The Defiant Ones
Learning to Embrace Both Amanda Rosewater and Stahma Tarr
I think about the passage of time a lot, and the difference time can make on our perspectives. There are moments when time doesn’t seem to make a difference at all, and there are moments when time changes our perspective completely.
In May 2012, I graduated Sarah Lawrence College on my dad’s fifty-fourth birthday. In 2012, I was bright-eyed, hopeful, and ready to attempt to make my way in a world I was unprepared for. I moved back home to Connecticut after graduation and took a job babysitting, followed by tutoring, two jobs writing, and finally another job babysitting. My goal: pay off my student loans as fast as possible.
Somehow, I managed to cobble all of these jobs together into a cohesive schedule. I was focused on work. I babysat three mornings a week, wrote in the afternoons, tutored twice weekly, and still wrote when I came home.
To decompress, I would lose myself in boxed sets of my favorite TV shows. I liked science fiction at the time. I’d been a big fan of 2003’s Battlestar Galactica and 2009’s Dollhouse; I was disappointed when Syfy cancelled Caprica, and reluctantly gave Warehouse 13 a shot.
I loved the imagination in these shows. I loved the questions they posed, and I liked thinking about where the story was going. It was also a genre that is the epitome of shows cancelled before their time and so, in the spring of 2013, I reluctantly left my comfort zone for a new show called Defiance.
Defiance premiered on the Syfy Channel in April 2013.
Its premise was that in 2013 a group of different alien races known as the Votanus Collective arrived on Earth. The worlds that each race inhabited were dying, so they built arks that carried their people across the stars.
But this was all backstory. The series picked up thirty years later with Joshua Nolan hunting for “ark tech” with his daughter, an alien girl named Irisa, whom he saved from a cult. They run into trouble and are brought to the former city of St. Louis, which has been renamed Defiance.
As a 2013 viewer, I was drawn into the show by the complex narratives presented. Defiance was a place where both humans and Votans could live in peace, and where the different cultures were respected, but it still had its own social ecosystem which made for good stories.
I found myself coming back to Defiance each week for the complex characters with their own motivations and fallacies. No character in Defiance was just there, they all had a role to play that drove the story forward. Most importantly there was an array of women who weren’t only strong, but complex in their own right.
There was Amanda Rosewater, the newly minted mayor who always had a plan and yet was insecure in times of stress. Then there was her sister Kenya, who ran the bar and brothel called the Need/Want. Irisa, Nolan’s daughter, was just starting to come into her own and push back against her father. Doc Yewll was a serious scientist who let nothing stand in the way of her doing her job, and still had a shady past. Christy McCawley was a young woman in love with an alien boy against her father’s wishes, and while her story was arguably the most like a teen movie, it still sucked me in.
Yet, the character that really drew me in was Stahma Tarr. Stahma’s a Castithan woman who was married to the town loan shark, Datak Tarr. Over Defiance’s three seasons the couple and their son Alak presented a story not unlike many immigrant narratives as Stahma struggled to break the bonds of their old world, while Datak held tight to them.
Looking back, it isn’t surprising that she was one of the first characters I gravitated towards. Stahma and Datak carried themselves in a way that reminded me of the Purebloods in Harry Potter. In 2012, I’d written an op-ed about Bellatrix Lestrange and how her manic tendencies were something I admired because she was unapologetic for who she was. The Black family quickly became my favorite Harry Potter characters because of their history and complexity. Stahma reminded me of Bellatrix’s sister, Narcissa Malfoy, who I was also drawn to because she walked the line of self-preservation. She wasn’t setting out to do the right thing, just to take care of her family.
Stahma had similar motivations. Throughout the first season, Stahma pulled strings and manipulated situations to serve her interests. It was selfish, but it was all for the good of her family, and she wasn’t afraid to do what was needed.
In season two of Defiance, with Datak in prison and her son running the family business, Stahma had to find a way to ensure her survival without breaking the edicts of the Castithan homeworld. On Casti, their home planet, women weren’t allowed to run businesses and they weren’t supposed to have opinions, but Stahma believed in the new world that Earth promised, and she wanted to break the cycle.
Her feminist narrative was one of the strongest of season two and one of the reasons that I kept watching the show. Yet, Stahma’s narrative always felt like she was in danger of being found out.
Defiance was cancelled in 2015 shortly after the Season 3 finale aired, but I hadn’t seen it.
I was neck deep in a redesign work project and cultivating a friendship with my brother’s girlfriend. Since moving back home in 2012, I had put up my own stasis nets. I had lived with a presumption that I could, and possibly would, move at any time, but that hadn’t happened.
While I was living at home, Sunday dinners had become a ritual, with my brother and his girlfriend coming over every week—sometimes on short notice—and that meant I was often cooking dinner. Over the course of a year and a half I got to know his girlfriend and we became friends. I taught her to knit and we went to trunk shows in New York City and knitting circles together. I showed my mom and brother the sometimes-complicated world of buying yarn from independent dyers online for Christmas and her birthday, and often served as a fit guide for when my mom decided to buy her clothes.
I wanted to do it, I was happy to do it. I liked my brother’s girlfriend, but a nagging part of me thought to myself: “She’s currently my only friend. What happens if this doesn’t work out?”
