Donnie Darko meets Life on Mars in second epic season of Alice in Borderland

Review by C.J. Bunce

Last month I previewed the first episode of the new second season of Alice in Borderland and loved it, but I had no idea how stunning the second season was going to be.  Shinsuke Sato’s next chapter in his adaptation of the popular manga graphic novel by Haro Aso, Alice in Borderland is exactly what TV viewers hope for.  Not only is the second season as good as the first (reviewed here), its suspense, imaginative twists, and gut-wrenching drama is even bigger and better this time around.  It’s a Netflix production–one of its most successful internationally–that netted three spots on our annual Kick-Ass Heroines list.  The second season revisits them all, while introducing three more badass women worth talking about.  In the final episode viewers actually get to The End–and learn the secret behind the entire series.  Was it science fiction?  Fantasy?  Supernatural horror?  What did we just watch?  Let’s dig into the entire season of Alice in Borderland, currently the best genre streaming series on television.

The very best genre television often holds back one of the basics–what even is the genre you are watching?  A great example of this was Midnight Special, a film where the audience has no idea whether the drama was completely in the heads of the characters, whether the protagonist was some kind of new superhero, or whether aliens somehow played a part.  In Donnie Darko the audience doesn’t know whether the teenager merely has psychological issues, he’s actually seeing a horrific supernatural giant rabbit, or some kind of sci-fi threat is looming.  In one of the greatest TV series of all time, the original British version of Life on Mars, a cop is shot in the present and taken back to 1973 where he must do his job and learn why he ended up there.  Viewers would only learn the true nature of the buddy cop/period drama after the series ended and its spin-off Ashes to Ashes revealed the complete truth in its final episode.  Last year’s Moon Knight series had its own mix of psychological/superhero/fantasy/horror.  Alice in Borderland is a worthy follow-on to all of these.  

I won’t reveal the ending here.  For beginners, the series never hid the fact that it was rooted in some kind of dystopian horror.  Let’s just say Shinsuke Sato introduces every possibility this season, and reveals all at the very end.  And it’s a satisfying end to the adventure.  Along the journey each new game–each new trial–is more breathless, more heart-pounding, and carefully, smartly increases the stakes for its heroes.

The live-action, dystopian, Japanese noir-meets-steampunk thrill ride got off to a big, Fast & Furious-inspired first episode, as the seven key characters returned to play a game of survival loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Doomsday, Tokyo-style, is surprisingly violent, surprisingly thought-provoking, as a city finds itself mostly vacated (as in The Quiet Earth and 28 Days Later) and the remaining citizens must fight for their lives The Running Man or Hunger Games-style or they’ll get zapped and killed The War of the Worlds-style.

The big question with seven key characters that survived the first season was how many will survive Season 2.  Recall the drama of the first season was the surprise deaths of the two best friends of series lead Arisu (Kento Yamikazi)–“Arisu” is the Japanese pronunciation of Alice.  All the actors whose characters were killed in Season 1 return to reprise their characters in flashback this season.  At the end of Season 1, Arisu and Tao Tsuchiya’s mountain climber Usagi, along with Aya Asahina’s athletic trans woman Kuina, and the cool and careful Chishiya (Nijirō Murakami) located the gamemaster’s lair only to find the gamemasters all dead.  Were they really gamemasters?  It seems not.  Mira (Riisa Naka), an executive member of “The Beach,” appeared on a jumbotron announcing a new set of games.

At the beginning of Season 2 we catch up with all four players as they dodge the bullets of the King of Spades, who has entered the field personally, gunning down former members of the Beach who arrive at a city center in several cars.  Rizuna Ann (Ayaka Miyoshi) and the young ballcap-wearing Kōdai Tatta (Yutaro Watanabe), arrive to save them.  But the rescue is a high-octane, exhilarating chase scene that ends in a well choreographed car flip–Netflix put some time and effort into a season opener with some major action sequences.  Chishiya is splintered from the rest of the players and gets to do much more than in the first season, fighting two games on his own.  His entire look, demeanor, and style reflect all the “cool” that fans of manga and anime look for.  His surprising backstory is revealed, too.

One last key character to survive the first season: the Hatter’s tough lieutenant Morizono Aguni (Sho Aoyagi) comes later.  He introduces a new badass heroine named Akane Heiya (Yuri Tsunematsu), a high school-aged archer whose leg is amputated during a battle and she wears a prosthetic metal foot.  Heiya hails from the fourth side story of the manga novels, which is cleverly spliced into the main series story.

Mira returns and Riisa Naka gets to demonstrate some incredible acting talent.  Viewers will not be able to decipher her motives as she reveals her surprising–and yet not so surprising–final gauntlet.  She is the best kind of villain–furtive, enchanting, and despicable.  The third strong woman highlighted this season enters the story as Arisu and Usagi find each other at a game in a power plant.  The Queen of Spades (named Lisa, although we never learn that in the show) is played by Chihiro Yamamoto.  She has all the skills Usagi demonstrated in the first season and she uses those to defend her face card status, punching, flinging, climbing, kicking, and tagging all the players on the opposing team.

In the first season the playing cards revealed the level of difficulty and “genre” of each game.  A low numbered card is supposed to be relatively simple to survive, such as a locked room mystery, a 10 card far more difficult.  The suits identify whether strategy and intelligence (diamonds), physical strength (spades), or teamwork (clubs) is needed, and, in the case of hearts, psychological games involving tricks and betrayal.  Some players work better alone, others work better in teams.  The worst battles require turning on whomever is also currently in the battle.  The violence mimics 1980s action movies, meaning you should expect lots of bodies dropping (or exploding or boiling or melting) and lots of blood splatter.  Shinsuke Sato is able to work all 52 battles into his two seasons.  He also masterfully works into Season 2 venues–and re-creates entire scenes from a new vantage–from the first season.

Definitely watch the original version with subtitles for the full experience of the show.  Which episode is best?  Each is filled with twists and turns, but get ready for an exhausting, action-filled episode of non-stop stunt work for all the characters in episode 7.

We named it #26 in the best TV series of the past decade, and last year’s Best Horror/Thriller TV Series, Best Limited TV Series, and Best API/AAPI TV Series.  Both seasons of Alice in Borderland are now streaming on Netflix.  Consider this the series to beat as we begin the new year of TV.

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