[Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Foundation Season 2, Episode 1 “In Seldon’s Shadow.”]
The second season of Foundation, Apple TV+’s expansive adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s eponymous book series, could be subtitled “Flesh and Bone.” God-like figures become vulnerable, ideas take on a physical form, and people’s desires are on full display (the fullest; more on that in a bit). The more abstract notions from Asimov’s books — like psychohistory, a kind of math that predicts human behavior on a massive scale — are made more tangible in Season 2, as series creators David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman put new faces to this battle for the future of humanity, and give them all distinct motivations for joining the fight.
Premiering today, the new season has greater urgency and an even grander scope than the first, but it somehow feels more intimate. Part of that is due to the groundwork — foundation, if you will — that was laid in Season 1, which established the life-or-death stakes of Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) and Gaal Dornick’s (Lou Llobell) mission, the Empire that first aided then thwarted them, and the many, many secondary and tertiary players involved. Goyer recently admitted to The Verge that the extensive world-building may have been too much for some viewers early on, but it’s a risk he and Friedman had to take in order to set up the story they want to tell, one that, renewal gods willing, could stretch across eight seasons.
Foundation’s heady themes — “little” things, like belief, free will, finding your purpose in life — still loom, but Goyer and Jane Espenson, who co-wrote “In Seldon’s Shadow,” work with director Alex Graves to keep the story grounded, even as the action jumps from the outer reaches of the galaxy to the eye of the Empire. The episode reintroduces Hari, who is now trapped in a prison of his own making, while Gaal works with Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey), who happens to be her daughter, to get off her home planet before it’s completely submerged in water.
Along with the people who now make up the Foundation on Terminus, 100+ years after the events of Season 1, Hari (his consciousness, that is), Gaal, and Salvor represent one camp in this fight for survival. When “In Seldon’s Shadow” turns to the opposing side, that of Empire and the Cleonic dynasty, things really pick up. As if to confront the critiques that Season 1 was too “cerebral,” Foundation indulges in some Game of Thrones-like storytelling, combining sex, blood, and palace intrigue in a scene that must be seen to be fully appreciated.
That teaser clip started making the rounds earlier this week, a surefire way to get people talking about the show, if not committing to watching its return. But it only tells a fraction of the story — Brother Day or Cleon (Pace) is stripped down because he’s been having hot sex with Demerzel (Laura Birn), the incredibly human-like android with whom he has a very complicated relationship. And he’s fighting off attackers known as Blind Angels, the most elite assassins in the galaxy. So, it’s not just “Lee Pace fights naked,” it’s “Lee Pace fights off assassins who interrupted him having sex.”
Again, as far as marketing efforts go, this one’s a no-brainer — Pace has played each iteration of Brother Day with the same mix of camp and haughtiness, while still imbuing them with unique traits, so leading with him is the smart choice. Brother Day's goals, objectionable as they are, are clearer than Gaal's and certainly Hari's at this point. Anyone who was on the fence about watching the show is probably already adding it to their list/queue. And yet, that still doesn’t get at the bigger picture, which is that Cleon is more human than ever in Season 2, and therefore, more vulnerable.
The Empire is contracting, as the Foundation quietly expands its influence in the outer reach. It was revealed in Season 1 that rebels had corrupted the Cleons’ DNA, which has all sorts of implications. The naked emperor we see beating up assassins has “drifted” from the original genetic dynasty. This Cleon f*cks, he fights, and he plans to disband the Brotherly triumvirate, marry Queen Sareth (Ella-Rae Smith), and establish succession the old-fashioned way (which is, in the case of this far-flung setting, artificial insemination). But in that moment, he's also an emperor with no clothes.
When Primetimer spoke with Pace and Birn as part of a press day that took place weeks before the SAG-AFTRA strike, we discussed this more “human” Cleon, who is left bleeding and severely wounded in the attack. Has he lost some of his god-like stature and become more mortal? “Absolutely,” says Pace. “In the first season, he believes he is a god. In the second season here, he is inhabiting the role of a god, but he knows very clearly that he's a man, and that he's a vulnerable man, and that if he makes a mistake, the consequences are galactic, disastrous. So he must keep control.”
Cleon views this brush with death as a warning, but it’s only going to make him tighten his grip on the galactic empire. “The only thing the Cleons know how to do is fight, how to exert power,” Pace tells us. But behind “that exertion of power is a vulnerability and a clear, clear awareness that the end is bad.” Season 1 featured similar moments of doubt via Brother Dawn (Cassian Bilton), who wondered about mortality and the right of the genetic dynasty to rule. But, in keeping with the show and its source text’s exploration of zealotry, Cleon’s belief is more dangerous than his doubt. “He believes that he has peace in his hand,” Pace says, and that there’s only “darkness” and the end of the empire “on the other side.” And he won’t be dissuaded from his course of action: “He just sees himself in what he wants and what he must accomplish… his ego takes up so much space.” So do his desires and hubris, which are front and center in Season 2.
As Demerzel, Birn has played Cleon’s confidante, advisor, surrogate mother, friend, and lover with an open heart (as it were) and preternatural resolve. But now, on the precipice of another huge conflict — the premiere ends with the discovery of the Foundation’s survival, and Hari’s return to the physical plane — their relationship looks more “like a power struggle,” she says. Birn finds Cleon and Demerzel’s shift to being lovers, “so intriguing. There are moments you think, ‘Is it actually love? Do they actually rule together?’ I loved it and it made it very entertaining for us to balance with the idea of who's actually leading whom.”
This raises the equally intriguing question of whether Demerzel can have designs or plans of her own, and if they can be in opposition to Cleon’s. Birn can’t really tell us, but she does hint at the reveal of Demerzel’s backstory, which is “very tragic and haunting. There's pain, but there's also love and caring.” What we do know is that their stories are inextricably linked — after exploring Demerzel’s humanity in Season 1, Foundation is exposing Cleon’s, one naked fight scene at a time.
New episodes of Foundation drop Fridays on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.