The sins of the past are inescapable on this week’s Defiance. I’ve noticed some people in comments and on Twitter who are a little uncomfortable embracing the show because they feel like they’ve been missing out on important content in the game. This generally isn’t the case, with one exception: the game is much more clear about how brutal the Pale Wars were, and how that brutality has extended to this world.
That issue has been brought up in plot terms on the show, most notably with Yewll and Nolan’s war crimes. But that’s been primarily in terms of plot; something that the heroes have to move past or work to move past in order to get to the finish of the episode. It’s rarely been a character or setting component: part of the show that exists and colors everything else, but isn’t necessary to understand the immediate motivations for the episode. Instead it serves the purpose of supporting the idea, which the show has struggled with, that this world may be colorful and filled with adventure and maybe even fun and exciting, was hellish for most of its inhabitants just a decade before.
Mayor Pottinger’s monologue to Amanda about how, when he was a child, he was captured and sexually abused by Votan forces, is the heart of this. It’s not just the darkness of the world that makes it so powerful, but it’s also how it humanizes Pottinger, who previously had been something of a Mayberry Machiavelli. He may be a bad guy, but he is, here at least, a human bad guy, with the scars and motivations that entails. For a resistance story, having antagonists who aren’t the embodiment of evil is essential
It also encourages Amanda to tell her story. She was raped as well, in New York, working for the E-Rep. But she, unlike any other character, does attempt to do better, generally arguing that she and everyone else needs to rise above. She puts this into practice when she argues for forgiveness of Rafe McCawley after he’s found to have been connected to the raider party that attacked and demeaned Pottinger. That is a politically convenient argument for her to make, yes, but she’s still the only character who tries to make one like it in the entire episode.
Unfortunately, even with the character work seeming to work, I can’t help but feel a slight mistrust for Defiance not turning these revelations into plot. Pottinger has been nasty enough that the rules of television suggest that he may have invented his story. Likewise, Amanda’s story could easily be read as a clue that the revelation of the person who attacked her will be a plot point later—possibly even Pottinger herself. I’d really prefer that that not be the case. The difference between good shows and great shows often exists in those personal moments of shared pain, and the difference between an effective use of rape in storytelling and a disastrous one is often whether it’s contrived to serve the plot.
For Datak Tarr, the sins of the past are both in the more immediate past, and are far more distant than the Pale Wars. He has to deal with what’s happened with his wife and son in his absence, and that’s married to his own abuse at the hands of his father, before the Votan races departed their home system. In a departure from the animalistic anger he displayed last week, physically assaulting Alak and Stahma, this time he tries to both reestablish his authority and do so in a manner less destructive than he did then.
So Datak undergoes a complex dance to trying to return Stahma and Alak to his side, while also controlling them, while also not getting himself into trouble and being forced to return to prison. He humbles himself before aggressive E-Rep soldiers, but spurns Stahma’s attempt to become a partner in a new world that allows gender equality. He respects Alak for having committed a murder, but then puts him in a horrible position of having to choose which member of the organization to have killed. He respects Alak for choosing himself, but kills a different man anyway, and then scars his son instead of destroying his dream.
It’s a respectable attempt, but it fails utterly. Datak has underestimated Stahma’s motivation, and the sin of a permanent scar on his son’s hand is not one she can forget. She has him beaten and kicked out of his own organization. But I think the thematic fit here is not that Datak failed at performing the dance he attempted, but that he failed because he attempted to dance at all. Had he rejected the entirety of his need to maintain power and honor and manliness, this wouldn’t have happened. Once he attempted it, his history of abuse, both on him and from him, made it impossible.
And, in the main plot of the episode, the sins of the Earth Republic, in taking over and maintaining Defiance, create the problems that the main characters cannot resolve safely and ethically at the same time. The murder of the miner Josef’s family members have him taking far more aggressive action than his potential allies want to do themselves. Rafe knows this, and he convinces Nolan by reminding him that one of his sins is that he helped Nolan save Irisa. But Josef cannot stop, kidnapping and threatening to murder Berlin instead of taking the escape opportunity afforded him. Rafe ends up shooting Josef, adding another impossible-to-resolve sin. And Rafe is punished for his sympathy. Pottinger, declaring that it’s a “cruel world,” doesn’t have the same problems as the other characters in trying to resolve these sins. Which is what makes him the bad guy, even if he might be sympathetic.
- I was all set to make piss jokes after that memorable opening, but it was dealt with so admirably by the show that I didn’t.
- “Anyone ever teach you to knock?” “I was raised by him.” “That’s a good point.” Another great example of the Nolan-Irisa relationship.
- “So you got yourself paroled from Camp Reverie? How’d you manage that?” “Raw sex appeal.”
- “That’s the kindest thing anyone has ever done for me.” I really, really hope that this isn’t straight-up manipulation.
- “You should have made me a partner.” Stahma runs a tough law firm.