Two steps forward, one step back for Defiance. I'll dive right into the bad, since overarching narrative turns are almost always the first and most dominant vehicle for discourse. I cannot imagine a turn I'm less interested in than Defiance turning real-world historical events like the St. Louis earthquake of 1811 into fodder for its mythology, as was described in this episode. History Channel-style “ancient aliens,” secret histories, government cover-ups of supposedly real events, those things don't take advantage of Defiance's setting. It comes across more like a writer may have scanned the Wikipedia page for St. Louis and decided on the most interesting part for inclusion in the show (“Well, Kevin, I have either a surprising earthquake from 2011 or Mark McGuire breaking the home run record to be our big mid-season revelation. You choose.”)
But at least for tonight, that's a distraction. Sure, it could be the shape of the season finale, but it was a single line in an episode which, to put it facetiously, had hundreds even thousands of other lines. This is, perhaps, a drawback of the current form of television. With mythology and case-of-the-week episodes not as sharply divided as they were in the days of The X-Files, tidbits like the earthquake one get parceled out throughout each and every episode. They're like catnip for fans (and reviewers, to be quite honest), who pounce on clues and speculation because that's about what's to come and exists as potential, instead of what was, which we already know. So in the interest of moving outside that discourse, I'm going to roll my eyes, hard, and discuss what actually did happen.
“Brothers In Arms” continues last week's improvement in structural competence with another important step forward for the show: It gives all its characters something interesting to do. Several of the early episodes would have the main characters around in the background because they should have been there, but they barely had any lines, let alone agency. Yet here we have Rafe, with just one scene, adding to the show's depth by acknowledging that he can understand the publicly sweet old mayor his son calls “Aunt Nicky” is “a dangerous woman.” Or there's Amanda, talking with her sister about Nolan and delivering her best line of the show so far, “Well the good news is Nolan doesn't have very many friends, so the odds of the situation happening again are pretty low.”
The main plot of the episode, involving one of Nolan's old comrades coming to Defiance to hunt a Castithan war criminal, is fairly predictable but well-done—I especially enjoyed Daniel Kash's portrayal of the villain of the piece. I suspect that in Hollywood's Official Television Scriptwriting Bible, it's mandated that any former war buddy returning to town on a mission of dubious legality must inevitably turn on the main character and force him or her to decide between old friends or their new life. Obviously, they choose the new life, as Nolan does here, shooting the war criminal Pol Madis in the head to prevent him being taken to manufacture weapons for the Earth Republic. It's a badass moment for Nolan, although his quipping is still struggling to get above average.“What is wrong with you!” “It felt right.”
The episode does quite well at creating ethical dilemmas for the characters. Nolan has to decide multiple times in multiple ways how he wants to help his buddy—a buddy who, it's eventually shown, is an absolutely critical part of Nolan's history with Irisa. There's also Kenya, who is forced to confront the idea that she can't do her job in the brothel. This isn't the strongest part of the episode, but I do think the idea of prostitution as a fairly acceptable part of post-Arkfall society combined with the perils of managing a relationship while also being a sex worker can create some interesting character moments. Perhaps I'm also just looking forward to seeing what happens as the closest thing to resolution I'm ever going to get for Mal and Inara from Firefly. And I really liked the idea of the political issues of a free city-state in a post-war environment, both in terms of Pol Madis' extradition and in terms of Datak dealing with dual loyalties to the Votanis Collective and Defiance itself.
One infuriating moment aside, I found a lot to like about “Brothers In Arms.” A television show isn't just about its grand, overall story. It's about how it builds its world, develops its characters, and structures its episodic stories. Defiance is doing well enough at that, especially early in a science fiction drama's run, so I'm willing to forgive brief dalliances with shitty mythology.
- One cool thing about the shitty mythology: I'm surprised the show killed Burke off so quickly, as I had him pegged to something closer to the Big Bad, perhaps the liaison between Nicky and some grand evil.
- “I still don't like him.” Not an Irisa-focused episode, but she gets the line delivery of the night.
- “How did you know he was with me?” “Back at the house? You were nice.” Predictable but good. I do think Nolan can be properly quippy.
- “Another war's going to start with or without Pol Madis.”
- Defiance the video game tie-in alert: Volus Soleptor, the Votan Nolan and Irisa stole from, is one of the major non-player characters in the game, giving out many of the quests. His role is actually kind of fascinating in the game—all of the game's dialogue indicates he's conniving, cowardly, and the worst kind of rapacious capitalist, while all the other questgivers are likable or noble or at least trustworthy. On the other hand, he's one of the main questgivers in the game, including being the main contact for most of the game's dungeons. The text says he's terrible, the subtext says he's awesome.