The Shannara Chronicles: The Bisexual and Polyamorous Fantasy Series We've Been Waiting For?

The first season of the television show The Shannara Chronicles just recently concluded on MTV. The show was a huge success for the network. How successful? As the website Comingsoon.net reports:

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles averaged a 0.98 L3 rating in MTV’s core P12-34 demo and ranks as MTV’s top-rated new series this year. Additionally, Shannara saw the highest average L7 lift (+106%) for a freshman series in MTV history. The Shannara Chronicles was also a strong performer on digital platforms, where it garnered 16.6 million streams across all MTV's digital properties and brought significant traffic growth to the MTV App. The series also ranks as the highest grossing digital download for a single season on MTV ever.

To absolutely no one's surprise, a second season was quickly greenlighted.

The Shannara Chronicles is an adaption of well-known fantasy author Terry Brooks' epic Shannara series. There are about 30 (yes, THIRTY) works (full length novels, novellas, and short stories) in the Shannara series that the author has been writing since 1977. The most recent books were published in 2013. The author is currently writing the concluding trilogy of the entire series. The television show is an adaptation of the second book of the original Sword of Shannara Trilogy, The Elfstones of Shannara. Terry Brooks and Jon Favreau serve as executive producers of the show. The MTV description of the show is as follows: The Shannara Chronicles is a new TV series based on the best-selling fantasy novels by Terry Brooks. Set thousands of years after the destruction of our civilization, the story follows an Elven Princess, Amberle, a half-human half-elf, Wil, and a human, Eretria, as they embark on a quest to stop a Demon army from destroying the Four Lands.

Series Trailer:

The first time I saw the show, I was flipping channels and randomly came across an episode. I was confused and unimpressed. I decided that was it for me. I tried it and I did not care for it. It took seeing a friend's enthusiastic post on Facebook about how she and her boyfriend were binge watching the series to get me to give it another chance. I'm glad I did. Having now watched the entire season, I realize that the episode I initially saw was probably episode 2 or 3. It wasn't even at the beginning of the episode. So I had no context for what was going on. I do recall being shocked to see John Rhys Davies playing an elf king, which then led to amusement as I thought of him jumping species from a dwarf to the elves he hated (John Rhys Davies played the dwarf Gimli in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy). His presence was definitely a selling point in the show’s favor. An actor of his caliber probably wouldn’t be on a show that was crap.

As I watched the show, I became increasingly uneasy with relationships that looked to be developing into a very typical girl/boy/girl love triangle. The kind I am completely over and have no time for. The amount of Young Adult fiction I consume has given me a keen Hetero Love Triangle detector. One of the clues was how well the three very attractive leads fit into recognizable archetypes. You have the hunky, sweet and naïve farm/country boy (who really loves his mother so obviously he's boyfriend material); you have the pretty princess who is proud, icy, and sheltered; and, lastly, the tough acting bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks. I've read this book/seen this movie/watched this show a thousand times. Or so I thought.

As I watched each episode expecting the worst, something else happened: What I expected to happen, what should have happened by the conventions of the genre, didn't. A straight (pun might be intended) forward love triangle never happened. Instead the actors brought delicate nuance to their characters (in particular the actresses who play Amberle and Eretria) that gave unexpected depth and layers to the intertwined relationships. One way the show didn't go the typical route was to make sure there was no "prize" character. Amberle (Poppy Drayton), Wil (Austin Butler), and Eretria (Ivana Baquero) are not Edward, Bella, and Jacob. Where in Twilight Bella is the "prize" between an antagonistic and competing Edward and Jacob, in The Shannara Chronicles Amberle and Eretria are both interested in Wil, but then we realize that Eretria is also interested in Amberle…and the feeling might be mutual. What happens, gradually and with moments that feel earned, is something complicated and fluid between three people.

Princess Amberle, Wil Ohmsford, Eretria

Despite Wil being clearly in love with both Amberle and Eretria, the actor and the show never portray him as a player. He's not juggling two hot girls and bragging to his buddies about it (though considering Eretria and Amberle are apparently his only *two friends…that would make bragging really awkward). Instead, he is a good friend to both girls. He is an unwavering pillar of support to Amberle when she is full of doubt about this impossible task that only she can do and the fate of her whole kingdom (oh, and the world too) is dependent upon. Wil is kind and patient with Eretria, even when she is at her worst — angry, mean, and distrustful. He is *always respectful, kind, supportive and, above all, a friend to them. Simply put, Wil is an easy person to love who freely gives love and it is clear why both girls* fall for him. I am soooo here for Nice Boys Who Are Genuinely Nice. Please, no more taciturn and stoic bad boy rebels without a cause. Not everyone thinks that nice guys finish last (unless of course they are the type of Nice Guy™ who haunt the comment sections of websites like Jezebel, in which case they should be thrown in a dumpster).

