Among all the Grisha in the Netflix fantasy adaptation Shadow and Bone, Sun Summoner Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) and Shadow Summoner General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) wield the most power — which gives them a deep connection through their parallel yet matched abilities.
Naturally, fans ship it.
[Ed. note: This post contains slight spoilers for Shadow and Bone.]
Their character types and their specific relationship — dramatic foils attracted to each other, yet with a deeply imbalanced power dynamic — seem designed to invite fandom discourse. General Kirigan (or the Darkling, as he’s known in Leigh Bardugo’s books) is the villain of the series, who wishes to control Alina and her power and harness it for himself. But he’s also a brooding, handsome, mysterious figure, and at the beginning of the story, his interest in Alina doesn’t appear to have any malevolent intent attached. That dynamic is compelling, even if it is questionable.
“I understand entirely why she’s drawn to Kirigan,” Li tells Polygon. “He makes her feel special and makes her feel like an equal for the first time.”
When it came to carving out Alina and Kirigan’s connection, the show’s creative team and the actors knew they’d be walking a fine line between seductive and problematic. The power dynamics in the relationship between an older, male mentor figure and a young female protégé are inherently unbalanced in several ways. Li and Barnes were both conscious of how easily their connection might read as predatory.
“Both Ben and Jesse had some thoughts and some feelings about that relationship,” showrunner Eric Heisserer tells Polygon. “Ben is very cognizant of consent and active participation. We got to a point where we felt it was healthier for the portrayal of Alina for her to make the first move. And that moment seemed to be a little bit more electric [than the equivalent scene in the books].”
In the book, the Darkling kisses her in the spur of the moment, Alina is left overwhelmed and flustered, wondering about his true intentions. Later, after demonstrating her powers at the winter fete, he pulls her away into an empty room and they passionately make out. When Alina feels the encounter is headed towards unchartered territory, she draws back, startled because she feels anger in his actions. Through steamy kisses, he explains that he wants her badly, but wanting things makes him weak. After he teases her along, Alina is fully ready to get down and dirty — before they’re interrupted and angstily brood for a moment before leaving.
In the show, however, Alina is the one who initiates their first kiss. It happens after she decides to embrace her own powers and help Ravka (so she thinks) and goes to tell Kirigan this. When he admits it means a lot to him, she steps forward and kisses him. Later on, when they slip away after the winter fete, the scene feels less like someone taking advantage of a vulnerable young girl and more like two equals. When they’re interrupted, they giggle sheepishly and reluctantly part ways.
Because Alina is a more active participant in the seduction, the scene right after, when she learns Kirigan’s true intentions — that he was actually the one who created the Shadow Fold centuries ago and he plans to use her power to control it as a weapon instead of dispelling it — hits all the harder.
“It feels like more of a betrayal,” Li elaborates. “She’s drawn into this [attraction], and it’s her decision. She has agency, she’s not some blushing virgin who got taken advantage of. She makes this decision. And she has been hoodwinked.”
The relationship between Alina and her best friend Mal is built on a deep friendship that eventually blossoms into a romance. Li says Mal represents Alina’s home and heart, and that he is everything “good and strong and moral.” But there is a dark side to Alina, a weakness and desire to be loved which draws her to Kirigan. That relationship has always been intentionally unbalanced, something Bardugo intended from the very beginning.
“I have my own views on why I chose to write that relationship the way I did, and what it means for there to be that large an age discrepancy between two participants in a relationship, particularly one is when one is behaving as a mentor,” she says. “But I liked the changes that were made to those seduction scenes [for the show], because it was already for me uncomfortable to know what that dynamic was. I want the audience to go on the journey with [Alina] in her understanding of him as a whole person, not simply an antagonist.”
Kirigan ends up being a multifaceted antagonist, with a certain Byronic appeal. His relationship with Alina is full of ulterior motives, even though it’s compelling and intoxicating. At the end of the day, though, he’s still the heavy of the story. (In an oft-quoted line, after Alina refuses to join him, he dramatically tells her, “Fine. Make me your villain.”) Yet, as Barnes himself says, it’s perfectly okay — and expected, even — for viewers to find the relationship both intriguing and disturbing.
“When power is being abused, it’s important to highlight. [Kirigan] is certainly doing that, whilst also there being a gray area of him starting to have feelings for her potentially and starting to really kind of care about her, despite his efforts to hoodwink her. [It’s important to] spark discussion, and have it be relevant in 2021, rather than sit back into old tropes,” he explains. “It should be problematic. We should be able to mark it as problematic and still find it interesting.”
Shadow and Bone is available to stream on Netflix.