Throughout the first season of The Legend of Vox Machina, Amazon’s animated adaptation of Critical Role took its time allowing the titular adventuring party to grow into the heroes that millions of fans know from the original streaming show. The first half of the season was a solid adventure for Vox Machina as the team embarked on a revenge tale, but the second half manages to bring many threads together to weave a thrilling, chaotic story.
After the first half of the series showed Vox Machina rising to prominence only to realise the gravity of their sudden fight against Delilah and Sylas Briarwood (voiced by Grey Griffin and Matt Mercer), the second half was naturally about the heroes finally rising to the occasion. Several of them have had ample opportunity for the show to highlight how badass they are, like twins Vax (Liam O’Brien) and Vex (Laura Bailey), or Grog (Travis Willingham) and Percy (Taliesin Jaffe). After all, it’s easy to look effortlessly cool if you smash heads, throw blades, or shoot arrows and bullets.
But the party’s more magical members — Scanlan (Sam Riegel), Keyleth (Marisha Ray), and Pike (Ashley Johnson) — hadn’t entirely gotten their due yet. Each of them have had glimpses of potential teased throughout the season, and all three of them get the spotlight in the season’s second half. After several episodes of briefly checking in on Pike, “A Silver Tongue” is mostly devoted to unpacking her efforts to reach her patron, Sarenrae (Tracie Thomas). It’s here, and in a few other storylines like the blooming romance between Keyleth and Vax, where you may wish episodes were longer than 22-24 minutes, or had tighter pacing.
Outside of the premiere, the show doesn’t sell Pike as the group’s moral centre, or make it feel like she was all that torn up about drinking and killing with her friends. Because the only one she spends a lot of time with is her BFF Grog, and the party’s origins have been only glossed over at this point, the show doesn’t entirely have the evidence needed to support her conflicted soul. Primarily, this storyline feels like it’s writing around Johnson’s original absence during this arc when she was a series regular on a TV show, and it’s a shame. Johnson breathes a lot of earnestness into Pike and her plight. While it was thrilling to see her reunite with her friends (via astral projection) to give Whitestone’s people a fighting chance, and her return is suitably epic, it doesn’t hit as hard as it could.
Of the three, Scanlan naturally gets the funniest triumph in his episode, “Scanbo.” Striking out on his own so the rest of the party can rescue Percy’s sister Cassandra (Esmé Creed-Miles), the bard gets into a succession of chaotic madness as he meets the Briarwoods’ lieutenant Duke Vedmire (Rory McCann). You know almost right away that there’s a punchline on the way, and the show happily delivers by recreating one of the campaign’s most infamously chaotic moments. “Scanbo” doesn’t try to peel back the layers of its horny bard, and it doesn’t really need to. Watching Scanlan polymorph into a triceratops and wreak havoc inside a house, then burp it all into flames is the kind of fun stupidity that both makes tabletop games fun to play and has helped Critical Role achieve success.
The most consistent arc throughout the season belongs to Keyleth, the group’s bubbly druid. Her multiple attempts to connect with the Sun Tree of Whitestone have been met with failure (and increasing disdain from Vex). Repeatedly, Vox Machina has shown her to be an elemental powerhouse during the party’s most dire moments, while also highlighting how out of her depth she is compared to everyone else. The penultimate episode, the action-heavy “Whispers at the Ziggurat,” feels like a painful reminder of this fact when Sylas easily kicks her arse before moving on to deal with Pike. It’s when things are at their worst that Keyleth both connects with the Sun Tree and burns Sylas to a crisp in the most visually stunning moment of the series.
When Gizmodo spoke to the Critical Role cast ahead of Vox’s premiere, Willingham discussed how the Briarwood arc functioned as a great ensemble piece for everyone. But it is still Percy’s story at the end, and “The Darkness Within” is something of a bottle episode as Vox Machina and Cass finally get the chance to address the elephant in the room that is Percy’s vengeful patron, Orthax. Whenever Percy’s been ready to pull the trigger at those responsible for his family’s death, Orthax has been there as a malevolent guiding hand, and the gunman can’t just brush off the group’s questions anymore. Mercer’s performance gives the demon the menace it very much deserves in the story, and the episode has a handful of striking moments as stands behind Percy, bathing him in smoky shadow. It comes as a big relief when Percy finally manages to exorcize the being from his soul by blasting himself in the hand.
Legend of Vox Machina has been criticised for its jarring shifts in tone, which is certainly valid, particularly if you’re coming in fresh and don’t know how the source material operates. You can see how it’s shaping up to be something truly special, but like the adventuring party themselves, the show can get in its own way by asserting itself as “fantasy, but for adults.” But it’s not the frequent blood and titties that made fans fall for the campaign; it was the characters and the chemistry of the actors. In the final third of the season, it feels like the show has realised that. There are some real spectacular moments to watch during the finale that are sure to feel like rewards for the fans as the cast’s chemistry shines and the animation goes all out with one fight scene or visual stunner after another.
We can hope that when season two arrives, the show will have found the right balance between the rousing fantasy story it wants to be, and the goofy D&D madness that inspired it. With four massive dragons ready to raze Emon to the ground, the legend of Vox Machina promises to be bigger than before, and the show will need to fire on all cylinders.
Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina is available on Prime Video.
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