On Willow, side quests, stalls, and setbacks test everyone’s resolve

Erin Kellyman, Tony Revolori, Amar Chadha-Patel, and Ruby Cruz
Erin Kellyman, Tony Revolori, Amar Chadha-Patel, and Ruby Cruz

It’s kind of impressive that we’re only three episodes into Willow, and it’s already managed to hit so many of the highlights on the checklist of fantasy tropes: a fellowship on a quest, supernatural monsters, knights in armor, royal intrigue, magic spells—it’s all here. The original Willow film didn’t shy away from immersing itself in genre conventions, and neither does the series. There’s not much that’s particularly innovative here, though, which makes it either comfortingly familiar or shamelessly derivative, depending on how you look at it. I’m going with the former, because at this point in the year a high fantasy series with a light touch is exactly the kind of thing I want to curl up to on a cold winter’s night.

In this episode, Willow embraces a time-honored tradition any fan of fantasy and video games should be familiar with: the side quest. The characters begin the episode united in the mission of rescuing Airk from the Crone and returning him safely back to Tir Asleen. By the end, though, it becomes clear that there are different goals and motivations at work within the party. We’re still getting to know these characters, so splitting them up gives us a chance to see more sides of them and learn what makes them tick.

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Elora is the first one to be peeled off of the group. We saw Commander Ballantine, who’s fully evil now, abduct her at the end of the previous episode, so that makes two missing persons they need to find on this quest. Jade is the first one to catch up to him, surprisingly easily. As we learned earlier, Jade lost her parents at a young age and was taken in by Sorsha as an orphan. Ballantine trained her and practically raised her, so she can tell something isn’t right with him straight away. Also, he has an unconscious Elora draped over his horse, which should have been the first clue. The rest of the group arrives to provide support, but Ballantine has turned the other knights to the dark side, too, so they all fight. Mercifully, it takes place in the woods in broad daylight so you can actually see everything that’s happening (unlike the fight at night in the rain later on, but we’ll get to that in a bit), until Willow lets off a magic smoke bomb, and the bad guys get away. (He’s still not great at this, even with years to practice.)

Boorman—who continues to be my favorite character—proves his skills in the fight, but he isn’t particularly invested in the search for Airk or Elora. In this episode, we find out what he’s really after: He and Madmartigan were searching for the Kymerian Cuirass, a mythical breastplate that all but ensures victory in battle. It’s activated by a key called the lux arcana. Boorman relates the legend to an impatient Kit, who’s more interested in finding out what happened to her father than the history of some silly magical armor. “Your generation has, like, zero attention span for epic tales,” he tells her. Getting in a meta swipe at a good chunk of your intended audience is a choice, I guess, but since it’s not aimed at me I found it funny. Amar Chadha-Patel’s droll delivery manages to make almost every line of his sound hilarious, though. I might be able to say he makes me forget all about Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan if they didn’t keep mentioning him every chance they get.

The group mounts up in pursuit of Elora, and we get some scenic riding scenes with a beautiful green backdrop set to a sweeping score. This is the most the show has felt like the movie so far. It’s properly epic. As they traverse rocky mountain paths, there are already signs of the group beginning to splinter. Kit and Jade argue about everything except what they’re really mad about, which is that they’re unable to express their true feelings for each other. Graydon questions his value on the quest, as he’s not the heroic type, and hints at something dark in his past. I’m not sure I completely trust Graydon yet, and his ability to understand the sinister whispers coming from the “noxious twilight vale” up ahead doesn’t help his case. That said, I am really enjoying Tony Revolori’s performance.

When the wagon carrying Willow and Silas lags behind and eventually breaks down, the party can’t agree on which road to take. Boorman, who’s traveled this way before, prefers “Piddler’s Pass.” It doesn’t sound great, but it has the benefit of going past a cozy little inn called “The Slaughtered Lamb.” With a name like that it’s got to be either adorably quaint or filled with unsavory characters. Boorman takes Kit with him through the pass, while the rest of the group heads for something called “the voluptuous vale,” which Kit refers to as “the vale of boobs.” Willow aspires to be the kind of show where cheeky modern phrases like that sit (not always comfortably) alongside florid dialogue like “a swirling vortex of rage and madness there’s no escape from.” It takes some getting used to.