Before Christmas 2015, they broke up. She disappeared from my life like a shadow in the corner of my eye. That’s when my mother looked at me and said, “She was your friend. I didn’t even think about that.”
“I did,” I replied.
Since then, the stasis nets went back up. This time, not because I was planning to move, but because I didn’t want to lose another friend that way.
When 2016 rolled around I vowed that I would start doing things for myself again. A big project at work had recently come to an end and suddenly I had free time and didn’t know what to do with myself.
I started writing television reviews for Tell-Tale TV, and threw myself full-tilt into a blog. I got back into reading and went to a book group at my local independent bookstore, and I kept doing things like the weekly grocery run. Yet, I also felt lonely, in the way that someone describes being alone in a crowd of people.
It’s strange seeing a mirror of yourself when you don’t expect it.
In July 2018, I was working on an article for Tell-Tale TV. I’d been contributing to them regularly for over two years and I often credit the site with giving me an outlet to save my sanity. I had written an essay about the TV show Timeless and its place in the time travel genre, and was working on a list of shows with similarly rich narratives.
I was talking to a friend about the idea, and asking her if she knew about any other shows, when she said, “Defiance.”
I thought about it for a moment. Defiance had slipped away from me so slowly that it hadn’t even occurred to me when I made my list. I thought about it some more and searched for the show online. It had been five years since the premiere but the three seasons were on Amazon Prime.
I began to re-watch the pilot, and I came to the scene where Joshua Nolan walks into Defiance for the first time and sees Amanda Rosewater give a speech at a town celebration. Later, walking through town with the former mayor, Amanda says how she’s “genetically incapable of inspiring people.” Later, when the town is under attack, she’s struggling with how to address the citizens. She’s looking for the right words that will inspire them to take up arms against the Volge.
She compares herself to Mayor Nicky, and when she ultimately takes to the podium in front of a scared and confused town, she ditches her script and says plainly, “We’re all going do die!”
In those two scenes I started to realize that it wasn’t Stahma Tarr I should have been looking at, but Amanda. She was a newly minted mayor who was fighting for a town that she loved. In each season, the writers gave Amanda new challenges and she always approached it rationally. She didn’t have all the answers, but she always attempted to find the best way out of her situation.
My world is nothing like Amanda Rosewater’s. Her history and mine don’t mirror each other, but as the pilot progressed, I saw more of myself in Amanda. When Amanda is injured during the fight with the Volge she attempts to get up and keep fighting before Doc Yewll pushes her back down and tells her she’s on bed rest.
Around the time I fell behind on Defiance, I was working on an important project for work. The project was taking longer than expected and one day, I suddenly realized I hadn’t showered in three days or changed my clothes, because I was so focused on the task. Had I been Amanda, in her exact same situation, I would have tried to get up too. I would have pressed on and kept working.
Watching Amanda tend to Defiance also brought up a connection I never expected.
I moved back to Connecticut in the summer of 2012, and I was there when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. I was home and ready to pursue the next stage of my life, but on December 14, 2012, it was like the town halted. There were memorials and services, and I was concerned about two of the kids I babysat.
“Ms. Lauren,” the older one asked me. “Do I have to talk about what happened?”
I was at the stove making macaroni and cheese. I turned and stooped down to his level. “I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “I know a lot of people are asking you questions. So, when I am here, if you want to talk about it, we can. If you don’t, that’s fine too.”
He smiled and went back to his snack. Going on six years, I remember how internally, I had promised myself that I would be there for these boys and my community. And I was, until the family ultimately moved, but I never did; I stayed in my town and watched the anniversaries pass.
Looking back, in the spring of 2013, Stahma gave me what I needed to survive. She gave me calculated exterior and the hope that I could affect change in some small way. But, in my actions, I was really Amanda. She put her own feelings and ambitions aside for the good of the town. She loved Defiance and the people in it.
In an interview, Julie Benz who played the role of Amanda broke down one of her final scenes in the season three finale, “Upon the March We Fittest Die.”
“For me, Amanda represents the heart of Defiance. She’s the only character who consistently puts aside her own feelings for the good of the town. She sacrificed her whole life for the survival of the town.”
A few weeks ago, I was conducting a phone interview with Jennifer Bartels from American Woman. We were discussing how the characters were each developed differently. Bartels, who plays Diana, said:
“I know, as a viewer and as a woman, I really look to align with different characteristics of different women. I have a little Bonnie in me, and I have a little Kathleen in me, and of course, I have quite a bit of Diana in me, so it’s nice that people can relate to different aspects of the characters.”
This quote stayed with me as I transcribed it, and finished Defiance all the way through for the first time. I’ve been thinking about both Stahma Tarr and Amanda Rosewater, and the different things I’ve liked about each of them, and I realized that I have aspects of both of them. Stahma gave me the armor I needed at a time when the community around me was raw and healing, but Amanda was who I was. I just had to take care not to lose myself in the service of others, and protect myself a little bit, like Stahma Tarr would.
For all her backstabbing, which made her a compelling character, Stahma always looked out for herself, and she valued those closest to her. Stahma might not be the best role model, but she definitely had a few personality traits that I can benefit from.