The chief lesson learned from Defiance’s third-season premiere: this show might have finally decided to solve its identity crisis. From the beginning it’s been unclear what Defiance has been going for. Is it a gritty post-apocalyptic tale of complex morality? A sci-fi police action-adventure? A Star Trek/Babylon 5-style celebration of diversity and classical liberalism? Or a Lost-inspired journey through mythology? Defiance has tried on all of these outfits, with wildly varying results.
Now, though? Defiance has come down firmly as a grim, complex post-apocalyptic science fiction show. A season premiere that wipes out almost an entire major family and turns the previously too-clean heroes into “ends-justify-the-means” anti-heroes seems more like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones than anything else (winter has literally come to Defiance, beating Game of Thrones by approximately two days.)
There’s just one slight problem—Defiance has done this before. Twice, really. Both season premieres, especially the second, were strong statements of intent, and promises of shows that didn’t quite deliver. Even with relatively short season orders, Defiance has rarely felt like a show that has a strong grasp on long-term structure, and it especially suffered from that through the middle of its second season.
Yet it’s hard to come away from the premiere feeling like the show can pull back from this. Killing three McCawleys in a single raid, even if they were the three most expendable characters on the show, is hard to come back from. Amanda being a little bit too goody-goody through most of the show? Quickly subverted as she kneecaps a criminal after feigning sympathy, then utterly demolished as she encourages the flaying of Doc Yewll for a temporary alliance. Irisa lives out those classical liberal ideals as she talks down an understandably angry attacker, only to have Nolan instantly kill him. Or there’s the Castithan spy, threatening to rape Irisa (apparently having missed years worth of conversation about how tired rape is as a shortcut to grittiness). Also a small child got murdered and that was swept under the rug.
Moving into the gritty post-apocalyptic storytelling isn’t a bad move for Defiance. I’ve discussed before how the backstory depicted in the video game is significantly darker than the tone of the show, and as TWD or GOT demonstrate, being “dark” is clearly not a negative for a genre show these days. And it’s not like it’s a reach for Defiance, which has taken steps in that direction before.
But the switch to a darker tone didn’t actually feel good. Sweeping the McCawleys off the board might have been a good idea for long-term storytelling, as they’ve caused more problems than they’ve fixed through the previous two seasons, but after Quentin’s shocking death, Rafe and Christy felt like deliberately cruel overkill. That feeling of deliberate cruelty was enhanced by the scene where the Omec forces Amanda and Nolan to skin Yewll—as though the producers watched all of Thrones and decided that the Ramsay and Joffrey scenes were the ones they needed to emulate most.
Yet there’s also aspects of the premiere that I quite liked. The dominance of the mythology of the previous two seasons has been shoved aside. What remains is character and politics-based. Sure, Irisa is a celebrity based on her actions, but that manifests as people’s reactions to her, not special magical powers. And the Omec, while seemingly more out of a Dungeons & Dragons game than science fiction, are still notable for their motivations and their history with the Votan races, as opposed to some sort of prophecy being fulfilled.
I’m a little less confident in the show’s political bent. Lee Tergesen as a charming, brutal Votan general is a fascinating character, particularly in how he’s driving Stahma and Datak together. And learning more about the Votanis Collective is a good idea overall. But their counterparts in the Earth Republic have totally disappeared, given only a cursory mention about how they pulled out of Defiance town after it lost strategic significance. It definitely feels like an odd choice to not give them a presence at the point at which their presence might be most interesting.
So while I’m happy with Defiance for apparently picking a tone, I’m not totally certain it’s the right tone yet. “Unrelenting darkness” isn’t really as effective as The Walking Dead seems to think, but I didn’t find much hope in it. Yet a story built on history and complex motivations is what Defiance has needed to focus on. The show is finally taking advantage of its premise—but maybe instead of not going far enough, it’s going too far.
- The previouslies were utterly ridiculous. The “have a character narrate them” thing just doesn’t work. Ever.
- I liked the snow a lot, and especially in the credits! Take advantage of being filmed in Canada!
- On the other hand—that dubstep theme sure shouts “Made in 2013!”
- “If she has harmed them, she will die an excruciating death.” “And if she hasn’t harmed them…” “Same outcome. I see your point.” We missed you, Datak and Stahma.
- “I could not be prouder of you!” “They’re still gonna lynch me.” “Details, details.”
- “THESE ARE MY TERMS. You will bring me my daughter or I will bathe in the blood of every human and Votan until my rage is cleansed.” Seriously—the Omec are RPG characters.
- “Make my weapon too. Better we die together.”
- We’re only doing a drop-in for Defiance right now, unless we get a surprising amount of traffic. See you at some point again if the show continues!