In late October, Netflix released an adaptation of Sally Green’s Half Bad, renamed The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself, without much fanfare. In a world divided between witches and fains, two warring clans of magic-users fight over legacy, tradition, and power; creating a brutal rift in between Fairborn witches and Blood witches, whose differences seem more ideological than practical. Naturally, a young boy is the focus of a prophecy, and he must figure out where he fits in, while also grappling with his family legacy and the true nature of his powers.
The story follows Nathan Bryne (Jay Lycurgo), a young Black witch in England’s countryside who’s the son of the most notorious witch-killer in the country. He struggles to make friends, but when Annalise O’Brien (Nadia Parkes) moves to town, they hit it off pretty quick. After Nathan is deemed a threat by the Fairborn council, he and Annalise (herself the daughter of the council leadership) make a run for it. They find Gabriel Boutin (Emilien Vekemans), an emissary of a powerful witch, and he attempts to lead them to safety.
Truthfully, this series is far better than the slight origins of its source material; Half Bad was more obvious in its metaphor, and like many young adult novels, focused on the ways in which the children attempted to change the system. This series, a condensed version of Green’s original mid-aughts trilogy, focuses on the ways that the systems of power affect children, and provides a nuanced look at identity and determinism. The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself forces its teenage witches to struggle with power, leaving the main trio of witches blood-spattered and beaten more than I would have originally expected.
All the young actors do a wonderful job in their roles, with Lycurgo’s performance elevating the main character from a rather pitiable victim of circumstance into a sympathetic and driven character. Likewise, Parkes takes Annalise and injects her with an energetic power, creating a determined and forceful character that in many other series might be written off as simply another perfect love interest. Unfortunately for these two solid players, Vekemans enters in Episode 3 and steals nearly every scene he’s in, his punky attitude and constant disbelief at his absurd circumstances making him relatable and, at the end of the series, deeply tragic. The trio is supported by a cast of side characters and family ties that make every choice more poignant and sad the further the show is. Standouts include Isobel Jesper Jones as Nathan’s ruthless half-sister, Jessica and Karen Connell as Ceelia, Nathan’s constant minder.
This series is quite remarkable because in a world where witches are basically super-powered, it manages to keep everything grounded. The Bastard Son & the Devil HImself is considered, paced out quickly with efficient storytelling and has just enough special effects to get the magical point across. It explores cruelty and horror without looking away from just how shitty teenagers can be. It comments on class with a light touch, and seems to ignore race in favor of clan distinctions. The subtext of this series is very much buried amid the action scenes, but considering how little respect this series got during its release it’s probably for the best that Joe Barton, the showrunner, writer, and executive producer, decided to be straightforward with the conflict.
When I say that The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself is a brutal series, I’m not exaggerating. Nathan is frequently beaten up, bullied, and kept in a cage during basic training, Annalise’s power is gorey to the extreme, and Gabriel’s whole childhood was more or less that of an indentured servant, gaslit and manipulated into serving as Mercury’s boy Friday. There is the threat of being overwhelmed by the horrors that these characters experience, but in between the action and loss, the series finds time to give out moments of kindness amid the cruelty.
That’s the real meat of this story-the tendons of connection and love that strengthen the trio of main characters in their convictions against the systems of power. Although Annalise and Nathan hook up pretty quickly, in the fumbling, awkward, first-timer romps of teenagers, Nathan’s clear attraction to Gabriel becomes the real will-they/won’t-they of the series. The show doesn’t make a big deal of Nathan’s bisexuality, his two love interests, or the fact that he’s surviving because of the fact that two people love him, but it makes it clear that this three-way relationship is supportive, kind, and in stark contrast to the way other relationships are portrayed. The polyamorous trio of teens genuinely care for each other, without jealousy or possessiveness, and it’s a wonderfully pure storyline amid all the brutality.
Honestly, The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself is one of the best new Netflix shows that you’ve never heard of. You really should watch it. Straightforward and morally complicated, some of the greatest parts of this series come from the character’s developing their own relationships and dealing with the consequences of their imperfect choices, often forced on them by circumstance. Well-made and wonderfully brutal, the series elevates the source material and creates a touching queer love story amid the horrors of war.
The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself is currently streaming on Netflix.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.