General Kirigan: What happens next is up to you.
Alina Starkov: None of this has been up to me.
—Shadow and Bone Season 1, Episode 7, “The Unsea”
**Spoilers for Shadow and Bone.**
The archetypal hero’s journey assumes that extraordinary people want to do extraordinary things, not just because they can, but because they have a moral obligation. Even if that’s fundamentally true, it’s also important to acknowledge that when people become heroes, a certain amount of their autonomy is stripped away—which is exactly what happens to Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), the protagonist of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, based on Leigh Bardugo’s “Grishaverse.”
Shadow and Bone season one introduces characters from both Bardugo’s book trilogy of the same name and the Six of Crows duology set in the same universe, taking great creative liberty in combining both stories. Across eight episodes, the show balances two main plots: Alina learning she is the mythical Sun Summoner, and the Crows gang attempting to kidnap Alina for a hefty prize.
Alina learns of her power—which can destroy the deathly Fold, a massive, deadly crevice of pure darkness created centuries ago by the Black Heretic, which splits the nation of Ravka—when she and her childhood best friend, Mal (Archie Renaux), attempt to cross the Fold on a mission for the army. They get attacked by monstrous, flesh-eating vulcra, and Alina lights up the Fold itself to protect Mal and keep them together. From that moment, her freedom is taken, ostensibly for the good of the entire country—but of course, it isn’t quite that simple.
In Alina’s world, Grisha are hated and feared for their ability to manipulate matter and utilize “small science,” which is sometimes erroneously referred to as magic. The Black Heretic is a Shadow Summoner, and now he is pretending to be his own descendent, General Aleksander Kirigan (Ben Barnes), to mask his immortality and continue growing his power as the leader of the Grisha army.
Children are tested at a young age for Grisha blood; if they are Grisha, they’re sent to live at the Little Palace, a walled building where Kirigan’s disciples study combat and the small science to prepare for anything that may come their way. Meanwhile, non-Grisha are allowed to continue their lives uninterrupted, which the show indicates is significantly less glamorous.
For Alina, a mixed-race girl who grows up in an orphanage with the constantly-bullied Mal, potentially being Grisha is worse than a death sentence. She is already despised for her race, and if she turns out to be Grisha, she will have to leave the orphanage and her only friend, unless by some miracle they both have Grisha blood. To prevent that from happening, Alina tries to run away with Mal when the testers come to the orphanage. Unfortunately, they’re caught, and Mal can’t be tested due to an injury, because the test relies on sudden pain to determine results.
This means that he definitely won’t come with her if she’s Grisha, so she takes drastic measures to ensure she stays at the orphanage. Alina cuts her own hand on a piece of broken pottery right before the tester cuts her other hand, which skews the results in her favor. She and Mal continue their lives at the orphanage and then enlist in the army together. He becomes an incredible tracker, and she puts her skills to use as a cartographer.
Shadow and Bone very purposefully establishes Alina as an ordinary, but feisty woman whose fierce loyalty to her oldest friend has framed her life in a very specific way. She and Mal have a deep connection, which obviously goes beyond platonic friendship; when he’s suddenly in danger during their trek across the Fold, her body responds by calling forth her Grisha powers. When the army makes it to the other side of the Fold, Mal is taken to medical services and Alina is taken to see General Kirigan, who asks her probing questions about her history.
Then, he cuts open her arm, just as the tester tried to do when she was a kid. This time, Alina isn’t prepared to injure herself, so the results can’t be skewed. Light pours from her body, and it’s apparent to everyone that she is the mythical Sun Summoner, come at last to Ravka to destroy the Fold and save everyone from its dark and terrible clutches.
On the surface, this is a basic hero’s journey. Alina learns she has power and then learns how to use that power to better the world. However, she doesn’t want this power, which she tells Kirigan multiple times; even once she learns to use it, she’s still angry she was forced into the life of a Grisha, and she’s even angrier that learning about her power has painted a permanent target on her back.
At first, she only fears the people outside the Little Palace walls who want to hurt her for what she is and what she represents; then, she learns the truth about Kirigan and realizes she should fear him, as well. During a key exchange after Kirigan forces an amplifier on Alina so he can control her summoning, she says, “This is my power.” Unfazed, he replies, “But now I control it.”
This exchange is key to the entire Shadow and Bone story, including how it tips the hero’s journey upside down and shakes out its proverbial pockets. Alina Starkov is extraordinary, and she can do extraordinary things; once she learns how to control her power, she’s eager to tear down the Fold and restore the country to its former existence. However, she gets to this point through coercion.
Once her power reveals itself, she isn’t given a choice as to how to proceed. All of her attempts to protect herself as a child fall through when she’s an adult, and even though she’s no longer a helpless orphan whose future is determined by those around her, she can’t do anything to stop the full-scale restructuring of her life. Alina doesn’t give consent for her first Grisha test, nor for her second; she doesn’t give consent to be taken to the Little Palace or to have her appearance altered by another Grisha; she doesn’t give consent to be physically assaulted by Baghra (Zoë Wanamaker); she doesn’t give consent to be paraded around like a show pony to give the people hope; she definitely doesn’t give consent to have an amplifier embedded in her skin and attuned to a device held by Kirigan so he can control when and where she summons light, as well as how powerful her summoning is.
Throughout Shadow and Bone, Alina makes choices about her body and her life, but very few of these choices are respected. She may have power, but she can’t use it the way she feels it should be used. She’s expected to follow orders, even when it becomes clear that Kirigan is a villain, and until he gets left behind in the Fold and she believes he’s dead, there’s nothing Alina can do to turn the narrative around and reclaim control of and for herself.
Even when she runs away from the Little Palace and reunites with Mal, she has to make decisions based on what Kirigan is doing, lest her lack of action give him even more power to exploit. Ultimately, everything she does after she saves Mal’s life in the Fold is determined by someone else, which strips away her autonomy and implies that what she wants doesn’t matter, because she’s a mythic hero. Alina’s story asks viewers to reckon with the uncomfortable parts of the hero’s journey, which ultimately strips characters of their autonomy and ability to consent for the sake of a moral imperative.
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