I must admit that I’ve become a little disappointed with Defiance over the course of this season. It started off well enough, turning into a resistance story with the E-Rep taking over Defiance town and turning the mythology more personal by literally placing it inside Irisa. Both of these moves had a lot of promise, both on their own and in terms of correcting some of the first season’s more obvious mistakes. And then season two has pretty much just sat on them. Sure, overall it’s more consistent than the first season, but it hasn’t taken full advantage of the possibilities it presented early on.
One the key issue is the time jump. Nine months took place between the end of the first season and the start of the second, which gave Defiance a critical advantage: it allowed the show to set up a new status quo without having to painstakingly create that the new status quo. Unfortunately, in most of the episodes that followed, Defiance decided to go ahead and recreate that status quo anyway. If it hadn’t used the time jump, we would have seen the fascinating chaos that existed after the season one finale; if it had utilized the time jump well, we would be in the midst of a new crisis.
Instead, Defiance has creaked along, integrating new, slightly darker stories with its normal case-of-the-week stuff. The antagonism of the new characters, Pottinger and Berlin mostly, has been good, but the stories have rarely taken advantage of the resistance movement. Nolan hunting a Gulanee could happen at any time, as could Alak and Christy having issues with their marriage. Datak and Stahma’s problems are fascinating thanks to those characters being fascinating, but other than the instigating events in the first couple of episodes, they’ve been largely separated from the E-Rep takeover.
It’s not hard to see alternatives, either. The specter hanging over this—and every science fiction series, potential or existing—is the “New Caprica” arc of Battlestar Galactica, arguably the peak of that oft-great show. It was a combination of well-crafted tension, extreme serialization, and a willingness to take risks with public perception (having the heroes support suicide bombers at the height of the Iraq occupation angered a lot of previously-delighted right-wing fans). In other words, the New Caprica arc was a show going all-out, balls to the wall, full speed ahead, whatever your prefered colloquialism might be. Defiance has been anything but that for most of this season.
On the other hand, you might—and should—argue that New Caprica was less than half a dozen episodes, and it’s a lot easier to accomplish that much with a compressed story. Yet that merely pushes the question: why did the series choose the E-Rep setting if it didn’t want to to compress the story in such a fashion? What would have been lost had Defiance worked through the occupation in the first few episodes, and what would have been gained?
To answer that, I look not at Battlestar Galactica, whose structure was arguably unique in modern television and likely led to its downfall, but instead to a different influence on Defiance, the Western. Justified’s second season is a marvel of the sort of partial serialization that has dominated television since the days of Buffy and The Sopranos. After spending the first four episodes of setting up the main storyline and dealing with case of the week stuff, from episode five until the end of the season at #13, Justified seems to always be working toward a climax, even if that climax doesn’t take place at the end of the season. (Raylan’s confrontation with Coover, the Black Pike business, and Boyd’s return to crime all occur in the middle of the season.) It builds up tension, releases slightly, then moves on.
Most other shorter-episode shows, including Defiance, work on a model of building toward the season finale or the penultimate episode...and that’s it. Everything goes in that direction. This can be fine if there are enough great individual procedural episodes to maintain interest, but TV dramas rarely seem to manage that anymore (Orange Is The New Black is a delightful exception). So watching television like Defiance turns into the Fireworks Factory—when are we gonna get to the good stuff? Ten episodes of build-up may not always be worth it.
One of the odd ways that Defiance has attempted to deal with this is by alternating storylines from episode to episode. Specifically, it’s had Berlin, Tommy, and the E-Rep in one episode, then skips a week of that while Alak, Christy, and Irisa’s mythology move to the fore. Yet I’m not sure this actually helps the show feel like it’s moving forward. Instead it just makes the desire for the inevitable to happen slightly different.
If nothing else, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” starts pushing Defiance toward a climax. It does this from two different directions—the problem is, both of them come out of nowhere. First, the Votanis Collective—the occasionally referenced main alien political entity—has apparently put a bomb in New York City. Their spy in Defiance—whom we’ve only seen talking to Datak about weapons—apparently knows exactly where it might be. So Nolan and the E-Rep get to torturin’.
Second, Kenya’s back! And she’s in a horrible wig! Meanwhile, she’s been kidnapped by a Votan, who wants Amanda to get the spy out, and this is her reintroduction. Yes, there’s some drama to be had from Amanda working against Nolan (and everyone else) to get the Irathient out, and likewise, it’s potentially interesting to see Defiance integrated into the world’s overall geopolitical situation. But neither of these things have had any kind of buildup. Why on Earth haven’t we had any clue of Kenya’s continued existence? Why on Earth haven’t we seen anything to indicated that the Votanis Collective would actually commit such a terrorist act? Why, given all the build-up and setting-up we’ve seen over the course of the season, has Defiance suddenly decided that it needs something to ramp up the tension?
After the first couple of episodes of this season, I thought Defiance was about to become the next great science fiction series; I was on the verge of writing the “why you should be watching Defiance” review. Maybe that’ll come in the next five episodes, after all, that’s plenty of time. But the show has also had plenty of time to live up to its early-season promise, and it hasn’t. And the reasons why don’t seem to be overall content or competence, but instead are primarily structural. Defiance is holding back its best because it wants to save it til the end of the season.
- “I’m occasionally wrong but my heart’s always in the right place.” Nolan and Irisa are just sneaky fantastic.
- “Are you two dating?” “God no. We’re just having lots of sex.” #TeamBerlin
- Can’t say I’m delighted to see a show going back on its big first-season death already. Also, wasn’t Mia Kirshner giving interviews about how she had no plans to ever reappear on Defiance? Whoops.