Lana Condor is impossibly reassuring, even when imagining her own death. “I know I wouldn’t make it. I would instantly be dead.” She leans forward and nods, her eyes widening as they catch mine. “I don’t think Lana would last a day.”
Condor, the charming star of Netflix’s 2018 rom-com hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, doesn’t normally speak about herself in the third person. But today, she’s musing about dying within 24 hours of arriving at King’s Dominion, the fictional school and setting of Syfy’s new drama Deadly Class.
On the show, Condor plays Saya Kuroki, the icy daughter of one of the most powerful families in the Yakuza and a cold-blooded assassin; the character is someone who would not only outlast Lana Condor’s 24 hours but who would have no problem killing America’s newfound sweetheart.
“I’m really excited for people to see this side of me,” Condor smiles. “People will be saying, ‘Lara Jean [her character in To All the Boys] snapped,’ ‘Lara Jean has gone crazy.’ But you know what, I think this is the fun and the intrigue of acting.”
Deadly Class is based on the 2014 comic book of the same name by writer Rick Remender and artist Wes Craig. The show — for which Remender serves as showrunner and executive producer — is set in a dystopian alternate version of San Francisco in 1987, where criminals, warlords, thieves, mercenaries, terrorists, and white-collar scammers send their offspring to a special finishing school for malevolent children.
A group of such dastardly people forcing their kids to follow in their dark footsteps — by enrolling them in an evil institution devoted to teaching its students how to use poison, physical combat, and psychology to their advantage — sounds really awful. Then you remember that they’re parents, parents who want their kids to be just like them.
Many of the kids at King’s Dominion, however, want nothing more than to buck authority. They feel forced into the school but have no other choice. Though many of them are skilled fighters or ruthless assassins, they still feel helpless.
And beneath this nefarious and heightened premise is a cruel cultural commentary: Adults rarely consider their children’s choices or autonomy, choosing instead to impose their own sense of morality and will on their kids.
The fiction of Deadly Class parallels real-world generational clashes. Baby boomers write off millennials as entitled underachievers and Generation X as rebel slackers. Millennials and Generation X blame their grim futures on the series of choices boomers made to, say, leave the European Union or gut America’s economy.
But on top of all that, the show revolves around an incendiary plot point: Its protagonist, Marcus, has made it his main goal in life to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the man he believes is responsible for the death of his parents.
He wants to change the world with a bullet.
The result is a blistering, at times messy amalgam of teenage uncertainty, boiling political frustration, and the heightened fantasy of a school that’s specifically tailored to serve the future corporate vampires and death dealers of America.
From what I’ve seen of the series (critics were given four episodes to screen) and having read most of the comic book, Syfy’s Deadly Class adaptation feels like it could be the acidic complement to the network’s well-loved The Magicians, another show about kids at a fantasy school who might not be okay.
In December, I visited the set of Deadly Class in Vancouver and talked to Condor, Remender, and various cast members just as they were wrapping the show’s 10-episode first season. Here’s why they’re so excited about this show, and what it’s really about.
Deadly Class is about assassinating Ronald Reagan, sure. But it’s more about a generation not being heard.
While Condor is the show’s most recognizable star, its protagonist is a boy named Marcus Lopez (Benjamin Wadsworth). Just as he does in the show’s source comics, Marcus dreams of killing President Ronald Reagan, whose socioeconomic policy — which specifically cut federal funding to mental health services — he blames for his parents’ death.
“There’s an irreverent attitude toward authority figures, Ronald Reagan primarily among them,” Remender told me of the show.
The teen characters of Deadly Class’s 1980s, Marcus especially, see “Reagan as the embodiment of a system that was solely focused on the well-being of the wealthy,” Remender told me. “And you can argue a lot of things about Reagan, but he didn’t give a fuck about poor people. And he didn’t give a fuck about AIDS. He didn’t give a fuck about a lot of things he should’ve given a fuck about if he were an actual Christian. And that is a perspective that some of the characters express.”
Throughout our interview, Remender was adamant about pointing out the difference between his views and those of Deadly Class’s main character. I got the sense that he’s worried and frustrated by the possible conflation of Marcus’s political leanings and his own.
“I think that we’ve somehow gotten into a world where people mistake fictional characters’ voices to be the thoughts and opinions of the author, and that’s mind-bogglingly stupid,” he said. “I don’t know how that ever happened. There are some bits and pieces of things I think in these characters — I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t true.”
Assassinating Reagan on a television show might feel like a punch in the face to anyone, baby boomers in particular, who idolizes the late president. It might feel validating, perhaps cathartic, to anyone who lived through Reagan’s administration, from 1981 to 1989, and felt betrayed by his policy on AIDS and the basic welfare of Americans; for those viewers, it will be easy to appreciate that Deadly Class does not shy away from questioning Reagan’s morality.
“But [as writers and artists,] you’re trying to figure out what any number of these characters are like and what they’ve become based on their backstories and their perspectives,” Remender explained.
