The Wonders I’ve Seen: 3×02, “Suns and Lovers”

Are you ready to die in the cleansing apocalypse?

When “Suns and Lovers” is about suns, it’s really boring. When it’s about lovers, it’s mildly irritating at worst, and gripping at best. In its defense, the episode knows that—it expends the barest possible amount of effort on setting up the external conflict, and the episode’s villain spends the back half of the episode gagged, and is eventually jettisoned without fanfare.

So let’s ignore the things we’re so clearly meant to ignore, and talk romance. There are three (three-and-a-half?) sets of lovers in the episode: Stark and Zhaan; John and Aeryn; and of course, the hot mess that is D’Argo, Chiana, and Jothee.

There’s plenty of dysfunction to go around in that list, and you might think that Stark and Zhaan, who are together and not cheating on each other and who really only get two scenes in the whole episode, would be exempt. But this is Farscape, so of course they’re not. Zhaan is dying—that’s the whole reason they’re on this space station, looking for a treatment—and she seems significantly less concerned about the matter than Stark does.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and despite the fact that “Suns and Lovers” only devotes two scenes to this subplot, I like it a lot. Zhaan is sometimes a tricky character for both the show and the audience to characterize, but without saying much directly, this episode pulls on a lot of existing threads for her. Of course she’s not all that concerned about dying; she made a conscious choice to sacrifice her life for Aeryn’s, and has more or less considered herself already dead since that moment. In “Family Ties,” Zhaan said that her life has been forfeit since the moment she killed someone, and I think this is the culmination of that. She’s truly at peace with her decision. But Stark, who loves Zhaan but doesn’t seem to have ever given any indication of fully understanding her, isn’t at peace—and anyway, why should he be? Zhaan used him against his will to sacrifice herself.

This particular confluence of emotional circumstances leads to some interactions that aren’t particularly flattering for either character, although especially for Stark, who is, after all, kind of inherently less likeable than Zhaan. Stark hovers, he nags, he snaps, and Zhaan floats through it all, almost totally unresponsive to the pain she has, however altruistically, caused. What a mess. I love it.

And then there’s John and Aeryn, another couple who really only get two scenes. Aeryn, you see, has had the brilliant idea that she and John should have no-strings sex—which, against all reason and evidence, she thinks will reduce the level of tension in their lives. In fairness to Aeryn, she comes from a culture that heavily promotes that line of reasoning. (In unfairness, she has direct evidence from her own life that no-strings sex with someone you have romantic feelings for can get pretty complicated pretty quickly.) John, however, does not come from such a culture, and—oh hell, it’s been too long. I can’t remember whether John has ever explicitly laid out his beliefs about sex. But certainly an implication of a lot of the things he’s said, choices he’s made, and memories that we’ve experienced, is that John isn’t particularly interested in sex without an emotional component. He’s not just dismissive of, but even a little offended by Aeryn’s suggestion, calling it “charity.”

They don’t speak again face-to-face until the end of the episode, at which point they’ve both come around a little to the other’s point of view. The implication, I would guess, is that by viewing the fallout of D’Argo and Chiana’s relationship—up close, for John, and via comm report, for Aeryn—they gained some perspective on each other. That shift is a little easier to parse for Aeryn, who is getting a crash course in potential failure modes for going “fast with the body, slow with the soul,” as Chiana once put it.

Although he was more engaged with the drama of the episode, I’m less clear on what John got out of it. Maybe, in sitting with D’Argo, he just gained an appreciation of his trust in Aeryn’s intentions. Regardless, by the end of the episode, John understands that what Aeryn was offering wasn’t charity, and Aeryn comes around to the idea that it might cause more problems than it would solve.

The tone that John and Aeryn’s story ends on is one of those interesting off-beat Farscape choices. It could’ve been played for drama, like Aeryn’s declaration at the end of the premiere, but instead, it comes off as almost joyous. Aeryn and John look each other in the eyes and smile, and laugh. Despite the fact that they’re not together and currently have no plans to be, they’re obviously in love, and on the same page. The most functional of the episode’s lovers.

And now, the main event: Chiana, D’Argo, and Jothee. Fueled by Chiana’s fear of commitment and Jothee’s deeply complicated feelings about his father, the two have been carrying on the affair they began in “Season of Death.” Halfway through the episode, D’Argo figures it out, partly because Chiana and Jothee are not skilled secret-keepers, and partly because Chiana wasn’t really trying all that hard to hide it. The revelation pushes D’Argo to some very dramatic places, including, among other things, a kind of half-hearted suicide attempt.

There’s no question that “Suns and Lovers” is sympathetic to D’Argo, who has, after all, just been pretty epically betrayed by the two most important people in his life. John, who often speaks as the conscience of the show, offers him sympathy and company, and speaks pretty angrily to Chiana and Jothee. (Which, again—fair.) But at the same time, some of D’Argo’s reactions are scary, and the show doesn’t exactly go out of its way to downplay them. The scene in which D’Argo figures out what happened is fairly chilling, and culminates in several acts of domestic violence. D’Argo’s wife was murdered, and he spent years searching for his stolen son—and here, he hits Chiana and brands Jothee.

No one takes D’Argo to task for any of that, the way John takes Chiana and Jothee to task; Chiana and Jothee aren’t really in a position to, and no one else knows. But at the same time, the episode is also very sympathetic to Chiana and Jothee. We understand why they did what they did, and we’re often invited to sit with Chiana’s pain and grief over the end of her relationship, even if she doesn’t express it by trying to electrocute herself.

This is one of those plotlines that always bring me back to Farscape, that make me watch the show and think about the show still, after all these years. Is the show trying to say anything about D’Argo’s behavior, or Chiana’s? Are we meant to come away as concerned about D’Argo’s violence as we are about Chiana’s emotional self-sabotage? How much of the complicated balancing act of sympathy and castigation is in my head, and how much is intentional? Farscape has one or two themes that it will hit you over the head with, but beyond that, when character dynamics get messy or morality gets blurry, it’s often left to the viewer to decide what, if any, lesson to take away.

Other Stuff

  • Farscape Gender Corner: It’s rare that Farscape subverts gender roles in any way so straightforward as simply swapping them, and this episode is not the exception. In the very broadest sense, you could argue that all of the lovers of the episode subvert the late-20th-century American expectations of gender: Stark nags while Zhaan stays emotionally distant; Aeryn pushes for casual sex while John holds out for emotional intimacy; Chiana runs from commitment while D’Argo pines for marriage. But on the other hand: Stark snaps while Zhaan speaks softly and patiently; John works on the big picture while Aeryn tries to save a lost child; D’Argo reacts to the end of his relationship with violence, while Chiana reacts with pleading.

    My thoughts on gender in this episode are probably best summed up by the The Graduate style shot of Aeryn unzipping her shirt, framed by John’s spread legs. On the one hand, a literal reversal of the positions from The Graduate, and one that fundamentally sexualizes John. On the other hand, it’s a shot of Aeryn unzipping her shirt.

One reason that I’m inclined to grant Farscape some trust with D’Argo’s violence in this episode is that I know that it’s a thread that doesn’t get entirely abandoned—for good or for ill, we’ll dig pretty deeply into it again in “Mental As Anything,” an episode that I have mixed feelings on generally, but that I do think is enriched by bearing the events of “Suns and Lovers” in mind while watching.

Please remember to tag spoilers for future episodes in the comments!

Next Monday, September 11, we’ll cover the two most depressingly named episodes of Farscape: 3×03, “Self-Inflicted Wounds: Could’a, Would’a, Should’a” and 3×04, “Self-Inflicted Wounds: Wait for the Wheel.”