Defiance, Ep. 1.05: “A Well Respected Man” – Having your eye on the wrong snake

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Defiance, Season 1: Episode 5 – “A Well Respected Man”
Directed by Michael Nankin
Written by Craig Gore and Tim Walsh
Airs Monday nights at 9 on SyFy

It was in my review of last week’s episode of Defiance that I suggested a StarCraft connection for this series. Maybe it’s because I played those games too much, but that Volge up there looks like it could be an accurate cross between a Protoss Zealot and a Zerg Hydralisk. In any case, the video game influence that you would expect this show to have shines through again in “A Well Respected Man” during a cat and mouse scene (albeit an imaginary one) that infuses a menace reserved for moments with the likes of Silent Hill‘s Pyramid Head or Resident Evil‘s Nemesis. Kenya can’t go toe-to-toe with a single Volge, even if they’re more vulnerable than either of those other entities. All she can do is run and hide. Rowan Kaiser has had more time to devote to the Defiance game than I have, but I still really appreciate these sequences that situate the viewer in a universe that feels almost completely unexplored and unexplained (such as the whole device that Kenya and her employee get plugged into) because they remind us that we are only following a handful of characters in this MMO-style world.

It’s when this episode took the time out to explain certain things that it dragged. There were two walk-around-the-town scenes, one with Nolan and Amanda and one with Nolan and Datak, that essentially served the bland purpose of piling on information. One character doesn’t know as much about the surroundings as the other – in the Nolan and Amanda case, surprisingly, Nolan has to explain this drug that’s going around to the stand-in mayor. When you have dialogue like this, the pace of the storytelling comes to a standstill and you lose all that narrative momentum gained from a scene like Rafe and his living son arguing about what’s going on with the dead son’s section of the mine. All that exposition is fine in the first couple episodes of a series (and especially a science-fiction series), but writers need to quickly shift gears to show that they’re not holding the hands of their viewers every week. This is the fifth hour of this show and a lot of ideas and locales and people and tensions have been introduced. The best path going forward is to let those things breathe.

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There were a couple great articles written by Willa Paskin recently over at Salon about figuring out if an actor is bad as opposed to the writing for the character not being up to scratch. This is an idea which is useful to think about when watching Defiance, because at several points during “A Well Respected Man” I felt like scenes that should have had more emotional resonance were made trivial by what appeared to be mediocre acting. The best example is the material shared by Amanda and Kenya regarding the nature of that relationship (is Amanda more of a sister or a mother to Kenya?). Maybe it was the way this was handled with intermittent flashbacks, but this stuff really didn’t work for me, which was a big letdown given that Mia Kirshner wasn’t even in last week’s episode. When testing this using Paskin’s method, I admit that I can kind of become part of these characters’ interior worlds. But only if I really try. Compare that to Stephanie Leonidas as Irisa or Graham Greene as Rafe, both of whom I buy into completely even when they don’t have great material to work with (and where the hell was Irisa this week?). I’m hoping this is just an early writing issue, because both Amanda and Kenya have major roles to play in the town of Defiance. But this is definitely something to watch out for.

If you were on listen-out-for-the-cover-song duty this time around, you might have been disappointed that we got a Bob Dylan version of a Bob Dylan song (which is kind of funny given all the popular covers of Dylan songs that sometimes end up being better than the originals). This time, “Scarlet Town” from the album Tempest closed the show, which worked beautifully. If this is going to be Defiance‘s thing, I’m totally on-board. “Scarlet Town” in particular provided a vibe that hit just the right notes with the tone of this show and complemented its western vibe.

To point out just one more thing from “A Well Respected Man,” I took note of something Stahma said about Kenya: “She has a rare gift for knowing exactly what people need.” There isn’t much significance attached to this line in the episode – in fact, Kenya thinks she knows what someone needs when offering a medallion to her employee, but she finds out she’s completely wrong – but it’s an interesting theme that I think runs through Defiance and TV shows in general in some way or another. Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, for instance, knows exactly what her friends need to become “better versions of themselves,” to borrow a phrase used in Talking TV. A character who legitimately has that kind of ability is a gold mine for storytelling since other characters can bounce off them and mature in the process. Early seeds have been planted in Defiance for this to happen with Nolan and Kenya if we believe that Kenya truly can bring out the best or essential in people. I don’t think Kenya can or will serve as a dramatic linchpin for this series, but if she’s able to humanize Nolan and other characters more, that’s a huge service to this show. But who knows? Maybe Nolan and Kenya’s relationship really is strictly of the physical nature and that’s all either character needs.

– Sean Colletti

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