Kaz: And I saw his [Kirigan’s] face as he boarded. I know that look. He’s a man consumed with vengeance.
Jesper: See it enough in the mirror, do you?
—Shadow and Bone. (2021, April 23). No mourners. (Season 1, Episode 8).
When watching Episode 6, “The Heart is an Arrow”, of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone TV show, I had a very strange moment. When the Darkling, Kirigan, comes face-to-face with Kaz Brekker, professional thief, in a dark alley, I had to consciously remind myself that no, Kaz is not Kirigan’s long-lost son; no, he is not shadow-summoning Grisha; no, he and Kirigan have no familial or magical relationship whatsoever. And yet I was still surprised when Kaz didn’t summon shadows to combat Kirigan’s magic, but instead used a flash bomb.
Why would I think that Kaz and Kirigan have a close blood relationship? I’ve read the Shadow and Bone trilogy, along with the Six of Crows duology, and I never once thought that Kaz and Kirigan might be secretly related. In fact, I saw few parallels between them in the books except that they were both antiheroes—and even then, they still seemed very different to me.
It wasn’t until I watched the TV show that I saw similarities between them. They are both manipulative creeps who use the people around them to further their own ends. They are both creatures of shadow: Kaz’s shadows are purely psychological, as opposed to Kirigan’s literal shadows, but they are still there. They are both hiding their pasts, and have deep secrets. They both have the same rather humorless approach to life, and both can be viciously vengeful. They are both extremely ruthless and ambitious, with cold personalities. They’re even both using pseudonyms in their daily lives. Clearly, they have much in common.
This twinning effect in the show is very interesting, and made me question both characters more deeply. Why is Kaz so much more sympathetic than Kirigan? Objectively, he is just as much of a villain as Kirigan: ruthless, cold and selfish, a criminal and conman. He spends most of the first season of Shadow and Bone plotting to kidnap the heroine, Alina Starkov, and basically sell her into slavery. So why, when watching the show, am I on Kaz’s side and not Kirigan’s?
One reason is simple cinematic storytelling: the show’s writers and actors want the viewers to be on Kaz’s side, so we are. Similarly, we are positioned to be against Kirigan. Although his portrayal is not entirely unsympathetic: I can definitely empathize with his frustration and contempt at having to submit to a buffoon like the King of Ravka, and the show successfully conveys the many complexities in his personality. Kirigan is, objectively, actually a more admirable character than Kaz. Kaz is concerned with getting rich, and looking out for his Crows, no matter who else gets hurt; Kirigan genuinely believes he is doing what is right for the future of Ravka and the safety of all Grisha everywhere. He genuinely believes he is being selfless.
That, perhaps, is one characteristic that differentiates Kirigan from Kaz: Kirigan lies to himself just as much as he does to everyone else. Kirigan has half-convinced himself that he really is a righteous and heroic martyr, making the hard choices so others don’t have to. Kaz, on the other hand, is completely honest with himself and those he respects; he does not engage in self-deception. He knows himself for who and what he is, and has the self-respect never to try to deceive himself about it.
This brutal honesty also extends to those he cares about. This is another difference between Kaz and Kirigan: Kaz might use and manipulate other people but, unlike Kirigan, he never loses track of the fact that they are people. Consider the speech he gives Inej in Episode 7, “The Unsea”:
“Crows don’t just remember the faces of people who wronged them. They also remember those who were kind. They tell each other who look after and who to watch out for. No Saint ever watched over me. Not like you have.”
—Shadow and Bone. (2021, April 23). The unsea. (Season 1, Episode 7).
To Kaz Brekker, Inej Ghafa is greater and more powerful than a Saint, because she is a true friend. He truly trusts and respects her. He sees her and Jesper as human beings, even extending real respect to Alina by the end of the first season. Kaz’s feelings for Inej are so deep and true that he is willing to mortgage his most valuable asset, the Crow Club, to prevent her falling into the brutal hands of brothel madam Tante Heleen. He risks his own life to save Inej from an attacking volcra, and is, in the end, willing to forgo a million kruger because Inej objects to abducting Alina. Kaz’s selfishness is tempered by true love and friendship, however unwilling he is to admit it.
Kirigan, on the other hand, sees other people as either foes or tools, even those he claims to care about: drafting Grisha into his Second Army, prostituting Genya to the King, and putting what he intends to be a magical slave collar on Alina so he can control her power. In stark contrast to Kaz’s respect for Inej’s values and beliefs, Kirigan respects only his own desires, but is unwilling to admit this even to himself: “Everything that I have done, everything that I have ever done, has been to make Ravka safer, to make Grisha safer!” (Shadow and Bone. (2021, April 23). The unsea. (Season 1, Episode 7). Kirigan has been in the darkness so long that he no longer remembers how to see through it; unlike Kaz, he is utterly disconnected from those around him and from the truth of his own actions.
And he is unable to see this. He truly believes he is doing the right thing, that enslaving Alina is the best thing for her and for everyone. He is utterly unable to see Alina as an equal, as Kaz sees his Crows, and so he loses all of Alina’s trust. Or, to put it into Alina and Kirigan’s own words:
Alina: We could’ve had this. All of it. You could’ve made me your equal. Instead, you made me this [a slave]. You don’t care who suffers, as long as you win.
Kirigan: Fine. Make me your villain.
—Shadow and Bone. (2021, April 23). The unsea. (Season 1, Episode 7).
Kirigan, unable to perceive Alina as an equal or even a human being, is unable to hear the truth in her words. He can only dismiss Alina’s position as her being selfish and unreasonable, while being totally blind to his own selfishness and unreasonable hypocrisy. He has lost all empathy.
Kaz, however, has not. He may be wrapped in darkness, he may be selfish and greedy and ambitious, but he still knows himself, and knows his Crows, and acknowledges the humanity of those around him. He walks a very thin line between light and dark, and there is every possibility that, like Kirigan, he will eventually fall completely into evil. But, unlike Kirigan, Kaz has not yet made that fall. Also unlike Kirigan, Kaz has true friends, people watching out for him as he watches out for them, and he has enough sense to value and respect them. He is thus far less likely to succumb to the spiritual darkness that has overtaken Kirigan. He may summon psychological shadows, but he has not yet let them blind him.
Heisserer, E., Levy, S., Bardugo, L., Shahbazian, P., Levine, D., Cohen, D., Barry, J. (Executive Producers). (2021-present). Shadow and bone [TV series]. Netflix; 21 Laps Entertainment.