Hit Chinese television series The Untamed (陈情令), based on Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novel Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (more commonly known as Mo Dao Zu Shi), gained immense popularity after its release in 2019 and continues to bring in fans everywhere as the conclusion of 2020 nears. The series revolves around Wei Wuxian (Xiao Zhan), a mischievous cultivator, who finds himself entangled in the conspiracies of those seeking power and wreaking havoc upon the land. Along his journey, Wei Wuxian forms an unconventional partnership with Lan Wangji (Wang Yibo), a reserved cultivator known for his skills and strong sense of justice in the cultivation world. As they embark on a path to unveil the evils of the powerful Wen sect, tragedy unfolds and Wei Wuxian disappears for sixteen years after being labeled a traitor. When he returns, he’s forced to take on a new identity and soon discovers himself to be a figure who has become highly feared in the cultivation world. Wei Wuxian eventually reunites with Lan Wangji as they come together to investigate a murder mystery connected to the events that occurred sixteen years prior.
One of the most striking elements of The Untamed is its enlightening themes. A prevalent theme throughout the series is that the world is not black and white. Every hero and every villain has a backstory and no individual is merely good or bad. This is prominent through the journey of the main protagonist, Wei Wuxian. He was initially introduced in the series as an antagonist who had wronged the world. However, the series came to reveal that he was misunderstood and not the antagonist that the world painted him to be. The world simply believed him to be evil because that is what they were made to believe. Additionally, another character who breaks this perception of a black and white world is Xue Yang, arguably one of the most villainous characters of the series. Although he was initially painted as a very “black” antagonist, this one-sided perception of him began to fade as his backstory was revealed and his outlook on the world became more understandable. The cracks in his evil resolve began to appear more prominently as his past enemy Xiao Xingchen brought out the little humanity left within him. The show’s sense of character development in this regard was outstanding and it ultimately allowed the audience to connect with the characters on a deeper level.
Furthermore, I thoroughly enjoyed the series’ depiction and development of its character relationships. The most complex relationship throughout the series is between two of the main protagonists, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. As Wei Wuxian delved into darkness and demonic cultivation, Lan Wangji was the only one to criticize him as others praised him. After Wei Wuxian was painted as a villain, Lan Wangji was the only one to stand by his side while others blamed and turned on him for various things that were not his own doing. Relationships in television are often tainted by factors of betrayal and abandonment that emerge when a character shifts into a dark mentality. Viewing such a complex relationship in which these factors do not exist is rare. However, the relationship between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji is undeniably so. They persevered through every hardship and never once gave up on one another despite their polar personalities and differences in lifestyle. Moreover, following the journey of such a complex and unconditional relationship was refreshing and what initially got me attached to the series.
Additionally, this is an excellent adaptation of the characters and plot to the screen from the book. Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, the novel on which The Untamed is based, is classified as a BL (Boys’ Love) in which the two male protagonists are in a romantic relationship. However, this relationship is scripted as a bromance in the series due to the restrictions of LGBTQ+ media in China. Although it was disappointing to see the lack of such an iconic romance on screen, I highly praise the producers for their depiction of the relationship since they evidently pushed various boundaries regarding the couple in order to depict a relationship that novel fans still recognized. Even though the existence of a romance between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji was never explicitly stated in the series, implications of it were still present. For example, a well known notion throughout the series and novel is that the forehead ribbon of the Lan sect is sacred and something that only one’s family or significant other may touch. While aware of this fact, Lan Wangji allows Wei Wuxian to come in contact with the ribbon various times throughout the progression of their story. Although the implications of Wei Wuxian’s relationship with Lan Wangji in this regard were more openly discussed in the book, they were still present in the show in a less obvious manner. Ultimately, rather than the series cutting out romantic scenes of the novel completely, scenes were instead modified to leave out specific mentions of homosexuality while preserving the bond between the characters.
A major reason why the relationship was depicted so well on screen is due to the actors themselves. Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo are both excellent actors who brought the chemistry of the two characters alive. Although they faced criticism from the public when they were initially cast, they proved themselves to be fit to play the roles. After reading the novel and perceiving how those characters were reflected on screen, I cannot imagine any other actors playing the roles of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. This astounding sense of character portrayal was the case for various other actors in the series as well due to the exceptional nature of the cast as a whole. The actors all provided excellent performances on screen allowing the story to truly come to life.
Although I love the plot, there are some episodes and moments that were hard to sit through. It was frustrating to watch as relationships crumbled due to mere misunderstanding and manipulation. These misunderstandings were prevalent for prolonged periods of time throughout the series and I was left unsatisfied in this aspect due to the presence of various relationships left unresolved. The presence of Jin Guangyao was what primarily made the scenes difficult to watch due to my severe dislike of the trauma he brought to the other characters through pettiness. His scenes and flashbacks were fundamental to the story, but such prolonged scenes of him were my least favorite moments of the show. Despite this fact, I immensely applaud Zhu Zanjin for embodying Jin Guangyao so exceptionally. It’s difficult for an audience to feel so deeply about a character if a role is not acted well. Portraying the character so well led me to dislike Jin Guangyao to the degree I did when reading the novel.
A common complaint I hear among those who didn’t like the show was that it was unrealistic and too cheesy. However, I disagree. I admit that some moments were cheesy, but those were some of the moments that I enjoyed the most. They provided a stark contrast to the dark scenes throughout the series and were very refreshing to watch. Overall, the balance between humor and seriousness was just right. The flow of the story was executed more flawlessly due to this balance and watching the series was an emotional rollercoaster because of it.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the story unfold and The Untamed is currently my favorite television series of all time. It sucked me in without me realizing and sparked me to look at other content related to the series, such as the donghua and other works by these actors. All other series I’ve attempted to watch since The Untamed have seemed dull in comparison and I’m extremely lucky to have come across such an amazing series in the first place.