about limits (And cross them). But this “you’re becoming Quinn” narrative is awful, and it plays into the long pattern of showing the resistance of minorities as evil.
And it’s just double standard. Sunny is still there, killing people, but when he kills somehow it’s justified, “he’s still learning,” he’s not portrayed as the bad guy or questionable. He’s not crossing any line — he already crossed it, knows it’s wrong, but somehow it’s still okay to make Sunny want to kill Quinn, while the Widow is the one who gets the story about “you’re becoming exactly like them.”
(thinking about it, this is a great point to create a compelling narrative for him in s3 that doesn’t involve killing Veil. He feels bad about how much he wanted to kill Quinn and thinks that he won’t ever change his “nature.” He isn’t worth of Veil and his son. I don’t know, there’s something to explore there that is better than “the love of my life is dead.”)
Summing up, they made a story about a woman fighting patriarchy and decided that the good story to tell was that she would become as bad as the worst man enforcing the patriarchy. Why not Sunny deciding to enjoy his privileges?
The good-hearted main character breaking bad.
I don’t want this to happen, but The Widow could be portrayed as the hero too, even better overcoming these things. One of the things that makes her battle with Tilda great is because she’s wrong.
Into The Badlands has so much double standard when they treat women that it’s hard to have hope. I know they’re not the main characters (even though is worth questioning: why not?), but The Legend of Korra is a good example of a show with great women as background.
Then Veil, that they killed. Before that, it looked like she had her own story, being officially the Princess Peach. I think that is important to notice that, being a black woman, we often don’t see stories like this, where she’s the girlfriend, the person that makes the hero cross the world just to be with her. This is important. And I think that pairing her for this season with Quinn was really interesting, they have a good dynamic. And she’s never just there, waiting, and when it feels like she’s almost giving up, we have Lydia there to support her. And I also love Veil x Tilda dynamic because they are on the same side, but the opposite side. And you know what? I’d have liked to see a mother/daughter thing and they working more together the same way we see Sunny/MK.
(I actually talked a lot more about Veil, but I cut this part because…)
But they decided to kill her. I don’t know why anyone thought this was a good idea. It wasn’t even shocking, just lazy writing. “Let’s show we go there and do irreversible things! Yeah! [but not with the white man, Quinn can come back]” I’m not here to watch you play The Sims by deleting the ladder to the pool, Susie. I’m here to watch a good story and you just threw a perfectly good character away, that you never really used in the first place.
Can you realize how great Veil was? She could be the one, in the end, going to that tower. She could’ve found Baije almost dying and he gives his mission to her. Veil was the one who wanted to leave the badlands in the first place, wasn’t she? LET VEIL LIVE HER OWN LIFE. She was even the one translating the book, so it’d make perfect sense if she were the one in charge of discovering these secrets. Veil could’ve had her own story in S3.
But who cares. Not the writers.
Then we have Lydia, who had that scene fight that was great and it felt like she finally was having her own story. They had the perfect opportunity to make her come back in the last minute and kill Quinn to save Veil (or help Veil to kill him). It’d be the perfect conclusion to her journey — she started the season killing those people to save that community, which she had to do because Quinn wasn’t there to protect them anymore. It’d be her revenge, and justice, and she taking her destiny into her hands instead of being eternally a hostage. Can you realize how powerful it would be?
She lived as Quinn’s hostage. And this season we saw both Veil and her having to deal with it together. This would be the moment they’d be finally free from him.
This is how we know how Into The Badlands isn’t a story for women. Between choosing a story about two women fighting for their freedom (and winning) and a story about a man that couldn’t save his woman, they chose the last.
Again, I know that Sunny is the main character, but his story this season was about making his way back to his family, and he got to do it! With incredible fight scenes. The only thing they got by killing Veil was trying (and failing) to look edgy.
And if you need to kill Veil to give Sunny what to do, it just proves the point.
I heard about the writers saying “We’ll have more black women next season.” But why she was the only one when you have four white women, all alive? And more importantly: if your character can be replaced like that, it wasn’t good since the start. Representation isn’t about checking boxes.
And I’m not really talking about the implications of this trope. Veil being the “damsel” character was good because black women often aren’t portrayed as someone you have to care about and protect, which is a reflection of internalized bias. The same type of bias that makes you consider that killing that black woman lead is a sacrifice worth making.
So in general, Into The Badlands got better, and we finally met some women not related to man, and the ones we already had got to be more developed. It seems that they want to create these badass characters, but can’t work beyond their double standards. Until the S2 finale I wasn’t sure if I could trust the show, and now I’m sure I can’t. They probably will do better, but we’ll have to wait and be lucky enough that the writers will know the basic and treat their characters well.
PS: A sexist world vs. a sexist writing
One question that may arise during this discussion is: but this is the world! The Badlands is a patriarch, it’s this post-apocalyptic/dystopic world where, for some reason, they wanted to criticize greedy men in power taking over everything.
They are aware of this when they have a specific name for the sexually exploited girls, “dolls.” They wanted to make it clear that this world is bad for women.
Although I don’t know why they decided this was the good story to tell. But okay. It’s done. I think.
But at the same time, their own bias towards women floods into the storytelling. They way they don’t have any woman that isn’t related to a man. The way that they spend more time with Quinn’s son than with his wives. Veil only existing to give a reason to Sunny to run away. (“She doesn’t want to have a life without you” what the fuck is that?)
After the first episodes, I remember describing it as: It feels like they really want to show that woman is powerful and that they care about women in this story, but they can’t see women beyond the idea of “woman.” Even the butterflies are all beautiful and feminine in their fighting style. Veil is a doctor — the woman is always the one who take cares of people.
Yes, we have to empower what’s considered feminine, but when we limit women to only these options, this is how oppression starts.
So Into The Badlands shows a world where women are treated bad, but they also treat women bad in general.
I really like Into The Badlands and I wish it were better.