Another way the show breaks the mold is by developing the relationship between Amberle and Eretria independent of Wil. There is a little jealousy between them that is each girl thinking the other is better for/more attractive (in personality) to Wil, but Amberle and Eretria have issues and conflict that have zero to do with Wil. Their biggest issue is learning to see the other person without their culturally engrained prejudices that are reinforced by their disastrous first meeting. The show smartly pairs up the two girls without Wil a few times. It’s honestly refreshing to see Amberle and Eretria bicker and accuse each other of being a pampered princess and an untrustworthy rover and thus pass the Bechdel Test multiple times. This is absolutely intentional on the part of the writers/showrunners. As the show creators, Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, say in an interview with Zap2It:

"[T]hey have their own prejudices beyond their mutual attraction to Wil, so I think that’s also been something you don’t see a lot in these kind of love triangles. Usually it's just about the boy … they have their own issues that have nothing to do with him as well."

All three characters have issues that have nothing to do with the love triangle or the other two people. Amberle is struggling with having stepped outside of her privileged and exclusive world that has raised her to think that elves are the saviors of the world and that all the other races worship them. She is realizing that not only is this really not true (the other races hate them), but maybe the other races' hatred of the elves is just a wee bit justified.

Eretria is struggling with the unfamiliar situation she finds herself in of being cared about and having real friends for the first time in her life (and not knowing if she can trust these things). She grew up in a world where no one does something for nothing, kindness is seen as weakness, and only the strongest survive. She's a slave tasting freedom for the first time. So when these two hot, and totally unprepared for life in the real world, assholes walk into her super grim and sad world bringing love, companionship and, worst of all, hope — she understandably has no idea what to do with these things, freaks out, and retreats behind her armor of cold sarcasm.

Wil has the typical hero problem of having to accept a world saving destiny he never asked for and definitely does not want. Plus daddy issues. Wil and Harry (Potter) would have a lot to talk about.

Episode 6 ("Pykon") is when something happens that made me go from painful groaning to cautiously optimistic hope about where this triangle was going. Why the painful groaning? Taking a page straight out of the Xena: Warrior Princess playbook (an admittedly good book), Amberle and Eretria end up taking a steaming bath together (you will immediately flash back to the infamous Xena/Gabrielle scene that took place in just such a setting) and seemingly totally out of the blue Eretria begins to aggressively hit on Amberle. As she advances on Amberle, who has her back against the wall and so nowhere to go, Amberle is clearly as surprised as the audience is. I was terrified that this was going to turn into a Straight Girl Panic in reaction to The Slutty Bisexual. I was prepared to feel so betrayed by this show that lulled me into a false sense of security by a lack of sexism and the inclusion of people of color in a medieval-ish world. So what happens? Predictably, Amberle shuts down Eretria with a cutting comment about Wil. But. Wait. When Eretria quickly turns away in a huff, we the audience see what Amberle doesn’t: Eretria is genuinely disappointed and hurt. Amberle assumes that Eretria is just playing mind games and using her body to get what she wants — that's the prejudice she has about rovers (untrustworthy scammers with no scruples) and her earlier interactions with Eretria that give her no reason to think otherwise. Not to mention Eretria has used her body to get what she wants — that's how she met Wil. She saved his life and then used his obvious attraction to her to drug and rob him.

It’s clear that Eretria has no idea how to express her interest in someone without coming on so strong and obvious that the other person assumes she is fucking with them in some way and/or trying to get something from them. What Amberle does not know is that Eretria is a slave bought as a child who was taught to and then forced to use her looks and her body to fleece people. She does not know what to do with people who are interested in HER and not (just) her body. This changes EVERYTHING. Again, the writers confirm this:

"That relationship and that triangle is incredibly complex with Eretria’s bisexuality, her attraction to Amberle and the mutual attraction for Wil. It was really trying to find a new take on a love triangle particularly in the prism of a fantasy world."

via GIPHY

THEY USE THE WORD BISEXUAL. OMG THEY ACTUALLY USED THE WORD AND THE WORLD DID NOT END.

Pardon my shocked enthusiasm, but if you are not bisexual you probably do not get how crazy significant and rare this is. On TV and in movies, bisexuality is like The Orientation That Must Not Be Named. Say it three times in a mirror and you too will turn into a fence-sitting, indecisive, super greedy and selfish person whose orientation cannot be spoken of in public without all the unicorns dying and the world supply of glitter disappearing. All bisexuals are allowed to say is that we don't like "labels." If we engage in bisexual behavior and are female, we are either lesbians or temporarily detoured straights. If we are male…there is no going back from that. You are forever considered gay (and closeted and lying to yourself) if you have even accidentally thought about maybe kissing another boy. Even if you were asleep or unconscious at the time. The Law of Straight Men is hard (cough), but it is the Law.

