Cultural appropriation is a difficult topic, and one that science fiction is well-poised to deal with. If a bunch of alien races appeared on Earth and tried to integrate as on Defiance, these issues would rise to the fore, and they could be dealt with on television in a way that doesn’t automatically inflame real-world passions. What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural misappropriation? What kind of compromises are going to necessary and what should be fought against in this semi-integrated, post-apocalyptic society? How should you react if accused of appropriation?
And, most importantly, should you engage in a process of cutting out people’s eyes—whether they’re dead or living—to sell to others who want to wear them as contacts in order to appear more alien? Defiance comes down pretty hard on the “no” side of that last question, which you’d figure didn’t really need to be said, but it ends up being the focus of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes,” much to its detriment. The questions I brought up in the first paragraph here are part of this episode and part of Defiance as a whole, but they’re only waved at here, in favor of a rather tepid mystery of the week. It’s not bad that Defiance is at least pointing at these fascinating issues, to be fair, but it is frustrating that they’re cast aside, especially when the show did so well with a conceptually similar episode early in the first season by confronting the issues of assimilation and adoption head-on.
The only aspect of the cultural appropriation issue in “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” to get any kind of direct confrontation is the Alak/Christy story, in which he discovers that she’s been frequenting the Janus club dressed as a Castithan. On the one hand, they have a direct conversation about what she gets out of it, and how it makes him feel. She’s in the wrong here, pretty clearly, taking bits and pieces of his culture just to feel better about herself, while knowing that she should hide it (note that everyone involved in Janus seems to want to hide it) because he’ll take it as an affront. And, to give it a little more weight, I also like the idea that Alak and Christy’s Romeo & Juliet relationship now has to deal with what might happen had the young lovers survived, and now had to life their life filled with political complications.
However, the scene falls prey to some far-too-obvious television manipulation, where Deirdre, the DJ who works for Alak and encouraged Christy to go to the club in the first place, set this entire thing up totally obviously, and both Alak and Christy fail to mention her at all. In that situation, Alak could easily have done it, and Christy would have had to be written to go out of her way not to say that Deirdre was behind it.
What makes this more frustrating is that Deirdre’s behavior here isn’t even interesting. For one thing, we already have a woman character who manipulates the patriarchy into personal advantage, and Deirdre is no Stahma. Stahma being alien is a huge metaphorical advantage because it allows her to work around the “conniving woman” stereotype at some level. There doesn’t seem to be any real point to using this archetype once again, especially it would have been infinitely more interesting had Deirdre sent Christy to Janus because she legitimately believed it was a good idea instead of to break up the marriage.
This is also frustrating because the episode did a generally good job at putting its theme out there. Every component of “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” involved characters potentially, metaphorically, or actually taking new or unexpected roles. The Jewish Irathient Cai is the most pleasantly surprising of these, and I’m excited to see more of him. But there’s also a neat little moment where the Viceroy offers Amanda her old job as Mayor back, saying “You’d look great in one of our uniforms.”
The ideas are there for Defiance, but it’s problem isn’t so much the execution of its ideas, but more that its formal constraints are getting in its way. The eye-stealing murderer felt like it was a barely-wanted but aspect of the plot, added to ensure that there would be personal danger and an action sequence. Alternately, it could be that the issues raised in the episode aren’t being answered here because Defiance wants to answer them more directly, in plot form, at a later junction. Serialization of plot becomes a crutch for important themes.
Despite all this, I still quite enjoyed this episode, and I’ve scattered the reasons why throughout this review. Simply put, Defiance looks good to watch. More than most any other show short of HBO and AMC (and perhaps Hannibal), Defiance seems to want to be good to look at. There’s a partial physical advantage thanks to the setting, where the post-apocalyptic world allows for things like a town constructed out of colorful shipping crates and aliens with dramatically distinct features. But even beyond that, Defiance seems to care about framing its characters. Take a look at Rynn at the top, captured by the evil doctor. This is a perspective of the character that we’ve never seen before: light directly in her face showing freckles, hair pulled back to show her face, slightly decentered and off-balance.
There’s also this one of the Tarrs and company getting ready to hunt down the episode’s murderer. When the scene started, Datak was its center, giving orders and acting like it was his push to catch the killer. As the scene progressed, Stahma seized control of the scene, and it was represented visually with her becoming the focus as the other characters leave, Datak slowly going out of focus and leaving himself. Every shot on Defiance feels constructed, usually not in an over-the top fashion, although this one of eye-focused art in the alley where Rynn was taken may have been a bit much. (I have no background in cinematography, by the way, so if any of you who do want to discuss how and why Defiance’s shot-framing is so interesting, or not I supposed, please go ahead in the comments.)
Defiance’s plot may still give me trouble, but the show works at so many other thematic and visual levels that I think it’s still a success. But if it manages to tie the two together, it could be something special.
- “You won’t say anything…” “About baking flour? What a boring conversation.”
- Today, In Doc Yewll Is Sarcastic: “There are two types of friends in this world. The kind that helps you hide a dead whore, and me.”
- “If you don’t invent yourself someone else will do it for you.” THEME ALERT. CERSEI LANNISTER THEME ALERT
- Light Nolan episode, but this one was fun: “Should I have a gun?” “Keep him away from me.”
- “I am beautiful like this. Strong. Like Stahma.” “I don’t want you to be anything like my mother!”
- “You are the biggest liar I know.” “Stop, you’re makin’ me blush.”
- Datak gets all the attention, and yes, he probably deserves it, but Rafe’s casual“Ah, hey Nolan. This is what you call your ‘citizen’s arrest.’” deserves respect as well.
- Last week I thought that the “stepping out of my skin” experience was a sort of shared hallucination, brought on by a topical drug. The formal placing of the makeup on both Christy and the Viceroy’s face suggested that to me, especially since we never saw a sort of “halfway” state for their makeup. Also I found the idea that Defiance town was huge enough to hide a club like this pretty implausible. Anyway, I was wrong about it. It was just makeup. You all were right. (My idea make more sense and was cooler.)