Defiance: “Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go”
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Defiance: “Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go”

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Defiance

“Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go”

Season 1, Episode 2

We’re going to have to talk about the song at the end, aren’t we? All right, let’s do this: A cover of a Nirvana song plays at the end of Defiance’s second episode. And not just any Nirvana song, but arguably their second-most anthemic tune, “Come As You Are.” Commercializing Nirvana may be one of the few taboos remaining on American television (that isn’t legally enforced); for a diverse combination of reasons, people freak the hell out when the band is treated as anything other than sacrosanct. For any TV show to use a famous Nirvana song would be noted and discussed. For a random second episode of a SyFy to drop that? It’s undeserving. Ridiculous. Audacious.

So naturally, I thought it was great. Defiance didn’t earn the use of a Nirvana song! But Defiance doesn’t care! Defiance is going to go ahead, doing its own damn thing, and if that means playing the entirety of Nevermind, Defiance will do just that!

That audacity is encouraging. I was actually quite worried about this week’s episode, as what weaknesses were evident in the pilot were the sort that a typical second episode would highlight. Normally second episodes exist to acquaint new viewers, who may have heard good things about the pilot, to a new series. So they reintroduce everyone and everything slowly, and usually less competently than the pilot. Since Defiance’s main weaknesses were that it didn’t feature enough detail and seemed like it was merely a pastiche of other shows, a poor second episode would only have made those aspects seem worse.

It’s also important for Defiance to continue to grab attention. One of the byproducts of the current age of quality television is the increasing expectation for shows to be great right out of the gate. Compared to Battlestar Galactica’s pilot or opening episode, just about any science-fiction show is going to be bad. Science- or speculative-fiction shows have a long history of weak pilots and first seasons, with halfway through the second season being the turning point for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Babylon 5, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and more. Some of the complaints about Defiance I saw last week in the comments indicated a lack of patience along those lines, like that all the characters were introduced awkwardly, or that there were confusing levels of explanation about the new world. These were all true to some extent, but it’s a pilot, and that’s normal. But perhaps part of the reason that science-fiction television is in a drought right now is because the industry is less patient with shows that would have improved dramatically with time.

So Defiance takes the audacious path. It seems to pass right on by the need for reintroductions, and instead, dives immediately into continuing the storyline from the pilot. First, the deserter from the pilot (a “Castithan,” although I have a very difficulty time not thinking of them as “Space Lannisters”) is being cleansed for his sins via public torture ceremony, which doesn’t sit right with Nolan. Yet the mayor explains to him that the town has customs of respecting other cultures’ beliefs.

I like that Defiance is willing to grapple with the issues of multiculturalism, willing to complicate its own setting, and prepared to put its two apparent leaders, Amanda and Nolan, in conflict with one another. Most the best moments of the episode came out of this plotline, including, the deputy backing Irisa up by arresting the tortured Castithan for “loitering,” with a shrug.

The other half of the storyline is even more of a direct continuation of events from the première. The former mayor and her partner in serialized crime, Birch, bring the wounded Ben back in order to complete their dirty work. Nolan and Rafe chase him down to prevent the town from needing to be evacuated again, and Nolan forces Rafe to make a video-game-like moral choice to kill Ben or not (“Now you can do the right thing by your dead child, or you can do the right thing by your two living ones, but you CANNOT do both!”) which is immediately followed by a video-game-like reveal that that choice didn’t matter: Ben commits suicide. That storyline just trails off at that point.

Defiance’s rush to continue the story from the pilot cleverly masks the fact that its second episode actually is just a rehash of the first, only without as much personality. The old mayor and her partner are still trying to clear the town out to get a McGuffin. Rafe and Datak are still at each others’ throats, as their kids are in each others’ arms. It’s not a surprise that the new stuff—the Castithan religion, and Irisa struggling with her role in a new time—is the best part of the episode.

See, I may praise “Down In The Ground Where The Dead Men Go” for being audacious, for carrying the momentum from the pilot forward, for not freezing, looking down and collapsing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the episode was actually any good. (It wasn’t.) But it did do what it needed to do: It encouraged me to keep paying attention to Defiance.

Stray observations:

  • In terms of being attention-grabbing, being creepy as hell will get you that far. “Mother will take care of everything,” says a virtually naked Space Cersei while hugging her teenaged son.
  • Nolan picks up War Of The Worlds in the ruins of old St. Louis. Cute.
  • No Mia Kirschner in this episode, which is probably a good thing, it was overstuffed as it was.
  • For now, I’m liking Mayor Nicki and Birch’s vague talks about the important McGuffin under the town. It’s getting perilously close to “bad guys talk about their plan but deliberately avoid details to maintain some mystery for viewers,” though.