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.
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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
Back in Arborlon, Amberle’s hanging out in a strappy metallic dress (as you do) and sketching the demons she saw in her vision (as you do). Lorin shows up for a little kissy-kissy, and when Amberle asks if he believes that the Ellcrys really keeps the Four Lands safe from demons, he says no way because magic died out with the Druids.
That night, the Chosen are honored with a party. Amberle’s rocking another elaborate dress, this time with an astounding hairdo/elf-ear jewelry combination, and man, do I hope MTV starts selling elf-ear bling. Amberle and Uncle Ander joke that the member of their family the king loves best is his dog, Manx. Also, Ander’s pining for the lovely Commander Tilton (Emilia Burns), who seems to have moved on to his older brother, Arion. You have chosen poorly, lady. The episode never circles back to this, but let’s assume it’s planting seeds for future angst.
Despite the party raging around her, another vision pulls Amberle back to the Ellcrys, and this time she sees herself stabbing Lorin. Lorin finds her immediately afterward, freaking out in front of the Ellcrys, and she admits that she’s been having horrible vision and pleads with him to stay away from her. When he doesn’t, she knocks him out with his sword and decides to leave Arborlon.
Now let’s check in with Wil, who’s traveling through a craggy landscape when he’s attacked by a gas mask-wearing troll bent on murder. Luckily, a fierce woman pops up and kills his assailant, then chastises him for being dumb enough to wander alone in troll country. She also calls his halfling ears “short-tips.” Her name is Eretria (Ivana Baquero), and I like her already. As they leave together, the camera pans past an ominous-looking sigil on a post. (Props to MTV, by the way; the New Zealand landscaped mixed with solid CGI gives The Shannara Chronicles some fantastic visuals. The palace and the Ellcrys are majestic, the landscapes are gorgeous and eerie, as circumstances dictate, and the supernatural elements are well rendered.)
As Wil and Etetria travel together, the show once again reminds us that this is our world, millennia after some kind of apocalypse, when Eretria expresses no interest in how the ancient humans built the metal machines whose rusted carcasses they’re passing. Okay, can any metallurgists hit the comments and let us know how long car bodies would actually hang around after millennia of abandonment? This seems to run contrary to physics and, like, rust, although it does make for cool scene setting.
Anyway, Eretria takes Wil back to her place and tells him to strip and get into the bathtub. She hands him a glass of wine and flirt-talks with him, her lips mere centimeters from his own abundant ones. Wil asks Eretria if she’s worried about Rovers and then spills his guts about the Elfstones being magic.
Sweet, simple, Wil. You’ve obviously been drugged, player. And, surprise, surprise, Eretria steals the stones and leaves him knocked out in the tub. And it’s not even her house! She’s been tasked to rob the dickens out of it as her first solo Rover mission.
Back in Arborlon, Amberle’s absence is quickly noticed, and Uncle Ander blames Lorin, who spills that Amberle says the tree’s been communicating with her. Both men think that’s crazy. Also crazy? The Ellcrys’ keeper discovers that the great tree is sick, which last happened exactly never. As he’s breaking the news to the king, the hulking, rune-scarred, recently awakened man arrives on the scene, flinging magic around.
He’s the Druid Allanon (Manu Bennett), and he greets King Eventine as “my old friend.” Allanon is the last Druid of Paranor, whom everyone assumed was dead, when in fact, he hibernated for 30 years to restore his depleted magic after the War of the Races, and it looks like he hasn’t aged a day.
“If Allanon is here, there are dark days ahead,” says the king, who fought with him during the war. We’ll soon learn that Allanon and Eventine both have a habit of pronouncing everything in a booming, ominous tone. Imagine one stating darkly, “We are out of milk,” while the other gravely replies, “Yes, and the Adele tickets have all sold out.”
Anyway, Allanon touches the Ellcrys and declares that she’s dying. Each leaf represents a demon, and as each withers and dies, a new demon will be released into the world.
Uncle Arion, who’s a real tool, scoffs that the Ellcrys is just a fairy tale and not actually keeping them safe from wholescale demon slaughter. The king agrees.
“You tell that to your people when the fairy tales are ripping out their throats,” Allanon growls.
Can we all just agree right now that Allanon is fantastic? He’s angry and brawny and basically the anti-Gandalf — no offense to Gandalf, of course. I’m looking forward to spending the next two months with a hot, short-tempered Druid who isn’t rocking a long, gray beard and a placid demeanor.
