Alina and Mal gazing at each other in Netflix's Shadow and Bone.

Netflix’s Shadow and Bone Gets It: The Longing Is the Best Part

This article is over 3 years old and may contain outdated information

Recommended Videos

The one thing that pretty much everyone seems to agree on about Shadow and Bone, the Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s “Grishaverse” books, is that it is a deeply, deeply thirsty show. That’s quite the reputation for a series that, unlike more obviously horny shows like Bridgerton, has exactly two actual liplocks in its entire first season. The thing about it is, though, that it understands, on a fundamental level, something that too many shows don’t (or, in this rushed, compressed era of streaming and three-seasons-and-done patterns, are too nervous to risk): The yearning is the best part.

That yearning ties in with the fact that, in many ways, Shadow and Bone is a show tailor-made for the era of fandom. Famously, one of its lead actors, Ben Barnes, was cast after years of book readers fancasting him as the Darkling. Throughout its first season, it’s blatantly clear what the main ships are supposed to be.

  • There’s the love triangle for Alina, who has a mutual but unspoken attraction with BFF Mal, but also is drawn to the tortured, powerful General Kirigan (before, you know, the whole “turned out to be an immortal dark lord” thing).
  • There’s the enemies-to-flirtation sitch between Nina, a Grisha, and Matthias, a witch-hunter, who wind up stuck together as the sole survivors of a shipwreck.
  • And there’s the intense bond between crimelord Kaz and spy Inej, both of whom are too traumatized and closed-off to even think about romance at the moment, but who deliver some grade-A held gazes and double-meaning dialogue.

With all of these ships, it’s trope central. We’ve got held gazes, we’ve got saying each other’s names urgently, and we’ve got several variations on “would die for each other but can’t actually talk about feelings.” It’s all about the yearning, and the show fundamentally understands that the slow build of tension and those delicious little moments dropped along the way are so much more intriguing and, yes, sexier than something like Game of Thrones, which scattered casual sex and nudity everywhere but rarely seemed interested in the simmering slow burn of growing emotions.

Shadow and Bone, on the other hand, understands the frustrating yet delightful joy of yelling at your screen like that one Pirates of the Caribbean GIF: “JUST KISS!” It’s a show about the thirst and the yearning, not the actual sex. (Except for that one scene of Kirigan lifting Alina up and plopping her on a desk while they’re making out, a.k.a. the most-giffed clip in the whole season. Woof.)

The Shadow and Bone brand of thirst actually has more in common with period dramas than it does with similar sprawling fantasy shows like The Witcher and Game of Thrones. In your favorite period romances, these characters are prevented from expressing the full, passionate nature of their emotions, whether because of internal repression, outside conflicts, societal pressures, or some combination of all of these. Instead, something as simple as a held gaze or the brush of a hand takes on an intense charge of passion and yearning. Shadow and Bone leans hard into this vibe, imbuing its scenes with an undercurrent of longing that, for one reason or another, can’t surface.

There’s a scene, for instance, in which Inej has to go undercover and leave her knives behind. The shot of her placing a knife in Kaz’s gloved hand, careful for their hands to not even brush, feels charged in the same way as that famous Pride and Prejudice hand flex, with intimacy and attraction coexisting with a desire to hold back and avoid that same intimacy. Later, Kaz admits to Inej, “No saints ever watched over me. Not like you have.” It’s a quintessential “I love you without saying ‘I love you’” line, and it makes the experience of watching the show that much more emotionally satisfying.

Understandably, this kind of slow burn is something that many shows aren’t able or willing to take on today. TV seasons used to be twenty-plus episodes as a rule and now typically range from eight to thirteen episodes, and in this crowded TV landscape, second seasons are hard to come by and third seasons even rarer.

But when it comes to romance onscreen, the waiting is often one of the best parts. Shadow and Bone gets that, and its adjustments to its source material are Exhibit A. For instance, the TV version makes it much clearer from the start that Mal and Alina have feelings for each other, where it’s not foregrounded in the first book at all—but the show also doesn’t have them share their first kiss in the first season, while they do in the corresponding book.

Instead, we’re treated to long held gazes, meaningful dialogue that avoids concrete expressions of love, deliberate but still PG touches, and lingering moments of almost. That’s not just true for Mal and Alina, either—it’s also the case for Kaz and Inej and for Nina and Matthias. The reason why all of these tropes work so well is because they’re about intimacy; there is something deeply sexy about scenes where you feel like you’re intruding on something intensely emotional and vulnerable.

To be fair, some of Shadow and Bone’s brand of yearning-heavy thirst has to do with its source material and target audience. While the onscreen versions of the characters do seem to be a little older (most of them read early twenties, and their ages are never outright discussed) than their teenage book counterparts, it’s still based on a YA series and aimed at a broad audience, as opposed to adult-oriented fantasy shows. The show chooses to work with the conventions of its genre, rather than push against them, and by doing so, it creates a viewer experience that’s genuinely satisfying and designed to reward long-term investment.

It’s also, notably, a very female-gaze-centric experience. Slow burn ships and held gazes and lots of focus on small moments are all hallmarks of female-skewing spaces like romance and fanfiction. Instead of mocking the concepts that skew towards appealing to girls and women (or ignoring them altogether in favor of a more objectifying, “gritty” approach), Shadow and Bone embraces and respects them. It’s a high-budget, heavily-marketed series with broad appeal (if its sky-high viewership is anything to go by) that also proudly embraces its roots in “teen girl” fiction and the accompanying style and tropes. That shouldn’t be radical, but it is.

Thirst, you might say, is about the actual experience of being thirsty, which is about longing for something you don’t have at the moment but are looking forward to. Shadow and Bone is unabashedly thirsty, with a deep understanding of how a satisfying ending requires plenty of well-built tension on the way there, and it will almost certainly be worth the wait.

(featured image: Netflix)

Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!

The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—

The Mary Sue is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy
Image of Amanda Prahl
Amanda Prahl
A playwright, lyricist, dramaturg, and freelancer, Amanda has bylines on Slate, Bustle, Popsugar, The Mary Sue, and more. She loves all things pop culture and has strong opinions about coffee, Broadway, and Oxford commas.