When we left Defiance, a year ago, it was in the middle of an identity crisis. Its first season provided a strong foundation of setting and theme to work with, but too many of its characters weren’t given a chance to grow, due in part to a heavy-handed mythology. The first-season finale was divided on these grounds: on the one hand, it resolved the mythology poorly by turning Irisa, its female lead, into a potential deity; on the other hand, an invasion from the Earth Republic taking over the town flipped the show’s power structures and gave it potential for more political, character-based work.
With that in mind, the second-season premiere, “The Opposite Of Hallelujah,” was always likely to intrigue. Yet even I was somewhat surprised by its ambition. Rather than proceeding directly from the cliffhangers of the previous season, “Hallelujah” fast-forwards nine months, and introduces us to a new status quo. And, to Defiance’s credit, almost every single aspect of its new setup is more interesting than the first season’s. Yet it does so without betraying or ignoring the events and characterizations of its early episodes.
The problem with this is that “The Opposite Of Hallelujah” becomes all setup. There isn’t really an “episode” here in any conventional sense of the term, more of a brief survey of where most of last season’s characters ended up. It’s also remarkably convenient that what slight plot resolutions exist feel contrived to be put in that same time span. But the point of the episode, I think, is less to have a chronological sense to the storylines, and more to serve as a re-entry to the world. Or to put it another way, this feels more like a prestige cable drama confidently dividing into multiple storylines with plans to reintegrate them when necessary, than it does the mid-1990s syndicated TV drama that Defiance initially seemed to draw from.
But since the premiere is a survey of what’s going on with all the characters of Defiance, it’s worth going around the world and seeing how they’re all significantly improved from their first-season status quo.
The most improved of the new situations belongs to Alak Tarr. When we last saw Alak in the first season, he was part of a Romeo and Juliet teenaged love storyline that threatened to drag down everything around it. This led to a few complications of the liberal teens taking on their traditionalist fathers, but never rose above the clichés implied by that story. That was too straightforward and expected, there was no subversion of the idea that kids were more tolerant or better than their parents.
Now Alak has been placed in charge of Datak’s criminal empire, and is being forced to confront what that means. We see him struggle with his apparent inherent kindness, carrying on the previous season’s plotline. But we also see him and his younger Castithan friends embracing Earth music—the moment where the camera sweeps through their headquarters as hybrid Earth/Votan rock music plays is an aesthetic highlight, a moment when science fiction is allowed to be cool and fun, a relative rarity on American TV.
But what makes this part of the story stand out in this episode isn’t Alak himself, but his mother Stahma. To no viewer’s surprise, she’s really the brains behind the operation. What Defiance does well, though, it make that a surprise to the male characters on the show, particularly Alak. Stahma’s generally less interesting when she’s pure Lady MacBeth, and more compelling when navigating the alien-but-still-recognizable patriarchal system. The moment where she declares that maybe things could be different for her on Earth is a strong statement from a character whose motives were ambiguous in the first season.
Continuing with the aesthestic flair, the Stahma-Alak relationship also gets the most support from the episode’s director (whose name I don’t have, thanks to working from a screener, but he or she deserves praise.) As Stahma crushes Alak’s dreams of power, the camera shows the side of her face, in perfect focus, on one half of the screen. On the other half, Alak, standing well behind her, is a total blur. He’s nonexistent, she’s precise. The relationship is framed perfectly.
The other story to receive major improvement is that of the town of Defiance. A new cast member, James Murray, plays the new Earth Republic mayor of Defiance. I’m a little dubious of him so far—he seems to be deliberately trying to play Game Of Thrones’ Littlefinger with a more consistent accent (a major improvement, to be sure). But what he represents for the story is a massive improvement. Defiance struggled making its people in power interesting when they were so clearly in power. Disrupting that—taking Amanda out of the center, knocking Rafe down a few pegs—immediately adds dimension to their characters. Their centrist beliefs about investing power into the governmental authority are predictable and dull when they are (or believe in) that authority. But when the government is corrupt, many more storylines open up.
A similar situation exists with Datak in the E-Rep’s prison camp, but we don’t really get enough time with him to see what this might mean. He does get the weirdest scene of the premiere, where Doc Yewll, also imprisoned, comes to him with a plan to escape, which he likes. But he also physically attempts to have her give him a handjob, out of nowhere. My most charitable explanation for this is that Datak is undergoing a psychotic breakdown and couldn’t tell the difference between Yewll and his wife (who had intentionally gone for the handie earlier), but it was just impossible to tell.
There wasn’t much direct improvement with Irisa and Nolan’s story in this episode, but the fact that it wasn’t bad is a very good thing for the show, given the events of the end of the first season. Irisa’s Chosen One story was at odds with the morally ambiguous politically intricate world that the setting promised. Introducing godlike powers into this universe seemed to go against everything that made it interesting, and it’s a good sign that Defiance has returned Irisa to being a person. It’s also a good sign that the mythological mystery is no longer one based on a largely unrelated history, but a personal mystery of “What has Irisa been doing?”
I think the thing I admire most about “The Opposite Of Hallelujah” is that it’s a commitment. Defiance could quite easily have reverted to the status quo, or it could have pressed ahead with some totally different mythological tone. Instead, it’s respected its first season plot developments, while working to improve what it can and drive the story forward in the best possible fashion. That may have required sacrificing the narrative coherence of this episode to make that commitment, but I’m more keen to see than I probably would have been had this episode been more conventional.
- “Well now that you finally have, you can tell your grandkids all about him.” James Murray does do sarcasm well here.
- We see New Chicago and the ruins of L.A., expanding the world of Defiance a huge amount. This is another positive development, as the first season often felt insular.
- “At least we’re getting paid what we’re worth.” I liked this argument about work, overwork, and respect.
- Varrus, the Votan who captured, then was punched by, Nolan, is one of the key quest-givers in the Defiance game. I haven’t played the game in a while, but it went Free-To-Play earlier this year. I’ll try to dip back into it to see what’s changed in the next several weeks.
- “Color you anything, you’d be more interesting to look at.” Missed Doc’s sarcasm, that’s for damn sure.
- Beyond the directorial chops the episode demonstrated, the makeup and wardrobe looked really good. The three main female characters all exuded more charisma: Stahma’s pink eyeshadow, Irisa’s long hair, and Amanda’s madame wardrobe gave them all more visual panache. The men didn’t quite get so lucky, but then, they’re almost all in a notably worse place. I did like Nolan’s sunglasses.
- Another interesting thing to keep an eye on: increased drug use in Defiance under the occupation. Like things can be given the appearance of normality if people get wasted during any downtime.