Defiance had issues last season. I generally liked it as a whole, but it was definitely inconsistent. Beyond the too-easy fit of the heroes discussed last week, there were three big issues. First, the mythological questions of Irisa’s nature and the ship buried underneath Defiance town took over, shoving characterization and politics to the side. Second, the Romeo & Juliet story Alak and Christy were shoved into had nothing to it except moon-eyed teenagers, and moon-eyed teenagers can’t keep a show going for more than a few episodes. Finally, in formal terms, the music montages at the end of each episode weren’t usually bad, but they felt shoehorned in.
Defiance has improved this season not by dramatically changing these things, nor by ignoring them, both of which are often perfectly valid methods for improvement. Instead, it’s done the equivalent of steering into them; Defiance has worked to reform them with some slight tweaks.
Two of the three are evident in the closing scene of “The Cord And The Ax.” The machinations of Doc Yewll have freed Datak Tarr from prison, on the day when he’s determined, correctly, that his wife is letting him rot in order to run his criminal empire herself. At the end of the episode, this week’s song—some very appropriate trip-hop, Portishead’s “Roads”— plays as Datak returns home. There he finds his wife and son in their ritual bath. They stare at him, he gets into the bath, washing the prison dirt off of him. Then he moves to Stahma, who attempts to work up a look of excitement at his return. Then Datak attacks his betrayer, and Alak tries to intervene.
What makes this particular musical ending scene stand out is that it’s action and not reaction. These scenes have often felt somewhat manipulative, like the show was going out of its way to ensure that you knew the precise emotion you should feel. But this is new. This is a scene that would likely be a critical one for the series no matter how it was presented, so it had viewers’ attention. To make it silent, playing out without any dialogue, is a damn bold move.
But it’s a wise one. Tony Curran’s sheer presence as Datak has always been one of that character’s greatest strengths, and Jaime Murray plays Stahma with her face and with the pauses between expressions and movements as much or more than she does with her words. The social power of the Castithan family bathing rituals, which the show has pushed successfully since it began, adds a dramatic weight similar to Rafe’s use of a family dinner to threaten Alak’s life. The aesthetics of the Castithan house, with its pure white and its cleanliness shaking the dirt off of Datak, add even more weight.
Finally, there’s Alak Tarr. Largely a joke in the first season, this season has seen his situation becoming steadily more tense and compelling. Thus even if the character himself remains uncharismatic (as opposed to anti-charismatic), simply by virtue of being part of something interesting, he’s going to work. Putting him in-between both of his parents and his father-in-law? This is working.
That said, there are still some iffy parts. Christy seems to have even less personality than last season, which is an impressive feat. And the violence-against-women aspect of Datak’s personality is presented as uncomfortably explicable here. Some people do like rough sex and that’s perfectly fine, but the scene felt much more like it was about turning the former prostitute into a moral lesson for Alak than that she was a character at all. Likewise, Datak’s attack on Stahma felt more like a political attack on a rival than domestic violence, but it was also the latter. (Then there’s a less overt form of violence, like Mayor Pottinger using drugs to keep Amanda close to him.) I’ve been impressed with Defiance’s confidence this season, but it’s hard not to be wary that they might have bitten off more than they could chew with their portrayal of violent Castithan (and Human) misogyny.
Finally, Irisa’s role in the mythology is so much better this season, even though the story seems to still be largely a continuation instead of a rejection of what had come before. The key element is that this is now about Irisa’s story in the present. It’s her actions, and lack of control over those actions, that keep the story motivated, as opposed to waiting for people to come in and explain what’s going on. Seeing how Irisa understands and deals with her own nature is far sturdier of a storytelling device than watching characters talk around what’s going on until the show let’s us in on its plan.
- Alternate title for the episode: “The Nose Knows!”
- “How’s the finger?” “Feels like someone cut it off.” Never change, Doc Yewll.
- “Congratulations...dad!” I like Rafe the jerk.
- “You know, I was pretty young when I enlisted. Never got to experience high school. But this conversation right here...this is how I imagined it.” I love Nolan the jerk.
- “No, my son. We both know we can never allow your father to come home.”
- Kung fu Darla! I’m sure just that was just the drugs but it was nice to see Julie Benz bust out some of her old moves.
- “I’d tell you the truth if I could.” That can’t be a good thing for a dad to hear, ever.