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TV REVIEW: Defiance “Beasts of Burden” Explores The Weight of Relationships

By on July 11, 2014

Pictured: Graham Greene as Rafe McCawley -- Photo by: Syfy

Defiance returned this week with “Beasts of Burden” and once again proved that season two is not only really awesome, but the series’ “best” is probably too mighty for us to even conceptualize.

It is hard to keep things interesting without numbing your audience. Raising the stakes, elevating the tension and increasing the pace might get you generically more exciting episodes, but there is also a large possibility that character development and continuity will suffer. Shocking moments require a lot of set up and screen time which could instead be going to universe, theme, or relationship building.

However, we live in a television age where surprise twists and insanity inducing cliffhangers reign supreme. We prioritize shock over depth, roll out game changer after game changer in hopes of putting the audience on the edge of their seat. Because that’s supposed to keep them coming back, right? The moments “no one saw coming”; the twists that “change everything for everyone in unimaginable ways.” While Defiance certainly has these, “Beasts of Burden” proved that the series has evolved from its first season into a dramatic goldmine, effectively balancing shock and depth and showing us that what truly keeps audiences coming back is organic and timely character driven storylines.

The episode’s theme was burden, and despite the saying, love has proven itself to be a real one. For some more than others we find that it’s too heavy a weight to carry. Most obviously the older generation of Defiance is carrying the burdens of their children and their E-Rep infested town, but the writing subtly illuminates that the weight is being shared by the younger residents as well.

This week saw Nolan on the hunt for resistance members who attacked Pottinger and an E-Rep caravan. After Josef is identified as being responsible, he makes matters worse by kidnapping Berlin, the E-Rep shoulder who caught him on camera. Doc Ywell is back working (undercover) on bodies while the Tarr family readjusts to their shifting power dynamics. Meanwhile, Nolan and Amanda continue to get physically closer while she emotionally opens up to Pottinger, revealing a dark truth from her past.

The central Nolan plot took a back seat as the strongest scenes in “Beasts of Burden” came straight from the McCawley and Tarr families. Stahma attempts to persuade Datak to let her become partner, but he’s had a “religious” awakening (moving him into “wow gee whiz who knew someone could be such a misogynist?” territory). Totally uninterested and a little butthurt, he’d much rather spend his time punishing his men and his son for listening to a woman. Slitting the throat of a former confidant might fly with Stahma, but when Alak is scarred she ascends to her rightful place on the business throne.

Pcitured L-R: Jesse Rath as Alak Tarr and Nicole Muñoz as Christie McCawley

Pictured (L-R): Jesse Rath and Nicole Muñoz

Watching these two battle it out was dramatically rewarding. Their reunion was bound to happen and with only a thirteen episode season I shouldn’t have been shocked by it happening as soon as it did. The timing did leave me unsure about whether or not the writing could avoid over-dramatics or dragging the story arc out. It’s clear that I underestimated this show.

The greatest thing about Datak and Stahma’s brutal reunion though wasn’t actually their interactions. Since the start of season two, Alak has become both a more central and dynamic character. Walking the line between hero and anti-hero he perhaps best represents the reality of a place like Defiance. We desire to return to that which we know, what we believe is the best version of our world and ourselves. The conditions of the war, however, have left little room for a sense of morality. Survival by any means necessary is of the utmost importance, requiring us to make hard (and sometimes regrettable) decisions.

Alak has swung like a pendulum between being his mother, his father and his own person. That internal battle came to a head as Datak provides a glimpse at what his life “could have been” had he not gone and killed someone. We see Alak — only through his facial expressions — realize just how much he is giving up. Yes, he wants the approval and love of both of his parents, but at what cost to himself and his own happiness? We see this happen again at the end of the episode when Stahma forces him to watch his father being violently beaten. Is this who Alak is? I don’t think so, but I’m also not sure if he has the strength to defy orders. It’s exciting to think about where he could end up though. The young Tarr has been one of the most gripping aspects of the series’ second season, due in large part to Jesse Rath’s consistently dynamic delivery.

