Defiance, Ep. 1.03: “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” – Promises kept and promises broken

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Defiance - Season 1Defiance Season 1, Episode 3 “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go”
Directed by Michael Nankin
Written by Kevin Murphy and Anupam Nigam
Airs Monday nights at 9pm on SyFy

Last week, Defiance had a two-hour premiere that functioned almost as a TV movie. There were three acts that were clearly demarcated with the final act typically immersing itself in some high-stakes action. If you missed the premiere and haven’t had a chance to look up any information about Defiance, there’s a lot you should know. First of all, this is a proper science-fiction series, which didn’t use to need to be a preface for a SyFy show. There are several alien races that exist alongside humans, there are spaceships, there is other advanced technology and it is set in the not-too-distant future. Second, the release of the Defiance TV series complements the release of the Defiance video game. So, if you find yourself becoming more and more engaged with the world of Defiance and need a little more to chew on each week, the game exists just for you. (As a disclaimer, I will not be playing the video game or referring to it for the purpose of these reviews. Full enjoyment and understanding of the TV series cannot be predicated on needing to have played it, otherwise the writers have failed to tell the story to the TV audience.) And, finally – and probably most importantly – you should know that Defiance is good. It’s too early to tell if it will be great, but shows typically don’t announce themselves in a way you could know that for sure.

What makes Defiance good in the early going is that it does what any decent sci-fi series needs to do, which is to establish its world and introduce us to its characters. Theme factors in later, and while the top-tier sci-fi series of days gone by have had interesting things to say about the world we live in, it’s much more important for a show like Mad Men or Justified to lay the foundations of its themes and agendas early on since shows like those can’t fall back on the genre characteristics that Defiance can. All that’s expected of Defiance for now is to make us want to hang out in this world with these people on Monday nights.

So, who are these people and what is this world like? Defiance takes its name from the city in which the series takes place (a futuristic St. Louis). Outside of Defiance, there are run-down badlands and alien-infested forests. Deep into the mines, a pathway leads to Old St. Louis, a part of the former city that is relatively intact after the planet’s surface folded over itself. The two main characters are Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler) and Irisa Nyira (Stephanie Leonidas). Nolan is a human who saved Irisa, an Irathient (a more feral/tribal race distinguished by a large nose bridge), when she was younger, and he has taken her on as a daughter and partner in travel. They are brought to Defiance after almost being killed in the woods at the end of a treasure hunt. In town, they meet the new mayor (Amanda, played by Julie Benz) and members of the McCawley and Tarr families who function in a Romeo and Juliet family feud kind of way. Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene) is in charge of the mines and doesn’t want his daughter hanging around Datak Tarr’s (Tony Curran) son. The Tarr family is of the Castithan race, which is physically human-like outside of being very pale. As events transpire, Nolan helps lead a defense of the city against the invading, robotic Volge and winds up being made the new Lawkeeper of Defiance.

Defiance TV series

Without focusing too much on its influences, fans of Firefly will be interested to know there are certain parallels between that beloved series and Defiance. Both series have a bit of a Western vibe (Nolan visits a brothel and what is essentially a saloon before becoming the sheriff figure), and Mal and Nolan seem to occupy similar moral compasses. The big difference here is that Defiance is a static main setting, whereas Firefly went wherever the ship Serenity did. So, it’s up to the citizens of Defiance to keep things interesting.

“Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” does just that, picking up on what felt like a throwaway moment from last episode where a Castithan deserts during battle. He is tortured in the streets of town, which Nolan and Irisa don’t appreciate. But Castithan custom dictates it, the guy isn’t arguing and Mayor Amanda doesn’t want to begin her tenure by going against how things were done by her successful predecessor, Mayor Nicky. This sets up some interesting aspects of Defiance that deal with the old ways versus the new ways. We get a scene where Mayor Nicky tells Amanda: “They built their lives around ancient traditions that may once have had a purpose but none of them can agree on what it was.” “They sound a lot like us,” Amanda says. Thus begins the social commentary, which sometimes comes off heavy-handed here, but at least provides a talking point. By the end of the episode, Amanda gets in the way of Datak Tarr after the tortured Castithan is brought in (he is put under arrest for “loitering” in the laugh-out-loud moment of the episode). Sure, that same Casithan winds up dead in front of the office as the episode concludes (set to Civil Twilight’s cover of “Come as You Are” by Nirvana – an…odd…choice, if anything), but the wheels of change are spinning in Defiance, dated customs be damned.

