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Alien invasion drama Colony caps a strong 1st season with an unfortunate turn toward the predictable

Here's hoping it doesn't abandon its intriguing setup to become just another sci-fi series.

USA Network
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 13 through 19 is "Gateway," the finale of the first season of USA's Colony.

The reason I love USA's alien invasion drama Colony is also the reason I will eventually turn on it.

The series, which concluded its first season Thursday, March 17, isn't your standard saga of aliens coming to Earth. In a series like that, we almost always follow those who are part of the resistance, the brave humans standing up to the invaders who are making life difficult. In Colony, however, resistance is all but futile (to steal the catchphrase of another sci-fi universe's alien collective). Cooperating may be the only way to survive.

Colony is hell bent on examining what it means for the invaders and the invaded to collaborate, how it feels to be working with beings that view you as lesser than them, simply because they bested you in battle. After the occupiers make him an offer he essentially cannot refuse, The show's main character, Will Bowman (Josh Holloway), finds himself reluctantly (at least initially) partnering with the humans who serve as the aliens' emissaries on Earth. (We never once see the aliens themselves, except as heavily armored humanoid figures that pop up on occasion.)

Will's wife, Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies), is working with the resistance, but said resistance is almost hopelessly outclassed. The aliens have greatly advanced technology. Why they haven't yet wiped humanity from the face of the Earth isn't clear; any attempts to fight back are quelled fairly quickly, and the resistance mostly ends up killing and hurting other humans. It's brutal, soul-eroding work.

And yet the longer Colony remains on the air, the more likely it is that the show will abandon that intriguing setup to become just another sci-fi series.

Colony's first season was great, but the show is almost certainly headed in an unfortunately predictable direction

Colony has already been renewed for a second season, part of USA's ongoing efforts to rebrand itself as a home for quality serialized drama. (The network's hacker drama Mr. Robot saw much greater acclaim, though not significantly higher ratings, last summer.) And as season one wraps up with "Gateway," the resistance has managed to kill its first alien — albeit completely accidentally — and to swipe a piece of alien technology.

You can probably guess where the show is headed. The resistance will make advances against the aliens and those who work for them. Will and Katie will be further torn asunder. (Will knows Katie is working against him but can't bring himself to turn her in; similarly, Katie doesn't want to kill her husband.) It may take several seasons, but humanity will eventually reclaim the planet.

Really, that's because TV essentially requires this to happen. A series where the occupation forces slowly but surely wear down all resistance would be almost unbearably grim. Not all shows need a happy ending, but most need at least the possibility of one. Even a famously dour series like The Wire offered the mildest of silver linings for a few of its characters when it ended.

But the version of Colony where the resistance gradually drives back the aliens is also a lot more typical and a lot less interesting. The best episodes of season one — particularly episode six, "Yoknapatawpha," and episode eight, "In From the Cold" — lean into the question of what one does when forced to live in a world where humanity is no longer the top species on Earth. We don't know much about what Colony's aliens have planned for us, but we know it's probably not great — and as episode eight's reveal of a prison colony on the moon suggests, it's also pretty all-encompassing.

Humanity driving back alien invaders is fine and all, but it's also a story that ultimately cops out by falling back on easy answers, by not asking us to consider what might happen if we, too, were forced to deal with an intelligence greater than ours that decided it wanted to claim Earth as its own. And in doing so, it misses an opportunity to metaphorically address, say, the plight of anyone whose country is invaded by an overwhelming military force, confronting them with the choice to either fight back or cooperate in hopes of living a compromised but more comfortable life. But even without any symbolic ambitions, it's a narrative we've seen a zillion times before.

USA Network

The series' first season benefits from villains you can pretty understandably relate to

Colony's best character, Alan Snyder (Peter Jacobson), embraces these contradictions fully. As the governor of the Los Angeles bloc (a small, intact section of Los Angeles amid the post-invasion rubble that makes up the rest of the city), it might seem as if Snyder has betrayed his species. And Colony's early episodes do play him as such a simplistic villain.

However, as the series progresses we learn that Snyder genuinely believes humanity's best hope is to work with Earth's new overlords. In his view, the aliens could easily wipe mankind off the face of the planet — so why not try to keep that from happening by cooperating? As the season winds to its conclusion, Snyder even sacrifices his own safety to make sure the Los Angeles bloc isn't completely destroyed, along with everyone living in it.

It's an old chestnut of writing advice to suggest that the villain sees himself as the hero of his own story. But the reason Colony works so beautifully in season one is that the obvious villains — i.e., the humans who are working with the aliens — all have completely understandable reasons for doing what they do. Will, for instance, hopes to see his missing son again someday (and the season finale reveals said son is scavenging among the ruins of Santa Monica), while Snyder, the only character to have actually met an alien, is so in awe of what he saw that he's simply given up any notions of humanity continuing as it had.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe the series finds its way to an ending where aliens and humanity find a way to coexist peacefully. Maybe it all turns out to be a complicated allegory about how different cultures can live alongside each other without trying to kill each other.

Yet the more the series shrouds everything about the aliens — from their appearance to their intentions — in mystery, the more likely it is that their ultimate plan probably involves some variation on "kill all humans." It seems decidedly unlikely they've arrived to help us make our own way to the stars or, at the very least, to help our street food industry. (One of Colony's more amusing details is that the Los Angeles taco cart economy seems largely undisturbed by the invasion.)

Television being what it is, there must be two sides to create a conflict, and one side will ultimately win the day. And because I have my doubts that USA would go all in on a series that ends with the extinction of our species, I suspect Colony will eventually veer toward a more predictable tale, just as I fear Amazon's (surprisingly similar) alternate-history series The Man in the High Castle will eventually end with the Nazis being driven out of the US and the "proper" series of historical events reasserting itself.

And yet if television is going to continue to evolve, it will need to find ways to talk about the darker sides of humanity at length, in nonsuperficial ways. And the metaphors of science fiction can help with that. The most awful villains are often the most understandable ones. TV has often presented evil at a remove — as seen in the wealth and power of Tony Soprano or the over-the-top adventures of Walter White. But evil so often looks like a guy who just wants to get his kid back, and is willing to do worse and worse things to make that happen.

If you have a cable provider login, Colony season one is available to stream on both USA's website and Hulu.