Defiance, Season 1: Episode 13 – “Everything is Broken”
Directed by Michael Nankin
Written by Kevin Murphy
Returns to SyFy in 2014
When Defiance came along a couple months ago, there weren’t high expectations. It’s been a while since good science-fiction series populated TV (turn your attention to Orphan Black, if you didn’t catch the first season). Then it impressed us with its two-hour season premiere, which mostly functioned as a stand-alone TV film. It told a good enough story and concluded with a great action set piece that was more than satisfactory for a SyFy channel that hasn’t embraced more classic ideas of science-fiction in a while. Critical reaction to the series has been pretty moderate, and that’s probably about the right amount that it deserves. With the season finale now gone, it’s too much of a stretch to say that this was a truly great first season to a great series, especially when early 2013 brought us things like The Americans, Hannibal and Rectify. But that doesn’t mean that Defiance wasn’t worth watching and didn’t have the right to get renewed, which it has been. It’s been easy viewing – more than competent and sometimes genuinely entertaining.
Late in “Everything is Broken,” main character Nolan goes down in a gunfight. Defiance hadn’t proven itself capable of tugging hard at heartstrings, so it was no surprise when – by the very end of the episode – he’s alive and well. That’s something the show is going to have to figure out. Even though Mia Kirsher’s character, Kenya, is dead as far as we know, this show would benefit from a rotating cast if only for the sake of being believable – people in this kind of environment don’t have a high life expectancy. Not all showrunners are from the Joss Whedon School of Pain and are willing to kill of characters before all their potential has been met, but more showrunners could benefit from learning from that ideal.
One of the more satisfying things about this finale is how it tried to bring back some season-long concerns in an attempt to give the whole season a better structure than it actually had. It was easy to forget that Nolan and Irisa were on their way down to the beach-y landscape of Antarctica, so it was good to see him pull out that postcard again. Much of this episode is centered around the relationship between Nolan and Irisa, which has been relatively successful and complex in recent episodes. I still don’t buy into how strong their bond is given how strong it should be (and that could just be because Nolan is a very standoffish kind of guy), but that never functioned as a distraction or an issue that prevented enjoyment.
Outside of that relationship, though, some of the supporting characters have been huge pluses for the show. Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Graham Greene and Trenna Keating all delivered on good material. Curran and Murray as the Tarr couple were at times two-dimensional, but they really grew into those roles by the end once the characters had more to do that wasn’t just being generally evil. Now that Datak has won the mayoral election and is already having discrepancies with the Earth Republic, the stage has been set to give him some amount of pathos so that he isn’t just playing the Defiance antagonist all the time. And, of course, Stahma has poisoned Kenya, raising all kinds of questions about how the repercussions of that act will affect Stahma’s position as wife and Amanda’s role on the show. Keating especially finished as one of the better supporting performances, first by playing the cold nature of Doctor Yewll for comedic effect and then by showing her true colors in helping Nolan and Irisa escape from the Earth Republic. Yewll’s motivations are still unclear, but since she hasn’t been one of the main characters, that’s a mystery that’s more intriguing than frustrating going into the second season.
How the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” applies to TV shows would be something like “Production values aren’t everything.” And while I generally agree with the sentiment, I can’t help but feel that production values were a small part of why Defiance never elevated itself above the good into the great. It looks fine, but that’s just it: fine. The difference between watching something like this and something like, say, Orphan Black is noticeable. Orphan Black had its own palette and was shot beautifully. I’m not sure what the budget discrepancies were between those two shows, but they couldn’t have been much more than negligible. The special effects in Defiance were fine for what they were, but hopefully the powers-that-be can working on providing a more defined visual aesthetic next season, because there wasn’t any memorable consistency there. Even the soundtrack, which was often great, didn’t add enough to the atmosphere to give the sense of a fully-constructed show. That’s a minor issue, to be sure, but little things like that go a long way (imagine a cheaper-looking version of Hannibal and it becomes an entirely different show).
Overall, though, it’s been a pleasure watching and reviewing Defiance. As stated, it’s hard to come by things that can create a nostalgia for shows like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. Science-fiction is never going to go out of style, but good science-fiction is hard to come by. Defiance didn’t quite hit those marks, but the good news is that it only has the potential to get better. And with its video game tie-in, its world can become more and more complex and the creators can receive more and more feedback from both forms of media to help develop a more cohesive world in which these characters can operate. Because the video game aspect wasn’t the major marketing scheme behind this, we’ll never know what kind of potential there is in pushing those boundaries of television, but if anyone was able to pick up the game and enjoy both it and the show, then maybe that’ll encourage future shows to try this. In the meantime, we’ll be content with seeing Defiance improve, which it almost certainly will.