Oh, and as it turns out, Allanon is right. We see a leaf fall off the Ellcrys and burn away, and then in a desolate part of the Four Lands, a demon breaks through The Forbidding. It’s the Dagda Mor, and interestingly, he and Allanon recite the same words invoking the magic of the Earth upon their awakening. Hmmm.
NEXT: Amberle proves she’s savvier than Wil
Back with our sweet lil’ halfling: Wil wakes up naked in the tub to find a seriously unamused Allanon looming over him. The Druid read Uncle Flick’s mind to divine Wil’s whereabouts, and Wil quickly realizes that a) Allanon is the Druid his mother wanted him to find and b) Eretria stole his Elfstones.
“You have put our quest in jeopardy,” snaps Allanon, who despairs that this is the member of the Shannara clan that he’s been dealt. You see, he tells Wil, only the last son of the Shannara bloodline can save the Four Lands. Wil is surprised to learn that his ancestors were great kings and warriors. Allanon promises to show Wil how to unlock the Shannara magic that flows through his veins, which they’ll need during the Ellcrys crisis. (The Ellcrysis?)
“Come. Your destiny awaits,” Allanon booms, turning his horse and riding off. Damn, that’s a cool exit line.
Less cool? The Ellcrys loses another leaf, and the Changeling escapes, taking the form of a hot demon lady — the shape it perceives that the Dagda Mor most desires. The Dagda Mor’s kiss causes the Changeling to morph into its true form — a hideous monster, natch — and the DM sends it to kill the Chosen. Zoinks!
Our favorite Chosen, Amberle, is tromping through the woods at night on her flight from Arborlon when a knife thrown by that no good, drugging thief Eretria almost fillets her. Amberle lies and says she’s a teacher headed to the Elven mission, and Eretria lies right back about meeting up with her husband. She pours Amberle some wine, but Amberle’s far smarter than Wil and immediately pegs Eretria as a Rover. Eretria in turn calls Amberle “princess,” having glimpsed the royal seal on Amberle’s cuff. But Amberle has another vision that sets her in motion again, so she tosses Eretria her cuff in exchange for a hunk of bread and rides off with Eretria’s horse and all the loot from the burglary.
Meanwhile, Wil and Allanon head to the former fortress of the Druids, which now sits in ruins, to retrieve the Codex of Paranor, a book with the magical history of the Four Lands that may tell them how to save the Ellcrys.
“Why don’t you just call it a book of magic? Is it a Druid requirement that everything has to sound so mysterious?” Wil asks, speaking for us all.
Allanon says his mentor hid the Codex in the chamber 300 years ago, which makes Allanon way too old to be alive. At this startling realization, Wil tries to bug out for Storlock. But Allanon says Wil can’t walk away from his destiny. Then he uses his Druid mojo to levitate everything in the room and pull out a section of wall to reveal the Codex, and suddenly Wil’s a believer in magic. But uncovering the Codex leaves Allanon with a burned, damaged hand.
“Magic always comes with a price, Wil. Never forget that,” he advises.
The price was worth it, though, as the Codex tells Allanon that the Ellcrys has a flower that will bloom and bear a single seed, which a Chosen must carry to Safehold and immerse in the Bloodfire. Then the seed can be returned to the sanctuary, where the Ellcrys will be reborn, saving the Four Lands from demon hordes. BOOM. There’s the plot for the rest of the season.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Wil says brightly. “It’s not like you need a human sacrifice or something.” Problem is, nobody knows where Safehold is. But, you know, details.
Allanon then has a nasty vision of the Dagda Mor, who was the greatest druid of his age before he was lured to the dark side. He’s basically an elf Darth Vader with funky face jewelry instead of a helmet. The Dagda Mor taunts Allanon that the demon army will soon wash across the Four Lands like a black wave and, oh yeah, the Chosen are already dead. When Allanon emerges from the vision, he tells Wil they need to get back to Arborlon, post-haste.
In Arborlon, Ander finds Amberle’s demon sketch. Eventine realizes that the Chosen might be in danger and orders them to the palace for safety. But when Lorin’s hanging out at the Ellcrys, Amberle suddenly appears. She asks where the Chosen are, and when he tells her, she stabs him in the gut. Poor Lorin dies thinking the woman he loved killed him. Then Amberle’s eyes flash silver-red because, duh, it’s the Changeling.
