‘Defiance’ Finale Recap: “Everything is Broken”

This post is the first of two pieces that I originally wrote as part of the application process for a TV recapping position on a pop culture website. Obviously, I didn’t get the job, but I’m actually pretty happy with how both of them turned out. It seems like a waste for me to have spent hours and hours writing them (and have nervous anxiety breakdowns about them) and have nobody except Heather Anne to read them (she was kind enough to give me some feedback before I submitted them).

The night Defiance premiered, I was cautiously optimistic regarding chances of its future quality, or lack thereof, but as soon as it started, I had a very immediate reaction. Thank God, I thought, as my innards relaxed from a position of coiled misery I hadn’t consciously known they’d been in ever since the spring of 2009 when the last episode of Battlestar Galactica aired. Thank God, it’s real science fiction on my television again. As much as I love the sci-fi-lite shows currently on air (i.e. Warehouse 13, the recently departed Eureka, and even fantastical, high quality shows like Game of Thrones and Orphan Black), none of them quite fill that gap in my heart where the spaceships and aliens should be. Give me lasers and space battles! Give me weird face makeup and prosthetics! Give me cultural confusion and mythological and religious weirdness! Defiance has certainly tried its best on all counts, and while the resulting episodes have been a bit spotty and the show is definitely still sorting out what types of stories it tells best, Defiance has proven to be at the very least a credible successor to shows like Farscape (which co-creator Rockne O’Bannon also produced) and Battlestar Galactica, and I’m glad it’s getting a second season to explore itself further.

Defiance - Season 1Which brings us to the culmination of Defiance’s first season, a finale aptly, and perhaps somewhat melodramatically, titled “Everything is Broken.” It’s election day in Defiance, and while the actual battle for Mayor between Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz) and Castithan mob boss Datak Tarr (Tony Curran) has only been going on for a couple of episodes, the conflict implied in that battle between the repressive culture of the Castithans as led by the prideful and ambitious Tarr family and the fiercely independent, peaceful, and (mostly) noble faction of humans and other Votans, has been building from the first opening minutes of the show. Even before, actually, if you count the initial Votan invasion and the resulting Pale Wars. The war is technically over, but the resentments created by that war live on, as do the cultural conflicts caused by bringing a shit-ton of aliens into close proximity with one another and asking them to get along. I mean, damn, we’re just one human species in real life, and yet this weekend alone* the news cycle was choked with evidence of substance abuse and miscarriages of justice on a grand scale. Imagine our problems as a species and then compound that with eight other species and their problems, and then stick them all on one planet, in one town, in one family now tied together by marriage, and you’ve got the powder-keg that is Defiance.

*I wrote this the morning after Cory Montieth’s death and the ruling on the Trayvon Martin case, among other incidents. 

While Datak is losing his damn mind safely in the privacy of his own home, where no one but his wife can see him, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas) is now missing, after Doc Yewell’s attempts in the last episode to retrieve the mystical alien objects known as Kaziri that have been hidden inside her since she was a child went horribly wrong. Irisa’s adopted human father, the disgraced former lawkeeper Nolan, is out looking for her with his lovelorn deputy, Tommy. It doesn’t take long for them to find her hiding out among her fellow Irathients, where she’d been taken after being found in the woods by Rynn, a fugitive from a couple of episodes back who resents Irisa and Nolan for their part in her adopted father’s fate. While Irisa and Rynn stand vigil over a comatose Sukar, the Earth Republic has made a move into Defiance, in expectation that Datak will win the election, and he will in turn honor their agreement to allow the dastardly E-Rep to take over their town (a move Amanda is firmly against as it will mean Defiance will shortly become unrecognizable). They, like Doc Yewell, know of the powerful weapon hidden in the Defiance mines, and now thanks to Doc Yewell, they know Irisa has the keys the need to activate it. Soon enough they come for her, and she allows herself to be taken in exchange for someone called ‘Black Jonah’ not straight-up murdering a bunch of innocent people. Black Jonah is distinctly pale, so one must only assume he gets the nickname from the quality of his soul, which is kind of racist if you think about it, but we don’t have time for cultural etymology right now.

