In its first season, Killjoys surprised me by being a refreshing, mostly thoughtful, fun episodic science fiction show, that managed to weave complex worldbuilding into plot and character development, while interrogating science fiction tropes and giving them a fresh, satisfying spin. In its recently completed second season, however, it mostly rested on its laurels, hardly advancing character arcs or deepening its worldbuilding and—most disappointingly of all—abandoning a lot of the subversive attitude that made the show worth watching.
For those unfamiliar with the show, its three protagonists are misfits and unfortunates from around the galaxy who somehow end up working as a cross between bounty hunters, bodyguards, and law enforcement officers. Officially called Reclamation Agents but colloquially known as "killjoys," all three of them represent characters you've probably seen many times before in the genre, but not from this angle.
Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), for example, is the grown-up version of River Tam from Firefly, Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass, and every other little girl who was raised by men to be the ultimate weapon in a fight. She is every terrifying sidekick: damaged by a childhood filled with killing, morals twisted by her abusive father figure, cold and emotionless, she reflects the various powerful women rendered "safe" by being portrayed as broken.
However, despite Dutch's abusive upbringing, despite the older man who raised her to be a killer, and who inserted himself into her life illicitly when she was too young to tell he was dangerous, Dutch has managed to mostly heal herself. Unlike River Tam and Hit-Girl, she doesn't need fixing. She doesn't find navigating the world a burden. She's old enough to have settled into herself, to process her past as a murderer and arrive at the conclusion that it is neither her fault nor something she can blankly deny: she is a woman with terrifying skills, and it's up to her to decide how she uses them. She sets her own boundaries, makes her own rules, decides for herself what's worth fighting for.
Rather than Dutch's power being treated as a dangerous, unstable force—as is the custom in SFF with women who are always the most powerful people in any given room—her issues are framed in the same way as Batman's or the Doctor's. She doesn't need to learn to control her powers, she doesn't need to be guided or contained; rather, she must maintain a connection to her own humanity. Dutch is so brilliant and so skilled that, unless she remembers that humanity is worth fighting for, she might instead destroy it. The fact that the actress hired to play Dutch is of mixed racial heritage is particularly refreshing—when science fiction does give women complex roles and doesn't treat their powers as a burden, the honor is usually reserved for white actresses only. (In spite of this, however, the show borrows nonsensically and sometimes offensively from non-Western cultures, from the saffron robes worn by monks who are clearly a parody of Catholicism, to Dutch's upbringing in a harem. At best the show uses these "foreign" elements as decoration, at worst it feeds into negative stereotypes, which tarnishes its otherwise impressive attempts at worldbuilding.)
The role of Dutch's companion—her human half, who reminds her that humanity isn't all bad—is played by Johnny (Aaron Ashmore), a profoundly well-adjusted younger son who had to take care of his family after his older brother abruptly left to join the military. Despite Johnny's skills with science and tech, higher education and a "proper" career were not an option for him given the caretaker role he had to assume within his family from a young age. Instead he eventually became a thief, using his skills to steal spaceships, and running into Dutch when an attempt to steal hers failed to go according to plan.
If Dutch is brilliant at strategy and tactics, always the best fighter, and has a ruthless ability to do the things others recoil from, Johnny is the opposite. Not allowed to kill on assignment, Johnny is better at de-escalation, working out deals, befriending people. To Dutch's utter dismay he's "friends with the people he sleeps with," and incidentally has never made romantic or sexual advances towards Dutch. Their friendship is entirely platonic, with Johnny supporting Dutch at every turn, respecting her wishes and decisions, following her orders and genuinely cherishing her company. Perhaps the only other similar friendship I can think of in the world of science fiction television exists on the show The 100, but while that show's platonic couple spends most of each season in different parts of the world, Dutch and Johnny live together on a tiny spaceship, demonstrating their mundane, functional, nourishing collaboration in each episode. It shouldn't be so unusual to see a platonic friendship between a woman who leads a crew and her longtime second-in-command, but it is. This is perhaps the only aspect the show continually delivers on, in both seasons.
