Last week I wrote that the best science fiction reflects the difficult questions of our own era. Defiance attempts to do this in its second episode, “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go,” as it explores the cultural and religious differences of one of the alien races. Torture, capital punishment and public religion are all examined following the capture of a Castithan man named Elah Bandik who fled from the battle.
Back on its home world, Castithan society followed a caste system where honor and position were held in high regard. The other Voltan races see them as arrogant, and the main Castithan characters we’ve seen are devious and ruthless. According to Castithan religion, an act of cowardice in battle brings shame not just on yourself, but all of your brothers in arms. The only way for Bandik to make it to the afterlife is a lethal cleansing ceremony.
Bandik is strung up in a brutal contraption where all the Castithans of Defiance, including his family and other children slowly pull him in quarters by adding rocks to a pulley. Lawkeeper Joshua Nolan and his daughter Irisa are sickened by the cruelty and attempt to put a stop to it, but Bandik begs for his cleansing to continue and Mayor Amanda allows it.
She explains to Nolan that the reason there are so few Irathians in Defiance is that the previous mayor forcibly vaccinated their children, thinking Irathian children were dying for no reason. After putting down the Irathian uprising that followed, the surviving Irathians left. She’s hesitant to pick a similar fight with the Castithans.
It’s a difficult moral quandary that certainly applies to our own melting pot. There are plenty in America who choose not to vaccinate their children and plenty of people who would like to take away that choice. Society is virtually split on the question of capital punishment, and while cruel and unusual punishment is a cornerstone of our Constitution, some Americans would push the boundaries of its definition when it comes to our enemies.
Unfortunately, the writers seem at least as interested in answering these ethical questions as in asking them. The sympathetic characters are all for stopping the ceremony. The villainous ones are all for preserving Castithan tradition. At least in this instance, barbaric cultural institutions are something to be fixed. Irisa, herself the victim of abuse as a child, takes it upon herself to cut Bandik down. Her fellow deputy backs her up, “arresting” Bandik for loitering.
At the heart of the conflict is Datak Tarr, the Castithan leader, who with the help of his wife Stahma is plotting for their family to take over the mines after their son marries the daughter of his nemesis—and owner of the mine—Rafe McCawley (intending to kill Rafe and his son). Datak storms the jail cell holding Bandik but makes peace once the Mayor shows up.
The bigger mystery involves a strange gold artifact that Rafe finds in his murdered son’s room. Ex-mayor Nicky Riordon and her mysterious bespectacled friend want it so badly that they’ve sent last week’s traitor Ben into the mines to blow up a nuclear reactor underneath the town to the clear it out with the radiation so they can search in peace. Its purpose remains hidden, but it’s a cause Nicky considers important enough to kill off all the people she grew up with. I guess that makes her Defiance’s Ben Linus?
In the end, a plodding piano version of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” plays over the final montage, beginning with the town burying its dead from last week’s war and ending with the death of Bandik, a woman’s scream alerting Nolan to the body, dropped off at the sheriff’s doorstep.
It’s not a flawless second episode but it is a promising one. The characters are getting fleshed out, and the plot is thickening. Having the old St. Louis partly preserved down in the mines provides for some cool scenery. And there’s at least a desire to tackle some more interesting issues if not yet a stomach for keeping things messy.