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Colony, USA’s alien invasion drama, is accidentally the most relevant show on television

The series, set in a dystopian oppressive regime, feels a little less escapist with every new episode.

Somebody’s watching me.
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.

When USA’s alien invasion drama Colony wrapped its first season in the spring of 2016, I groused about how the show seemed ready to jettison its deep portrayal of the psychological cost of collaborating with an occupying force, in favor of pursuing a feel-good story about the human resistance overthrowing the alien occupiers.

I wrote:

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.

At the time, I was interested in how Colony subverted the typical alien invasion story by digging into its characters’ struggles with the idea of humans no longer being Earth’s dominant species. It was first and foremost a family drama, about one family trying to stay together after an immense, planet-wide traumatic event. But it was also about recalibrating your view of yourself and your species.

Now, however, as the series enters its second season (of which I’ve seen eight of 13 episodes), I’m much more okay with its focus on the anti-alien resistance. Action beats that made me roll my eyes in season one have much more visceral excitement to them now, and the show’s teasing hints that humankind’s only hope is to resist the aliens have much more resonance.

Some of that is just the natural tightening and growth that happens with most promising series as they take stock of what did and didn’t work in season one. But just as much is what’s changed for me in that time. I wonder what that could have been?

Colony argues that true resistance often involves violence

The “red hats” (collaborators with the alien occupying force) haul off a suspect.

The second season of Colony was written, produced, and edited in the summer and early fall of 2016. Its resonances with the world of right now are almost entirely accidental. After all, we’re not ruled by a species from beyond the stars.

And yet, like any good sci-fi show, Colony is tuned in to the world at large. In particular, it serves as a kind of primer on what horrible things can be done with a national security apparatus largely built up under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, if those who have their hands on it don’t have humanity’s best interests at heart. The aliens send drones into the city to surveil and sometimes kill humans, and season two teases out a massive surveillance state that is essentially watching and recording everything anybody says or does.

It’s the stuff of science fiction, of course — but it’s not so out there that it doesn’t bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to our real world. It’s easy enough to imagine the security state suddenly bugging every American citizen via their cellphones or something. Indeed, we mostly try to pretend that such a thing couldn’t have already happened because it makes us feel slightly better and more in control of our own lives.

Where Colony really twists the knife is in its suggestion that violence is the only truly effective way to stand up to oppressive regimes. The resistance blows stuff up this season, which only causes the alien occupiers to crack down even harder, which only causes more and more people to join the resistance. The only way to strike back against the state is to convince enough people that the state doesn’t have their interests at heart, so that guerrilla war spills over into outright civil war.

Oppression, in Colony, is a tool to make humans feel like worthless cogs in the machine of the state. The best way to break the spell is to make the individual feel like her life or death matters. And the best way to bring about that change is to create life-or-death stakes — i.e., open violence and warfare.

This has been the subject of many sci-fi shows over the years; it’s common to see stories about human beings banding together to resist alien occupiers of planet Earth. Colony’s twist in season one was to focus more on the idea of collaboration, on the questions of what would make someone decide to work with an occupying force and how they might maintain a personal moral compass in the face of orders they disagreed with. (It was heavily drawn from stories of Vichy France, where normal citizens collaborated with Nazi occupiers.)

But in season two, the show is almost entirely about life during wartime.

Living amid calamity doesn’t mean life stops being ordinary

The red hats line up the usual suspects.

Perhaps what Colony most gets right about living under oppressive regimes is that people try to continue having normal lives.

The regime on the show is self-evidently oppressive, with a precipitating event (the invasion of the planet) that splits everything into a clear “before and after.” It’s not at all like real-world authoritarian regimes (see: Vladimir Putin’s Russia), which often slowly increase the amount of oppression that affects day-to-day life, so you barely notice how different your life is from the way it used to be.

But even on Colony, people keep going to work. They keep trying to provide better lives for their kids — even when the aliens are forcibly indoctrinating those kids with pro-alien propaganda. They cling to their belief that they’ve reached equilibrium, that every new step on the path to hell is the last one, that they can just sit here and watch the flames from afar.

This is often why I blanch at calling Colony a science fiction show. Yes, it has a sci-fi premise, and its cold opens (which often have nothing to do with the rest of the episode) are nifty pieces of world-building, designed to sketch out what an alien-occupied Earth looks like from perspectives other than those of the main characters. But at its heart, it’s a family drama.

Centered on the Bowmans, whose central marriage between Will (Josh Holloway) and Katie (Sarah Wayne Callies) is tested when he goes to work for the aliens and she joins the resistance, the show tracks, in occasionally excruciating detail, how their attempts to keep their family unit basically sound only serve to widen the cracks in their foundation.

Parents hope, desperately, to give their children a normal life, but the insistence of normalcy when normal has been thrown out the window only creates a dreadful paradox you can’t escape. You become enmeshed by your own hope, until something has to give.

Capturing the nuances of this sort of existence is, admittedly, often beyond Colony’s skillset — particularly when the show turns to a storyline about the Bowmans’ teenage son, who, like almost all teenagers in cable dramas, is pretty awful. But in its best moments and episodes, Colony has a haunted quality.

Life used to be one way, but it keeps sliding toward some other, more terrible destiny, and even open violence can’t stop the inevitable darkness from swallowing the characters whole. They fight and fight and fight, with no guarantee of a win, outside of the fact that they’re fictional characters on a show that will probably have a happy ending someday. And at the end of every episode, I think, “That was good stuff. I’m not sure how long I can keep watching.”

Colony airs Thursdays at 10 pm EST on USA. Season one is available to stream on Netflix, and previous episodes of season two are available on USA’s website.

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