In between shifting alliances, and friendships that endure in the face of actual death—a.k.a. M.K.’s face—Into the Badlands finally drums up some emotional intensity that matches its milestone-setting, on-screen martial arts in the best episode of the season so far.

I may never tire of M.K.-Tilda fight scenes. Not just because the two youngest main characters are adroit warriors in their own right, but because of their blossoming friendship in the midst of a rapidly materializing war instigated by their respective mentors. When they were in the graveyard at the end, and Tilda drew M.K.’s blood with one of her trademark butterfly shurikens and thus activating his hidden destruct-o trance-o’-death, you know the entire home audience let out a collective, nation-wide “Ohhhh shiiiiiiit...”

The whole graveyard bloodbath was great to watch, as all the fight scenes in this show are. I love how the show continues to play up its shooting location of New Orleans—that cemetery with the above-ground tombs looked straight out of that Big Easy. I’m still trying to figure out where in the “real world” the show is supposed to take place, but it’s obviously somewhere in the American South? I think?

Photo by Patti Perret/AMC.

Advertisement

Which brings me to another reason why I loved this episode so much: I’m also still trying to nail down when this takes place. (How far into the doomsday-ruined future, that is.) When I covered this show at its premiere panel at New York Comic Con earlier this year, the stars and producers described the setting as post-apocalyptic, more or less, despite not using that actual term. But it’s very clear that this gun-free society of feuding warlords, limited technology and primitive science (“the blood orange has healing properties!”) is a society that emerged from the ashes of some earth-shattering shit that went down.

We’ve had very small teases of the old world in past episodes, and it’s very clear that this old world is our current world: During one of Sunny’s reading lessons, he asks Veil to switch back to Cat in the Hat, for example. This week, we got even more hints at the World That Was: we see Tilda and the other Butterflies stumbling upon relics of a long-forgotten past, including a souvenir snowglobe from Hawaii and a vintage record player. But when the girls start to have too much fun dancing to the old-timey music—I think this is the first time anyone in this show has smiled?—the Widow storms in and shatters the vinyl in rage. Clean the house, she says! This is her new headquarters! She then takes Tilda aside to give her a stern talking-to.

It’s here that we also finally learn more a bit about Tilda’s background, and perhaps the Widow’s motives for waging war—or at least, the fake motives that she dangles in front of her girl minions to rally their loyalty. When Tilda shows an open moment of defiance to her “mother,” asking why she and the other girls go into battle and die for her, the Widow reminds Tilda of what the Widow’s ex-husband apparently used to do to Tilda in a dark room. Short of spelling it out, she explains that her husband abused Tilda, and that the Widow is fighting the other barons to ensure that the Badlands is free of abuse toward women once and for all.

Sponsored

Her real reason though is still a bit unclear. She obviously wants power—she’s teaming with Zephyr, baron Jacobee’s top Clipper, and Ryder, Quinn’s son, to overthrow the ailing Quinn for good. But at the core of this plan lies yet another piece of the puzzle: M.K. The Widow has wanted him in her clutches from day one, and in this new plan, she’s scheming with key members of two enemy territories, aiming to capture the boy with the mysterious powers wearing the mysterious pendant of the mysterious city.

Photo by Patti Perret/AMC.

Does she want to use M.K. to leave the Badlands? Does she want to use him to lead her to this apparently fabled El Dorado-looking mystic city? Or does she simply want to harness M.K.’s Hulk-like trigger to annihilate all her foes?

Because M.K., after all, is an instrument of pure mass destruction—whether he likes it or not. Despite him not remembering anything post-trance, or during it, the fact remains that he does turn into an unstoppable doom-bringer with superhuman strength whenever he’s cut. We’re reminded of this dark side when Sunny is granted an audience with the River King, the man who apparently knows the way out of the Badlands. The King, however, tells Sunny that a whopping 30 men were found slaughtered in mass murder upon one of his ships. The culprit? M.K.

Advertisement

(Side note: Going back to the treasures-from-the-past thing, I love that the hallowed icon that grants an audience with the River King is a plastic toy soldier.)

With only two episodes left in the first season, I’m excited to learn more about M.K., the fabled city, the other characters’ backstories, and the Badlands themselves. I’m also betting we’re going to be seeing a lot more bloodshed. Bring it on.

Photo by James Minchin III/AMC

Advertisement

Top photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/AMC


Email the author at bryan@gizmodo.com, or follow him on Twitter.