Anyway, it turns out The Slaughtered Lamb is not so much an inn as a heap of rubble where an inn used to be. But Boorman has an ulterior motive. Years ago, he and Madmartigan hid the lux arcana in the basement and he’s there to retrieve it. Leaving Kit on the lookout for were-rats (they’re exactly what they sound like), he finds it and stashes it away, telling her there was nothing there. He’s a rogue, what did you expect?

Hannah Waddingham as Hubert
Hannah Waddingham as Hubert

Back in the forest, Elora escapes all on her own and makes a break for it into the woods. She gets turned around and finally comes to a sunlit clearing with a little cottage and two women outside chopping wood. One of them is Hannah Waddingham. She may be best known for her role as Rebecca on Ted Lasso, but she actually has a few fantasy projects on her CV, including Game Of Thrones. (She was the Septa ringing the bell and calling out “Shame shame shame!” while marching a naked Cersei through King’s Landing.) It’s great to see her here, and though it’s a small role she doesn’t waste a second of her minimal screen time. Elora tells them her story, and they are instantly ready to sign up as the first recruits in her army of soldiers against the forces of darkness. Unfortunately, this makes them targets, and when Ballantine discovers them Elora gets her first big lesson in what it really means to be a chosen one: There will be good people who will be inspired to fight for you, and some of them will die.

Still chasing after Ballantine in the hopes of rescuing Elora, the group is stalled again when the blasted wagon gets stuck in the mud. While working together push it, Jade complains to Graydon that Willow could be more helpful with his magic. Graydon wonders if there’s a reason Willow moved the Nelwyn underground. And come to think of it, we haven’t seen Willow do much impressive magic in the show yet. He knows a lot about the enemy, and he was able to reveal the hidden birthmark on Elora’s arm, but other than that his tricks don’t seem any more advanced than in the old days. Separately, Willow confides in Silas that he’s conserving his magic for when he really needs it. Doing magic takes a lot out of him and he’s not as resilient as he once was. The conversation leads Willow realizing that he knows where they’re going, but he’s interrupted by Ballantine and his minions. Another fight ensues.

A lot happens in this sequence, which is unfortunate because it’s so murky and dimly lit that the action is hard to follow. Sigh. We’ve seen this so many times now it’s become a cliché. Willow is clearly capable of staging fight scenes that are easy to watch—they did it earlier in this very episode—so why resort to this kind of viewer-unfriendly filmmaking? It’s one fantasy trope I wish they would let fall by the wayside. In case you can’t make them out, the important developments in this scene include Silas dying heroically (R.I.P. Silas! I’ll miss your fondness for daggers and frustration with maps), Graydon getting hit with the same evil stick that turned Ballantine to the dark side, Willow finally using his staff to magically blast the creatures away, and Ballantine coming to his senses long enough to beg Jade to kill him. She does what she has to do, and it messes her up for a while.

Finally reunited as a group again (minus Elora), Willow tells them where they must go next: Nockmaar. Sounds like a lovely place. I’m sure nothing bad will happen there.

Stray observations

  • “Someone just concisely recap everything I missed.” Just did, Boorman.

  • The episode closes out with a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Using anachronistic musical cues in fantasy shows has been done before, but so far they’ve kept it to the end credits and it’s working for me.

  • Hannah Waddingham’s character’s name is Hubert, which makes me suspect it was originally written for a man. If that’s true, good on the Willow team for not only casting her in the role but keeping the name and her partner’s gender. I love that Ann never speaks and Hubert won’t shut up.

  • Farewell to Ralph Ineson as Commander Ballantine. He’s great in everything he does, but he played the character’s full range from noble knight to disturbing monster very convincingly.

  • Filming the show on location in Wales, where the original Willow was also shot, has given it an impressive sense of scale you just can’t get from a set. Plenty of Disney+ shows have made use of the Volume and similar technology to great effect, but (as we saw recently in Andor) there’s no substitute for the real thing.

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