Shadow and Bone.  Jessie Mei Li as Alina Starkov Archie Renaux as Malyen Oretsev in episode 201 of Shadow and Bone. Cr....

Jessie Mei Li Talks Shadow and Bone Season 2 and Why She’s Happy Alina Isn’t Sexualized

“[The show] could have gone to lengths to make Alina look incredibly glamorous and powerful,” they tell Teen Vogue.

At the core of every fantastical series is some element of reality. In Shadow and Bone season 2, Alina Starkov continues her journey as a young heroine trying to save her world from mass destruction. Played by Jessie Mei Li, Alina’s journey in the sophomore season is very much a continuation of a Grisha coming into her identity and power. “Season one was the beginning of Alina in terms of her origin story and seeing how she was almost in the ‘before’ time,” Jessie tells Teen Vogue. “In season two, we've settled into knowing her a little bit better and then watching as she grows throughout the season.”

Season 2 introduces a roster of beloved characters from the books, including fan favorite Nikolai Lantsov (Patrick Gibson), and arcs from the spin-off series, Six of Crows. Returning to the Grishaverse after nearly two years was a homecoming for Jessie. The second season arc for Alina, which centers on understanding trauma and how it rears its ugly head over time, also resonated with the 27-year-old deeply as they’ve been unpacking traumatic events in their own life.

“It's an amazing thing [to explore] at this point in my life,” they say. “I've experienced my fair share of traumatic events, so trying to imagine what it might be like to feel that way, but in a fantasy setting, has been quite challenging. But the writers did such a great job. They wrote it from a really real place.”

She’s especially thrilled that there’s no yassification of Alina Starkov. “Alina is never really sexualized at all,” Jessie says. “What I really like is that Alina is a woman, but her gender isn't actually that important. [The show] could have gone to lengths to make Alina look incredibly glamorous and powerful and all because there's definitely a world where that could have been a thing. But I love that Alina looks haggard. I love that she's in her army uniform and it's all falling apart.”

Falling apart as she may be, Alina is learning how to stand on her own in Shadow and Bone season 2, especially as it gradually dawns on her just how unique she is — and the costs that come with being one of a kind. “That was one of the things that I was really excited to portray with Alina because she is young. In season one, you see her being afraid and making bad decisions and being so lost and needing Mal so very much and all of those things,” says Jessie. “[In season 2], she is growing as a person and learning to stand on her two feet in a human way, but she's also got these magical, external factors. The immense responsibility that she feels is a very real thing for her in season 2. That was something I could understand on a visceral level playing Alina because on set, things go wrong all the time.”

Where Shadow and Bone season 1 was fairly contained in location and relationships, the second season kicks the Grishaverse world wide open. One of the biggest plots of the Grisha series is the relationship between Alina and Nikolai, which Jessie was also keen on. “Paddy does an amazing job with this character who's so beloved and he definitely made it his own whilst just giving him so many, just wonderful sort of qualities I think only Paddy could have given him,” Jessie says. “The relationship between them is quite a passionate one.”

Another pivotal relationship in the show is, of course, the relationship between Mal Oretsev (Archie Renaux) and Alina. Jessie acknowledges that “Mal has a bit of a bad rep from the fan base” but she loves them and the fact their relationship is very different from the books. “He is her family after everything that she lost. He’s her rock,” Jessie says.” But what I like about it is that, especially later in the season, we see what I would describe as a very healthy way of looking at relationships. Without saying too much, their relationship when we leave them at the end of the season is such a huge, huge thing for the two characters. I'm excited to see how the fans react to it. It's very different from what they might be expecting.”

Jessie is  aware of the Darklina hype from fans. But she’s also relieved that it’s not being represented as a real romance on-screen. “Not to deny anyone their favorite ship or anything like that — I think it's wicked for people to be so passionate about something and make their own — but the way that the show has tackled Alina and Kirigan's relationship is different from the books,” they say. “Let’s be honest, the Kirigan of the show is behaving very much like an incel.”

In real life, Jessie has been having conversations with family, friends, and young people about the likes of Andrew Tate. They don’t want to romanticize abuse, even in a fantasy setting. “I’m so glad the show doesn't allow Alina to be mistreated by a man. Their kind of dynamic can be spicy and fun, but when it’s put on screen, given all of the context and the manipulation and the ‘you’ll have no shelter but me,’ all those things are real things that people say when they're trying to control someone,” says Jessie. “And I mean, Ben did such an amazing job. He's so unpleasant in character and such a sweet human being in real life. I think what's great about Ben's performance, and the writing for Kirigan, is that we see why he is that way. But it's not an excuse. It’s just, ‘Oh, wait, that's why you're like that. And you need to be taken down.’ Kirigan is awful!”

If you follow her on social media, you’ll know that they’re quite passionate about social issues. In addition to her impressive portfolio, they’re also a voice for the climate action movement — though they admit that it can be “quite daunting” given the mass amounts of information around the crisis. “I'm here just trying to do my best and trying to lead by example where I can,” says Jessie. “During the pandemic, I had quite a nosedive into severe climate anxiety, so I've taken to trying to stay away from that side of things and try and think, ‘Okay, what are the small positive changes that we can make?’ whilst also holding people accountable and understanding how unjust this world is because it's not the average person causing the climate crisis.”

It’s symbiotic that while so many young people are looking up to Alina as a role model, Jessie is equally inspired by them. She advises that anyone can make a difference by finding local ways to get involved. “It’s amazing how many people find these amazing networks online, whether it’s Twitter or even through the Grishaverse,” they say. “Human beings are meant to live in community and work together to make things better. It can be done wherever you are in the world. I've noticed just from meeting fans in the street or at conventions that lots of them are super passionate about the environment. That's really given me a lot of hope and it makes me want to talk about it more as well.”