After the rush of world building, then the crash and din of battle we were treated to last week, Defiance slows its roll a bit to develop its characters. Yes, this is a character development episode which allots quite a bit of screen real estate to one on one exposition. On a show like The Walking Dead I prefer less character episodes and more zombie flesh munching, but for science fiction shows such as Defiance I find they go a long way toward exploring contemporary issues. This was the bread and butter of genre legends Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (2003), and I'm hopeful we're seeing the ground work of the same here.
McCawley and Nolan find a quiet moment while exploring Old St. Louis which allows them to bond over the past and open up about the present. Grant Bowler impresses in this nice little scene. He gave the grumpy and hardened McCawley the exact level of prodding needed to force his petals open; though he still wouldn't sing his grandfather's dog food jingle (there's got to be a line somewhere and that's where Rafe draws it).
There were a good number of these moments, but none had quite the gravitas of the diner scene shared between Stahma Tarr and Christie McCawley. Manipulative mother meets naive daughter-in-law to be, initiating a heart to heart as a means of reassuring the younger woman of the righteousness of her impending nuptials. The delightful nuance of this scene comes from we the audience knowing that Stahma has only the foulest of intentions; she is ensuring the wedding to cement the power base of her husband. Jaime Murray turns up the charm, fogging the truth in a way Warehouse 13 fans have come to love and loathe her for. She makes situations unpredictable and fun. Nowhere else has composer Bear McCreary's influence been felt as strongly as in the pauses during this exchange; he impregnates them with subtle meaning that deepens the exchange.
Below the town of Defiance, Old St. Louis screams of the scenescapes last spied in Beneath The Planet of the Apes. The underground and intact portions of the former metropolitan city was largely unspoiled by the chaotic terraforming, leaving a nuclear power plant in working order. For the greater good it seems former Mayer Nicky needs this bastion of electricity detonated in a nuclear fire. There are hints at what she's trying to uncover or gain from this, but nothing is solidly elaborated upon. Still, she's willing to kill all of the people she's known and governed for years to make this happen. It all feels so distant from the character drama though.
The weakness of this episode springs from its inability to mount any kind of life or death tension. Though Ben has fled underground with explosives and rigged a nuclear blast which would destroy the town, there's never any sense of dangers or threat of failure on the part of our protagonists. We know they're going to win; they have to, as the titular town can't be wiped from the map only two episodes in. There's a subtle agreement we make with TV shows- we attempt to suspend our disbelief, and in exchange they play three card monte with our expectations. The show runners don't keep up their end of the bargain this week. There's a decided lack of palpable concern for the fates of these characters. If this were light hearted adventure ala Hercules the Legendary Journeys, then the tone would be understandable.
In contrast to my comparison of Nolan to Mal Reynolds last week, it seems the character is more nuanced. Nolan is ready to ingratiate himself into the community of Defiance and settle down in a way that Mal never would have been able. Nolan may be less deeply scared by his battle history, or is able to recognize the promise of the town (and that it doesn't get much better). Irisa seems to have taken the nomadic virtues to heart. She's restless to move on to a better place, which in all likelihood does not exist. Perhaps in a weird way Nolan raised Irisa into the listless nomad he was and in doing so she helped him see the value of community. The trouble for him is going to come in her adjustment to staying put (if she does).
Cultural divide is rearing its head as a central theme to Defiance. Respect for the deeply held beliefs of others wages brutal combat with the shock and outrage of modern sensibilities. Culled directly from our current, real world headlines, this is where a new, bold science fiction show can truly cement its cultural legacy. Let's hope that Defiance can stick the landing, while continuing to engage an audience ravenously hungry for the throwback style scifi show that we've been missing.
I am still not sold on the epically emotional cover of Nirvana's Come as you are. As it first dawned on me what I was hearing, I felt as though I'd been physically smacked in the face. As the scene continued I found it to work; exposure to it was wearing down my reservations. An aging man's sense of "is nothing sacred" still haunts my thoughts on this usage. How do you feel about it, fellow Maniacs?
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Wednesday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.