TV: Alice in Borderland (Season 1 & 2)

Whenever a series escalates into a truly obsessive binge for me, I start questioning whether it’s actually a great show. Perhaps it’s merely tricking me, or pushing my buttons, or there’s a flashy, clever quality to it, disguising the weaknesses. Ozark left me with that feeling; I watched it with breathless attention and came away highly impressed, but I’m not sure how lasting the impression will be. Good characters, great acting, high stakes, frantic, unrelenting energy; that show got its hooks in, and I remember the experience of watching it with fondness. But was the show itself truly great? For some reason, when I plow through something this quickly and enthusiastically, I walk away distrusting my reaction.

Netflix’s science fiction thriller series Alice in Borderland left me with a similar feeling. A Japanese series based on a manga by Haro Aso, it’s a gorgeous, intense, riveting show full of action and romance, peril and camaraderie. It’s also a large-cast survival narrative, energized by the life-or-death dilemmas and heightened conflicts of that genre, reminding me by turns of Squid Game, Lost, Battle Royale, The 100, and Sweet Home, among many others. By the end of its second season, I had decided it was better than all of those shows, but I’m curious to see if that feeling will last.

Alice in Borderland’s primary protagonist is Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), an aimless young man in Tokyo who wastes his life with his head buried in screens or playing games. Clever and kind-hearted, he doesn’t have much drive in life, except for his intense friendship with two fellow outcasts, rugged Karube (Keita Machida) and spiritual Chota (Yuki Morinaga). Horsing around in Shibuya, the trio inadvertently causes a fender bender, and hide in a restroom while fleeing the police. When they emerge, they find they’ve been magically conveyed to a mysteriously empty Tokyo, where they’re forced to become participants in a series of dangerous games. Winners survive and see their “visas” extended, while losers are either killed by the games themselves, or by lethal lasers that unerringly target them from the sky. Oh, and if your visa expires: zap, you’re dead. There is no choice but to play the games.

In season one, the obvious comparison show is Squid Game, which in fact it pre-dates. But where Squid Game’s world is a secret one, Alice in Borderland’s is a secondary/alternate one. Is it an illusion, a parallel timeline, another dimension, or a simulation? That question is the central mystery box, and the show deftly leverages the intrigue of it. Meanwhile, there are the games, which is where the Squid Game structural similarity comes in. Each episode features yet another ruthless, unforgiving challenge, often based on a childhood game like tag or hide and seek. The players are given cellphones through which the hidden, sinister game-masters communicate and track their progress. Meanwhile, the type and difficulty of each round is denoted by a playing card. Club games are teamwork-based, spade games are physical, diamond games are intellectual, and heart games are emotional. As Arisu, Karube, and Chota start to play, the immediate, lethal stakes are quickly established, as are Arisu’s quick-thinking abilities under pressure. An obsessive gamer, Arisu sharply logics out moves and improvises strategies, constantly getting himself and his teammates out of scrapes. New friends, acquaintances, and rivals are thrown together by the cruel tournament, introducing characters like cool-headed schemer Chishiya (Nijirō Murakami), cheerful transgender martial artist Kuina (Aya Asahina), and kind-hearted mountain climber Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), who soon becomes Arisu’s staunchest ally and ultimate love interest. All these actors and more (Sho Aoyagi, Nobuaki Kaneko, Ayaka Miyoshi, Riisa Naka, Yuri Tsunematsu, Yutaro Watanabe, and the list goes on) bring memorable, distinctive personas to life.

It’s here that I’m reminded of other speculative genre shows, like Lost and The 100. Alice in Borderland builds out its roster impressively, giving its cast distinctive characteristics, relevant backstories, and philosophical reactions to their relentless predicament, all of which inform their gaming styles. The players are ordinary people, but the ones with the endurance, longevity, and stubborness to survive start to feel like true comic book characters—superheroes, supervillains, or somewhere in between. Even the villains are hard not to relate to on some level, and they all build impressive legacies over the series’ run, with their improbable, often heroic defiance of death. Watching them veer in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes as teammates and others as competitors, makes the action matter, whether it’s physical combat, intelluctual dueling, or psychological mind games. Action scenes that earn their emotional resonance require people you care about, and by the time Alice in Borderland’s players take on the King of Spades in season two’s penultimate episode, the effects of all that character work and investment pay off in what may be one of the most intense fight scenes ever filmed.

This second season, incidentally, is when Alice in Borderland starts to pull away from all its comp titles. For one thing, the game-per-episode formula is unpredictably shaken up, and perhaps buoyed by early success, it takes more chances, with episodes that stretch to abnormal running times. The slower pace is welcome, giving us more time to celebrate precious moments of safety for our favorite characters. The show also starts to focus less on the games themselves, and more on how they’re being played: what drives the character’s moves, what kinds of decisions they make, and their ethical, moral, and psychological motivations. Having “cleared the deck” of numbered cards, in season two the players go up against the more challenging face cards, each game lorded over by a “citizen” of the realm: the King of Clubs, the Jack of Hearts, and so forth. Arisu and his companions find themselves pitted against personifications of the games, and the interactions between players and citizens lead to earnest, interesting philosophical discussions about survival ethics and personal identity. Not only does it make you feel, it also makes you think.

Then there’s the fact that it’s just such a gorgeously produced, impressive spectacle. Perhaps that’s where the uncertainty comes in, for me. Am I just being distracted by all these gorgeous twenty-something actors wandering through a vividly immersive post-apocalypse, full of stunning scenery and sensational special effects? Alice in Borderland pulls out all the visual stops, its real urban landscapes and its surreal game environments equally engrossing.

I have a feeling the ending of season two will be polarizing, but I think it does an admirable job delivering the proceedings to an explosive, satisfying conclusion. For all its strengths, it does still have to resolve the core mystery, and the effort is messy. Yet, it felt messy in the right way: a question-raising finale that brought closure while ambiguously suggesting further mystery. Currently, it’s uncertain if it will return for more seasons, but frankly I’d be shocked if it does return, because I’m not quite sure where it could go from here.

Be forewarned: it’s very bloody and violent, with some transgressive, rapey moments, elements that seem to creep into dystopian animes tailored toward male demographics. These elements are baked into the scenario, and logical in context, but they’re no less distressing. Fortunately, the show doesn’t display them as anything other than repugnant, using them to illustrate the dark-side choices made by the more reprehensible characters. Thematically, they are at least integral to the discussion, and it’s the only troubling blemish on what is otherwise a commendable series when it comes to messaging.

That’s a lot of words to come around to a simple point: I loved it. So much so that I don’t trust myself. Or maybe it’s just one of those shows that asks so many questions that more just keep coming, even after you’ve finished. But the first impression is certainly striking: it’s diverting, absorbing, fascinating stuff, and I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to this one.

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