Anastasia Wiltshire watches the first series of The Shannara Chronicles and is disappointed in the objectification of the two initially strong female leads, as they realise the key to saving the world lies in their own subjugation
NB: This review contains spoilers for season one.
At the end of the first double bill of The Shannara Chronicles, I have turned off in dismay. After The 100 and Game of Thrones, we’ve been spoiled with fantasy and sci-fi series with well represented, relatable women: women of colour, women with ambitions, women with problems. Accordingly, the first five minutes of The Shannara Chronicles, a modern adaptation of the Shannara series of fantasy novels by Terry Brooks, suggest this series will follow the new trend. It starts with the Elven princess, Amberle (Poppy Drayton), charging through the woods, trying to become the first woman in Elven history to run the Gauntlet and become a Chosen guardian of the Ellcrys, a magical tree holding back the demons and dark world.
Amberle gets what she wants – just. Our first image of her depicts a high-born woman defying convention by training in secret and using her own brand of strength and cunning to gain a place among the Chosen. We can see hints of a brewing scandal; this certainly isn’t how she’s expected to behave. We see glowering men feeling cheated of their entitlements, along with a hunky boyfriend who at first seems threatened, but soon accepts Amberle when she’s back in a dress at the celebratory ball.
There are angry whispers at the winners’ ceremony and we soon find out that the sacred tree is dying. Amberle starts blaming herself for this, so she runs away, denouncing herself and ruing the day she ever decided to run the Gauntlet. In the opening episode, we spend much of the two-hour double bill wondering where the brave woman who leapt blindfolded over a ditch full of thorns got to.
Amberle doesn’t seem to know herself and later claims it was the Ellcrys “calling to her” that gave her the strength to do it, a comment which almost seems to be segued into the dialogue to reassure any threatened male characters. There’s clearly a paternalistic approach here: despite the fact Amberle’s first meetings with the other leads Wil (Austin Butler) and Eretria (Ivana Baquero) result in her holding a knife against their throats, everyone seems obsessed with either saving or protecting her. Allanon (Manu Bennett) the druid inexplicably chooses Wil for this job. This is a character who is attacked, drugged and robbed within his first five minutes of screen time. Even he doesn’t seem so impressed with his new role: “So all I have to do is save the princess…” Well, yes, of course. That and act as the love interest.
Likewise, we are introduced to the impressively independent Eretria when she saves Wil’s life by killing a troll with an axe, before laughing off his hints that maybe a girl couldn’t hack it living in the woods on her own. She then robs him in perhaps the most genteel way imaginable: by giving him a bath, drugging him and leaving him to sleep in the lovely house she was squatting in and then running away with his precious Elfstones, but leaving him his horse, clothes and food.
Eretria, it turns out, is trying to earn her freedom from an overbearing ‘father’ who keeps threatening to marry her off and constantly tells her that her brains don’t match her looks. All the other leads seem disgusted with Eretria, partly for being a Rover [outlaw] and partly because she is so different from the supposedly pure and virtuous Amberle. Indeed, Eretria’s sexual manipulations are presented as being the most threatening thing about her and it takes six episodes for anyone to trust her, despite the fact she has saved Wil and Amberle numerous times by then.
The relationship between the two women starts off as a textbook virgin/whore dichotomy. Amberle and Eretria first bump into each other in the woods and Eretria attempts to pull another fast one. Amberle is a lot less naive than Wil however; for a moment it looks like there could be an interesting display: the aristocratic runaway Elf versus the resourceful and fearless human. Instead, Amberle sees through Eretria’s lies because, “You have no wedding band…not that I’m surprised.” Eretria has also seen through Amberle’s story because, “Your jewellery gave you away.” Yep. This ‘cat-fighting’ trope breaks out every time the two women meet, eventually leading to them spitting it out over Wil. You’d think that with the chaos rapidly erupting in both of their lives, not to mention the impending apocalypse, that Amberle and Eretria would have something else to argue about rather than sexual rivalry.
There is some attempt at class and race dialogue here (Wil, who is of mixed heritage, admits to growing up poor too) but any sympathy for Eretria is overwhelmed by Wil’s instinctive loyalty to the Elven royals, who have an inherent prejudice towards the destructive humans.
Along with this, it is also the case that Wil is a hapless farm boy who has just found out he has magic powers and is descended from a hero. He has been given the job of protecting Amberle by the druid Allanon, even though neither of them seems to know why. The fairy tale trope of Wil having to save the princess is hammered in by everyone around him telling him “You must protect the princess!” every half-hour, despite the fact that, when they first meet, Amberle treats him as a threat. By the end of the third episode, however, she has submitted to Wil’s protective role. This happens even after her being cautioned by Eretria, who appears slightly disgusted with Amberle’s privilege and tells her to start looking after herself. Eretria, remember, has spent her whole life fighting off sexual violence, whereas Amberle is the most desirable yet unobtainable princess of Arboran and has been surrounded with adoration her whole life.
Amberle ignores Eretria’s advice but experiences a turning point at the beginning of episode four, when she wakes up to her responsibilities. Apart from this, the rest of the episode comprises the entire male cast telling her she needs protecting. Even the king seems to think this is getting old; he presents Amberle with her father’s sword and makes a favourable comparison between them: an acknowledgement that seems to be more important to Amberle than winning the Gauntlet in the first place. I have waited the entire series to see Amberle actually use her weapon effectively, but to no avail. It seems the show is more focused on portraying the source of Amberle’s power and importance with regard to her status as a Chosen with poorly understood magic, rather than marring her pure, ‘virginal’ status with an ability for physical violence.