NEXT: The secret love life of Druids
By the time Allanon and Wil arrive, it’s too late; all the Chosen are dead — except the missing Amberle, of course. It’s bad, man: blood and broken bodies everywhere.
The dreadful Prince Arion argues that this is the work of gnomes, but Allanon says it was the Dagda Mor, plotting revenge for the thousands of years as he was held in the Forbidding. Allanon says the DM won’t be truly free to walk the Earth until the last magical leaf has fallen. Until then, he’ll dispatch demons to do his dirty work.
“Kill the Chosen, kill the Ellcrys,” Wil murmurs, and I like to think that this society still remembers how great season 1 of Heroes was, thousands of years later.
In a private conversation, Arion accuses Eventine of being under the Druid’s thrall and, although the king planned to abdicate the throne in a few months, Arion demands that this happen immediately so Arion can put a stop to this nonsense about magic. But Eventine barks that a true leader doesn’t run at the beginning of a crisis. Arion asks if Eventine wants to be remembered as the mad king who believed in demons, then he drops the mic and leaves the room. Man, Arion sucks.
In a different private conversation, Allanon tells Wil that they need to get Amberle back to Arborlon, and if the Dagda Mor finds her before they do, the world will end. So, you know, no pressure. Plus, Allanon thinks there’s a demon spy in the castle. We, of course, know it’s the Changeling, but we don’t know who it’s impersonating. DUN.
Following a search of Amberle’s room, Wil guesses that she left to visit her Aunt Pyria, who exiled herself years ago. She had a falling out with her brother after she fell in love with a human and Eventine refused to give his blessing.
This knocks the wind out of the long-lived, slow-to-age Allanon because gasp, Aunt Pyria was in love with him. “I thought she understood that there was no future for us,” he murmurs. Tragic, long-denied elf/Druid love? YES, PLEASE. Allanon stresses that nobody outside of that room can known Amberle’s location to keep her safe until they arrive.
Manx, the king’s beloved dog, perks up at this news, and his eyes flash silver/red. NOOO! You guys, this means that the real Manx is dead, which is terribly sad. As, um, are the six dead Chosen. All very sad.
Amberle is, in fact, with her aunt. They have a sweet reunion, and then Amberle jumps right into the reason for her visit: She wants to know about magic during the War of the Races. She explains her visions of the future and confesses that she thinks it’s all happening because she broke the rules and competed to be a Chosen. Oh, kitten, it’s not your fault. Sometimes ancient magical trees just die.
Okay, one last check-in with Eretria this week: She’s unhappily reunited with her Rover family, led by Cephelo (James Remar), who’s angry that she was outsmarted by an elf and returned empty-handed on her first solo thieving run. Ah, but she does have the Elfstones. However, they’re useless without someone to unlock their magic. Cephelo, who is not a nice man, reluctantly agrees to give Eretria her freedom if she can find Wil, who he assumes can show them how to work the magic. Otherwise, he’ll sell her into a marriage that she presumably will not enjoy. Looks like Eretria’s off to track down ol’ Short Tips.
On their road trip, Wil tries to get Allanon to talk about his relationship with the king’s sister. “I’m sure the age difference must’ve been kind of weird. How old are you, 350?”
“Stop talking,” Allanon snaps.
So Wil deflects the conversation to discuss his father and uncle, who helped Allanon find the Sword of Shannara years earlier.
“Your father is the only reason this world didn’t fall into darkness 30 years ago. His courage and fortitude inspire me still,” Allanon says.
Wil’s confused by this because Shea died a sad, lonely drunk. Allanon reminds him that magic comes with a price, and this was the toll it took on Wil’s father. But, he adds, magic affects each person differently. Wil doesn’t love this answer.
“So I’m supposed to use Elfstones I don’t have to protect a princess who doesn’t want to be found from a demon horde bent on laying waste to the world, and even if I succeed, which is entirely doubtful, my life could still be doomed because magic will have fried my brain?” he asks. “I liked it better when we didn’t talk.”
And finally, finally, with a twitch of his lips, we see Allanon start to warm up to Wil the tiniest bit.
(Sidenote for non-book readers: Season 1 of The Shannara Chronicles is based on The Elfstones of Shannara, book 2 of Terry Brooks’ first trilogy. Book 1 is The Sword of Shannara, which is all about Allanon, Shea, and Flick finding the sword and defeating the Warlock Lord, but you don’t need to have read it to follow along with Chronicles. Just go with it, okay?)