The third member of the team is Johnny's long lost older brother, D'avin (Luke Macfarlane). A supersoldier who ran away from an abusive home only to have the military experiment on him without his consent, in the first season he's a textbook deconstruction of the gruff, tough, laconic space soldier. What's interesting about D'avin—and what utterly disappears in the second season—is the idea that instead of his powerful body being glorified, his military expertise being seen as useful and essential, both of those things are actually portrayed as tools of D'avin's victimization. D'avin doesn't benefit from being fit and strong, or from being a soldier. On the contrary, in a universe with strong societial expectations of men deemed big and strong, his body determines his destiny: people take advantage of him, whether to force him into the life of an indentured servant, sleep with him when he's vulnerable and incapable of processing the implications, or simply mind-control him to murder the people he cares about. Similarly, his military experience has left him with more scars than skills, including flashbacks to killing his own squad and, simultaneously, having his recollections impaired by "memory blockers," which prevent him from ever remembering the truth of his past.
Even D'avin's impressive tactical skills are not portrayed as unique or vital: Dutch adds him to the team as a favor to Johnny, not because she requires them. Instead, D'avin's journey is about embracing vulnerability and emotion, unlearning the toxic culture he's inhaled and figuring out who he is underneath it. In this, he and Dutch are similar, though her scars and her skills are greater than his: they're both people who are comfortable on the move, and who rely on Johnny to remind them of their humanity.
All of this made the first season of Killjoys feel refreshing, like the better, newer version of something you remember kind-of liking years ago. However, in the second season most of these strengths are abandoned, and most of the show’s weaknesses are amplified. While the first season established Dutch's upbringing as abusive, and her former mentor, Khlyen (Rob Stewart), as the primary villain of the show, in season two the narrative attempts to "redeem" Khlyen by giving him a backstory. His motivation for raising Dutch to be a murderer is that she's a genetic copy of his daughter, who was driven mad centuries ago by her father experimenting on her; his intervention in Dutch's life was an attempt to prepare Dutch to some day face this immortal, evil, mad twin.
Nothing about this reveal really redeems Khlyen in any way, and yet, although Dutch doesn't entirely forgive him for keeping her in the dark for her entire life, his death is treated as a bittersweet event in a way that rings false. Once Khlyen is established as essentially Kilgrave from Netflix's Jessica Jones, constantly undermining Dutch's own memories of her upbringing, and claiming he made her murder the people who cared for her out of love, it's difficult to accept that his character deserves even a modicum of redemption. If the show had leaned a little harder on the idea that Dutch's agency and her own feelings towards her past are what really matter, it might have gotten away with this backstory. But instead Khlyen becomes a supporting character in season two, getting his own scenes and his own sidekick, and that feels like nails on a chalkboard after everything we've seen in season one.
D'avin, meanwhile, becomes almost a non-character. Instead of exploring further his journey to emotional wellness—and his changing relationship with his masculinity, his body, his military past, and the places it might lead him—the show is content to let him go back to being a random supersoldier, now with magic powers from being experimented on yet again, this time by Khlyen. Perhaps the only interesting moment for his story in the entire season comes after D'avin sleeps with a woman who seduces him, as he also did to dire consequence in the first season, and who dies mysteriously in his bed. As she's revealed to be an enemy agent, D'avin is forced to yet again think of his body as a dangerous, out-of-control weapon instead of a source of power and authority—and Dutch comes the closest she's ever come to reverting to her old self, treating the newly revealed enemy the way Khlyen would have wanted. It's D'avin who reminds her that Khlyen wins by making Dutch disregard the welfare of others, that it's Khlyen's aim to make Dutch isolated and nihilistic. It's D'avin, the soldier, who reminds Dutch that the rules of war exist for a reason. That even among enemies, some respect for human life must remain.