I understand his concern that some critics and viewers won’t be able to tell the difference between a flourish of fiction and his personal feelings, but he also says that when he was writing the Deadly Class comic book, he noticed the beginnings of the rise of white nationalism, tribalism, and xenophobia starting in America. And the comic — and now the TV show — was his way of writing through it.
“This stuff was clearly coming,” he said. “It was all clearly coming, and so being able to take a character who was dealing with what we dealt with with Reagan back in the ’80s, to speak about it, was definitely something that was appealing to me.”
Wadsworth, who plays Marcus, is 19 years old; he was around 5 when Reagan died in 2004. It’s hard to imagine that he remembers anything about the funeral, let alone fully understands the feelings — good or bad — that someone older, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, might have regarding the name “Reagan.”
Many people, predominantly older Republicans, remember Reagan as a national hero, a leader who restored America’s strength and defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Others, mainly Democrats and anyone who witnessed his response during the AIDS epidemic, believe that Reagan let his country curdle while ignoring the AIDS crisis. The closer you were to adulthood during Reagan’s tenure as president, the stronger your feelings are likely to be toward one or the other side of the spectrum.
Asking the teenage Wadsworth about Ronald Reagan feels like asking someone about a myth rather than an actual person. Instead, I asked him how he captures Marcus’s rage even though he wasn’t alive when Reagan was president.
For Wadsworth, the rage his character feels is something both timeless and current, which could help the show find an audience even among younger adults like himself.
“I’m sure people compare the current president to Reagan, how they feel, and how our characters feel with Reagan,” Wadsworth told me. “We don’t feel heard and we want to make a change, and people are trying to stop us from doing that.”
A more contemporary example of the type of struggles that Deadly Class’s characters are dealing with is the aftermath of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Some of the school’s surviving students have since become advocates for gun control, appearing regularly on national television, begging adults to listen to their opinions and fears. Though many adults have lauded the teens and supported their message, some have mocked them openly or dismissed their pleas.
It’s clear that many adults don’t want to listen to them. Yet many of those same adults think they know what’s best for those teens.
For Remender, that type of generational struggle was at the heart of turning the comic into a television show.
“With a few obvious exceptions, Generation X has never had a TV show,” Remender said. “We grew up having the baby boomers jerk off on each other all over us, where every song and every TV show was like remembering the ’60s and how great the baby boomers were.”
Upon hearing Remender say this, I think about shows like the 1970s sitcom Happy Days and its nostalgia for the ’50s and ’60s, or The Brady Bunch and its picture-perfect wholesomeness.
Deadly Class is definitely not about how great the baby boomers were. It’s definitely not Happy Days.
Deadly Class mixes the wish fulfillment of Harry Potter with the deranged bloodlust of Battle Royale
At the start of the series, it’s unclear whether Headmaster Lin, who oversees King’s Dominion and its education of criminally inclined youth, knows about Marcus’s plan to assassinate the president — but for some reason or another, Lin wants him to attend.
In comparison to the other kids at this cool death school, Marcus doesn’t stand out. He’s an orphan. He’s homeless. He is living hour by hour. But Lin sees something within him and gives Marcus the opportunity to achieve the dream he wants: revenge on Reagan and his socioeconomic policies that led to the death of Marcus’s parents.
The presence of Marcus and the other children at the school raises questions of how evil is learned, or what we learn to label as evil versus good. Most of the students, like Marcus, seem to tilt toward goodness but are, little by little, shifting closer to the dark side.
But being admitted into King’s Dominion is a different beast than attending the school. Just because Marcus gets in doesn’t mean he’s going to make it out alive.
King’s Dominion is in some ways like any other high school: It’s a nightmare where kids run the campus as much as the adults. While there’s a no-kill rule on campus, whatever happens outside class or beyond the sight of Headmaster Lin is fair game.
“Honestly, for me, it’s all the nightmarish experiences I had in school sort of magnified, personified, and heightened into this world,” Remender said, explaining his inspiration.
The school is divided into cliques, or crime syndicates. Yakuza scions sit at one end of the cafeteria. Kids of the Mexican drug cartels have their own spot on campus, as do the neo-Nazis heirs and future chiefs of the LA gangs. Being an orphan, Marcus has no allegiance to any of these groups and instead belongs to the most vulnerable faction at the bottom of the totem pole: the “rats,” the kids who don’t have a legacy or high-status parents who got them into the school.
By placing power in these legacies and powerful, evil organizations, Remender and Deadly Class make being part of a clan necessary for survival.
“There is a strange wish-fulfillment aspect to it [Deadly Class], and it wasn’t something that I ever imagined,” Remender said. “In my mind, I didn’t see that [similarity between Deadly Class and Harry Potter] as quite the same, but the fans of the books, you know, that does seem to be the case.”
I don’t fully agree with him.
So many books and movies with this self-sorting aspect (see: The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Harry Potter, for starters) indulge in this same type of fantasy. Belonging to a tribe can make you feel powerful and help you find your strongest qualities, and that’s a curious wrinkle to add into a high school narrative, a period of time that I’d wager, for most of us, feels like the most powerless period of our existence.