NEXT: Aunt Pyria, we hardly knew ya
Finally, Allanon and Wil ride up to Pyria, who’s astounded to see her former love. Wil runs off to fetch Amberle, leaving the Druid alone with his ex.
“You abandoned me to grow old without so much as a goodbye,” sighs Pyria, now wrinkled and gray-haired. “And now you return, young and strong as a spring stag.”
Allanon tells her that he didn’t have any choice but to go into Druid hibernation after the war. “You will never know how sorry I am, or how much you still mean to me.” Gah, the Highlander of it all is killing me! Too bad the show didn’t use “Who Wants to Live Forever” here, instead of the Queen-lite song they chose. You would’ve seen so many fans shedding a solitary tear.
Anyway, Pyria’s not happy to see Allanon for another reason, too: He’s dragging her niece and Wil into a life-or-death struggle. “Once again, you are the puppet master, manipulating innocent lives as you see fit.” Does Allanon ever get tired of being the living embodiment of a bad-news harbinger, I wonder?
Elsewhere, Wil tracks down Amberle, and let’s all take a second to roll our eyes that Wil first sees her bathing naked in a waterfall. At least the dummy slips on a rock and goes down hard, giving Amberle a chance to slip out of the water and threaten him with a knife — still naked, of course. She glimpses his ears, and he explains that he’s a half-elf. “Yes, they’re small, so spare me the ear jokes,” he quips, then urges her to put some clothes on to make the conversation less awkward.
As she dresses, he tries to convince her that she needs to return to Arborlon, and she’s horrified to learn that the Ellcrys is dying.
Speaking of, in Arborlon, another leaf falls, and a new demon is released. It’s a fury, and it flies straight to Amberle’s location while knocking Allanon off a cliff and attacking Pyria, whose screams alert Wil and Amberle that something’s wrong.
They arrive on the scene at a run, and the Fury abandons Pyria’s body to menace them. Wil shoves Amberle behind him and faces down the enormous monster with only a tiny dagger to protect them.
So what do we think, gang? Do you have room in your heart for this slightly off-beat fantasy show, where beautiful people with pointy ears race to stop a demon invasion that’s held back only by a dying magical tree, set thousands of years after the end of our civilization?
I’m definitely eager for the rest of the story to unfold. The acting’s solid, the stakes are high, and the people, costumes, and landscapes are all pretty to look at. The post-apocalypse Earth setting allows the characters to speak in an anachronistically contemporary style and wear hoodies and pants with modern pockets. After all, who knows what scraps of the old world would be retained over the centuries? It’s a fresh twist on the old sword-and-sorcery tropes; here’s hoping it catches on with audiences.
Finally, the Brooks Nook:
Those of you who’ve read Terry Brooks’ novel that the show is based on, let’s chat. (MILD SPOILERS FOR NON-READERS, and be sure to keep the comments safe, too.)
Welp, big changes abound here, for sure. Wil is Shae’s son rather than his grandson, and Shae himself apparently had a tragically diminished end to his life. The Chosen selection is more aggressive, and Amberle has far more agency in pursuing it. Then there’s the way Wil meets Eretria. And Allanon. And Amberle. Still, the end goal seems to be the same, and I’m excited to see how the show goes about reaching it.
Amberle’s definitely more of a fighter, and Eretria’s obviously going to be a major part of the narrative for the entire show, rather than dropping out of sight for chapters at a time. Plus, Ivana Baquero brings an intriguing fierceness to the role.
Allanon is basically perfect, although TV Allanon seems a little less omniscient, and his doomed romance is certainly a humanizing, vulnerable beat.
And then there’s Wil. Oh, sweet Wil. He’s far less competent in the show, no? He’s sheltered and naïve, he hasn’t started training as a healer, and Allanon’s irked about being saddled with him rather than seeking him out because he’s the right halfling for the job. I loved the way book Wil knew exactly how to play it with the Rovers who stole the horses; TV Wil doesn’t have the street savvy (forest savvy?) to pull that off yet. On the other hand, Austin Butler brings charm and humor to the table, and you need that in a show where people speak plummily about accepting destiny and whatnot. And how about Wil saying that saving the Ellcrys isn’t going to require a human sacrifice? They put that in to troll book readers, didn’t they? Sob!
At least we can all agree that Arion is still the worst.