Last week it was announced that “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss would be adapting the Chinese novel “The Three-Body Problem” into a Netflix series. Liu Cixin’s epic is “set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.”
The news of the upcoming adaptation was greeted with, at best, cautious optimism. Sci-fi and fantasy TV, including “Game of Thrones,” is overwhelmingly dominated by white faces. It would be exciting for Netflix to produce a big-budget fantasy show starring people of color, but fantasy fans are wary of Benioff and Weiss’ capacity to adapt a work of such cultural importance, particularly after their much-criticized last season of “Game of Thrones,” which prompted the pair to claim “themes are for book reports.”
As fantasy author Rin Chupeco summarized on Twitter, “The Three-Body Problem relies on an understanding of Chinese culture and politics so much that English translations of this book has long, well-researched footnotes. And yall giving this to the two jabronis who screwed up a fantasy series that was already as white as it could get.”
The last season of “Games of Thrones” was heavily criticized for its narrative inconsistency, confusing pacing, and poor treatment of the show’s central female character. The series was also plagued by lazy writing and rushed editing, with a cast member’s Starbucks cup even being featured in a scene. The last season was received so poorly that over one million fans signed a petition for the show to remake its last season. Throughout its run, “Game of Thrones” was also heavily criticized for its racism, violent misogyny, and ableism.
These problems exist in stark contrast to another high budget fantasy show that I was fortunate enough to discover this summer; AMC’s “Into the Badlands.” The show ran from 2015 to 2019, and while it was also created by two white men, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the show is helmed by Daniel Wu (of Chinese descent) and Aramis Knight (of Pakistani, Indian, and English descent.) The show is a wuxia piece that takes place in an apocalyptic United States where feudal plantations reign, magic is real, and guns have been replaced by karate. It’s a buck-wild premise, I know, but I’d argue it’s actually no more wild than your standard high fantasy piece. And once you get past the premise, the show is deeply absorbing, following the journeys of Sunny (Daniel Wu) as he tries to leave his mercenary life behind and care for his infant son; MJ (Aramis Knight) a mercenary apprentice learning to cope with his dark gift; and The Widow (Emily Beecham) who is on a mission to end the feudal system and plays the show’s antihero-turned-last woman standing.
As I watched the show, I was pleasantly surprised over and over again by its diversity and progressive attitudes. Instead of relying on bigoted tropes for gravitas, the show relies on — get this — good writing (with a healthy heaping of gore and high fantasy drama.) If you go by the list of what Wikipedia considers to be main cast members, exactly half (7 of out 14) are people of color and exactly half are women. By the show’s final season, the stats for people of color change to 6 out of 10, and the stats for women don’t decrease.
The show features many instances of representation that are not often found in a fantasy setting. For starters, the show features Asian character Sunny as a romantic lead, which is a rarity in media, who is also an ass-kicking tatted-up Brooding Cool Guy. MJ is a complex character whose storyline explores the ramifications of guilt and power. Veil, a black woman played by Madeleine Mantock, is a doctor trying to protect her child together with Sunny from the atrocities of the show’s apocalyptic world. Tilda, played by Ally Ionnaides, is a bisexual renegade and the adopted daughter of The Widow who goes on to become a formidable thief, as does her girlfriend Odessa (Madison Jaizani). For disabled representation, there’s the amputee Nathaniel Moon (Sherman Augustus) as The Widow’s general and confidant, as well as Waldo (Stephan Lang), who fights for The Widow by doing martial arts adapted to his steampunk wheelchair. In the first representation I’ve ever seen of a fat character being a badass karate master, there’s Baijie (Nick Frost), a mystic and Sunny’s closest friend. I’ll cut it off here for the sake of brevity, but rest assured that if it’s representation you’re looking for, “Into the Badlands” is where you can find it.
The show also generally treats dark themes with respect. It is established that there is a sex trade in this apocalyptic world that targets many young women and girls, but unlike in “Game of Thrones,” there are no graphic rape scenes to establish this fact. In fact, many of the female characters on the show are mentioned to have been trafficked or sexually abused in the past, but this is a part of their characterizations that is treated with respect and does not detract from their strength.
This is not to say, however, the show is without its flaws. The show does not feature any trans characters, one of the show’s two primary Black female characters is fridged for a man’s character arc, the trope of the fat character is sometimes used as comic relief, and a gruesome scene is featured where a character’s leg is amputated in their sleep without their consent in order to save their life. Despite its good reviews, the show was eventually canceled by AMC due to low viewership, with the last episode garnering only about 460,000 watchers. Much to my chagrin, it also ended on a cliffhanger.
But with all its problems, the show is still one of the greatest I’ve seen, and perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments in minority representation on TV. It was never very popular, and perhaps audiences weren’t ready for its progressive premise when it aired, but “Into the Badlands” still succeeded in showing the huge creative capacity of a prestigious fantasy epic helmed by people of color. When Benioff and Weiss’s “The Three-Body Problem” comes out, I will be judging it by the high standard set by “Into The Badlands”.
Into the Badlands is currently available to view on Netflix.