By all accounts, this is MTV, which is not exactly renowned for commissioning shows that portray realistic women. A quick look on IMDB tells us the show only has two women among the eight writers and no female directors. But the writers claim to have fleshed out and improved Eretria, who apparently spends the book mooning around after Wil. I briefly delved into some of Terry Brook’s novels a few years back and they didn’t feature any particularly stand-out women, instead following the ‘Give a girl a weapon and I’m acknowledging modern gender-roles’ approach. So it looks like the writers are simply doing their best with a tired text.
It’s certainly fun watching Amberle and Eretria develop against the constraints placed on them by their male counterparts; Wil’s framing as a non-macho healer-hero, who is saved as much as he saves, allows the female characters the space to develop. By the end of episode seven, the three leads have emerged as a well-balanced trio, which is a rare enough achievement in this kind of fantasy. Also, the scene in Safehold at the end of episode nine shows all three using their ordained powers to fulfil their shared goal.
The producers have cut a lot of the battle scenes from the book in favour of more coming of age young adult drama. This is, at times, reminiscent of early era Buffy, with lots of discussion about duties and responsibilities. It’s a shame though that every development in Amberle’s character depends on the approval or influence of an older man. For example, her father gives her the idea to become a Chosen and her uncle helps her train. It is also the case that Wil and Allanon make her get her shit together and face up to her responsibilities. Amberle is also constantly filmed in vulnerable positions: naked and bathing, sleeping, wide-eyed and gasping at the latest horror she’s faced with. It’s slightly jarring considering the increased focus on her as a commander of a dangerous mission.
Eretria’s development, however, is defined by how she defies men and is met with disdain for doing so. She constantly sexually manipulates Wil, helps free Amberle from captivity twice and then kidnaps her ‘owner’/adoptive father, Cephalo [Cephelo in The Elfstones of Shannara] (James Remar). Indeed, her first attempt to defy him and free Amberle is met with contempt, even though we know how much it is going to cost her. Even as we begin to understand Eretria’s increasingly horrific backstory and acknowledge that she is most likely dealing with some serious trauma, the people she has aligned herself with continue to treat her like dirt. It’s only when Cephalo tries to rape Amberle that they feel any kind of sympathy for Eretria.
Not that this lasts for long; when Eretria reveals her bisexuality and tries to hit on Amberle, she responds with “You and Cephalo deserve each other.” Let’s be clear: we’ve just established Cephalo as a serial rapist who has owned Eretria for most of her life and Amberle’s first response to being hit on is to tell Eretria she deserves her abuser? How the hell did that line make it out of the cutting room? The writers clearly meant this as a throwaway comment, but it stands to demonstrate that even though efforts have been made to create heroines who appeal to a 21st century audience, the point is still continuously missed. Even when Amberle and Eritria finally come to really trust each other, Amberle’s concern for Eretria is interpreted as a typical womanly emotional reaction to events, leading her to be selfish. Her response to realising she must sacrifice herself leads her to try and deny her destiny, thereby further positioning her in this way.
Destiny is interpreted within The Shannara Chronicles as the characters being drawn into events over which they have no control and no space to give their consent. This is especially played out in the role of Eretria, who only gains redemption in the eyes of the other characters when she sacrifices her yearning for freedom to help Amberle. In episode eight, she is offered what appears to be her first real choice, only for it to turn out to be a false one, with an almost disastrous impact on the whole mission. Indeed, the episode finishes with her realising that she has no real choice in anything, particularly when she is confronted with the prophetic words of a stranger: “Your body is the vessel, your blood is the key.”
The growth and character development of both women becomes almost completely irrelevant in the last two episodes, with the complete objectification of the two of them as they realise that the key to saving the world rests on their bodies. Their minds, along with who they are as people, become irrelevant. Eretria becomes first a map and then a key and is required to sacrifice herself to help Amberle fulfil her destiny. Her second sacrifice (fending off a horde of trolls to buy the others time to escape) is one of only two autonomous decisions she makes in the whole series. This also constitutes a pretty lazy attempt at wrapping up the love triangle and setting the scene for the second series.
Similarly, Amberle’s final ending sees her becoming the virgin sacrifice to a primal entity. We spend an entire series watching the contrast in the heroines’ sexualities framing a contrast in the form by which they sacrifice themselves. Eretria’s violent and bloody [supposed] ending in an abandoned tunnel is a far cry from Amberle’s giving of herself to a Gaia-like Earthen spirit surrounded by bright lights, golds and greens. The result is much the same though: Amberle, who begins the series by defying the expectations of what it is to be an Elven princess, accepts that she is “the seed” that will create a new Ellcrys and we see a return to the archetypal role of the ‘young woman as fertility idol’.
For everything allegorical about The Shannara Chronicles, it is also fun: the scenes with demons and magic swords are straight-up heavy metal. The writers and producers are obviously making an attempt to keep up with changing trends in sci-fi and fantasy with regard to sex and gender portrayals. The problem is that the two heroines seem jammed into a dialogue from the past and lack the ability to make real choices for themselves, instead seeming to be wrapped up in the wool of the ‘you must follow your destiny’ fantasy cliché. With the second series, I expect to see Eretria and Wil fulfilling their pre-ordained paths and engaging in some troll and warlock hunting. Let’s hope the show will be able to stop itself from falling into the same old traps.
[Image description: Public domain image used in the MTV poster for The Shannara Chronicles (2016). From left to right, this shows Wil, Amberle (with sword) and Eretria standing on a large rock with the sea to their right. Wil and Amberle look out into the distance, while Eretria is looking back over her shoulder at the camera.]