Netflix's Shadow and Bone will hit our screens very soon, and it might reignite an argument that circulated a lot in the bookish communities of Tumblr and Instagram the past decade: is the Darkling evil? The enigmatic leader of the Grisha is not someone you want to pick a fight with, but fans can't seem to agree on his role in the trilogy. Is he the savior of the Grisha, or plain evil?
Warning: While even fans who have read Leigh Bardugo's YA trilogy that starts with Shadow and Bone have different opinions on the matter, it might still be best to save this article for later if you haven't read the books and want to go into the show without knowing anything. Below, some major spoilers about the Darkling will be discussed.
Alina Starkov, the main character in Shadow and Bone first encounters the Darkling when she displays strong Grisha powers. The two seem like total opposites who complete one another. They are both Etherealki or Summoners, the only ones of their kind: she's the Sun Summoner, and he can manipulate the Shadows.
Alina is instantly drawn to him. He's terrifying, but also inexplicably attractive with a strong presence the characters cannot ignore. At first, there's limited interaction between him and Alina, but the two develop a romantic relationship when she embraces her powers.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the Darkling isn't the benevolent leader he presents himself as, and his interest in Alina's powers doesn't spring from the hope that she can save Ravka; his motivations are much more complicated, if not outright malevolent.
Since we first meet the Darkling, we know he's older than he seems, even though he has the appearance of a young man. But we only find out how old he actually is when his mother, Baghra, tries to warn Alina about him. It turns out that the Darkling is over 400 old – older than Shadow Fold, the ever-growing strip of darkness that plagues Ravka.
In doing so, the Darkling wanted to gain immeasurable power and control Ravka. He saw Alina as a means to fulfill his plans, since a Sun Summoner was what he needed to get rid of the volcra, allowing him to finally use it for his twisted purposes.
Does this mean that the Darkling is purely evil? I think it would be safer to say he's an ambiguous, generally well-written villain. As a child, he and his mother suffered a lot due to their Grisha powers, and even people he considered to be his friends turned against him when they found out the truth about him. Because of that, the Darkling decided to make a safe place for Grisha, no matter the cost.
Unfortunately, even the best purposes can become corrupted, especially when someone is ready to use any and all means to achieve them. The Darkling is more than just "evil." He's also a wounded person who did terrible things for what he considered a noble purpose.
Of course, this means he's a complex character with believable motivations, not that he's a saint. Many fans are still bitter that Alina didn't end up with him, and I can totally understand why. There's something about the pairing of total opposites (or true equals in power, depending on your reading) that is appealing, particularly to young readers.
Undoubtedly, since the Darkling was once human, it's not unthinkable to say that he might have had feelings for Alina beyond his wish to control her powers; but while he's an attractive fictional character, it's important to remember he's far from the perfect boyfriend.
At some point in the trilogy, Alina refuses to believe that the Darkling acts with Grisha's best interests in mind. His response is one that has been quoted a lot on Tumblr and Instagram back in the day: "Fine. Make me your villain." Ultimately, Leigh Bardugo lays the facts about the Darkling's behavior and choices. He's a corrupt, manipulative character, but it's up to us, as fans, to decide the degree of his villainy.