Alternately exhilarating and hysterical, The Legend of Vox Machina expands its ambitions in its second season, delving deeply into its sprawling cast’s backstory and dramatically upping the stakes at the cost of pace and having emotional beat land.
The animated adaptation of the popular Dungeons & Dragons live play Critical Role spent its first season introducing its idiosyncratic characters while solving the mystery of gunslinger Percy’s (Taliesin Jaffe) murdered family and saving his homeland from vampires before ending, in the middle of celebration, with the ominous beating of dragon’s wings.
The second season picks up immediately from the first as a horde of flying, flame- (and acid, and poison) breathing serpents calling themselves the Chroma Conclave lay waste to the heroes’ homeland and send them scattering around the globe searching for ancient relics powerful enough to defeat the seemingly invulnerable creatures and save the world from their depredations.
While the first season focused on a singular menace offering a straightforward through line for everything to revolve around, producer Chris Prynoski and the Critical Role cast have greatly increased their ambitions, refusing to just repeat what had worked so well the first time.
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Some of that is unavoidable as the series begins to adapt one of the largest and most complex stories it ever attempted while still dealing with the constraints of a 12-episode animated season.
The first season had the freedom to slowly dole out elements of Percy’s back story and the Briarwood’s evil plot, but season two must hop from character to character as old wounds re-surface and personal history’s are brought to light in tandem with the search for the mythical Vestiges of Divergence.
What feels as organic and earned when spread across hours and hours of role play verges on incredible coincidence when squeezed into a couple of 25 minute episodes.
Adapting the storyline was probably an impossible task and the writers and producers have done an admirable job, changing and re-organizing what was needed while also hitting all of the main beats but there are limitations that are impossible to avoid without greatly expanding the time to tell such a gargantuan tale.
Even with those constraints, the creators have taken the time to deepen the themes of the series as well as the characters find their happy-go-lucky search for adventure transformed into a fight for survival that forces them to confront the idea of mortality and loss in a real way for the first time and wonder why they are bothering.
It does have the side effect of pushing some characters more to the forefront than others – there’s just no way to give everyone equal time in so relatively few episodes. The great recipient of this is Liam O’Brien’s Vax, who is thrust into the heart of the series’ most tangled emotional beats once he starts receiving premonitions from the goddess of death.
In a medium where voice actor and artists come together to create a complete performance, O’Brien rises to the occasion imbuing the stellar animation with greater pathos and resonance as he questions what is happening to him and why.
On the other hand, all of that time spent with Vax leaves some other characters like Marisha Ray’s Keyleth with only one real episode to shine before falling into the background. The ensemble that was the series greatest strength is broken.
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The darker themes and plot elements also make some of the mood whiplash of the first season even more noticeable as Prynoski et al. try to keep as much of the live play’s chaos and shenanigans intact as possible.
This tends to provide Vox Machina’s best moments — the show is always most interesting when it thumbs its nose and fantasy convention — like stopping everything cold for a music video between flying sphinxes or using a companion’s body as a raft for a whimsical travelogue.
But the tight timelines mean these are buttressed with sudden betrayals or emotional conflicts, which can be very disorienting.
Whatever its shortcomings, the ambitions of The Legend of Vox Machina Season 2 make up for them, creating a deeper and more complex world with richer characters and themes and most importantly leaving us wanting more.
THE LEGEND OF VOX MACHINA SEASON 2 REVIEW SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10
The second season of The Legend of Vox Machina will premiere on Prime Video with the first three episodes on Friday, January 20. Three new episodes will be available each Friday following, culminating in an epic season finale on February 10.
Joshua Starnes has been writing about film and the entertainment industry since 2004 and served as the President of the Houston Film Critics Society from 2012 to 2019. In 2015, he became a co-owner/publisher of Red 5 Comics and, in 2018, wrote the series “Kulipari: Dreamwalker” for Netflix. In between, he continues his lifelong quest to find THE perfect tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich combination.