Defiance went through a mini-reboot between the first season and the second. It was, by-and-large, a positive thing. More tension in Defiance town, less focus on mythology, and fewer of the characters and standalone plots that didn’t quite work. But then the question becomes “What should the show do with what’s been left behind?”
The option to just ignore it should never be dismissed entirely. If Defiance had simply let Quentin disappear to California, maybe stick a side quest explanation in the game, and never mention it again, would anything have been lost? His storyline was, arguably, the weakest in the first season, and Rafe got an attempt to redo with his “godchildren” earlier this season while also having a more interesting role in a potential uprising. Quentin was unnecessary. That he’s back indicates that the writers have confidence in their ability to improve his character and storyline, or feel obligated to finish what they started, or some combination of both.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s return is all about re-engaging with the first season. Most obviously in that she was an important character then, assumed dead now, and the show has largely moved on. But it also hinges on the knowledge that the Votans had done experiments to create human-looking Indogenes, a key plot point in the first season, but one which has gone largely undiscussed so far this season.
In short, almost every single aspect of “Painted From Memory” served as a direct continuation of first-season storylines, and I think that demands questions. What is gained by bringing Quentin and Kenya back? Is the story improved by this diversion into the past? And I think the answer, while somewhat ambiguous, comes down mostly on “No!”
The core revelation for moving the story forward, instead of looking back is that we now know that Mayor Pottinger brought Doc Yewll out of prison in order to create a “Kenya” to mess with Amanda’s mind. This is why they gave her the corrupted EGO device and is, apparently, the master plan for getting into Amanda’s pants. And this is just a shitty master plan. You have a war criminal/scientific genius at your disposal, and your plan is, essentially, to be the ultimate Nice Guy? All of the work that the show has done to make Pottinger appear as a legitimate threat because of his humanity, instead of merely being a venal E-Rep bureaucrat, disappears with the idea that this was his plan.
This is a disservice to his characterization and his ability to portray a villain, but I think it’s also a disservice to the season as a resistance story. Part of the strength of these stories is that they involve people who don’t deserve it assuming positions of extreme power. Pottinger is the embodiment of the Earth Republic in Defiance. There are no clear checks on his power, no petty “rule of law” getting in his way beyond perception, or the idea that Nolan would shoot him. Everything about Pottinger’s position, and Defiance town’s situation, says that he doesn’t have to do this random petty high school sitcom manipulation bullshit.
And he has exerted his fascist authority. He’s ordered murders. He’s used it to spring Yewll to accomplish exactly this goal. He’s even shut down the Adreno supply so that he could control it just for her. But for some reason, he has to stage an elaborate prank—act from a position of weakness instead of his governmental strength—in order to take the next step.
There are a few different explanations for this. The first is that Defiance wants us to believe that Pottinger may be petty, but he’s not evil, or at least that his love for Amanda isn’t evil. In his mind, at least, she has to want him of her own free will. She can be indirectly manipulated into loving him, but she can’t, in his mind, be directly coerced into a sexual relationship. I don’t really buy this as a potential motive—it doesn’t seem consistent with Defiance’s general treatment of relationships, not does it seem consistent with Pottinger being willing to be fascist in general.
I think the real reason is that Defiance is scared to show the full effects of totalitarian power on a character that it’s been working to redeem—or it’s scared to show how that manifests against Amanda, who it’s treated largely as a pure hero. I can’t entirely blame Defiance here. I’m speaking in euphesims here, but more directly coercive attempts at love would move into sexual assault or rape territory, and that’s become an often-offensive cliché for TV shows trying to be dark.
But this pushes Defiance into a corner. It wants to show Pottinger’s venal attempts to woo and control Amanda, but it doesn’t actually want to depict the potential nastiness. Yet, much as with the questions I asked at the start of this review, Defiance doesn’t seem to ask itself “Is this worth it?” Why did Defiance believe that showing Pottinger as a bad guy was best accomplished via a creepy crush on Amanda instead of more direct and obvious action he could have taken as mayor? There are dozens of different ways to demonstrate his villainy—crushing protests, abusing prisoners, preventing Nolan from finding culprits, fanning the flames of war, and so on—so why did Defiance choose a relatively small-scale one that it didn’t actually want to commit to?
And somewhere in that answer is why this season has turned into a mild disappointment, as was this episode. Defiance isn’t quite willing to embrace the risks that might make it great. It’s not willing to let the middling plotlines of its first season go, and it’s not willing to go all-out with the potential of this season’s setup. It wants relationship drama to drive its overall drama, when those relationships have never really been its strength.
- Which is not to say that there weren’t some fun moments in this episode. Mia Kirschner’s gleeful response here was a highlight. “Well, if we’re going to have a threeway, I’m Berlin.” “I’m Kenya!”
- But the real standout was probably Stahma, knocked out of her comfort zone most of the time, but not always. “Do I look like a biologist?” “You look like a pauper, but that’s incidental.”
- I’m also kinda disappointed with how they’ve made Yewll into a more willing sociopath this season. She didn’t HAVE to play along in this way. “Chemical lobotomy. Painful, but effective.” “Does that bother you?” “I’ve done worse.”
- “You shoulda just shot her.” “I didn’t have the guts. Anyway. Welcome home.”
- Nolan figuring out that Kenya was an Indogene was a good moment. I always appreciate it when TV characters who are supposed to be smart figure things out in a way that smart people would.
- “No, you’re the monster, I’m Dr. Frankenstein, and our friend here is Igor.”
- Well done to those of you who figured out that Kenya’s captor was Quentin. I’ll save any praise or damnation for the show for when this becomes relevant, though.