Perhaps the biggest "winner" of season two, however, is Johnny. While Dutch and D'avin received most of the character development in season one, with Johnny mostly there to support them, in season two Johnny gets his own arc. Unfortunately, because Johnny's entire purpose is to be well adjusted, happy and whole, it's impossible to rely on him to carry an entire season of drama on his shoulders. Johnny's essential character conflict is that he was never meant to be a killjoy, he's not really suited for the work, and he doesn't enjoy it. For Dutch and D'avin, working on their own, using their fighting skills, and completing missions is as good as life gets. For Johnny, it's an empty distraction. He yearns for purpose, for making an impact, for changing the world. Being Dutch's companion fulfills his need for a while, but eventually he hungers for a greater purpose. And the first rule of being a killjoy is that you're not allowed to take sides, to get involved in conflicts. For killjoys "the warrant is all," and whoever pays the bills—almost always the rich and powerful—sets the tune.
In the second season, however, Johnny finally takes a risk—prompted perhaps by D'avin's return, which allows Johnny some measure of "selfishness" for once—and joins Pawter, a highborn doctor disowned by her powerful family for becoming a junkie and accidentally killing a patient, in trying to Save The World. Their plan doesn't work, because Johnny isn't skilled enough to pull it off, and this causes a rift between the trio, as D'avin and Dutch grapple with the one person they trust having betrayed them by working outside of their team—even if the betrayal is nominally for a noble cause. Johnny's journey has some lovely moments, such as when he accompanies Pawter to her family home—only to go from the smartest and most refined man in the circles he travels in to the dirtiest, most uneducated ruffian in the eyes of Pawter's parents; or when Dutch comes to retrieve a beaten, bleeding, caged Johnny—his failure having brought the secrets he's been keeping from Dutch to her attention.
But none of this is enough to carry an entire season, especially when Dutch's own journey feels hollow and strange and D'avin's mostly absent. In terms of worldbuilding, while the first season managed—in a way that was never confusing or infodumpy, and in between episodic plots and broader character arcs—to introduce four planets, each with different territories and factions, and each with interplanetary relationships to boot, in season two the worldbuilding is . . . also mostly absent. Rather than delving deeper into what we already know about the world’s sociology, politics, and power, we're mostly introduced to mythology and rumors of the past: the origins of the experiments Khlyen was conducting, for example, and the role of the local religious cult in those experiments. Mythology has its place in science fiction, of course, and the early seasons of Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica are perhaps a good example of how it can be woven into the everyday lives of characters to inform their actions; but in the second season of Killjoys this mythology feels mostly disconnected from the protagonists and their motivations and daily lives, acting instead more as a mystery the viewer is meant to solve, without providing any real stakes or a reason to be invested in the solution.
In terms of episodic plots, season two offers plots that are far simpler and more clichéd than what went before. The first season offered episodes like "One Blood," in which Dutch and the team were sent to capture a rogue, veteran killjoy—only to be drawn into a political struggle between different interplanetary factions over land and hereditary rights; in the same episode, they discover the existence of a unique biological weapon that becomes crucial later in the season, in another memorable episode which sees Dutch's resolve not to kill unless she has to tested dramatically. A typical second season episode, however, might be summarized as follows: the team are sent to rescue three killjoys who are trapped in a cave, only to discover dangerous creatures lurking there; the team meet a rich collector who turns out to be an immortal and tries to kill them, using his scantily-clad robot women. Nothing about these sorts of plot is particularly fresh or interesting, which would be forgivable in a second season if the now-established characters took center-stage instead—but, as we've covered, that doesn't actually happen.
All of this contributes to the feeling that not much story is actually told on the second season of Killjoys. If you liked the characters based on their season one arcs, you'll probably stay invested enough to watch the season through. There are also wonderful supporting characters, such as Delle Seyah Kendry, the wealthy landowner who's a foil for Dutch and the gang while hitting on Dutch at every opportunity; Clara, the girl with a mechanic arm who ends the season by becoming Johnny's own platonic companion; and Sabine, the supersoldier who seduces D'avin and temporarily regains her pre-brainwashed personality. These all add interest and help make up for the lackluster arcs of the protagonists: ultimately, even in its second season, Killjoys is still an entertaining show. I just hope the next season goes back to what also made the show interesting, instead of sliding yet further away from it.
Marina Berlin grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. She’s an author of short stories who’s currently working on her first fantasy novel. You can follow her exploits on twitter @berlin_marina or read more of her stories and reviews at marinaberlin.org.