Where Defiance is struggling to hold itself up in these first three episodes is in the fated lovers story with the McCawley and Tarr families. We’ve seen this all before and much, much better. It doesn’t help that the two characters who are the keys – the McCawley daughter and the Tarr son – haven’t been developed enough for me to know their names without having to look them up. The worst scenes so far have been Stahma, Datak’s wife, trying to scheme like an alien version of Cersei from Game of Thrones. When it’s not cringey, it’s creepy – as in the scene in this episode where she’s practically naked, hugging her son.

Luckily, Rafe McCawley gets to do some things in this episode that are only tangentially related to the feud. When he and Nolan go into the mines and to Old St. Louis to prevent the destruction of the city, there’s some good dialogue between the old timer and the younger out-of-towner that gives Rafe a bit more color to his character. He tells Nolan: “Predicting the future is a sucker’s game. You don’t believe me? Just take a look around here.” As sympathetic towards Nolan as Defiance is, he still has some things to learn as a “father” and as a person in this world – and Rafe can contribute in that way.

On the peripherals, former Mayor Nicky is behind the treachery that brought the Volge to Defiance, though we’re not clear as to how those pieces fit in just yet. It may feel like Defiance is loading up on too much stuff, but this is usually the case with the beginnings of genre shows – or shows in general – and it can probably be forgiven on that basis. After all, Amanda’s sister, Kenya (Mia Kirshner), didn’t even show up in this episode, so the writers are at least conscious of allocating time to specific stories. The big question is how those stories will evolve over the next few episodes. Last week, the show proved it could do great action sequences. But if the writing is using the Romeo and Juliet sub-plot as a crutch, it will probably fail, because that aspect just isn’t interesting enough right now in the same way that the Brody/Carrie love story in Homeland isn’t. If we get more of Defiance’s interesting multicultural aspects through the eyes of the outsiders, though, things can only get better.

“Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go” by the Words:

– “This man is a deserter. He threw down arms and ran from the Volge.” “This man was brave to pick up arms in the first place.”

– “You look me in the eye, you tell me you think what’s going on back there is right.” “It’s necessary.”

– “You’re not gonna stop this?” “No, I am not. I’m not prepared to shoot up an entire town to rescue a man who says he doesn’t want to be saved.”

– “Nolan, don’t risk your life for these people. They’re not worth it.” “Some of them are.”

– “Did chivalry die in the Volge attack?”

– “What I do, I do for the benefit of all of us. And because it must be done. I take no pleasure in this…I just ran out of time, that’s all. No matter how much you get, it’s never enough.”

– “He’s sort of a jackass.” “Most men are.”

– “Now, you can do the right thing by your dead child, or you can do the right thing by the two living ones. But you cannot do both.”

– Sean

2 Comments
  1. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Sean:

    I was pleasantly surprised with the pilot of Sy~Fy’s ‘Defiance’. More than worthwhile special effects and a decent, not too confusing plot and story well executed.

    The quality still seems to hold up quite well in its second episode.

    Good stuff!

    1. Sean Colletti says

      Hey, Jack.

      I, too, thought the pilot did some great things in the same way that those older sci-fi TV movies sometimes hit the same beats of good B-movies, but with a much smaller budget.

      Rowan Kaiser over at The A.V. Club made a good point about how second episodes are still there as a kind of introduction for people who missed the pilot but heard about the show during the week and that ‘Defiance’ did a good job of avoiding feeling too repetitive in its second/third episode (I’m not exactly sure how number these episodes going forward, since two-hour premieres usually count for two episodes, and SyFy series generally have 13-episode seasons, not 12-episodes ones).

      Anyway, glad you’re enjoying it. I’m looking forward to writing about it more. I’m trying to go back and watch some sci-fi series that I missed, since ‘Firefly’ and ‘Star Trek’ are main sources of reference.

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