Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Defiance, Season 1, Episode 3: Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go

We open with a mixed flashback to last episode with a Castithan who fled the battle, much to Datak’s disgust. Running through the woods he ends up in the hands of a Sensoth and another gang of Castithans.

He, Elah Bandik, is taken back to Defiance where a large crowd of Castithan gather for a formal ceremony while he is tied up. Irisa looks on from a roof top. He is accused of cowardice by Datak Tarr and he doesn’t deny it. We get some interesting insights into Castithan beliefs, with “seeming is believing” and “how I act is how my ‘liro’ [caste] is perceived.”  

Nolan, Irisa and Tommy approach and Neal tells Irisa it’s a Castithan cleansing ritual; neither of them approve. The cleansing ritual involves putting rocks in a basket which in turn stretch Elah Bandik. Nolan tries to break it up, saying he was brave to fight at all. Datak says not to the Castithan nd running from battle reflects on his entire caste; by running Elah Bandik dishonoured every Castithan in Defiance. Nolan mocks him and Datak explains the ritual and culture behind it and that without it, Elah won’t go to the afterlife after death (though he makes a cutting point that he has no duty to explain his religion to Nolan). Nolan demands it end, holding the priest at gun point and ignoring Elah’s pleas that he has to do it for his family.

Which is when Amanda arrives and Datak asks if, after being mayor for 3 weeks, she’s casting aside the Castithan had with the last mayor since Defiance was founded. Amanda responds in the Castithan language that she respects their traditions and then tells Datak to keep their ceremonies confined to the Hollows (she also objects to Datak calling her Amanda; which I’d have more respect for if she hadn’t called Datak by his first name last episode – after forgiving the attempted murder of his son).  Nolan leaves with Amanda and Tommy tries to comfort Irisa, shocking her and she puts his arm into a lock. He apologises and explains but she says she’s seen worse and he notices the scars on her wrist.

Nolan is furious with Amanda for stopping him and she gives him a history lesson – despite being one of the most numerous of the Votanis races, there are very few Irathients in Defiance. They didn’t believe in vaccinating their children and when ex-Mayor Nicky decided to force them, they held an uprising. Poorly armed, it was quickly put down and many Irathients killed, most of the rest left Defiance. After which the Town Council agreed to allow the 8 races to maintain their own traditions. Amanda declares it necessary.

Nolan goes back to Irisa and tells her he’s not going to stop it. Irisa isn’t happy

Meanwhile at the hospital, someone takes out the guard and injects something into the head of Ben, the comatose Indogene who betrayed the colony. He wakes up instantly – albeit not happily. He wakes up and checks the drug, saying it could have killed him – this doesn’t disturb the man, Mr. Birch, since they wanted to stop Ben from talking and the dead don’t talk. After threatening Ben’s family he talks about plan B involving the mines – which Ben doesn’t want any part of but doesn’t have much choice and limps from the hospital.

At the Rafe household, Christie has come home and the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. Christie extends the olive branch but Rafe won’t get over her marrying Alak, who he call a “haint”, apparently an anti-Castithan slur. He asks what her dead brother would have wanted and she (much to my applause) says it doesn’t matter what he wanted – it’s what she and Alak want. He wants her to call off the wedding and she leaves – he tells her if she walks out don’t come back as Quentin speaks up.

The brother in the middle is the worst place to be. He objects that Christie held the family together since their mother died and Rafe turned on her – while forgiving Luke for far worse.

Then everything’s interrupted – Rafe at home, Tommy, Amanda and Nolan at the hospital looking into Ben’s disappearance – by an explosion at the mine. Seems Ben escaped went down the shaft and bombed it behind him so no-one can follow (of course Rafe blames Amanda and Nolan).  The shaft leads to old St. Louis; during the terraforming while most cities were destroyed, parts of St. Louis are intact, underground. He took materials to make a big bomb with him but not enough to cause severe damage from that far down.

