It’s been a long time coming, but we finally got the history (at least part of it) of how Demerzel came to be working for the Empire and the origin of the Cleonic dynasty. If that wasn’t enough, the Empire strikes back in a devastating and properly epic episode of Foundation. Even if it seems to completely throw the books out the window, the episode wants everything you’d want out of a sci-fi TV show.
We start with a lengthy flashback showing how 610 years ago, a tiny young Cleon I came across the secret chamber from last week, a chamber that was hidden and unopened for thousands of years. Inside the chamber, and thanks to some Westworld-like set design, is Demerzel, trapped in a prison and unable to move. She lures him with tales of the Robot Wars, of ancient emperors, and a home planet called “Earth” that has become a myth.
Considering Demerzel reveals she’s 18,000 years old, we learn just a tiny fraction of her story — and we barely have a clue of what her deal actually is. The robot tells the story of how she was trapped by an ancient emperor after the army she commanded lost a big battle. The Emperor liked to study her and torture her for years on end until he died and left her trapped for 5,000 years. Part of the reason the Emperor studied her, Demerzel says, is that she might be the key to making more of her kind.
In the first bit of manipulation we see Demerzel do on the Cleons, she spends the next couple of decades telling stories to the young Emperor. Her stories grew more sexually explicit, tempting him until Dawn became Day, and Day turned into Dusk. When Cleon returned, having broken up his engagement because he only truly ever loved Demerzel, his secret robot/friend/mother figure who read to him after his actual mother died. Yes, it is very weird but very fitting of an out-of-touch galactic emperor. Turns out, Dusk spent years looking for a way to free Demerzel from her prison, finding some ancient artifacts from Earth (the solar-system model box we saw in her chambers last week) to do it. Except Demerzel was only truly free for a very brief moment before being put in another prison by Cleon. He implants a device in the robot that prevents her from ever harming the Emperor. Once again, she is a prisoner, a slave to the Emperor, only this one tells her he loves her.
It is with the power of an undying force that is programmed to be loyal to him that Cleon I comes up with the genetic dynasty. He plans to bed the robot in secret, then have his clones continue his genetic code forever, the weird children of their unholy union. Demerzel is preserving the dynasty and also truly ruling the Empire in Cleon I’s name, as his true heir and forever prisoner. All along, she has been grooming the Cleons, ruling the Empire through them even as she, in turn, is ruled and controlled by the ghost of Cleon I. In the present, Dusk calls Cleon I’s ruse. With Sareth, the dynasty ends, but the ghost of the Emperor seems to have other plans and traps Dusk and Rue.
In a way, Foundation is a story of ghosts and how they continue to influence people. Demerzel impacts every event in the history of the Galactic Empire through the will of Cleon I — yet that is not too dissimilar from the Foundation. As we see Bel Riose tell a captive Hober Mallow, he is blindly following orders from the ghost of Hari Seldon. Except, he is not the only one. Riose also recognizes his own fault in serving the ghost of an Empire, one on its way to collapse — simply because they are stronger than the alternative at the moment.
After Hober Mallow showed the Empire’s fragility to the world before being captured by Riose last week, this week, the Empire strikes back. First, Day arrives on Terminus and discovers that the Church of Scientism is actually an armory with personal shields that the Foundation hands out to its allies. In a fit of rage, Day stabs the director of the Foundation and orders the scientists captured alive while everyone else is to be killed.
He also visits Seldon in his vault, desperate for validation. As I’ve mentioned before, the idea of clone emperors is fascinating, and this is an example of why. Cleon XVII spent his entire life thinking he was different, that he could leave a mark, and that he would be the one to prove Seldon wrong. When confronted with the ghost of Seldon, however, he barely acknowledges the Emperor. He is here to talk to the true person in charge: Demerzel. Seldon seems to be fully aware of her position and nature, and she engages him, seemingly agreeing with the dead mathematician in regards to the long-term plan of Foundation saving humanity and empire.
Meanwhile, Cleon, still obsessed and deeply afraid of that naked assassination attempt, asks Seldon if he was behind it, then calls himself an outlier and the man who ended the genetic dynasty to defeat Seldon. But the psychohistorian pays no mind; he doesn’t even consider Day an outlier but a prideful fool. He is only interested in making sure Demerzel understands his mission and even offers her the Prime Radiant, the entirety of psychohistory. He will teach her to read it and to ensure that the future of humanity can be protected by the robot who could formerly not harm humanity.
But Cleon refuses; he will not leave humanity up to AI. Cleon is a giant baby, and he threatens Seldon to destroy all of Terminus unless he admits his math is flawed. Again, he ignores the Emperor and addresses only Demerzel, saying all of this was for humanity’s survival. The future is invented every second, he tells her. “Invent a better one,” Seldon says as he leaves the plan in the hands of the murder robot.
But Cleon will not go down easy, and he orders Riose to bring the Invictus warship (from last season) down on the planet, which would destroy it and kill everyone inside. Perhaps in horror over the decision, seemingly in a hurry over sensing some other threat, Demerzen abandons Cleon in his moment of supposed triumph to take care of things on Trantor. She confesses she slept with him to try to influence him and repair his shortcomings but failed in raising him right. Cleon says he is a complete man, the best Cleon, the only one to change, a full outlier. But Demerzel shuts it down, calling him an idiot mistaking random motion for complexity. It is too late to change him, but there is always the next one.
And so we see the Invictus crash on the planet below, with some fantastic VFX showing the complete, tragic, and utter destruction of the planet and of the first Foundation. Forget that this is not in the books; this is devastating, a huge blow to the story and Seldon’s plan. And yet, the sight of the murder robot Demerzel apparently crying over so much death and destruction may prove to be a blessing in disguise if we’re to go by her role in the books.
The Prime Radiant
• So … what exactly is the bitelike mark on Hober’s wrist? He says the spacers tagged him and believes that is how the Empire tracked him, but Riose doesn’t seem to know, so what is it?
• This week, we get something new for this show — a space dogfight! The ship designs are very stylish and fresh, and the idea of the Foundation seemingly using drones with brain tissue is weird as hell but very entertaining.
• Sadly, Glawen Curr crash-lands on Terminus right as the planet is about to be destroyed. After trying to incite rebellion all season, Glawen tells Riose to follow orders and destroy the planet, knowing the galaxy is better with Riose manning the fleet. Ben Daniels is just fantastic as Riose and proves he can make any show better — except for that Jesus Christ Superstar Live show.
• Meanwhile, on Ignus, Gaal and Salvor are saved by a very-much-living Hari Seldon, who clobbers Tellem to death, as one does.