There are two revelations in tonight’s Defiance that could provide direction for the show’s future. The first is obvious, and serves as the grand finale of the episode: Rafe and his son delve deep into the mine and discover a collection of paintings on the wall of the cave. These seem to be what the former mayor was looking for, and the strange object Rafe found in his son’s possession is depicted in the drawings.
This is not an auspicious direction to take Defiance in. For one thing, it’s been done. Lostdid it, for one, and just in the past couple of years, we’ve seen The Vampire Diaries and Terra Nova use chalk drawings to drive mythology forward—and, Defiance, you really don’t want to be like Terra Nova. The chalk-drawing trick seems like a good idea. It adds an aura of history, of wisdom, of importance, and uses potentially powerful symbols to reinforce that. Which makes it symbolic for symbolism—and if that’s not a rallying cry for the worst impulses of modern serialized drama, I don’t know what is.
Yet at the start of the episode is a throwaway idea leading to a different potential path for Defiance. It’s given virtually no weight, and exists more to reorient the characters. That idea is that the town of Defiance had an offer to build a “mag-rail” line from the Earth Republic. This moment is used to demonstrate that there is a wedge between the elders on the Defiance council and its increasingly-noted-as-temporary mayor, Amanda Rosewater. They want to run the town as they see fit, she has reason to mistrust E-Rep—although the only reason we know if that the old mayor warned her about it.
There’s a lot more potentially good storytelling here, both in the details and in the generalities. The idea of a battle over whether Defiance is connected to the larger world is a good storytelling device because in the process of seeing how that shakes out, we’ll learn more about the political orientations of the characters. Rafe wants to make money. Amanda wants to guarantee the town’s independence. If they have to detail why, we’ll see what they think about how this new world works, and they’ll also have to explain why they think what they think. What is it about the Earth Republic that is untrustworthy? If Rafe thinks that they need more money, does that mean Defiance is struggling, and how does that manifest?
More generally, creating a political conflict that divides the main characters is good for drama. One of the core driving elements of modern television drama is that it maintains and even increases tension between its main characters, instead of resolving it. The premise of Defiance has Datak and Rafe as rivals, and Amanda and the other powerful forces in town seeking to maintain a balance there. Setting Amanda against the others changes that balance, and increases the likelihood that something bad will happen. When I see Rafe and Datak, I see Babylon 5’s Londo and G’Kar—two rivals who seemed like they could perhaps come to a respectful agreement. Babylon 5 turned from “interesting” to “excellent” the moment that rivalry hit a point of no return—the interpersonal conflict made things worse, not better. Any political battle that makes a breaking point more likely has the potential to make the show better.
Here’s why I’m focusing on those initial political battles and comparing them to the mythology: They keep the show’s narrative uncertain. Mythology is certain: the former mayor speaks about reforming the world, even if it means destroying the town and countless lives. Those are the words of a megalomaniac that no other character on the show is going to join, and the nature of storytelling, particularly on a TV budget, means that she’ll never succeed. It’s a dead end. With a conflict like the mag-rail line, or the weapons shipments, or Rafe taking on Datak, we don’t know how those might end. It’s entirely possible that adding a rail connection to the outside world could make the show better, just as it’s possible that stripping, say, Datak of his power could be interesting.
I also bring this up because the best parts of “A Well Respected Man” hinged on how power was wielded and understood in Defiance. Nolan has been disrupting the normal structure of power in the town by attempting to be a Lawkeeper too directly, including confiscating the guns from a deal set up by the council. When Kenya gets kidnapped, Nolan and Amanda discover that they don’t have the power they thought they did. Their best attempt at manipulating Datak isn’t enough. Stahma explains to them how to manipulate Datak—while manipulating them in the process. Then Datak tries to explain how power works to Nolan, but in a way that maintains the upper hand.
There’s a memorable ambiguity to these scenes. Datak’s advice to Nolan about how knowledge is power and how he can use that to become a better Lawkeeper is solid advice—except that the example he wanted to provide is a setup that Nolan easily sees through. So was Datak lying the whole time? Lying about the details? Or was everything true but he just went too far to prove his point at the end? This section, perhaps, may not matter outside of those particular scenes. His wife’s motives, however, do matter beyond that. From the beginning it’s been impossible to tell how much of her Machiavellian power plays have been methods of placating Datak versus her actually wanting to put him in charge. Perhaps she really does want Kenya rescued in this episode, and putting Datak on the council is the only way—perhaps she doesn’t care about Kenya. Perhaps she really does want Rafe to die and Christy to inherit the mine for Datak—perhaps she just said that because she wants Alak to be happy without Datak freaking out. Perhaps it’s all of those things.
As much as I find myself fascinated by how Defiance is putting together its world and its narrative, I must say that I continue to be frustrated with its pacing. Every episode is filled with incident and has very little room to breathe, and yet it also feels like so much is missing. Irisa barely mutters a line this week, for example, and I’d appreciate having seen more of Nolan’s attempts to integrate with Defiance before we got told that he wasn’t actually integrating with Defiance. This renders the episode unsatisfying as a whole, even as I respect and enjoy most of its individual parts and scenes. I continue to hope that it’s just first-season jitters, but given the other things that Defiance does well, it’s easy to get impatient.
- Kenya attacks Amanda’s prudish morality: “That’s so old world.” It would be a cute line, if not for the flashbacks depicting the war they grew up in. The Pale Wars are effectively apocalyptic in those moments, something the show hasn’t gotten across before now.
- “It’s hubris. A personal flaw, but my wife seems to like it.” I grow increasingly fond of Tony Curran as Datak Tarr.
- “You know, I’ve had my eye on the wrong snake. You’re the dangerous one.” “You’re very sweet.” Aww, Space Cersei knows how to take a compliment.
- So I got my hands on the Defiance game and have been having an absolute blast with it. I have no idea why it’s gotten such middling reviews; after trying several well-reviewed massively multiplayer games in the last that lacked dynamism in the core gameplay, Defiance’s gunplay feels right, along with a bunch of higher-order mechanics that encourage variety in playstyle.
- On the other hand, if you’re interested in the world of Defiance, the game’s problem in depicting it mirrors that of the show. On the show, the 43-minute time constraint combines with practical limitations to keep the focus almost entirely on the town in the here and now. The game allows for more travel and more time to be spent experiencing the world, but it only offers one mode of interaction: down the barrel of a gun. Thus most of the world-building is done via supplemental materials that aren’t terribly different from reading a wiki. Still, as passive as the world/story is to experience, the voice acting and writing are often superb.