‘Foundation’ Episode 3 Recap: Ashes to Ashes, Dusk to Dusk
How do you embody an empire that’s in terminal decline? Show us an emperor who’s in terminal decline. Oh, not permanently, of course: The cloning process pioneered by the current Emperors’ predecessor, Cleon I, ensures that there will always be a Cleon—strike that, three Cleons—to rule over the galaxy-spanning realm. But this episode of Foundation (“The Mathematician’s Ghost”) gives us a look at what happens when one of these clones ages out of his warranty period, so to speak, and the new blood ascends to replace him.
After an intro featuring the very first Cleon, who’s preparing to die before his pet project, the starbridge, can be completed, we rejoin the familiar trio who exiled Hari Seldon and his followers to the remote planet Terminus. But it’s now 19 years after the destruction of the starbridge that we witnessed last week, and all three parties have aged up.
As the aging Brother Dusk version of Cleon prepares for euthanasia—before which point he earns the sobriquet Brother Darkness—we see that the previous Brother Day, played by Lee Pace, has aged into a Brother Dusk, played (as is his even older self) by Trevor Nunn. Brother Dawn, meanwhile, is now played by Pace, in preparation of becoming the new Brother Day; a baby steps in as Brother Dawn, anointed by the dust of his disintegrated predecessor, Brother Darkness. (Their robotic aide Demerzel is immortal.) A brief flashback to a point just two years after the starbridge’s destruction shows a callow teenaged Brother Dawn, played by Cassian Bilton, supervising the erasure of the original Cleon’s commemorative mural, which will be restored by the time Dusk dies in the future. Everything old is new again!
If it sounds like a confusing process, it really isn’t. Pace and Nunn put in some delightful work here, mimicking one another’s gestures, revealing them as the movements of men who are, fundamentally, the same person. These Brothers go so far as to instigate the final destruction of the starbridge’s orbital platform, which has been slowly plummeting planetside since the bombs went off lo those many years ago. With that, the legacy of the original Cleon receives another deathblow.
While the Cleon Brothers are busy amongst themselves, the young Terminus settler Salvor Hardin busies herself with work for the Foundation, in what constitutes the second half the episode. Salvor has a job as a kind of warden or sentinel, patrolling the colony’s perimeter against intruding fauna. She also spends some time banging her boyfriend—her much, much older boyfriend, if you count the time he’s spent in suspended animation during cryosleep—a planet-jaunting trader named Hugo (Daniel MacPherson). (I have to say that the series’ repeated use of sex scenes is a real breath of fresh air in a TV climate where a tweet about the evils of “unnecessary” sex scenes seems to go viral every single day.)
Salvor protests to her parents, Abbas and Mari (Sasha Behar), that her unique ability to penetrate the “null field” around the planet’s mysterious Vault—which we learn predated the settlement—doesn’t make her special, just different. But she seems to have a kind of sixth sense, indicating both that the null field’s radius is expanding and that some mysterious person keeps running around the carcass of the colony’s old “slowship” after curfew. As these events are immediately followed by the arrival of hostile Anacrean ships in the space surrounding the planet, Salvor speculates they’re connected. She may be right: She ends the episode by following the mystery person into the old ship, pulling arrows out of a wounded beast, and finding herself at arrow-point by a gaggle of Anacrean interlopers.
The real problem with the episode lies in its bifurcated structure. On the Emperors’ side of the equation, we have some real dramatic interest: We’ve met these characters before, we’ve seen how they operate, and so their advancement and/or decline into old(er) age resonates. For that matter, the aging and replacement process itself is a pretty fascinating idea, its lack of any kind of roots in Isaac Asimov’s original novels be damned. Put it together and it’s a storyline you don’t mind sticking around with.
Salvor Hardin’s segment, by contrast, asks a bit too much of the audience. Salvor herself is something of a cipher, like a generic Star Wars Universe protagonist: barren world, space-age weapon, hidden powers, secret destiny, the whole schmear. And so many mysteries surround her storyline that they blend together into a sort of storytelling soup. We’re nearly two decades removed from the events of the first two episodes, we’re told: okay, great. Why did Raych murder his adoptive father Hari Seldon? What happened to the Foundation after Seldon’s death? How did they weather the storm that surely followed after the death of their founder and leader? What happened to Raych, for that matter? Why did he load our narrator and focal character, Gaal Dornick, into some kind of liquid-filled escape pod? Where is Gaal now?
Obviously, the show’s decision to withhold these answers was a deliberate one, and I respect that. And we do get some info on what happened after the Foundation’s slowship made planetfall on Terminus (kicking up an impressively earthy giant billow of dirt and stones when it did so): They cannibalized the ship for spare parts in order to build their settlement, they established various procedures for safeguarding their perimeter, contacting the Empire, trading with other worlds, and so forth.
But so much is left unanswered that when we start adding new mysteries on top of the old ones—the Vault’s expanding null field, the mysterious figure Salvor twice follows into the wreckage of the slowship—we’re basically building on sand. There’s not firm enough, and I hope you’ll pardon my use of the term, foundation on which to build either the character or her world. But then again, we’re talking about a story that plays out over multiple thousands of years, not just a couple of decades. If the show plays its cards right, I’m sure Salvor and her adventures can age up into something interesting.