Sunday, October 22, 2006

Battlestar Galactica - 'Exodus: Part II' (3x04)

This episode has a bittersweet ending, our characters are reunited, but not without high costs. But even more bittersweet is the knowledge that the show is finished with the best arc it's ever done, and may never reach these heights again. These five episodes stand as one of the best arcs ever presented on television, in terms of narrative scope, visual wonder and emotional intensity. They're redefining what's possible with the medium here, and the only complaint I have about the arc was that I wish it was longer.

These first five episodes of the season are like one big four hour movie, and this is the climactic final act, in which everything that's been building comes to fruition and the escalating frustration leads to mass chaos. Much like last week, the opening of the episode is the only real issue. The scene with Dualla and Lee is pretty lame, and clearly only there to set up their return later in the episode. I never really bought the relationship between these two, it seemed to come out of nowhere, like Christopher's marriage in the sixth season, but unlike there, they seem to be saying that these two actually are in love. I'm guessing Kara's return will mess with things a bit, but she's got Anders, so it would make both of them look bad to screw around with each other. That's not to say they won't, but I never saw that much heat between Lee and Kara to begin with. She far outshines him on screen, but I've never been a big Lee fan.

Anyway, with that out of the way we move into the devastating farewell to Ellen scene. Tigh is the character who's been most affected by his time on the planet, we can see it in the missing eye, but more than that, there's the unrelenting coldness. He's a warrior, and early in the series, he floundered because he had lost his identity in civilian life. Now, unchecked by Adama, he has become utterly uncompromising, and though it pains him to do so, he feels that he has to kill Ellen. It's really heartbreaking to hear her say how much she loves him, and then see what he's done to her. Very powerful stuff, and from a narrative point of view, we need a major character to die to provide some lasting effects of their time on New Caprica.

After this, most of the episode is a huge action setpiece. The scale of this is unprecedented for the series, and they completely pull it off, creating the best planet evacuation sequence since the Rebels left Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. There are images in this episode that just sear into your memory. I'll start with the stuff on the ground. This is the first time we've seen a ground battle on this scale, you get the sense that this entire society is collapsing, I love the ships flying above them and the constant presence of dust and particles floating in the air, like snow. There's so much chaos, but we're always clear what's going on, and that's the sign of a well done action scene. The best visual moment is the Galactica's brief entrance into planetary space, at that moment they know that it really is possible to get off of New Caprica.

Concurrent with this, we've got the fantastic battle in space. It was pretty obvious that the Pegasus would return, but for a minute there, I was wondering if the Galactica really was going to be destroyed. However, the Pegasus wrote in and in one of the episode's best sequences, takes a huge barrage of hits, splits apart and crashes into two basestars. The visuals they created here were so beautiful, particularly the hundreds of explosions on the Pegasus' hull. The opening shots of the Raptors were another highlight, as was Hot Dog's exit out of the Galactica through fire into planetary atmosphere. This effects work is so good, both in terms of verisimilitude and in the composition and energy of the shots. At times it was so beautiful I just stepped back in awe, but generally speaking, you're drawn in and totally believing the reality of the scene. That's what effects are designed to do, and the quality of these effects makes it embarrassing that Hollywood studios spend tens of millions of dollars to produce shots that lack the aesthetic quality or kinetic energy of what's here.

This action stuff is all fantastic, but there's two threads of particular interest. One is Kara. I love the chaos of the compound during the escape, which is abruptly juxtaposed with the anxious scene between Kara and Leoben. He forces her to say she loves him, but there's clearly some ambiguity there. When they kiss, I don't think it's all an act, and even when she stabs him, it's not a total break, she's leaving for now, but some of her feelings are still there. I like the fact that she got to kill him herself, and we didn't get the melodrama of having Anders see them kiss.

However, I have issues with the revelation that Kasey was a child that Leoben kidnapped. The whole point of the storyline was to show Kara breaking down and admitting that she loved Leoben, embracing a domestic life with him. If he kidnapped Kasey as a way to do this, it removes the ambiguity and makes him an evil guy manipulating her. She can't have positive feelings about him if he did that to her, and from a narrative standpoint, why remove that ambiguity? I'm guessing that they're going to have Kara harden up now, she'd let down her guard and wound up being emotionally crushed when Kasey is taken away from her. Now she's going to return to the Kara of yore and keep everyone out. I do love her silent sadness on the deck, as Kasey is taken away.

That whole deck scene is fantastic for, as I mentioned before, its bittersweet quality. It's a celebration, but all we see is the pain that people have gone through, Tigh in particular, but also Gaeta, who stands off to the side, awaiting the inevitable judgment for his acts.

That leaves us with the other standout storyline of the episode, in which Baltar finally stands up for himself. The crushing of Baltar has been an effective piece of these first few episodes, but I feel like we'd lost some of the Baltar of yore. Here, we don't see him make a full return, but he does stand up for himself and gain a bit of power within the cylon world. The showdown scene is wonderfully tense, most notably for Caprica Six's uncertainty about what to do.

Baltar and Six finding Hera ties back to the dream that the two of them had in the first season finale. Here, we establish that there's a clear difference between the Six in his head and Caprica Six. Six in his head affirms Gaius' role as caretaker for the child, the idea that he's the chosen one. Back in that dream sequence, she claimed the child was theirs, and I'm guessing his arc over the rest of the season will be to care for her in the cylon world. I'm not sure why he gave her over so easily to D'Anna, I guess he's accrued enough power that she won't take Hera and leave him.

On the whole, I feel like this episode marks the end of a fantastic run for the series, and, sadly, a return to the status quo. They seem to fluctuate between messing with the formula and returning to the basic everyone on the ship structure. Here we've got the ultimate return, and I'm just not sure that there's that many interesting stories to tell in that environment. I thought New Caprica would be the new premise for the show, and I think it was a mistake to end it so quickly. But, I guess the show is called Battlestar Galactica, so everything brings us back to the ship.

That said, I am really excited to see where Gaius' story goes. I think the cylons are easily the most intersting characters on the show, and Gaius is up there too, so the combo should be fantastic. How will he deal with being immersed in their world? ?ill they trust him, a human? And what further insight will we get about how they live? Very exciting, I hope he gets a lot of time each week, and doesn't have the couple of minutes assigned to season one Helo.

But, the show's uncertain future shouldn't diminish the impact of this arc. I was consistently wowed by what was shown here, always in suspense and frequently marveling at the beauty of the images they put on the screen. I think these five episodes stand with the best TV ever produced, and like the closing run of Six Feet Under season three, or Angel season five, give us a run that pushes its characters into new emotional territory, upending everything we've previously seen on the series. This is the best kind of entertainment. This is the best kind of art.

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