I can’t think of how many TV shows I’ve seen where a promising pilot is followed by a crappy second episode. It’s like people get burned out trying to make the pilot as awesome as it can be, and so the second episode suffers. But I’m happy to report that Defiance has no sophomore slump.
The lovably pompously titled “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” didn’t have a climatic battle between the inhabitants of Defiance and some alien menace, but that was to its advantage, I think. Instead of pumping in a CG battle to prove that SyFy’s $100 mil is being spent somewhere, this quieter episode gets to shade in the characters and establish a few relationships, and this time, instead of running down a list of stock TV situations, it throws in a few genuinely interesting twists.
Let’s start with the end of last week’s episode, specifically with the Castithan “soldier” who ran like hell when things got bad. As it turns out, the traditional Castithan punishment for desertion is a very slow, public execution (with an elaborate system of weights, pulleys and rocks; it’s pretty awesome). Nolan isn’t a big fan of this, but Mayor Amanda informs him its Defiance’s policy to let the various alien societies utilize their own traditions, even if that tradition means letting someone die slowly in the middle of the street.
But Nolan doesn’t have time to deal with this, because Amanda’s ex-assistant Ben — the guy who blew up the power shield generators in the pilot — has escaped with a bomb through one of Rafe McCauley’s mines, into Old St. Louis! (As it turns out, the alien terraformer seems to have taken a shine to the old city, so instead of destroying it like most other cities, it just sort of covered it with a mountain.) This is awesome, because 1) it looks cool, but more because 2) it gives us a lot more info on how Earth has changed without any ham-handed exposition. Anyways, Rafe and a few of his men head down in pursuit, along with Sherriff Nolan, who wants to make sure Ben stays alive for questioning, and that Rafe doesn’t kill his son Luke’s killer.
Meanwhile, Lady MacBeth Montague — er, Datak Tarr’s wife Stahma is busy trying to keep her hotheaded husband from doing something rash, as well as try to keep her son’s wedding to Rafe McCauley’s daughter Christina on track. In the Sherriff’s office, Irisa decides to free the Castithan traitor and put him in jail (Deputy Sherriff Tommy backs her up with a shotgun, and, when asked on what grounds the man is being imprisoned, awesomely replies, “Loitering.” Deputy Sherriff Tommy is the best).
And that’s about it for the other characters; back in the mine, Nolan and Rafe had figured out that while Ben’s bomb wouldn’t do much on its own, if he sticks it in St. Louis’ nuclear power plant, things are going to get a lot more radiation-y in Defiance. Of course, our heroes stop him in the nick of time, to be followed by a shockingly long “will Rafe shoot the killer of his son of sacrifice personal revenge for the great good” trope. Rafe doesn’t shoot Ben, but Ben manages to commit suicide by Rafe anyways, grabbing Rafe’s gun and shooting himself in the gut.
And then there’s that final set of scenes, set to a Nirvana cover (which is fucking ballsy, I might add). Mayor Amanda leads the citizens of Defiance to the woods to honor the 41 folks who died in the pilot. Then Rafe, bothered by words his other son Quentin and Ben the traitor said (specifically, why was Luke meeting with a dude who was planning on destroying Defiance in the woods late at night?) finds a shit-ton of cash and a mysterious (alien?) gold artifact in Luke’s room. And finally, Datak Tarr has a pleasant meeting with the Castithan traitor who had been chained up and whom Irisa freed; the man thanks Dalak for letting him spend some time with his family, and is next seen in front of the sherriff’s office with his throat slit.
This is my favorite moment in Defiance so far, which shows that while Defiance the city is built on the idea of tolerance and community, some customs die fucking hard, and this is going to be a constant source of drama in the show. I think that’s great. It’s a genuinely interesting theme, and with eight different alien species, there’s so many storytelling possibilities to be mined out of this. It's a tough issue, but a relevant issue, and it's a lot more interesting than another CG battle scene. And if Defiance has the balls to bring this issue to the forefront in episode 2, then that’s an extremely good sign.
My second favorite moment is Rafe’s discovery: I had assumed, and not unjustly so, I think, that Luke’s death in the pilot was just another reason to sow dissent between the McCauleys and the Tarrs, but this scene reveals that Luke was almost certainly up to some bad shit. Now, Rafe has to deal with that not just as a father, but as a xenophobe who suddenly realizes that not all humans are necessarily trustworthy, either... not even his own son. It’s a very interesting twist to what has been the stockiest of Defiance’s stock characters, and again, I think it bodes well for the show.
And these developments didn’t just come at the end; the scene where Datak Tarr yells that he’s determined to uphold Castithan traditions primarily because he’s now the guy on top is an interesting shade to the character, one that reminds us that the cultural differences that could keep Defiance from becoming a real community are sometimes personal as well.
Honestly, I’m genuinely excited that not only is Defiance starting to crack the molds from the first episode (not break them, but there are definitely cracks), but that it's obviously picked a major theme to explore, that of how different people and different cultures get along — or fail to get along. The best scifi series use science fiction to look at real world issues like these; I don’t think we can call Defiance the best yet, but this is a damn fine start.
• It had seriously bugged me why St. Louis had renamed itself Defiance; I know that fight was special, but renaming things, especially well-established cities, is nearly impossible to do because old habits die hard. Then this episode showed me that actual St. Louis was still around, just covered by a terraformed mountain and over to the side. So Defiance really is a new town. I appreciate that.
• Right now, my biggest problem with Defiance is that Irisa is still a blank slate, and since she was the one who technically introduced the show with her inner monologue, I feel like we’re supposed to like her or identify with her or something. Maybe that's not the case, but right now she feels like the weakest of all the major and semi-major characters, even though she’s on all the promo material.
• Apparently the Castihan families are very cool about just hanging out in baths together. A nicely unusual custom, that indicates how different the Castithans are, and while we might think it's creepy, the scene is shot totally straight, indicating it's obviously no big deal for the Tarrs.
• Okay, I hate people who mercilessly nitpick these less-than-hard scifi shows for things that are unbelievable or believable; the show is what it is, it’s made its bed, and you can choose to sleep with it or not. But then I also really want an in-show explanation of why virtually every single alien wearing human clothes. Were all the aliens clothes destroyed in the war? Did they just like Earth clothes that much better? Were they nude? Oh my god, they were nude, weren’t they?! And when they came to Earth they realized they were naked and got all embarrassed! Holy shit, we totally Eve’d the hell out of millions of naked aliens!