Defiance "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go" Review: Culture Clash

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Defiance S01E02: "Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go"

One of the reasons I'm already enjoying Defiance is that it has aliens! I know it's a very surface-level reason for liking the show, but it does scratch a genre itch of mine that remains largely unserved by current television programming. I can only watch Babylon 5 so many times, after all.

More importantly, Defiance has aliens with cultures. I can't tell you anything about the Sensoths (the overgrown orangutan ones) yet, but at least we have a sense of the Indogenes (scientists), the Irathients (tribal warriors), and as of this episode, the Castithans (caste (liro)-centric traditionalists). A developed sense of the aliens' cultures allows for dramatic conflict to stem from friction between their ideological leanings and from external threats, thus giving the show a number of avenues for storytelling and stakes. Sure, there's even room for some racism, but I like that Defiance seems to have a light hand on that aspect so far. After all, Rafe doesn't seem to loathe Datak simply because the latter's a Castithan; it's because Datak's a scheming, power-hungry mob boss. 

The challenge for this motley assortment of species lies in how they achieve a balance between respecting each others' traditions and maintaining a sense of equality under the town's laws. Is what the Castithans did in this episode religious cleansing, or was it simply torture for both Elah on that rack and his family who had to continuously place the stones that slowly created the weight that strained his body? It didn't (necessarily) harm the greater good of the town's population, like when the Irathients refused vaccinations, but did this public display align with town's liberalism?

Amanda decided that it didn't, as she pardoned Elah of his violations of Castithan laws after Irisa freed him. Whether or not she had that authority, and Datak claimed she does not, is an issue the show will have to explore further. What's important, however, is that this conflict provided Datak the opportunity to show that he's not unreasonable—despite an armed attempt to retrieve Elah from the lawkeeper's station—and with the words of Stahma from that spa scene likely ringing in his ears (which I'll discuss in just a moment, because come on), he managed to placate the humans. His decision kept Amanda on his side a bit longer, while also 1.) making sure the Castithan traditions were met as the religious (and likely lower in the liro hierarchy) Elah served his penance in the ultimate fashion, and 2.) sending a not-so-subtle message with his corpse in front of the lawkeeper's station. This is the kind of tension I respond to from storytelling, so I'm all about these sorts of developments.

That spa scene, though. Last week had the bath scene with Datak and Stahma as she explained their cunning plan to assume control of the mines in detail, and this week the show decided to up the ante in their planning scenes by having Jaime Murray be nearly nude. It practically screamed, "The audience isn't going to find this interesting enough. Let's Game of Thrones this scene as much as we can on basic cable!" 

There's something to their meetings, though, insofar as that they serve to illustrate that Datak is clearly not the mastermind here; he needs things explained to him and he needs her to guide him (obviously he's not the one who plotted to have Stahma's betrothed flushed out of an airlock on the way to Earth). Contrast the spa scene with Datak's actions in the lawkeeper's station, a moment that relied on him (and us) remembering what Stahma said for his actions make sense, or Stahma's circuitous discussion of her courtship in the diner with Christie, and you see how Defiance capable of being subtle when it wants to be. Datak may not be the smartest bulb in the box, but guiding him to conclusions as opposed to explaining them outright would be far more interesting and quality consistent.

Speaking of interesting, I'm already somewhat bored with whatever Data's mom Eloise Hawking Nicky and Birch are planning for Defiance. I'm thankful for Fionnula Flanagan's ability to give their cryptic scheming some weight—I do buy that Nicky doesn't like that she seems to have to destroy the town in order to save it (and/or the entire planet, who knows)—but if each episode is going to involve some new plot to drive the folks of Defiance out of the town, they're going to need to be more interesting than what was presented this week. Admittedly, this episode involved tying up the loose-ended Ben story (poor Ben) as well as allowing Rafe to find what will likely be MacGuffin's Golden Knot Device, so at least the series isn't willing to spin its wheels when it comes to this particular thread. I just wonder how Nicky and Birch will top instigating an attack by a race of deadly automata and also attempting to re-activate a nuclear reactor.



LAWKEEPER FILES

– Significantly less Doc Yewell this week means the episode wasn't nearly as good as last week's, simply by default.

– Did the writers completely forget about the bet between Nolan and Rafe? Even if they did, I liked Nolan and Rafe's reminiscing over a pre-Pale Wars St. Louis, and their lives before it, including the McCawleys being a family of dog food manufacturers, complete with a jingle that Nolan remembers even decades later.

– When you mention something called the Rats' Nest, I expect some R.O.U.S. Even if in this case it'd likely be rodents of unusual size mixed with spiders mixed with bats.

– "I once had a three handicap and no one can say I didn't because there's no one around except me who remembers the damn rules."

– "He's kind of a jackass." "Most men are. It's a characteristic that transcends species."

– How do we feel about the use of Nirvana's "Come As Your Are" for the end-of-episode-montage? I found it effective but also a bit jarring, given the show's setting. It was one thing to have a diegetic use of Johnny Cash in the season premiere—and Cash's music fits the show's world as well, I think—but Nirvana felt a little out of place. Just me?

– Since I like to share this with you folks for no discernible reason, review-writing music this week: Ennio Morricone's scores for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In the West. (What, you thought I'd pick Star Wars?)

– I'm not playing the MMO tie-in, and don't really have any intention to do so. If I start hearing interesting things about it, and if it begins to really impact the TV show in some way, I may pick it up. Have any of you checked out the game?


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