They need a new way down – a rat’s nest, an unsafe maze. There’s no map for it, but Rafe knows the area. Rafe wants to head off with his men, but Amanda doesn’t trust him not to just shoot Ben (Rafe is upset his word isn’t trusted – uh-huh, this would be the man trying to murder a boy which we’ve rapidly forgotten).

Of course, big damn hero Nolan will go. Irisa again asks why he’s risking his life for these people but he insists and asks her and Tommy to find out who released Ben. And he tells her to leave Elah alone.

In their glaring white bathroom attended by servants, Datak and Stahma discuss Elah’s ritual – Stahma considering dropping the old tradition because it’s a new world and the humans disapprove (it’s interesting that she switches to English from Cathistan to make the point). And if they do have ambitions against Rafe’s mines they need more human support. She refers to Datak’s life back on their home planet, he was the lowest liro (caste); why does he want to preserve that system? He says it is – now he’s on top pissing on those below. Alak comes in and starts complaining about Rafe derailing the wedding, but Stahma promises him he will take care of it (with added ickiness of her hugging her son while wearing little more than some artfully draped necklaces)

Nolan, Rafe & co find the very impressive, huge ruins of St. Louis. On the surface ex-mayor Nicky is packing the rest of her stuff from the office while Amanda looks out on Elah; she wants to stop it. Nicky points out the Castithans are very attached to their past and their traditions – and with their home blown up and them being in a new world, these rituals are all they have to link to the past. Amanda disagrees, with them all fighting together against the Volge has created a new culture.

As Nicky leaves she is picked up by Birch and they discuss Ben’s progress, worrying if he’ll succeed. Nicky also wants to say goodbye to some people – Birch says she’s grown too attached but she angrily rejects that as a problem. She grew up with these people, she’s lived with them, of course she became attached – she isn’t doing what she’s doing because she hates Defiance or because she wants to, she’s doing it because she feels she has to for the greater good.

Down in the ruins of Old St. Louis, they stop for a break (for Rafe since the older man is tiring, but they hide it) and Rafe and Nolan reminisce about the city, since they both lived there before Arcfall. After much bonding, Nolan asks what Rafe wanted to do – he was a photographer. He stopped at Arcfall since taking photos of the new, radically changed terrain reminded him of everything the aliens took away. Nolan breaks the moment by bringing up not killing Ben. They set off again following Ben’s trail until they find an old nuclear plant. Just as it starts to flare to life. A bomb there could cause radiation to reach the surface and destroy Defiance.

On the surface, Irisa watches Elah’s ritual and more people adding rocks, finally intervening when a child moves to add a rock to the basket. She climbs the frame and starts cutting Elah down, the surrounding Castithan throw rocks at her until Tommy shoots his shotgun into the air and declares Elah Bandik under arrest. For loitering.

In the train car restaurant, Stahma has a little heart-to-heart with Christie over her cancelling the wedding; playing kind, benevolent advisor and confidant. Stahma tells her own story – how she had an arranged marriage to a man she didn’t care for who belonged to the highest liro and how she fell in love with Datak despite being of the lowest caste who only got on the ships in exchange for forgiving a gambling debt. Her so proper fiancé challenged Datak to a duel and was “accidentally sucked out of an airlock” on the way to it. She doesn’t deny Datak was involved, but alludes to how she knew she needed a man who would stop at nothing – she knew what she needed more than her parents did.

Underground they catch up to Ben in the nuclear plant. After a brief exchange of fire, Ben falls back, wounded and they manage to deactivate the bomb. Then Rafe wants to kill Ben, of course. Ben, trying to die for the cause, tries insulting Luke who he killed, saying he wanted to leave Defiance to get away from Rafe. But Nolan points out someone is trying to destroy Defiance including his 2 living children – what’s more important, his dead child or the 2 still living? Rafe backs down, agreeing with Nolan – so Ben grabs his gun and shoots himself. He dies after asking them to tell Amanda he’s sorry

At the lawkeeper’s office, Irisa tells Tommy he was stupid to help her and the Castithans will come for Elah. He says she made a move and he backed her up; it’s what lawkeepers do and what Clancy taught him. She calls it stupid but before they have time to react to that, Datak and the Castithans arrive. Showdown time!