Meanwhile, Datak is getting kinky anxiety sex from Stahma in preparation for his big day. The key to both his and his wife’s characters comes when Datak starts to lose it, because we can clearly see in those moments that it’s his ego that is the fragile one, and that Stahma Tarr (the lovely Jaime Murray) is adept at subtle emotional manipulation. She calms him down, tells him what he needs to hear, and she gets what she wants. (She only has to put up with his abuse and disrespect in return.) Speaking of abuse and disrespect, Stahma’s experimental lesbian affair with the local Madam, Kenya Rosewater (Mia Kirshner), sister of Mayor Amanda, ends very, very badly in this episode. And while it’s difficult to parse just exactly what Stahma’s true feelings are about what happens, because her motivations are still rather alien, it seems clear at the very least that she enjoyed their time together as something truly hers that she didn‘t have to share with Datak. It’s only when the relationship is revealed by an angry Kenya and Datak’s anger threatens to make itself known violently to his wife’s body, that she makes her choice (it would’ve happened then and there in the voting booth if not for the secret being revealed in public with lots of press present). She lures Kenya out to the woods and poisons her, afterwards cradling Kenya’s lifeless body while singing her a creepy Casthitan lullaby. “It was penance,” she tells Kenya, as if Datak is her God rather than her husband, which brings up a whole ‘nother set of issues I really hope the show will start parsing out next season. Who is Stahma Tarr, really? What goes through her beautiful, devious mind? Actually, I would appreciate more depth on most of the characters in this show. Give us a few moments as viewers that have nothing do with the crisis of the week. It’s one of the reasons I’ve ended up liking Alak Tarr so much. His scenes as a teenage hipster alien DJ have been endearing and told me a lot about who he is as a character, despite not actually being of much import. Right now, with the exception of Irisa and Datak, these people mostly only exist in the moment. I want to see what makes them tick.

Everything hits the fan after Datak wins the election (because of course he does). If Defiance were telling the kind of story where the Amanda Rosewaters of the world win everything all the time, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Instead it’s the Datak Tarrs who win, over and over again — those people who know what they want and aren’t afraid to do anything in order to accomplish their goals. Datak in particular has deep-seated issues involving his self-worth and his social class, both of which are so deeply rooted in his psyche that the resulting shame he feels causes him to rage-kill anyone who witnesses his transgressions. “Sorry you had to see that. It doesn’t fit my narrative,” he told one woman in a past episode, before bashing in her head until her brains fell out of her broken skull. Something similar happens here. The E-Rep guy happens upon Datak fresh from his victory and makes the mistake of shaming him with no one else around. He calls Datak “an uppity little haint” and implies that Datak’s fall will be swift and hard now that the E-Rep’s got what they want. The next time we see the E-Rep, his blood is soaking the Mayoral carpet as Stahma comforts a shaken, post-murder Datak. “I miss home,” Datak says. And suddenly it becomes abundantly clear that Datak sees this new world as a place in which to rewrite the story of his culture, only this time the narrative includes him on top instead of cowering obsequiously at the bottom.

As for Nolan, Tommy, Rafe McCauley (the former owner of the Mines), and Irisa? Irisa attacks the E-Rep with the Kaziri that were previously lying dormant in her body, and the resulting escape gets Nolan shot. Even though I think one of the things this show needs the most work on is its characters, I think it’s definitely to its credit that during several key moments in this episode, I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Will Stahma kill Kenya? Will Datak win the election? Will they really kill Nolan? Yes, they will. Well, as it turns out, he doesn’t stay dead, but I can’t tell in this moment whether my doubt in his survival is due more to Defiance itself or the TV culture it’s found itself living in, a post-Game of Thrones world in which lead characters can be killed off even if they’re played by Sean Bean. Right now I’m inclined to say that Defiance has taken the easy way out by resurrecting Nolan, but I’m officially withholding my final judgement until next season when I see where they’re going with this Irisa-cliff-diving-into-a-mystical-resurrecting-spaceship thing. The final image of the season is a wide shot of the moon-drenched Defiance as E-Rep tanks roll slowly but inexorably in. Because I’m still not sure what kind of show Defiance is, I don’t know how far-reaching the consequences of this episode will be. Will this be the kind of show that resurrects its lead character and solves all of its problems in one or two episodes? Or is the kind of show that will let its story and characters evolve, the kind of show that would rather give us something good than something safe?  I can’t bring myself to mourn for Amanda’s lost job, Kenya’s murder, Datak’s lost sanity, or the E-Rep occupation of Defiance until I know I have something to mourn.

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