For the rest of the season the relationship between the two girls is forever changed. Amberle is now seeing Eretria in a different light. The very next episode ("Breakline") after "Pykon" finds Wil, Eretria and Amberle separated and on the run from a gang of human elf hunters (one of whom is Eretria’s super bitter ex-girlfriend, Zora, whom she says she dumped because the other girl got "clingy"). We see how much the situation has changed. Amberle tries to get Eretria to admit that she "cares" about her/them after she comes back for her and saves her life. To her, this is proof. When Eretria denies that she cares, Amberle says she doesn’t believe her. Eretria says she doesn’t care if Amberle believes her. Amberle's face immediately falls. She’s hurt and disappointed. Like Eretria was in the previous episode when Amberle spurns her advances. When they started out Amberle couldn’t care less what this trashy (or so she thought) human thought of her. Now it matters a lot what her former enemy thinks and feels. When Eretria sees Amberle's face fall, she reluctantly admits that she does care. Amberle looks both stunned and softened by this admission.

To bring them full circle, a severely injured Eretria is kidnapped and sold to a seemingly Utopian human colony with a predictably dark secret by the bitter ex-girlfriend (a good reason to try and end on good terms with your exes). When Amberle and Wil are reunited, Amberle is, to Wil’s complete surprise, distraught and desperate to go after Eretria and rescue her. Wil and Amberle (after he makes her rest, eat, and come up with an actual plan) disguise themselves and sneak into a town full of humans who will kill them if they catch them and realize that they are elves (Wil being half-human is not a bargaining chip). They willingly and without hesitation take this huge risk for Eretria — a girl who has not been an easy traveling partner. My shipping kryptonite are characters who think they have no one and matter to no one, until someone comes for them for the first time ever. See also: Rey/Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When Wil and Amberle find Eretria (on a dance floor looking positively luminous), she rebuffs them. While she was hoping they would come for her earlier, she has at this point began to believe that she might have a home at Utopia.

…At least she does until everyone realizes that Wil and Amberle are elves. Then all hell breaks loose. After a daring rescue that requires Eretria to choose Wil and Amberle over her own people (something she wouldn’t have even considered before), she tells a sympathetic Wil and Amberle that she just wanted to belong somewhere. That's why she initially refused to go with them. They tell her that it’s okay to want to belong somewhere. What the audience understands at this point, that the characters have yet to realize, is that they belong together. They have found home in each other.

The final two episodes of the season, "Safehold" and "Ellcrys" finds our young heroes facing heartbreaking loss, making impossible choices, and bravely sacrificing happiness for the greater good. There’s no word yet on what direction season 2 will take (will they adapt book 3, chart their own course, or do something totally different), but MTV did say this, "We're thrilled to continue the momentum established in Season 1," added Jenna Glazier, Executive Vice President, Television Series, Sonar Entertainment. "Along with the ongoing support of MTV, the entire creative team is poised to raise the bar even higher in season 2."

I suggest sticking around. In the meantime, there's the internet to satisfy the fandom cravings until the show returns. After I finished the first season I immediately jumped on Tumblr to see what was in the show's tags. I was very pleasantly surprised. Now it is a fandom truth universally acknowledged that when a show has boy/girl or boy/boy pairings or potential pairings, those pairings will be the most popular in the fandom. Rarely is a girl/girl pairing the most popular (the last fandom I was in where this was the case was Glee). So imagine my happy surprise to see that all the fanart and gifsets are of Amberle/Eretria! I scrolled to the end of the tag and maybe saw one Amberle/Wil thing. This despite the fact that Wil/Amberle and Wil/Eretria have already happened on screen. It will be interesting to see if this has any bearing on the show creator’s plans for next season. I hope "polyamory" is a word they are familiar with.

NOTE: The use of girls/boy instead of women/man is to reflect the implied ages of the characters on the show. The characters are coded as being in their late teens or just out of their teens.

Niala Terrell-Mason's picture
on August 2, 2016

Hey, I'm Niala! I'm black, bisexual, super liberal, a Unitarian Universalist (I'll wait while you Google that), and a long time fangirl. I love fan conventions, Marvel, Star Trek, fan fiction, Tumblr, Harry Potter, most of the shows that Fox cancels and books. I work in a public library and I am a grad student pursuing a masters of divinity in interfaith chaplaincy (aka someone who does religion for a living). I hope you think I'm funny.