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Demerzel (Laura Birn) looks at a swirling hologram of fire, looking sad Image: Apple TV Plus

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Foundation season 2 finds its focus in Demerzel’s battle

Her journey is the key to unlocking the final episodes

Behind every vainglorious Cleon emperor, there is a woman. The Cleons are not complete without their majordomo-matriarch-handmaid Demerzel (Laura Birn), a humanlike robot thousands of years old. She has one role: to serve Empire and protect the succession of Cleon clones, the elderly Dusk (Terrence Mann), the adult Day (Lee Pace), and the young adult/child Dawn (Cassian Bilton), each decanted to ensure the perpetuating reign of Cleon I’s genetic dynasty.

In Foundation, the science fiction saga of manifold moving parts, the dynamic between the royal Cleon clones and Demerzel continues to be the most arresting storyline of the Isaac Asimov adaptation Foundation (written by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman) on Apple TV Plus. Seemingly with pleasure, Demerzel has guarded the loop of the Cleon I’s reign. But this season throws her into a royal crisis that explores her tenuous relationship with control, the Cleon I that puppeteers her, and the young Cleons that she puppeteers. And her turmoil tracks with the show’s depiction of the human hubris that allows intended futures to go awry.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Foundation. Interviews in this story were conducted before the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes against the AMPTP went into effect.]

Brother Day (Lee Pace) stands there with Demerzel (Laura Birn) standing behind him looking concerned Image: Apple TV Plus

Toward the end of the season, Brother Dusk (the XVIII incarnation) and Dawn (XVI) dive deep into Demerzel’s history and realize she has another title: the “forever empress” of the late Cleon I. The current Cleons realize that they’re the puppets of Demerzel, not the other way around. This means she’ll eliminate the undesirable Cleons — and meddle in their affairs — on behalf of Cleon I.

However, as we come to learn too well in season 2, even a conscientious Demerzel cannot defy this inner programming. If she has to sacrifice a colorblind Dawn because he doesn’t fit the genetic perfection of the first Cleon, she’ll snap his neck. If a Cleon orders her to assassinate Zephyr Halima (T’Nia Miller), she’ll do it. As long as it fits her code’s interpretation of what serves Cleon I, she’ll do it — with tears streaming down her eyes.

But the “forever empress” reveal clashes against another crisis, when Day (Cleon XVII) engages in a royal coup of his own: betrothing himself to an outsider queen, Queen Sareth of Dominion (Ella-Rae Smith), so his bloodline can inherit the throne. It’s a genetic divergence from the mandated “genetic dynasty” (corrupted as it may be). But while the sidelined Dawn and Dusk grapple with the benefits and downsides of being disinherited from the throne, Demerzel has been operating behind the scenes to sabotage Day and Sareth’s upcoming union to eliminate the genetic divergence. Demerzel has to force herself to disobey one Cleon’s order to serve Empire.

Demerzel (Laura Birn) looking at a Cleon with a light shining on just part of her face and the rest in shadow Image: Apple TV Plus

In an interview with Polygon, Birn said she sees Demerzel’s rebellion between the wishes of different Cleons as paradoxical, even for her: “It’s very shocking for her after all this time that she also realizes that she doesn’t have everything under control, that Empire is actually kind of also running away from her.” Demerzel has wept over executing Cleons’ will against her conscience, but she’s distraught that they’re changing the system she knows.

And Demerzel is just one piece thematic connective tissue among the players who game their fleeting mortality through vessels of extended longevity in a race for galactic control, change, and/or consistency in Foundation. Think about the Mentalics leader, Tellem (Rachel House), transmitting herself into other bodies to sustain control of her cult. On a different spectrum, psychohistorian Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) guides his disciples through holograms or a clone to build his Foundation in his campaign against Empire, playing god with plenty of individual affairs. They seek control of the galactic path through co-opting or desecrating another person’s will.

What makes Demerzel’s position tragic compared to other players is that, while she’s an operator, she’s also a co-opted body, a near-immortal vessel for one dead emperor’s bidding. When Demerzel berates Cleon XVII, her leitmotif “The Dream of Cleon the First” (composed by Bear McCreary) plays. Demerzel’s singing gives it its melody, though her name is absent in its title.

Even her religious beliefs show the limits of her search for control. She has faith in Luminism, a religion that preaches the fluidity of the soul and the act of seeking. But when the Foundation cleric Poly Verisof (Kulvinder Ghir) preaches the changeability of the soul — “The point is changing the disciple’s soul” — on beat is a close-up of Demerzel’s expression, as if restraining her intrigue. We can understand how deeply she has forgone this hope, a true servant of Cleonic stagnation, sinning against her spirituality and soul.

Demerzel (Laura Birn) looks down concerned at something Image: Apple TV Plus
Cleon the I (Terrance Mann) looking back at the camera looking weary and old Image: Apple TV Plus

Demerzel’s dehumanization under Empire can be charted by the Cleons co-opting her stories for their own devices. In season 1, Day (the XIII) uses the story of her Spiral pilgrimage and birthroot flower to deceive the Luminist council and earn their favor. And season 2 goes deeper. A memory holo of Cleon I tells the story of Demerzel’s captivity, how he “freed” her, and also how he installed her obedience programming. But as she puts it later — echoing the seduction mind games of Ex Machina — “Cleon [I] had rewritten our story in his wandering mind, chose to remember his coercion as communion.” On a gilded leash, she is molded into a custodian of his Cleon legacy.

And even as an exiled Dawn assures her that true happiness could be within reach, selfhood is not something Demerzel is afforded (at least, not until the day when she can overcome Cleon I’s programming just as she once overcame the Laws of Robotics). And with all the current Cleon triad gone, the finale leaves Demerzel orchestrating the decanting of new Dawn, Day, and Dusk backup clones. Now with Hari Seldon’s Prime Radiant in her grip, Demerzel’s position implies that she will impose sterner surveillance over the new Cleons’ actions and desires to sustain galactic reign. Through this new batch, she can double down on her (and Cleon I’s) legacy in a dogmatic fashion that echoes how other Foundation players parent their reluctant protégés to adhere to their vision and follow a “correct” path to their legacy. But if there’s any ethos that Foundation has pushed, the more a powerful being imposes their staunch will, the more their subjects will resist, bite back, or look beyond. Demerzel’s devotion to stagnancy perhaps drives Empire closer to Seldon’s predicted fall.

And what a twisted eternal mission she has. Demerzel can feel how Cleon I’s will is cross-wired with her genuine affection and her individuality. She lives with this paradox: His manipulation grinds against her autonomy, just as his orders are merged with her self-preservation, her wants, and her needs. The disintegrating loop of the Cleon dynasty – reaping “a blighted field,” in her words — that Demerzel occupies is a vicious one. The loop has been Demerzel’s cage. But if she doesn’t reinforce it, then her whole world falls into the void.

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