Welcome to the Four Lands! It’s full of brave elves, blood-thirsty demons, long-dormant magic, epic quests, and the ruined remains of the Seattle Space Needle. The two-hour premiere for The Shannara Chronicles, MTV’s most ambitious scripted show to date, has some heavy lifting to do in introducing this new world — our Earth, but thousands of years in the future — and the characters who must save it from annihilation. On the whole, this episode gets the job done. The show is a visual treat, the characters are sharp and interesting, and if the dialogue is occasionally clunky, well, what do you expect when you’ve got the last Druid greeting an elven king after decades in a magical coma?
So, to start, say hello to Amberle Elessedil (Poppy Drayton): elf, princess, rule-breaker, badass. See, she’s competing in the Gauntlet, a full-contact race in which the first seven elves to finish will serve as the Chosen for the next year, taking care of the Ellcrys in the capital city, Arborlon. What’s the Ellcrys, you ask? Oh, just an ancient magical tree that keeps untold legions of demons at bay in a magical prison called The Forbidding following a war that almost wiped out every living thing in the Four Lands. As long as the Ellcrys stands, the demons remain imprisoned, and it’s the job of the Chosen to serve and protect her, lest the demons be unleashed again. You don’t have one of those in your backyard? Weird.
RELATED: The 10 Best TV Episodes of 2015
So Amberle’s a rule breaker because the Chosen traditionally are men, a point that’s driven home when she arrives at the race’s starting line and the all-male competitors greet her with shock and hostility, even her almost-fiancé, Lorin. (They also greet her with their bare chests, in case you’ve forgotten that you’re watching MTV.)
“I’m definitely sensing a lot of sweaty elf-boy hate. Are you sure you want to do this?” murmurs Amberle’s handmaiden, Catania (Brooke Williams). Amberle’s sure.
The elves run through the woods blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, and throughout the race, several of the men go out of their way to knock Amberle down to keep her from finishing. Cheating jerks. But a confusing vision involving the Ellcrys spurs Amberle to pick herself up and run the race like a Jedi, dodging trees and jumping a ravine, while the others are clotheslining themselves on branches because duh, they’re running through the woods blindfolded. Honestly, this process seems unnecessarily dangerous. Can’t they draw names from a hat or something?
Ah, but Amberle prevails to become one of the Chosen, despite another elf knocking her over mere steps from the finish line. She knocks him over right back and literally steps on him to finish in the top seven.
Her grandfather, King Eventine Elessedil (John Rhys-Davies), and her oldest uncle, Prince Arion (Daniel MacPherson), aren’t pleased to see Amberle in the Chosen lineup. But her younger uncle, Arden (Aaron Jakubenko), was her Gauntlet coach, and he looks proud, as does a girl in the crowd. Awww, girl elf power!
One by one, the Chosen press their palms against the Ellcrys to be accepted by her, but when Amberle touches the white bark, she sees something awful: mangled corpses everywhere, the burned husk of the Ellcrys, a ruined landscape, and that little girl from the crowd dying in a pool of blood.
Miles away in a cave, a loin cloth-clad man covered in rune-shaped scars and sleeping on a stone bier hears Amberle’s scream and awakens with a gasp. He leaps up, activating a sword that can only be described as some kind of Transformer, and intones, “It has begun.” Well, that’s inauspicious.
And now we cut to a green, rural place where we meet Wil Ohmsford (Austin Butler), a half-elf, half-human with floppy blond hair and the troutiest mouth since Sam Evans (™ Glee). His mother is dying, and as her last act, she gives him a pouch with three blue rocks in it. They’re called Elfstones; they’re magic, and they belonged to his father. Wil’s mother gasps out that he must go find the Druid, and then she croaks. Look, I know this is sad, but wow, that was some awkward plot exposition, as well as incredibly poor timing on his mom’s part. “Hey, there’s actually magic in the world, and your father used it” is a conversation you should have calmly and rationally, over coffee and lembas.
Anyway, despite Wil’s Uncle Flick begging him to throw the Elfstones in the river, Wil pockets them and leaves home on horseback, hoping to train as a healer in Storlock. Uncle Flick warns him to look out for gnomes, trolls, and the nomadic, thieving Rovers, all of whom hate elves. Wil assures Flick that he’s got this.
NEXT: Wil does not, in fact, got this