Ben Barnes's "Shadow and Bone" Character Has a Complicated Past — Here's a Refresher
In a world where there's a section of impenetrable darkness called the Shadow Fold, a name like The Darkling doesn't exactly bring to mind someone heroic. Despite initially embarking on an interesting relationship with protagonist and sun summoner Alina Starkov, by the second season, he's fully become the villain of the "Shadow and Bone" series. Though he's simply called The Darkling in the books, for Netflix's adaptation, showrunner Eric Heisserer ultimately decided to give him a new moniker: General Kirigan.
Played by Ben Barnes on the Netflix series, The Darkling is a powerful Grisha, aka a person who can manipulate matter at its most basic levels. He is also the leader of the Second Army of Ravka, which almost exclusively consists of Grisha. Known as a shadow summoner, The Darkling has the rare ability to manipulate shadows around him, which at first strengthens his claim that he's a descendant of The Black Heretic. In season one, he recruits Alina to join him in the hopes of destroying the Shadow Fold, and the pair grow close during her training.
Drawn to each other from the start, The Darkling and Alina's relationship soon turns romantic before she learns of his true intentions. Instead of wanting to destroy the Shadow Fold, he plans to use Alina's light to fend off the volcra as he expands the Shadow Fold's reach. Of course, Alina turns against him once she learns the truth and spends much of the second season trying to gain enough strength to destroy him and the Shadow Fold once and for all.
Born to a fellow shadow summoner by the name of Baghra centuries before the beginning of "Shadow and Bone," The Darkling initially presents himself as the great-great-great-grandson of the Black Heretic. The Black Heretic, which is later revealed to be another one of The Darkling's aliases, created the Shadow Fold and, with it, left a legacy of darkness and destruction.
The revelation that General Kirigan and the Black Heretic are one and the same was a major plot twist in the first season, though some viewers were able to see it coming thanks to some context clues. After all, the show is set in a world where there are literal monsters (aka the volcra) in the dark. Then there's the fact that The Darkling is Alina's equal and opposite. Regardless, by the end of season one, General Kirigan has fully embraced his shadow side, emerging from the depths of the Fold with new, seemingly indestructible shadow monsters called the nichevo'ya at his side.
Still, Barnes's character manages to remain complex despite his ostensible wickedness. His shadowy monsters take a toll on him, and by the start of the second season, he is plagued by headaches and agonizing pain. Meanwhile, he continues to stand by his theory that destroying the Shadow Fold wouldn't help the Grisha at all, as the regular people — called the otkazat'sya — will never accept them either way. He also seems to have a lingering, unbreakable connection to Alina.
"If a character delivers a line, I want to know why he's chosen each of those words," Barnes told Comics Beat about portraying General Kirigan in 2021. "He doesn't say, 'Fine, I am your villain,' but he says 'Fine, make me your villain.' He doesn't believe that he is the villain of the story and I think all villains that you truly believe in understand their own motivations."
"Shadow and Bone" season two hits Netflix on March 16.