One of the most difficult tasks in judging a television show early on is weighing the importance of potential. If Defiance is going to run for seven years and spawn two spin-offs, then it makes sense to focus on what it's getting right early. If it's going to collapse in the ratings and in terms of critical acclaim and be canceled by the end of the year, then reviews that focus on what it's doing wrong will seem to be more useful and accurate.
This is all a fairly convoluted way of saying that “The Devil In The Dark” was still sloppy in having fairly typical early-series issues, as well as a few Defiance-specific problems, that prevented it from being wall-to-wall great. On the other hand, there were a few things that it did extremely well, and those seem to be strong building blocks for creating a really good series. As you can probably tell by the grade, I've decided to focus on the potential here—for a third episode of a series, this was daring and successful, and that deserves to be rewarded and focused upon.
In my two previous reviews, I've generally focused on Defiance as a science fiction show more than a western, but it's the frontier nature of the setting that gives “The Devil In The Dark” its most specific power. The episode is about what happens when a powerful group wants, and can take, from a less powerful group, and on the frontier, nothing can stop them—except the acquisition of more violent power.
The Irathients, Irisa's race, are the oppressed group here, standing in for any number of human cultures, but particularly Native Americans given the western genre. It is the group that was unable to assimilate, or was not allowed to assimilate. It is the group whose lack of presence prevents the town of Defiance from really being an example of a liberal, tolerant paradise. And what gives this episode its storyline is that it is a group of people who were violently bullied off their land, or simply killed for it. The daughter of an Irathient family, Renn, who saw her parents murdered for their land has grown up, and is taking revenge. First, she goes after the men who did the deed—but then she attacks people who may have benefited from it and threatens the whole town.
How a show deals with guilt and culpability in a story like this is a strong sign of its intelligence. If it treats Renn the avenger as a pure hero or a pure villain, that's worrisome—it's taking interesting ideas and making them fit a simple story structure. Defiance doesn't do that, happily. The most promising method of dealing with that premise would be to use it to discuss the impossibility of ethical behavior in an unjust world. That's what Veronica Mars often did when it was at its best—Veronica often had to deal with people lashing out at a class system she herself disliked. Defiance is closer to that model, but it's not quite there yet—it cops out by having Renn start targeting innocent children as well as attacking the main characters when they confront her. Still, it's a good sign that Defiance is using its setting for thematic strength instead of just window-dressing.
On the other hand, there is window-dressing. The video game-like aspects of the show are on display in the confrontation with Renn. Four characters grab their guns and head into a cave for a bug hunt. At the end, they find a boss monster, which emerges from the ground in an extremely gamey cutscene. To be fair, it is pretty impressive CGI work for a TV show to have that many bugs and that much time spent on their queen, but it was still odd.
What really makes “The Devil In The Dark” work, though, is the character work focused on Irisa. She has a personal storyline that mirrors the more general Irathient plot of the episode. She has “episodes” where she sees events, which is a point of contention between her and Nolan. He thinks they're meaningless post-traumatic stress disorder visions and has apparently been trying to get her to ignore them, so she's been hiding them from him. When they turn out to be real, she lashes out. “I'm an alien, and you made me afraid of that.” This stuff is all established a little bit too quickly, much like the too-fast plotting from a week ago.
But what Defiance does to make it work is that it takes the time when it's important. “The Devil In Dark” recognizes the visual and symbolic power that TV can use, so it slows down for the scenes where it can take advantage of that. Early in the episode, Irisa is shown exercising, doing a sort of knifey tai chi. It's a nice scene, with the twist of Irisa's vision at the end. In the middle of the episode, Defiance does it again: The head of the Spirit Riders discovers Irisa's gift, and does a ritual with her. Defiance gets to take advantage of the science fiction setting here; it doesn't have to do a real shamanic ritual since the Irathients aren't really Native Americans. It only has to demonstrate the idea of ritualness, in a way that Nolan can both respect and find alien to his experience.
All that is good and respectable, and I was prepared to talk about the potential that Defiance was showing as the end of the episode came. And then it went and got good on me. Three scenes in quick succession turned that intelligence about its setting into something with legitimate emotional power. First, Renn talking the head of the Spirit Riders about justice and going to prison, primed the pump—there's no good resolution there, and they knew it. Yet there was still love there. Then, Amanda announcing a project to give Irathient homesteaders who'd had their land stolen some measure of justice and profit showed just how limited systems built on oppression can be, even as the people involved want to do their best to fix them.
What really got me, though, was Nolan attempting and failing to connect with Irisa as she turned to a new father figure who could provide her with more of a connection to her past. The subject of people shifting between two cultures is both endlessly fascinating to me and something I feel connected to because I see it happen with people that I love (including the person watching with me, who teared up). Part of this was the manipulative music at the end—this show seems to love its covers of famous songs—but I think it earned those emotions over the course of the episode, and the montage just brought it all home. Pacing issues, awkward dialogue, uneasiness about how to integrate the video game with the TV show: Those are all things that can and should be resolved in time. But intelligently dealing with the setting and how its affects its characters, just three episodes in? That's damn impressive, Defiance.
- For a convenient example of a show with an interesting premise that never took advantage of it and ended up in an early, shallow grave for it, see Terra Nova.
- Early in the episode people talk about Amanda being up for re-election. Which is weird because in the pilot they said she'd been in the job for three weeks?
- “Perhaps we should dine out?” The Romeo and Juliet plot continues to annoy, but Datak fighting off the hellbugs was kiiiiinnnddda awesome. And his complaint about how Christy bathes alone was another effective discussion of the problems of culture clashes.
- “I hired a bunch of Wall Street lawyers, and we all surfed the internet together looking for a title!”
- We've officially picked up Defiance for a season-long review order! To celebrate, I've acquired a copy of the game, and look forward to playing it and seeing how it connects to the show.