First thought: “Hey, this is great!”
Second thought: “Where the hell was this all season?”
This was what I wanted from Defiance all season. The potentially complex characterization of the entire season was turned into actual characterization here. Nolan and Tommy, Stahma and Datak, Amanda and Niles, Yewll and her hallucination, and even Rafe and Pilar all got great moments that took what had been hidden or implicit and made it explicit and dramatic. Meanwhile, the mythology that’s been hovering over the entire season regained its connection to Irisa’s characterization, and gave its apparent world-shattering effects the visual/musical power to justify the supposed threat.
I think it’s fair to say that these two episodes were better than Defiance has ever been. And yes, it makes me happy that if the show is renewed, it knows how to be great, and if it’s cancelled, it‘s going out on top. But on the other hand it’s incredibly frustrating to know that this show was capable of being so good, while knowing that it’s avoided being good like this for the bulk of the season. I grew increasingly frustrated over the course of this season because it seemed like the show had great potential storylines that it was withholding, and this two-part finale serves as evidence, that yes, Defiance was withholding.
Part of this is a natural extension of Defiance’s structure. It’s a 13-episode, semi-serialized show. By-and-large, these kinds of shorter-run series are built around working to a climax. (It’s often called “Big Bad” serialization, but that’s not always appropriate, as is the case here.) With some shows this works, but even with 10 or 13 episodes, that’s a lot of room to only work toward a single climax.
You can see this with Defiance where it hit an early high point this season with Datak getting beat up and thrown out by Stahma and his former cronies—that was the early-season climax. After that, the show didn’t seem to have much of anything. Its only recurring storylines involved either the cliché Treasure Doll story, or the not-particularly-exciting return of characters like Quentin and Kenya.
So to put it bluntly, between the fifth episode and eleventh episodes of the season, nothing exciting happened. The various players shifted around as though something exciting was going to happen, but it was all being saved for the end. And not much of it actually had to be, if you go through the storylines.
Take the Nolan/Tommy relationship, for example. This has been simmering, occasionally bubbling over, all season. They used to have a good relationship, but ever since Nolan got back, he’s been sidelining and ignoring Tommy, which made the ex-deputy understandably upset. This is a good start for drama. But then Defiance itself has sidelined Tommy. His complaints have been dismissed or treated as comic relief by the episodes themselves, which has somehow turned into “Tommy is a boring character/terrible actor,” which seems moderately overblown.
Regardless, he brings out an interesting side of Nolan, and finally, in “All Things Must Pass,” they have a sustained conversation. And it’s good! “You’re one tough kid.” “I’m not a kid.” “No, sir, you are not.” Then Tommy dies, which shifts the climax into high gear. Did we really need to wait so long to not have Tommy treated like crap? I understand that his death ends up being necessary to bring Irisa’s humanity back but more could have been done with this relationship across the season.
Likewise, we hit a simultaneous climax for the Niles-Amanda relationship and the Datak-Stahma marriage, as the mayor discovers that the Tarrs had murdered Kenya, and captures them in order to romantically impress Amanda. (These storylines have been available for the entire season.) This is great shit—the Tarrs bickering, apologizing, and learning, all at the same time (“I married well.” “Yes. You did.”) as Pottinger horribly misjudges Amanda. But this is great stuff that could have occurred six episode ago, then led to more great stuff from that point of resolution!
A few weeks ago I brought up Justified’s second season as an example of a show with a initially similar structure, but that managed to maintain an incredibly high point of tension for almost the entire season. That’s arguably the greatest season of television to use this model, and may not even be duplicatable, to be fair. So a couple examples perhaps a little closer to Defiance: there’s Angel, which consistently used 3-6 episode mini-arcs which usually fed into one another. So there are a few episodes of discovering that a character is pregnant with an important baby, then defending the baby, planning for the future, kidnapping of the child, the fallout from the kidnapping, and finally the child’s return. All of this took place over around 13-15 episodes, with room for individual stories.
Alternately, there’s Babylon 5, which would take longer over multiple story arcs, but would resolve those after a season or less usually, and then use the resolution to build a new story. I discuss it in more detail here, but the essential point is that, much like Angel, Babylon 5 didn’t feel compelled to put its most important episodes at the end of the season. The story was not entirely built around the seasonal structure, but instead worked with it.
There’s also an issue of predictability. From the beginning of the season, the most likely candidate for the climax of the season was whatever was going on with Irisa and the supership buried beneath Defiance. And in the end…that was what it was. Happily, Defiance, after two years of building up this grand mythological threat with Irisa at its center without really making it feel real or interesting, got it right in the end. The visual of Irisa pulling up dirt, tossing it into the air, and using it to activate the Arks was brilliant in conceit and very well-handled with television SFX. The actual terraforming attacks themselves weren’t quite as well-done, but they were good enough. Meanwhile, the idea that the E-Rep’s seat of power has been destroyed and may end up in Defiance itself is something that could set up really interesting stories in the third season.
My bigger issue with the mythology’s resolution is that the focus on Kai, the Irathient lawyer from a few episodes back, seemed half-implemented. Here’s a guy who’s supposed to save the world (“A savior oughta travel light”), and it’s like the show just shoved him in cause the story demanded someone.
In the end, I feel like I’m left with a baffling puzzle of a show. Defiance showed potential, and filled that potential, but managed to disappoint along the way. It meandered through the middle of the season, yet didn’t have time to introduce some of its plot-critical characters. Instead of focusing on its best relationships—and Datak-Stahma is top-tier stuff for any show—it brought back the disappointing ones from its first season. Defiance feels entirely confident in what it wants to do, then turns around and goes back on it. Then it pulls this finale out and says “We could have been awesome all along!” I hope Defiance gets a third season, and I hope it learns from its mistakes and builds on its successes from this season. I hope it gets to the point where I don’t have to feel disappointed that it was finally awesome.
- I really liked the scene Rafe and Pilar at Camp Reverie. He was incredibly humanized, especially with the shots of him staring through the crack in the fence.
- Yewll hallicunations returning was great as well. “Did you just hack my imaginary wife?”
- “I wanted to give you the chance to carry out justice. Any way you see fit. I’ll be outside.” Pottinger is just…stupid. I dunno, has he been reading my reviews about how Amanda is boringly presented as a pure heroine?
- “Then by all means, genocide ho!”
- “Do you remember when you cleaning our toilets? You have a gift.” Pilar’s presence seems much more geared about making next season work, but this scene was great fun. I’m unsure about the character, but Linda Hamilton is great.
- “Father of the year!” Smart Alak.
- “I meant it as a joke! I just, I thought it was funny.” Oh man, this was Peak Datak.
- Then Amanda totally forgets her characterization from the previous episode, as well as from the terrorist attack on New York when she was willing to let the city burn for her sister. “Is that a letter opener?” “It’s a popular weapon in this office.”
- Berlin’s about to die, and then: “Good evening, Captain. We need this man. Family emergency.” Berlin cackles and it’s great.
- I liked most of the ending, but when drunken, beat-up, mourning, angry Berlin stood up in the Need/Want, I thought she was going to start an E-Rep mutiny. That would have been perfect.
- Between Kenya and Tommy, Defiance has killed the most obvious character available two seasons in a row.