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This post contains spoilers for “Shadow and Bone” season 2, up to the season finale.
The first season of Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” did an impressive job streamlining Leigh Bardugo’s lore-intensive fantasy novels for viewers who hadn’t yet burned through the book series. The show’s second season, which debuted this week, had a more daunting task ahead of it: cramming the entire contents of two of Bardugo’s books together in just eight episodes. It’s a decision that makes for an often overwhelming viewing experience, as the show’s mythology flies by faster than most average viewers can catch it.
I haven’t finished Bardugo’s whole bibliography yet, and while I enjoy “Shadow and Bone,” I admit I found myself scratching my head a bit during the new season. The series is still thrilling, but some of its world-building seemed to be spread a bit too thin to keep non-book-readers on board. By season’s end, I found myself relating most to Jesper (Kit Young), who in the middle of the show’s climax pauses to catch up by asking, “I’m sorry, did you say Mal is a bird?”
Of all the mythology densely packed into “Shadow and Bone” season 2, the firebird story may be the easiest to miss. It’s a major twist that hinges on viewers’ memories of season 1, their understanding of side characters’ family history, and a general willingness to nod along when things get complicated fast. Here’s everything you need to know about how Alina’s (Jessie Mei Li) true love Mal (Archie Renaux) turned out to be the key to saving the world.
Let’s Talk About Amplifiers
To understand the firebird, it’s essential to first dig into a Grishaverse concept called “amplifiers.” If Grisha are a bit like magicians with particular areas of expertise, think of those amplifiers like amulets that enhance their natural abilities. Most Grisha’s amplifiers come from the remains of a specific animal — one that, in the case of the Netflix series, the Grisha feels a certain connection to. In season 1, Alina dreamed constantly of a white stag, and its antlers turned out to be her amplifier. In season 2, Tamar (Anna Leong Brophy) tells Alina her own amplifier was a shark, whose tooth she still wears in her ear.
According to Tamar, amplifiers can only be made if the animal they come from is killed by the Grisha, a rule Alina refuses to accept. The Sun Summoner tries to put this theory to the test with the sea whip, a water-dwelling dragon that she begins dreaming about after the stag has died. Unlike other Grisha, who only ever have one amplifier their whole lives, the Sun Summoner dreams of three. “I think they are to be connected through me so I can then destroy the Fold,” Alina tells the others, and since she’s a prophesied hero, there’s no reason not to believe the rules of magic will bend for her.
Unfortunately, Alina does end up having to kill the sea whip with her magic when it lunges for Mal. Still, Alina has one more chance to prove her theory right: the firebird. In Grishaverse lore, the firebird is an imposing and highly respected creature that’s pretty much the same as a phoenix. That’s how Alina envisions it, too, until Mal uncovers the truth: that he’s the firebird.
The Firebird Isn’t Actually A Bird
This is a major reveal that “Shadow and Bone” relegates to a few lines in its sixth episode, but Bardugo’s novels break the situation down more clearly. In the third book in the trilogy, “Ruin and Rising,” readers hear the story of Morozova, an early Grisha who first came up with the idea of a stag, sea whip, and firebird amplifier. While history views Morozova as a martyr in the books, his daughter, Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker), has no love lost for the man in the Netflix series.
In episode 6, Baghra and Mal come upon the crypt where Baghra’s sister — who Baghra killed when they were children, using the Cut — was supposed to be buried. Yet the tomb is empty, which Baghra says means that her father resurrected her sister, just as he created the sea whip and stag. It was his blood magic, merzost, that brought her back, and as the third amplifier, Baghra says her sister “passed on what she was through generations.”
Here’s where “Shadow and Bone” takes a logical leap that may not hold up in a court of law. “Don’t you see, boy, that’s why you’re here,” Baghra tells Mal. She explains that the tracker didn’t join an orphanage at random when he was a kid, but picked Alina’s orphanage because he was fated to be sacrificed as the third amplifier. Though the family tree seems muddy here and the reveal extremely sudden, the show did hint at Mal’s status earlier, when Alina dreamed of his shining face the same way she dreamed about the other amplifiers. Mal’s blood on the crypt door confirms it: he’s related to Morozova, and also to the Darkling (Ben Barnes) himself.
Collect Them All
Now that we know Mal is “the cursed progeny of a madman,” the show hurries us along to the next natural conclusion: Mal has to be killed for Alina to tear down the Fold, the dark barrier across the land that she’s fated to destroy as the Sun Summoner. “This is how I die,” he tells Alina after sharing the news. “I’m not afraid, if I get to save you and you get to save Ravka.”
Except, Alina is still convinced that death isn’t necessary for an amplifier to work. After plans to have a heartrender kill Mal and bring him back to life are interrupted, the pair decide to meet in the heart of the Fold, where Alina begins to draw power from Mal. It’s a sweet moment; she’s not hurting him, but her touch creates halos of red light around the pair. Their plan is cut short, though, when the Darkling himself arrives and dispatches Mal with shadowy magic. Alina and Mal carry out a backup plan in the middle of their heartfelt goodbye: they push the blade into already-dying Mal’s chest together, and unleash enough power to tear down the Fold for good.
It’s unfortunate that Alina didn’t hear Baghra’s story firsthand, because she probably could’ve learned from it. After Nina (Danielle Galligan) fails to put Mal’s heart back in working order, Alina decides to use merzost on him — the same dark magic that was the downfall of Morozova and the Darkling, and that Baghra warned against. Mal lives, and in the aftermath of the battle, the pair reunite before going their separate ways. But there’s a price to pay for this phoenix’s return from the ashes; the last scene of the season reveals that Alina has become a shadow summoner, just like the Darkling. Even worse: rather than being troubled by this, she appears to be thrilled by her new, dark power.
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