Amanda arrives and declares that Tommy and Irisa were acting under her orders – and that she’s pardoning Elah of all violations of Castithan law. And adds that they’ll have to kill her to reach Elah. At which point Rafe, Nolan and Rafe’s miners return home and enter the lawkeeper’s office, guns raised.

Seeing himself outnumbered, Datak quickly spins the situation to talking peacefully about cultural differences. They leave and Nolan thanks Rafe for the help – though Rafe regrets he didn’t have the chance to massacre the Castithans. Nolan also tells Amanda about Ben.

Nolan talks to Irisa and she says she doesn’t like chains. Nolan tells her she did the right thing. Irisa asks if they’re ever going to reach Antarctica, but Nolan says it isn’t real. He can’t be sure – but he is sure that Defiance is real.

The town has the funeral for the 41 dead defenders and, at home, Rafe searches his son, Luke’s room and finds a secret cache – inside which is money, a map and a strange golden device.

Elah Bandick sits down with his family until Datak comes for him. Elah thanks Datak for giving him time with his family – Datak says of course and that what he is doing is honourable, before drawing his knife. His body is found outside the lawkeepers.

There are some big messages about cultural relativity and the awkward ground of tolerating other cultures even when people do things that are wrong or repellent – even when it involves torture or allowing children to die. But it’s a shaky message and a deep one to be covered this shallowly; especially since it has very real, very troubling real world parallels. The conflict between allowing human rights abuses vs cultural practice is very real, as is the conflict with forcing assimilation and erasing culture of different groups under a whole range of excuses. Especially with the idea of building a “new culture” that is bigger than those within it – yet what have we seen of the generic Defiance culture beyond the fact it’s human? Beyond the odd slang word – primarily used by aliens and Nolan – what integration of alien culture had entered their lives? Is her new culture just the aliens assimilating? Especially when we add that Amanda and the humans forced the Castithans to abandon their tradition at gun point – this is building a new culture? It sits particularly dubious when you consider that Rafe’s attempted murder of Datak’s son has been completely ignored.

Take all this dubiousness then add the parallels we can’t help but see with the real world. This extreme – ritualised torture – simplifies a much more complex issue. It could have been done much better or more deeply and in a way that doesn't scream "these people need civilising at gun point!"

It’s an interesting knot to poke – but it’s also a difficult and dangerous one that requires very careful handling. Especially if, again, we’re presenting a major real world issue and then allowing woo-woo to stand in.

Especially when we’re also apparently going to play the prejudice angle – complete with slurs – with Rafe’s attitudes towards the Castithans. More paralleling real world prejudice through a fictional lens while ignoring the full depth and history of them.

This is especially problematic both with Rafe being one of the relatively few POC on the show and with the fact this show is set in a post-dystopian St. Louis that is a good 80% white. There are more aliens than POC in this city. Yes demographics can change with major upheaval but it’s typical of fiction that this has caused a city that is about 55% non-White to be portrayed as almost completely white.

I do think we have far more to analyse with Stahma and Datak and their history. Being of the lowest class and now having fought himself up to the top rung, Datak is unwilling to change the system now he has finally reached the top of it; he wants the advantages he fought so hard for, making the traditions that worked against him now work for him. Stahma, who has always had those advantages, is more interested in advancing their power by any means necessary – if the traditions get in the way of the greater power and influence of her family then why keep them? Especially since she’s already cast aside those rules for her own advantage in the past

With the season finale of Defiance approaching, I know there's many people trying to catch up. You can watch Defiance online here to catch any episodes you may have missed