At the McCawley camp Josef jump starts the episode by attacking Pottinger and his E-Rep soldiers, killing several and then forcing the Mayor to strip. Josef proceeds to then urinate on him. It feels sort of pertinent that I mention this scene because it does two things. First, it illustrates how “edgy” the show is becoming (in a good way). Second, it shifts the E-Rep versus Resistance plot line back to the forefront. The battle for control of Defiance seemed like it would be the most central focus of season two, but up to this point it has served as more of a plot b storyline. While this has been great for the characterization of Defiance‘s main players, it is without question that the climatic tipping point of this season should be the impending fight for the town. This scene laid solid groundwork for that.

The McCawley moments with the largest impact happen after Josef returns home. Rafe discovers what he’s done and lays into him. The older McCawley — like Alak — is living in a very fragile reality. What Rafe believes is right matters very little when it comes to keeping the things he loves in reach. Josef threatens that not once, but twice. The boy’s zeal is understandable to a point. Our own history has shown us that freedom has never been attained by appealing to the morals or hearts of oppressors. He doesn’t have anything to lose really and so he does what others can’t for the “greater and necessary good.” At the same time, Josef has little to no tact and lacks an ability to effectively cover his tracks.

When Nolan rolls around to apprehend Josef, Rafe is able to convince the lawman and friend to let the boy go. However, after the young McCawley kidnaps Berlin there’s not much else Rafe can do. Nolan and Rafe locate kidnapper and kidnappee and Rafe handcuffs his own blood. Just when we think he’s going to let the boy run  we see him make a decision that probably left your jaw on the floor. Rafe shoots Josef in the back. It’s a shocking moment yet not an inorganic one. It seems unimaginable what Rafe has done, but we must ask ourselves whether he had much of a choice.

If he let Josef go he’d be punished as well. If he handed him over to the E-Reps, Josef would be just as dead… or worse. It’s certainly a turning point for Rafe, a character who has had less focus this season than last but still plays an important part in the larger story. With Christie caught up in Tarr drama, Josef was what grounded him. Now that  the boy is gone and his home taken Rafe will have one less reason to keep quiet under E-Rep command. What is less obvious is the long term consequences. Last week we learned more about Irisa’s powers and an ability of sorts to bring back the dead. Is there the potential for this to happen to Josef as well? If it does, what might that miner family reunion look like?

Other moments of interest include Irisa’s growing knowledge of Tommy’s relationship with his E-Rep girlfriend, as well as Pottinger and Amanda’s “moment.” The relationship between Irisa and Tommy is significantly more interesting this season due to its dramatic potential down the road. Tommy has some sense of allegiance to Irisa, but he also acts pretty comfortable in his new E-Rep digs. The love triangle between them is a nice metaphor for the battle between the two governmental structures (and just how much Tommy might care about Irisa after he knows her secret). It also presents an opportunity to explore Tommy’s growth between season one and two as he hasn’t been featured much in any other way. Is he still the loyal, smart and all around do-gooder we once knew? Or is he too willing to sacrifice to survive?

Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

Pottinger and Amanda’s revelation scenes were dark and intense, offering up some of the best acting of the episode. We learn why Amanda and Connor split, as she shares what happened to her and the baby. Pottinger, apparently, is the only person she’s told about this. He spends time talking about the initial invasion and some implied similar experiences as a boy during the war. Both clearly have broken parts, but Amanda is teetering much more than the new Mayor. She’s also just revealed her weak spot to a predator. Pottinger, in an attempt to create tension between Nolan and Amanda, will no doubt use this to strengthen the emotional connection they now have — and weaken the physical relationship between the law man and NeedWant madam.

This week illustrated how much the show has benefited from using its familial relationships as a spring board to explore and develop the larger plots, especially when it comes to the younger generation. The decision to move these still growing and impressionable characters to the forefront has brought the themes of morality and identity with them. In a world that previously existed in such a black and white manner, we now have characters and complications that aren’t just colorful, but meaningful. The best part about this is again the organic nature. The story isn’t afraid to go places too soon or to make writing choices that seem dangerous (like killing characters). Yet it never does anything out of character. Defiance clearly knows what story it wants to tell and it plans to get there in a rather glorious fashion.

My wonder still grows over where this level of writing was during the show’s first season. How did a middling sci-fi series about a town cohabited by intergalactic species become not just the best thing Syfy Network has to offer, but arguably one of the strongest genre dramas currently on television? This feels like a necessary time to say IDK. For the first time though this show has truly met the grand expectations of its pitch.

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