The biggest advantage of Defiance becoming an occupation and resistance story in its second season is that it disorients the relationship between its audience and its characters. Almost every TV show treats some of its characters as subjects. Their viewpoint is prioritized, they possess agency over the storyline, and their actions are explicable. A show like Breaking Bad, for example, radically focuses on a single subject, Walter White (with Jesse often getting the opportunity, to be fair.) On the other side of the spectrum, something like Game Of Thrones or David Simon’s shows have dozens of at least partial subjects—this is easy to track with GOT due to it being an adaptation of a book series with point-of-view characters.
But most shows rely on a small handful, like the main family in a sitcom, or a core group like Buffy’s Xander/Willow/Giles/Buffy collection. Other characters may become important, but they’re primarily important for their impact on the main subject characters’ lives. Angel was inscrutable until he got his own show, and Cordelia was an amusing antagonist until she followed him and became part of that show’s core group of subjects. (An occasional frustrating part of television discourse occurs when people assume that entertaining external object characters are better than the main characters, because their inner lives are assumed to be as fun as their external lives. By this I mean that I love Piper Chapman and I don’t care what anyone says.)
The problem for Defiance is that it matched its core, subjective characters—primarily Nolan and Amanda—too well with its setting. She’s the mayor, he’s the sheriff, they keep things stable. Many shows, particularly cop dramas, put things together. The subject characters that we care about are the ones who are the center of their setting’s center of power, so it revolves around them. That’s stable and comfortable, and especially on network shows with 22 episodes per season, stable can be a very good thing.
However, Defiance has a shorter season, heavier serialization, and most importantly, a setting that is far more interesting when it’s unstable over stable. This is a post-apocalyptic world, constant social change, all kinds of different cultures interacting with one another, a powder-keg of a political situation, and Defiance seemed, at times, to want to just be a cop show with aliens.
By putting the town of Defiance under E-Rep occupation, the show flips who has the power, and this also switches who’s the subject and who’s the object, at least temporarily. The Nolan who arrives in Defiance at the start of the episode isn’t bound by the requirements of being an audience surrogate, nor is he bound by having to uphold the law and be respectable. His scene with the E-Rep captain going by Berlin as he attempted to enter the town was maybe the best the character has been. “And I’ve heard of Berlin, I’ve always wanted to visit,” he says, with a monumental shit-eating grin. In short, being freed of the expectations of being the show’s subject allows Nolan to be a smarmy rogue, and that’s a hell of a lot more fun than watching him try to be serious.
However, what makes “In My Secret Life” really work is that Berlin is able to immediately turn around and have a discussion about what that means. As played by Anna Hopkins, she’s an immediate boost to the episode, exerting quiet control when she needs to, in the entertaining opening scene as she guides an E-Rep soldier through a PR piece, or going verbally toe-to-toe with Nolan about the usefulness of E-Rep, and pretty clearly winning. Yet it’s when she gets into who Nolan is that the episode becomes great.
“I bet you watched Star Wars a few hundred times when you were a kid. […] Driving around in your busted-ass roller with your hot Chewbacca, shtupping whores, and shooting people who cause you trouble. Call that hand cannon strapped to your side a blaster and you’ve got the complete picture. […] Admit it, you like the world just the way it is. A playground for a man who doesn’t want to grow up, but who refuses to admit that this doesn’t work for almost everybody else.”
In doing this, Berlin enters into a dialogue with the idea that Nolan deserves to be the subject, to have an audience who’s supposed to root for him. Her critique is dead on, both in terms of the Defiance world and in terms of the idea that we need a “happy cowboy” white guy to invest ourselves into this story. She’s right, and most important, thanks to the occupation storyline, she’s an antagonist who’s right.
Stories of resistance and occupation work because they blur these boundaries. Power is moved away from the subject characters, and with it, so is their subjectivity. This allows them to be entertaining, like Nolan, but it also allows them to be critiqued without the show. In my current Babylon 5 reviews, I’m watching as that show makes legitimate critiques of its main characters, but it puts those arguments in the mouths of absurd, unrespectable people, and in so doing, dismisses legitimate concerns in order to keep its heroes as pure heroes. You can’t do that in an effective occupation story, and thus far, Defiance’s occupation story is effective in all the right ways.
The plot of the episode focuses on a terrorist bomber, but it really serves primarily as a way to reintegrate Nolan and Irisa into Defiance town. It gets the job done well enough, setting the board up for the entire season. This is necessary work, and it’s accomplished well. But the biggest stride forward is that Defiance demonstrates that it understands itself, its nominal main character, and how it can subvert expectations using its revamped setting.
- “He’s gaga for god.” Doc Yewll, never stop being you.
- “Ah. The blue devil is popular.” How the show played Stahma being confronted by the mayor was pretty fascinating. Jaime Murray’s exaggerated appearance of pondering whether to admit what she was doing managed maintain both the idea that Stahma is an expert manipulator, and that thinks she’s far more clever than she is.
- “Tommy!” “What?” “I’m gonna need your gun.”
- “Classic end-of-the-world conspiracy stuff.” If only, Doc.
- “Tommy? Tommy’s good! We like Tommy very very much.” “Don’t care!” “Nice boy, good prospects!” Moments where Nolan and Irisa gently make fun of parent-child relationships are always welcome.