Now that the passage of time is feeling more imaginary than ever before, finding something to focus on for an extended period is becoming something of an art form. Let’s face it: Re-watching the full series of The Office for the millionth time or speeding through something nostalgic like The X-Files all over again was fun when this all started, but we could use something new to take our minds off things for more than just a few hours at a time–or, better yet, something that is so new it doesn’t immediately become background noise as you zone out and gaze into the void (or tend to your Animal Crossing island).
Enter: The Untamed, or Chén Qíng Lìng (abbreviated CQL–this is a world with lots of alternate titles, abbreviations, and acronyms. Don’t panic, you’ll get used to them).
If you’re on social media at all, there’s a good chance you’ve seen rumblings of this show in some form or another. The Chinese historical-fantasy drama, which originally aired on YouTube back in the summer of 2019, was given official English subtitles and later picked up by Netflix late last year. And while this ease of access certainly played a role in the fan boom, it quickly became apparent that it was more than just the ability to watch for free that made The Untamed so special.
Based on the novel Mó Dào Zǔ Shī (“The Grandmaster Of Demonic Cultivation,” abbreviated MDZS), The Untamed is a sprawling, densely packed story in the Xianxia genre, which essentially means it’s a fantasy story based thoroughly on Chinese mythology, Taoism, and other traditional beliefs. Part of what makes The Untamed so engaging is the fact that it’s steeped in genre traditions that are wholly unique to Xianxia works. These stories typically focus on “cultivators,” or people who are working to cultivate (get it?) their spiritual powers and abilities with the goal of attaining immortality or enlightenment through rigorous study and practice.
It’s not specifically high-fantasy–for example, there are no orcs or elves running around. But it’s certainly not gritty or grounded. In The Untamed, ancient China is populated by various cultivation sects with different worldviews and methodologies, training students who, in turn, venture out into the world and use their spiritual power to help common folk deal with pesky supernatural nuisances. You know, resentful spirits, curses, demons and the like.
Naturally, with different sects all vying for power and influence, the political landscape is a bit of a nightmare. It’ll immediately ping associations to things like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Game Of Thrones, and it’s easy to see why. The sects are often coded onscreen by colors, and they each have their own specific home bases (some with incredibly cool names like “The Unclean Realm” or “The Nightless City”), and there’s enough machiavellian betrayal and political puppeteering to make your head spin.
But that’s just the story at its most macro level. The worldbuilding serves to prop up the most important part–the core characters themselves and their deeply meaningful and outstandingly complicated relationships. If you’re the sort of person who loves novels that come with a glossary of terms and a fold-out family tree, this show is for you.
Reductively, I could tell you that The Untamed is about two cultivators from diametrically opposed worldviews coming together against astronomical odds and falling in love. This is true–but that’s only part of the story. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji (played by pop idols Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, respectively) serve as a sort of narrative throughline and if you’re only interested in heartbreakingly tender romance, then great news: There’s plenty of it. While The Untamed, on paper, was forced to remove the majority of the source material’s textual queer romance (MDZS is what’s known as a BL, or boy’s love, novel, which means exactly what it says on the tin) to appease China’s strict censors, the subtext remains so obvious that if you didn’t know the love story had been truncated, you probably wouldn’t realize it at all. In fact, if anything, the clever ways the romance is communicated in the story just serve to make it hit you directly in the heart even harder.
But if romance isn’t your particular bag, that’s fine too. The Untamed takes place over 50 (yes, 50) hour-long episodes, and when it’s not asking you to wax poetic about the existence of soulmate level bonds, it’s throwing nonstop twists and turns at you. It’s one part murder mystery, one part political thriller, and one part family drama, all with the high-camp, charmingly low-budget feel of your favorite ’90s adventure classics. If you were a fan of Xena: Warrior Princess, or more recently, Netflix’s Witcher TV show, the action and melodrama will feel like comfort food. There are plenty of monsters to fight, evil leaders to assassinate, political coups to execute, and families being torn apart. People carry magic swords and cast spells with enchanted instruments. There’s an entire subplot across three episodes that takes a hard turn into dark, psychological horror and another that makes The Red Wedding look relatively tame.
Best of all, once you’ve completed your 50-hour journey, there’s plenty more to consume. MDZS has been adapted as an animated series, a manhua comic, and an audio drama. And while only the animated series has been officially subtitled in English, fan communities have been hard at work providing unofficial translations for virtually every adaptation. In addition, the live action universe is still, technically, in progress, with spin-off films being released as recently as March of this year, that focus more on the show’s many side characters. With any luck, they’ll soon be made available with English subtitles as well.
As we progress into a summer where more and more events are canceled, keeping yourself occupied is key, and that’s exactly what a head-long dive into The Untamed will help you with. The sheer volume of content to consume, mixed with the level of attention it will ask you to pay to follow its intricate web of stories, characters, and relationships, on top of the thrill of learning the ins-and-outs of a rich genre full of its own conventions and traditions, make it a triple threat. It’s the ideal binge and the perfect gateway to a brand new obsession.
The Untamed is streaming in its entirety on Netflix and YouTube.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot’s parent company
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