Let the light shine in
Warning: full spoilers for Defiance Season 3 follow.
Defiance had a fairly rough go in its second season. As much as the show thrived on its increasingly endearing cast of characters, it also suffered from an underwhelming main conflict and a seeming unwillingness to take advantage of its dramatic new status quo. We’ve long since passed the point where the show can bank on the hype behind the Defiance MMORPG for its continued survival. It needs to work on its own merits and offer viewers a strong enough hook to keep them coming back each summer. Season 3 succeeded where Season 2 failed in that regard, proving that this show has plenty of life left in it yet.
Right away, it became clear that Season 3 would capitalize on the sorry state of this post-apocalyptic world in a way Season 2 generally failed to do. There was so much promise in the idea of a Defiance ruled by the iron hand of the Earth Republic and citizens rising up in revolt, promise that was never realized. This season had an equal amount of potential in the idea of a world ravaged by the destruction of New York City and the resulting lawlessness and chaos that sprang up as a result. The difference is that this time the writers really tapped into that new status quo and made it work.
The two-part premiere, “The World We Seize” and “The Last Unicorns,” set the tone for the season in a really big way. These episodes picked up more or less right where the previous season left off, with the Tarr and McCawley families united in the hunt for their children, Nolan and Irisa being freed from a long nap and the town of Defiance languishing in this post-E-Rep landscape. While the pacing of these first two episodes could have been a little quicker, it was clear right away that the show was embracing the dark, unpredictable, even cruel nature of this world in a way it hadn’t before.
Nowhere was that shift in tone more apparent than with the introduction of General Rahm Tak (Lee Tergesen), a Castithan warlord characterized by a fascination with human culture and a real sadistic streak. Tak immediately became the terrifying yet intriguing villain the show needed. Tak solidified his new status as bad guy extraordinaire at the end of these two episodes by executing the entire McCawley clan – Rafe, Quentin and Christie. It was a shocking way to cap off the premiere, but one that only further highlighted the darker tone and greater danger facing our heroes. The show became almost Game of thrones-esque in the sense that heroes no longer seemed safe from death or harm simply by virtue of their being heroes. In a mostly lawless, post-apocalyptic world, everyone suffers equally.
That body count was never matched in subsequent episodes, which ultimately was for the best. It does seem unfair that the McCawley family was essentially wiped off the face of the earth while most of the other big players survived the whole season. Game of Thrones may be cruel to the Stark family, but it’s equally cruel to everyone else. On the other hand, Defiance doesn’t have nearly that many major characters to work with, and indiscriminate bloodshed would only ruin a series of relationships and rivalries that have been built up over the past two years.
In any case, by the time Datak and Stahma made their way back to Defiance, the show had settled into a groove that rarely let up for the remainder of the season. Not only did our heroes have Tak’s band of ruffians to contend with, they also faced an ongoing struggle for badly needed supplies and the emergence of a new faction in the form of the Omec. Represented by patriarch Tev’gin (Conrad Coates) and his daughter, Kindzi (Nichole Galicia), the Omec posed a far murkier threat to Defiance’s citizens than Tak. Thanks to Coates and Galicia’s intense performances it was obvious why the civilized galaxy feared and reviled the Omec, but these two characters faced a compelling struggle over the course of the season. Could they leave the old ways behind and integrate into their new home, or are the Omec destined to be conquerors and slaughterers? Tev’gin fought hard for the former, while Kindzi betrayed her father for the latter. And thus the real villain of Season 3 emerged.
That’s one area where this season didn’t entirely come together. The Omec conflict petered out a bit in the final couple episodes, as the writers never resolved the question of Omec redemption in a satisfying way. As I noted in my review of the finale episode, “On the March We Fittest Die,” Kindzi deserved to have her acts of deception and betrayal exposed to her people. That’s where her comeuppance needed to arise from, not by Nolan’s hand. Nor did her pitifully small “army” pose a convincing threat in the finale. In that area, this season failed to stick the landing.
That aside, one of the major reasons Season 3 worked so well was its cohesiveness. The show felt focused and purposeful in a way it never had before. Every major conflict was linked by the theme of deception. Datak and Stahma were forced to serve as spies for Tak and betray their home. Likewise, Doc Yewll found herself an unwilling slave to Kindzi, kidnapping citizens of Defiance and literally leading them to the slaughter. Even Nolan came to discover that Irisa had been hiding certain truths about their past together. Friendships were damaged and lives were put at risk because of these secrets. Even the St. Louis arch, which survived a devastating world war and became a symbol of the town’s resilient spirit, was destroyed.
But if deception was a recurring theme this season, so too was the idea of redemption. The added layer of darkness was a means to an end, and characters were brought low so that they could be built back up again and prove their merit. So many characters experienced that arc in one form or another. Irisa spent the season atoning for her actions in Season 2 and watching herself become a bizarre sort of folk hero to Defiance. Amanda faced her greatest challenges yet as mayor and proved that the two will always survive as long as she’s sitting in the captain’s chair. Yewll broke free from her slavery and, together with Nolan, made a huge, seemingly fatal sacrifice to save their home. Even Datak and Stahma found freedom and redemption after spending several episodes under the yoke of General Tak.
All of this culminated in the finale episode. If “Upon the March We Fittest Die” struggled when it came to wrapping up the Omec conflict, it was terrific as far as capitalizing on the various character dynamics and giving our heroes the happy ending they deserved. Whether it was Datak’s solemn farewell to Yewll (“You’re a real person with enormous honor and infinite soul.”) or Nolan becoming an honest-to-goodness captain of his own starship, the finale lifted the veil of darkness and showed that all the hardship and suffering was worth it in the end.
From an emotional standpoint, that episode was a great cap to a great season, and it could function perfectly well as a series finale if need be. Sadly, it may come to that. Just like last year at this time, there’s no word yet on whether SyFy will renew Defiance for another season. The farther we get from the launch of the MMORPG, the more uncertain the show’s future becomes. But after seeing just how much improvement was made in this third season, it would be a shame if the ride were to stop now. There’s too much potential in the show’s new status quo and the idea that we might see more of this universe away from the confines of Earth.