Ben Barnes’ villainous General Kirigan may already be known as The Darkling, but in “Shadow and Bone” Season 2, the actor warns that his character takes an even darker turn.
The upcoming season of the Netflix adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling books watches the antagonist emerge from the Shadow Fold that he created years ago, this time with new smoky monsters in tow.
He still intends to persuade Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) that his plan to expand the Shadow Fold is for the good of all Grisha, but first he has to find her again, as she’s now on her own adventure with Mal (Archie Renaux) to track down two more amplifiers — or magical creatures like the stag from Season 1 — to increase her sun-summoning power so that she can get rid of the fold once and for all.
But, as tends to happen when one almost dies in The Fold, The Darkling has a bit more anger behind his calculations this time around.
“The masks have been cast aside. That’s actually a bit of a relief for him. He’s very frustrated that he can’t make [Alina] understand what he feels he understands,” Barnes told TheWrap ahead of the season. “That’s a real drive for him. He can’t make her understand that they would be better off pursuing things together, and I think that’s the fuel of a lot of his rage.”
The Darkling tried to win Alina over once she discovered her powers in Season 1, promising her that they could destroy The Fold, also called The Unsea, together with his help and instruction. But when the occasion arrived, Kirigan instead used Alina’s power to fend off the volcra in The Fold so that he could expand it to dominate people that persecute Grisha for their powers.
“In the first season, there’s a charm, and there’s a front foot manipulation happening in terms of how he’s presenting himself, but I came to believe he truly does have this purity of agenda,” Barnes said. “In the end, if people just let him do his thing, would there be benefits for certain groups of people, what would Alina’s life be like if she conceded and helped him? You kind of have to start thinking that way if you want to commit to expressing what this character feels he needs to express.”
Flash forward to Season 2, the beginning of which finds Alina and Mal thinking the Darkling died in The Fold along with many of his former supporters. But he is very much alive.
“In the second season, a lot of those things have shifted for him. The way that his power expresses itself — his literal, Inner Shadow is overwhelming him. He was king of the castle, the king of the court, the most powerful man in the society that is built in the first season,” Barnes continued. “This season, he doesn’t have those alliances, he doesn’t have support, he doesn’t have any of that. And I think that with a lack of anywhere to sort of channel his humanity. It sort of grows into something darker and uglier. And as the season progresses, the beast is released.”
That said, there’s also some clarity for the character along with this beast.
“In between seasons one and two, I think in a sort of self awareness way for the Darkling, he knows that he’s crossed that line, he knows what he’s become,” Barnes said. “What I love about fantasy is you can tell that allegory so clearly. He literally has shadow monsters erupting from his body when he feels threatened, which is such an interesting concept in terms of toxic masculinity — this dark thing comes out. It’s so interesting to me how fantasy can make those things so evident.”
In fact, Barnes leaned heavily into the psychology of it all this season to find the humanity of the character. But, as he explained, humanity doesn’t necessarily mean mercy, or sympathy, or relatability. It means embracing every side of The Darkling, from the “loving to psychotic, from passion for love through to passion for hate.”
“Other people might not be watching it in this English professor kind of a way, but I love all that, and I find it interesting,” he added. “And that’s why I’ve curated my moments in the second season in the way that I have. He’s not in it as much as a lot of the other characters, he’s sort of a presence, you feel him. He’s much darker [this] season. There’s no way around it.”
Now, those monsters we mentioned are an “army of unkillable shadow,” but they’re different from the volcra, or the winged creatures inside the Shadow Fold, who were once human. The Black Heretic turned the men into monsters when he created The Fold.
The stakes have risen not only for The Darkling, but for Alina as well as she must find a way to rise up and meet his smoky silhouettes that don’t dissolve in sunlight. But The Darkling is also finding new ways to reach his goals.
“As seen in the first season, if a certain tactic doesn’t work for him to achieve something, he’ll try another one. He asks Alina, more than once ‘I’ve seen you’ve been willing to compromise, but are you willing to sacrifice that which is most important to you?’ That’s a question that if he’s asking, he’s going to have to answer it himself at some point.”
“Shadow and Bone” Season 2 lands on Netflix on Thursday, March 16.