In Defiance, Earth in 2046 is radically transformed in many ways. It is transformed literally, the shape of the surface rendered, its fauna and flora altered in beautiful and terrifying ways, its population drastically changed through the migration of alien species. The political landscape of the former United States is rendered unrecognizable, or rather, what we find now resembles more the unincorporated frontier towns of the 19th century (Defiance exists somewhere in the space between Deadwood and Jericho in terms of politics), also insofar as people of different cultures, with different ideas about what governance and law should look like, form a constantly changing and constantly precarious community. The line between politics and crime is always unclear, and the vacuum at the centre of everything, with everybody struggling either to make ends meet or to increase their influence, makes for the usual frontier stories. The second season focuses on what happens when such a self-governing entity, a city-state that makes its own laws, comes under the control of a central authority – the Earth Republic or E-Rep, in this case an odd mixture of an authoritarian control state (uniformed, using surveillance technology to keep everyone in check) with royalist influences. The citizens of Defiance have no say in the laws and politics of the authority that claims to have the legitimacy to govern them, so conflict is unavoidable.
The more interesting conflict that the show portrays happens on a more personal level though. Both the humans and the new alien races struggle to find their identity. The world that the humans – who are old enough to remember the past – used to live in is changed forever, and as much as some of the Votan (alien) families struggle to rebuild their new lives based on the values of their old worlds, at the very least, their children have grown up in this new world, in a mix of the old and the new, and are attempting to find their own path. The political system established in Defiance is for the most part accommodating when it comes to allowing each of the alien species their old customs, even when they clash violently with other value systems, but on a more personal level, characters struggle to make sense of themselves as they carry seeds of the old and the new within themselves. There are two central family units in the show – foremost Nolan (Grant Bowler), a former soldier, and his adopted Irathient daughter Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), who come to Defiance at the beginning of the show and introduce us to the town as they settle down there. Nolan becomes the town’s lawkeeper and finds himself at the centre of all kinds of conflicts, the power struggle within the community, the hostilities between characters. The other central family is already settled there when Nolan arrives and at the core of most of the illegal and black market business of Defiance. The Tarrs are a Castithian family – a profoundly patriarchal and conservative society with a strict code of honour. Datak (Tony Curran) presides over his family the same way he does over his criminal organisation, insisting that the old customs be observed, especially since they secure his place as the head of the family. His wife, Stahma (Jaime Murray), is slowly revealed as a highly politically minded individual, who is both conscious of the restrictions that her culture puts on her and the ways in which she can subtly undermine them to gain power of her own. She navigates the demands of her husband and her own ambition brilliantly. Early in the season, she is shown weaving, a traditional pastime of Castithian woman, but the image also serves as a symbol for the web that she is creating to gain control. In the second season, she actively seeks to take over Datak’s organisation after he is imprisoned (and tries to ensure that he stays in prison), attempting to use her son Alak as a puppet to keep up the appearance of sticking to old customs, but at the same time very much ready to use force and violence to ensure her new status and the freedom that she has carved out for herself. She is actively undermining a culture that attempts to assign her to a lower status, and successfully so, and in the process transforms both the culture itself as it exists in Defiance and her own marriage to Datak. The show does not simplify their relationship, they aren’t antagonists in every aspect (and arguably, at their most powerful and successful when they cooperate). Neither Stahma nor her son, Alak, as much as they are aware of the limitations that being a woman and being the son of a powerful man puts on their aspirations for freedom and control, can entirely escape that culture. There are rituals that they cannot escape, and things that they take entirely for granted. Datak is deeply emerged in Castithian culture and still has a drive, an ambition, to be legitimized in Defiance’s political process, to gain power not just through his criminal activities but in participating in the polity.
Alak never knew the world that his parents came from, he grew up on this new earth, and navigates his father’s claim on his future and his own desires – to marry Christie, daughter of a powerful human family, to dedicate his life to music. His relationship to the place that he was born in is very interestingly symbolized by how he interacts with earth’s past culture, now turned into nostalgia and artefacts: he runs a radio station that plays pop music from an era that has long passed, the 20th and the early 21st century. Alak has a connection to that world through its pop culture, and he is entirely a creature of this new world at the same time. His marriage is different from his parents’ marriage, but Christie attempts to understand the culture that she has married into. In a less central storyline in the second season, her attempts to understand it go as far as to find herself in the midst of a cos-playing underground in Defiance, humans dressing up as Castithians. When Alak finds out, he is outraged; as much as he dislikes some Castithian customs, he is still protective of them, and considers Christie’s actions as mockery, shameful, an appropriation of something that is and will never be hers. It’s an interesting portray of a society attempting to find a balance after a catalytic change (and also a complex comment on cultural appropriation in general, especially when a hegemonic – which humans still are for the most part on earth – culture appropriates). There is a parallel between how Christie attempts to interact with Castithian culture – quoting aspects of it, leaving out others, covering it in a way – and how Alak does through music with a past that he was never part of (and the show also makes use of cover versions of well-known songs often, a brilliant commentary on many of its themes).
On the other hand, there’s Irisa and Nolan, undeniably a family unit. She identifies as Nolan’s daughter, but at the same time, her Irathient identity becomes physically undeniable. She is Nolan’s daughter, but she is also decidedly not human, connected to a mysterious past through visions, deeply spiritual in a way that Nolan cannot understand. She is driven to discover her past, to connect to other Irathients. She is Nolan’s daughter despite their profound differences, because in a world that has changed entirely, he is the constant that she can completely rely on. The show reimagines family as more than just blood relations, as something that is more defined by how it functions, the safety and care it provides in an uncertain world.
2013-, created by Kevin Murphy, Michael Taylor and Rockne S. O’Bannon, starring Jaime Murray, Grant Bowler, Stephanie Leonidas, Julie Benz, Tony Curran, Graham Greene, Dewshane Williams, Jesse Rath, Trenna Keating, Mia Kirshner, Anna Hopkins.