Adding to that fantasy are the various kids Marcus comes into contact with: Condor’s aforementioned Saya, the school’s most gifted student and its most skilled assassin; Maria (María Gabriela de Faría), a talented killer from a powerful Mexican crime family; Willie (Luke Tennie), the son of an infamous gangster; and Billy (Liam James), who, like Marcus, is a fellow rat but might also be both a sociopath and the most emotionally honest character in the series.
Each kid has an intriguing background, and a story of how they were pushed into attending King’s Dominion. Some are there to please their parents. Some feel the need to continue their family’s legacy. Others might be there more enthusiastically, to fulfill a destiny they’ve been dreaming of. And for Marcus and some of his cohort, being there is a means to exacting revenge.
For those who have read the comic, Remender assured me that the show will diverge from the book. “There are surprise deaths and then there are surprise survivals,” he said.
It’s natural, then, in the heightened atmosphere of Deadly Class, to wonder who will come out on top. The Yakuza assassin or the fan-wielding Mexican death dealer? The psycho or the gangster? The son of the KGB assassin or the neo-Nazi cheerleader from the South?
As at any high school, there’s bad blood between the various clans. The Yakuza only hang out with the Yakuza, while the cartel kids keep to themselves. Each group is constantly defending its reputation and seeking more power and clout within the school. And despite the campus no-kill rule, anything is fair game when they step outside the walls of King’s Dominion or, you know, graduate into the real world.
And theoretically, since King’s Dominion isn’t immune from high school drama, it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to see fights between students when relationships go sour. But who would come out on top in such a turn of events?
Without hesitation and in synchronization, Condor and de Faría both agree that victory would belong to the girls of King’s Dominion.
“We are definitely the deadliest,” de Faría tells me, chuckling.
“Oh, for sure,” Condor chimes in. “See, here’s the thing, I think the girls are very smart fighters and we are very trained fighters. Marcus just fights with whatever’s around him, so he has no training. He’s sloppy.”
While Marcus, the boys, and the girls are on friendly terms in Deadly Class’s first four episodes, it’s not difficult to envision a future where they might come for each other’s throats. The characters are friendly with each other but have pledged loyalty to their various clans.
That the girls could easily take out the boys of King’s Dominion isn’t the only thing de Faría and Condor agree on. Both also say they understand the empowering wish-fulfillment aspect of their characters — that Saya and Maria might not be exactly morally good characters, but that they’ve both learned from them.
“Because of the show, I can honestly say that I’ve found a power within myself that I didn’t know I had,” Condor says. De Faría nods, adding, “So it’s really exciting to play characters like this and that they’re seeping into our real lives. Well, not the murdering part.”
She adds, “I feel like I’ve gotten the confidence of Maria and just knowing that I can handle bad situations on my own, I can protect myself. I don’t think there are many characters out there that are able to give you that.”
Deadly Class is a way to explain why people turn evil
The genius thing about Deadly Class is the way it handles tricky moral moments. These kids are murderers and sociopaths or want to become murderers and sociopaths, sometimes for terrible reasons. Yet you can’t help but root for some of them. Some of the characters, as Condor and de Faría alluded to above, are even inspirational, in the sense that they’re strong and powerful.
However, given the current caustic political climate, it’s likely that at least some viewers will take offense with the series and its protagonist.
And there are certain characters, like Brandy (Siobhan Williams), the neo-Nazi Southern belle, who are already becoming flashpoints of ire and criticism, considering the rise of actual neo-Nazis in America.
That said, however you may feel about Saya or Maria, Marcus’s political leanings, or whether Brandy is villainized enough, it can’t be denied that what Deadly Class gets right is that it emphasizes and recognizes that being a good person has nothing to do with being unapologetically powerful, beautiful, rich, or all three.
“I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist or to overstate the fact, but I think we can objectively say there’s a lot of bad people in the world,” Remender says. “And it’s interesting to me is how a young child becomes a bad person in all their various forms. I think King’s Dominion is that place.”
In light of the existence of very real, very prestigious institutions that have harbored bad people or served as conduits for bad behavior, it’s not hard to see a parallel between King’s Dominion and affluent, exclusive institutions that have traditionally held power.
A place where skills like poison concoction and the ancient art of blowdart shooting are literally taught in school is a fantasy where the evil is plainly obvious.
But, like the myriad stories where good characters find the hero within themselves during the hardest times in their lives, Deadly Class doesn’t totally discount the possibility that its characters could escape their dark DNA. Perhaps in the midst of all its literal evil, some glimmers of goodness will ultimately emerge. But while allowing for that possibility, the show also doesn’t shy away from the more likely scenario, of these kids finding their inner murderers. The mystery of which side will win out is what Remender loves.
“To me, the interesting part of it is throwing characters into that grinder and seeing what they choose to come out as,” he said.
Deadly Class premieres Wednesday, January 16, at 10 pm Eastern/9 Central on Syfy.