The first season of AMC’s Into the Badlands is already almost over—the (hopefully very bloody) season finale is Sunday. We talked to star Daniel Wu and showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar about what we can expect.
Gough and Millar, a long collaborating team of writers and producers who worked on Lethal Weapon 4, Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Nights, dubbed Badlands their “passion project.” They wanted to bring martial arts back to American TV, and they wanted to create a unique world that’s an amalgam of their favorite things.
“AMC was the only place we pitched the show,” Gough says. “An hour later, they called and said, we want it.”
Originally, Wu was just supposed to be an executive producer. When it came time to pick a lead, they were all like—Oh yeah! There’s a guy sitting in this room who’s a legit martial arts machine! And then Wu (who has starred in scores of action flicks in China and Hong Kong) was cast as unstoppable assassin Sunny.
Wu is trained in Shaolin kung fu, wushu, muay thai, and points out that not all actors in martial arts flicks are all black belts or something. Despite being the only Badlands cast member with a significant amount of martial arts training, he says if you’re a hard worker and have decent athletic ability, that’s all you need. (You also need a stunt double—Wu points out that all the greats, including the Badlands cast, defers to stunt doubles for particularly gnarly moves that could break someone’s neck and put them out of commission for two seasons.)
The casting of Wu also marks something that’s so needed, but still frustratingly rare, on American TV: an Asian lead. Back in the ‘70s on Kung Fu—arguably the last show in the US to put martial arts at the forefront—the 100% white David Carradine was cast to play the half-white, half-Chinese Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine.
“I’m really proud this show is breaking boundaries like that, but not intentionally,” Wu says. “Sunny could honestly have been anything: black, white, latino. It just happens to be that the lead is Asian-American. It’s actually much more interesting to me to say, ‘let’s just make a cool show with a cool character.’”
Badlands takes place post-apocalypse, though we’re still not exactly sure what happened. What we do know is that there was some cataclysm that really happened in the real world—the real world as we know it—as evidenced by relics and references: Tilda finds a snowglobe from Hawaii in a box full of artifacts, there are mentions of the Bible and The Cat in the Hat, and a plastic toy soldier grants Sunny an audience with the River King, like it’s treated as an icon.
Beyond that, we don’t get any more background. Not even the characters seem to know what the hell happened. That’s intentional.
“For us, it was important that whatever happened happened so long ago that people don’t really talk about it,” Gough says. It’s like how “we see the Pyramids, but we’re not quite sure what happened.”
Gough and Millar say that it might not have even been one thing, but an apocalyptic cocktail of threats like climate change, terrorism, and other modern-day death knells: “If they all ever coalesced, it’d lead to this mass extinction event,” Gough says.
And now we have the Badlands. The team also didn’t want to portray this post-doomsday Earth as a dusty, dingy wasteland, but not as Blade Runner cyber nightmare, either. Instead, we have this lush, Louisiana backdrop, peppered with residual Southern culture, like grand plantations, clashing with the bloody, blade-filled battles the show’s becoming known for. Also woven into the atmosphere is pre-Industrial Revolution technology and Asian-inspired villages full of craftspeople and travelers in streets that resemble old China or feudal Japan. The showrunners say that feudal Japan also influenced the social structure of the world, with Barons as shoguns, Clippers as samurai, and Nomads as ronin.
“We’re fans of Kurosawa and Japanese samurai movies,” Millar says. “We liked the idea of using that as a model of society, and placing [Badlands] there.”
Gough and Millar also confirmed that the show actually takes place in what used to be the United States. “We wanted you to know that it’s in [what used to be] America,” Gough explains. “It’s a martial arts show, but we didn’t want it to be this foreign concept, in some foreign land somewhere.”
Which is part of why the odd juxtaposition and mash-up of genres, cultures, settings and time periods make for such an interesting show. Wu agreed that the “weird fantasy world”—one that blended a traditional martial arts drama, a dystopian future, and an American setting—is part of what makes Badlands so special.
What can we expect for Sunday night? A huge cliffhanger, Wu says: “The next episode is definitely going to leave people like, ‘What the fuck is gonna happen now?”
Gough says “You’ll definitely get the first glimpse of what could be beyond the Badlands” in the season finale. “In season two, you will see a lot more of the Badlands, and the geography will start to be answered.”
And what of season two? (Please please please let there be season two.) No official word from AMC yet, buuuuuut... Says Gough: “The network is really happy with the show.” And Wu: “We’re expecting a green light.”
Photo: James Minchin III/AMC
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