It felt kind of good to return to Defiance. After an uneven season one, full of more potential than quality, season two begins with a strong start that is clearly setting the gameboard for some major developments. Also... handjobs.
But we'll get to the handjobs later. Defiance wisely chucks the terrible, terrible season one finale, and begins nine months later. This has the negative effect of making everyone talk mainly in exposition, but allows enough time to have passed that the characters are now believably thrown in new situations and new, potentially interesting conflicts. Let's break them down:
• Nolan has been chasing after Irisa, who went missing after the whole healing-Nolan-from-death-gold-silver-tentacle freak-out from last season. He tracks her down in the ruins of Hollywood.
• Irisia, meanwhile, is still seeing visions… including one where she slits Nolan's throat. In fact, she seems to have a new violent streak, as she seemingly randomly chases down a mohawked Irathient and beats her to a pulp. She hides this from Nolan, but she's also determined to go back to Defiance for some reason.
• Datak, having stupidly killed an E-Rep representative in the season finale, is in the jail outside of town. He meets Doc there, and the two plan an escape.
• Alak has taken to running his father's crime business, although he's getting pushed around because he's not a cold-hearted prick. This causes Stahma to basically take control for herself — essentially telling Alak he'll be her puppet. This isn't just for her family's good, but because she's fed up the Castithan phallo-centric society — and she has designs on moving out from the shadows eventually.
• Ex-Mayor Amanda — who has been wearing mourning clothes for nine months despite the fact she claims she believes her sister Kenya is alive — reluctantly takes a job as Chief of Staff of the new mayor, the E-Reps's Niles Pottinger, in order to prevent as much E-Rep brutality/fascism/evil as possible. She's also on a drug I am going to call Space Heroin until told otherwise.
• Rafe McCawley, having sold his mines to the E-Rep, is now working in the mines mostly to keep the peace. This is because the E-Rep is working the miners extra-long to the point where miners are accidentally sticking their arms in giant spiked drills.
• Rafe's daughter Christie is, blessedly, a 5-second part of a montage and nothing more.
So that's where the episode begins, and while it's mostly setting stage for the season, there's a lot to be made out of these developments. Watching Datak try retake his journey from nothing to his former prominence; Stahma running a crime empire when her soldiers would never willingly take orders from a female; the mystery of what Irisa is doing and what the hell is wrong with her; and more.
Of course, the season's main storyline with be how Defiance throws off the shackles of the E-Rep, but the show has wisely given us two of its best characters so far to represent this evil empire — James Murray at the new Mayor Pottinger, and the legendary William Atherton as Viceroy Mercado. Atherton, who's played bureaucratic assholes his entire career (most notably in Ghostbusters as William "Dickless" Peck) is pleasantly, effortlessly fascist. Pottinger, while vain and also clearly a scumbag, is so instantly charming and fun, oozing sincerity and concern in one minute, ordering the death of two vandals or spying on Ex-Mayor Amanda with a secret camera in the next, that he's exactly the sort of moral complexity Defiance needs.
And that's still Defiance's biggest problem — its storytelling is still too simple. Again, there's a ton of great potential for the rest of the season, but there was potential in this very episode: The show set-up a wonderful dichotomy between the E-Rep and McCawley's mines, where the workers argued — with points on both sides — whether they're in fact better off now under the E-Rep. But then Defiance immediately gets cold feet, and forces Pottinger to needlessly attempt to have the two sons of the miner who died in the drill accident murdered, because they're now saying mean things about the E-Rep out loud, which is obviously such a threat that they have to be set free in giant evil crab territory. It's so cartoonishly evil that there's no ambiguity at all about whether Defiance might actually be better under the E-Rep (which is kind of funny because honestly, other than murdering people say mean things about them it actually sounds like Defiance is much better off).
Another missed opportunity: Early on, burgeoning crime lord Alak has to decide whether to punish or show mercy to a Castithan late on his payment. Even a slightly more sophisticated show would make Alak's choice unclear, whether his subordinate is genuinely contrite or playing him, and whether it's better to show power or mercy. But no, in Defiance the Castithan is obviously taking advantage of Alak's inexperience, and what could have been an interesting moment of conflict becomes a moment where the show tells out, as unsubtly as possible, that Alak isn't changing or maturing, he's just in over his head.
Oddly, what Defiance didn't miss was opportunities to let Datak Tarr get handjobs. This inexplicably bizarre stylistic decision begins when Stahma visits Datak in his camp prison and gives him most of a handjob while apprising him of how his gang is doing, in full view of guards and god knows how many people. Later, in the prison, Datak grabs Doc's hand and starts using it to give himself a handjob. It's so fucked up. Doc is only annoyed, but this scene is so goddamned crazy that I'm not even offended, not really. What on god's green earth was Defiance trying to show? The Castithan culture's sexual denigration of females? Datak's personal refusal to give women agency? A desperate man in prison? A lunatic who was going to grab the first hand in reach and start whacking himself off? The show gives no clue. I guess there's plenty of moral complexity in this scene, but perhaps the moral complexity of involuntary handjobs isn't the right way to go about it.
So handjobs aside, season 2 is a pretty good start, and hopefully the confidence the writers built over the first 13 episodes will continue to grow. I hate to use the word potential for the umpteenth time, but I can feel Defiance is getting close and closer to being really good. Season 2 is another step in the right direction. Just maybe take a step away from all the handjobs, okay?
• One big thing that helped this season 2 premiere — it just looks better. Better make-up. Better sets. Most of all, it showed us the ruins of Hollywood and Chicago, which not only explored the world of Defiance, but also looked great.
• Seriously, the ruined Capitol Record Building in Hollywood looked so great it made me wish the entire show was set there.
• In the future, mourning clothes will consist of a veil and showing off an immense amount of cleavage, assuming Ex-Mayor Amanda is up on her fashion trends.
• Again, I ask why has Amanda been mourning for nine whole months if she thinks her sister is alive? Am I forgetting something?
• Of course, we get Stahma in a bath (it is a season premiere, after all). It does lead to the Defiance line of the night, uttered by Alak: "Do you want to stop bathing by yourself? It's weird."
• Don't do a Google image search for "Defiance handjobs." From one who knows.