On paper, the martial-arts epic Into the Badlands is a show so unconventional that its creators were shocked that AMC wanted to make it. “We would have bet against it, for sure,” co-creator Miles Millar said Monday, still sounding a bit surprised that the show actually made it to air in November 2015. “The show ended up being the most satisfying experience of our career. We were given complete freedom. It’s been amazing because, you know, the show is insane.”
Millar’s writing and producing partner, Al Gough, didn’t agree with that — the show isn’t “insane,” he says, it is in actuality “totally batshit crazy.” Whether the series has been genuinely bananas or just aggressively quirky, Into the Badlands gave up the ghost tonight after its 32nd episode closed out its third season.
The one-hour martial arts drama’s overarching plot was built to follow the classic contours of its genre (with hallmarks that will feel familiar to anyone who has watched Kung Fu, the Kill Bill films, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or read manga like Lone Wolf and Cub). The series tells the tale of a warrior and a young boy who seek true enlightenment but, as these things often go, they will need to punch hundreds and hundreds of faces to find insight or inner peace.
The show’s creators, Alfred Gough and Millar, are best known for creating Smallville, the longest-running, live-action DC Comics adaptation in television history. The writer-producer tandem’s credits also include the feature films Spider-Man 2 (2004) and I Am Number Four (2011). Much or most of their success has resulted from pulling genre properties toward the mainstream middle (and also re-attuning the story to connect with female audiences in a big way).
All of that was not the case with Into the Badlands, which found the tandem seeking the spiky edge instead of the safer center. To the ongoing astonishment of Gough and Millar, the executives at AMC never blinked or even rolled their eyes as they signed off on the maverick project which melded together a survival epic that was steeped in magic, martial arts, revenge vows, warlords, mystics, ninja, oaths, deceptions, puncture wounds, parenting, and duty. That made tonight’s series finale a bundle of conflicting emotions for a creative team that feels like they fought the good fight — well, except where ratings were concerned.
“When you’re bringing a show to a close it’s always bittersweet because you build an incredible family with the writers, and with the actors, and with the crew,” Gough said. “But I think because we knew this was coming and we were able to end the show on the terms that we wanted to end it on, it feels like a complete story. And, you know, to be perfectly honest, the simple fact that AMC allowed us to make this batshit crazy show in the first place is a gift. So we are extremely grateful, too.”
The ensemble cast has been lead by talented newcomer Daniel Wu in the role of Sunny, Nick Frost as Bajie, Aramis Knight as M.K., Emily Beecham as The Widow, Orla Brady as Lydia, Ally Ioannides as Tilda, Lorraine Toussaint as Cressida, Sherman Augustus as Moon, Babou Ceesay as Pilgrim, Ella-Rae Smith as Nix, and Lewis Tan as Gaius.
In the end, the finale, “Seven Strike as One,” found Sunny and Bajie fighting valiantly against overwhelming numbers. Gough and Millar had flirted with different endings but in the final analysis they let Wu’s young character find the destiny that made the most sense. He sacrifices himself to save others. “It felt like the right ending,” Gough said. “Although in the end we did leave a door open when you see him in the afterlife with The Master…”
Sunny may live on and the same applies Into the Badlands. Millar said other show’s have audiences that are larger but few have one louder. That’s why he’s so optimistic that the show’s future is brighter than it’s past. He said in this era of show-streaming and binge-watching, an outsider series like Into the Badlands with avid apostles can age like novels or bands with a cult-following — widening its audience over the years, not by the season.
“Yes, it is like a book on a shelf, exactly, and we think it will stand the test of time and we’re very proud of that,” Millar said. “That’s why we’re not bitter-twisted about this ending. It is so noisy out there these days and people are so distracted, so finding a show like this requires word-of-mouth. And this show will be discovered and that’s something we look forward to a great deal.”
The big turning point for the show was in the first season when Frost, the gifted comic actor and genre maven, joined the cast as Bajie, who is sort of like the Kung Fu Panda of the feudal Badlands. “What was missing that first season was humor,” Millar said. “That had been in all of our previous work but in the first season of Badlands it was different. There was this very violent world and we needed something to leaven it. The introduction of Nick as Bajie transformed the show completely. That was the pivotal moment. The fact that we got Nick and then the chemistry that he had with Daniel, it was a surprise and then it led to transformation.”
If Milar and Gough do have a beef or regret regarding the show it would be the lack of industry award attention, especially for its high-ambition fight and stunt work. The creative team set out to set a new standard for small-screen martial arts and Millar proudly says the show delivered on that front again and again. “We never got a single Emmy nomination for anything. Not for production design, not for cinematography and, most critically, not for our fights,” Millar said.
His reaction: Ain’t that a kick in the head? “So we had the best fights on television we put more effort into it than any other shows except for Game of Thrones, which has eight times the budget so in a way it exists in its own category. But how do we not even get nominated? A show like Lethal Weapon which is a network show that will do fights in two days with a second-unit. That’s frustrating.”
From AMC Studios, Into the Badlands was created by executive producers, showrunners and writers Gough and Millar and is executive produced by Stacey Sher and Michael Shamberg, along with David Dobkin, Stephen Fung, Michael Taylor, Karen Richards, Paco Cabezas, and series lead Daniel Wu.