A few weeks ago, without a lot of fanfare, Netflix dropped one of the most exciting and gritty YA series of 2022: The Bastard Son & the Devil Himself. Adapted from Sally Green’s series of novels that started with Half Bad, the show follows a young witch, Nathan (Jay Lycurgo), as he attempts to escape the clutches of a clan of witches and get his father’s blood before he comes into his powers. He’s joined by his friends Annalise and Gabriel, who both have their own hangups with witches, and he eventually falls in love… with both of them.
I was deeply impressed at how this show adapted source material that was, to put it charitably, challenging in a lot of ways. Full of torture and with a jealousy-driven love triangle, the new show remains true to the brutality of the books, but allows space for the characters to grow and be kind to each other. Joe Barton, the creator-lead writer-showrunner, who previously worked on Giri/Haji for Netflix, sat down with io9 for a chat about his newest show.
Linda Codega, io9: What drew you to Half Bad to begin with? Did you pitch this project?
Joe Barton: I had done a film called The Ritual with Andy Serkis’ production company Imaginarium. In 2015 or ‘16 they brought the book to me and asked if I was interested in it. Originally we tried to do Half Bad as a feature film, and I can’t remember how far we got with it, but we just couldn’t get it funded. And I had sort of just forgotten about it, to be honest. You just sort of move on. Then I had a show called Giri/Haji on Netflix in 2020, and just as that was coming out, Imaginarium came back and said, “Oh, we want to try and do Half Bad as a TV show, if you’re interested.” They took the first 60 pages of the feature script and sent that to Netflix, who did a full series order pretty quickly, so I just found myself doing it.
io9: Surprise! You’re directing another series at Netflix, Joe, get ready.
Barton: Just like that.
io9: I really responded to this show (despite bouncing off a lot of YA), because the world was cruel and ruthless, but it still made space for these characters to be kind to each other.
Barton: That was always the thing that I felt had the most potential from the source material. In the book as well, the world is so cruel to Nathan and we turned it down in the show quite a bit because he was really tortured in the book. But I sort of liked the idea that we could make a show that was essentially about this kid who’s just been mistreated his whole life and him finding love, essentially. I like the found family trope a lot so I think I’m always slightly drawn to that. In the early days, I just sort of always imagined this show as this road trip adventure with these three slightly damaged characters. And for these three kids, they couldn’t find any place for themselves, but they found each other.
You get these sort of over-the-top children’s stories, like Roald Dahl, where you have these kids who are living in this very cruel and unfriendly world and they have to somehow carve out their own space within it. So that was, for me, the thing that attracted me to the project—being able to do that for Nathan, Annalise, and Gabriel.
io9: What do you think it is about that found family trope that is so engaging and why is it important to this story in particular?
Barton: I think for a lot of people it’s just a lived experience, and quite a powerful one. Even if you’re not in finding your own replacement family, there is still that part of your life where you do sort of replace or add to your existing family. People have to create a family out of nothing. I like it when people carve their own space while finding other people.
With these characters, I wanted to find a way to… it’s going to sound stupid, but I feel very protective of my fictional characters whenever I work on something. In the books Nathan and Gabriel and Annalise have a much more difficult time, and I really grew to like them. So I wanted to write a happier version for them in a way.
io9: How did you go about adapting this series from the original book?
Barton: I don’t think that you could do a direct adaptation of the book because it’s torturous at times. There were things that we took out entirely, like Nathan’s deep connection to nature that manifested in odd ways. [Sally] Green was doing this primal theme about returning to nature and within that, the violence of nature became really extreme. I like the soul of of Half Bad. I like the essence, but there was a lot of stuff around it that I thought would have been incredibly difficult to put on the screen, particularly the violence.
We changed a lot about the witch clans, which are basically the same in the show and have a few more defining traits attached in the book series. But ultimately both clans do awful things, and good people exist in both clans.
io9: I was really impressed by the way that casting Jay [Lycurgo] as Nathan immediately turned a lot of the subtext in the books [about racism and xenophobia] into text.
Burton: We did try to dial a lot of that subtext back from the book. We saw a lot of different actors for Nathan. But when Jay auditioned, he was just by far the best for that role. We had seen actors of all different backgrounds and ethnicities and he wasn’t cast because of his race at all, he was just an incredibly charismatic actor. And so we almost accidentally found ourself working within that subtext a little more overtly.
We thought to ourselves—okay, now these sort of things that we’d attempted to thread through the plot have become a lot more surface level. But that’s just the fabric of the show now that, and we loved working with that aspect of it. At the end of the day, Jay was cast because we loved him and he was brilliant, and we adapted the text to fit him.
io9: I really hate love triangles in YA, and then Nathan shows up with Annalise and Gabriel, and I just want them all hold hands and go on a nice date.
Barton: The three of them are never that close in the book, which creates a problem when Nathan begins to explore his sexuality with Gabriel. But Nathan being bisexual was one of those things that we wanted to explore more. We thought it could be really interesting that this traditional protagonist hero discovers this side of himself and it’s treated seriously.
And again, as we went along, we just loved all three of them. And I didn’t want to do that angry love triangle where one person is dating two people and the those two people hate each other. I love all three of these characters and I liked this story more when they liked each other, so we decided to do away with some of the jealousy and anger that might typically show up in a teenage love triangle.
io9: The VFX in this show is pretty wild—I’m specifically thinking of Annalise’s decimation power, because yikes.
Barton: Yeah, that stuff is amazing. It was a relatively low budget show. We were up against it in all sorts of ways. The decimation was the sort of centerpiece of this show’s VFX. We had to be careful about when and where we showed magic onscreen; I cannot emphasize enough, we had no money at all on this show. That’s why a lot of the witches are running around holding guns because prop guns are cheaper than, you know, VFX-made magic.
I remember seeing it for the first time. We were sitting in this small room, because when they do the VFX reviews, what they do is play the the image on a loop, in silence. And this guy was just exploding again, and again, and again on this massive screen behind us as we were talking about it. And you just become slightly nauseous. I mean, there’s only so many times you can watch Security Guard Steve getting flayed open, you know.
io9: Do you have a favorite scene?
Barton: I think my favorite scene is at the end of episode three when the three main characters jump out of the window—that whole sequence, starting when you meet Gabriel for the first time. I think it’s got all the bits of the show that I like the most. There’s humor and there’s romance and there’s some magic and some violence and there’s some mad shit, and that ends with him jumping out the window. And then it culminates with that great song [“I Heard You Want Your Country Back,” by Bob Vylan]. I think those sequences, that first scene in Gabriel’s apartment, sort of encapsulates the whole vibe of the show.
io9: Yeah. It’s like, if you want to know what this show is about, watch these 10 minutes.
Burton: Exactly. And this is the part where Gabriel has just been introduced, because we held him back for quite a long time. And then I think as soon as he enters, it really becomes like the show it wants to be, in a way. An action-adventure-romance. With magic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The first season of The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself is now streaming on Netflix.
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