Ben Barnes, as the Darkling, in Netflix's Shadow and Bone, his face covered in lacerations.

Oh No … I Still Love the Darkling

The dark, twisted nature of the Darkling (Ben Barnes) is back, and we really have to stop making our villains so damn attractive, because I really spent most of the second season of Shadow and Bone thinking, “Well now, hear the hottie out.” Granted, he is an abusive monster and I recognize that, but this is fiction, and I do love Ben Barnes, so my brain struggled.

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Season 2 of Shadow and Bone took us back into the world of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, where Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is coming into her powers and Aleksander (Barnes) is struggling to rally his own army in the darkness that has consumed his life time and time again. His mother, who alerted Alina to the Darkling’s true nature, is now his prisoner, and throughout the season, he’s horrible to both her and Alina because of the power he thinks he should abuse.

But the reason I’m fascinated by the Darkling is because of Ben Barnes and his ability to make a twisted character appealing. Whether it is someone who struggles with their parental relationships or a straight-up villain, Barnes brings forth a performance in them that makes you fascinated by what they choose to do next.

We saw it with Billy in The Punisher, we saw it with Logan in Westworld, and we’ve seen it in season 1 and 2 of Shadow and Bone. It also doesn’t make it any easier that Barnes has been an internet boyfriend for decades at this point.

Sorry that he’s hot!

Look, if anyone knows how to make a monster appealing, it’s Ben Barnes. And it’s fiction. I can look at someone like the Darkling in a piece of media and go “okay but hot” and not conflate it with real people who are evil. I contain layers. But what’s so fascinating about the Darkling as a character comes from the fact that he really has leaned into the label put on him by those in the story’s world. And sure, he got those labels for a reason, but the Darkling we’re seeing is someone who has just become the villain that people have made him out to be.

I think this character could have easily gone one of two ways depending on the actor portraying him. He could have been an asshole all around that no one likes, and we would have never understood Alina’s initial draw to him, or we could have gotten the performance that Barnes gives in the series. Thankfully, I’m glad it was Ben Barnes who took him on because it’s such a perfect role for him because he’s the “villain” but he’s also complicated in a lot of ways.

But he is … also hot, which does, unfortunately, extend a lot of forgiveness for many. I still recognize all the bad parts about the Darkling. He’s just my favorite “If bad, why hot?” around. And so here is to you, Aleksander Kirigan. Thank you for gifting us with “make me your villain” and killing our hearts in the process.

(featured image: Netflix)


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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.