Saturday, April 26, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: 'Escape Velocity' (4x04)

I think more than any show I really like, my opinions on Battlestar swing wildly back and forth from episode to episode. After the second episode of the season, I was a bit down on the series. Things just weren’t clicking for me, and I wasn’t seeing a clear path forward for the characters or narrative. It wasn’t the lack of narrative progress that was bothering me, it was the fact that scenes seemed to say the same thing over and over again after we’d already gotten it. But, the past two weeks have really turned things around, and right now, the show is as strong as it’s ever been, outside of the New Caprica episodes.

I didn’t get a chance to write up last week’s episode, but that’s not because I disliked it. It was a really brilliant episode, full of the kind of subjective surreal filmmaking techniques that this show does better than any other. It’s frequently hailed for its ‘realism,’ which is media code for shaky camera, but one of the things I love about the show is how it’s able to represent not just the external reality we’d see in a documentary, but also the tumultuous internal worlds within the characters’ heads. We are able to understand how Cally feels, her entire life, from those opening scenes. It’s easy to see why she’s frustrated and on the verge of total breakdown. The same sort of technique is used in last night’s episode to show Tigh’s uncertainty when talking with Six, and also to contrast Baltar’s external behavior with his internal doubt. This is what movies should do, not just let you watch the characters going through stuff, we should feel what they feel.

There’s two major plotlines really intriguing me right now. One is the final four cylons’ struggle to understand what they are. The central question is, what determines self identity. Is it what we believe ourselves to be, or is it what the world tells us we are? They know that they’re cylons, but what does that mean. Tory finds herself with superstrength, was that always there, or did her understanding of herself as a cylon fundamentally change her? Why can’t she just go on as she was, no one needs to know what she is.

For all three characters on the Galactica, it’s the guilt that troubles them. Are they culpable for the destruction of human civilization, on some subconscious level did they contribute to that destruction? For Tyrol, the guilt manifests itself in the fact that he doesn’t care about Cally being dead, on some level, I think he finds it a relief, but the fact that he doesn’t care worries him, because it means that he’s more a cylon than he thought he was. Where does the human end and the cylon begin?

This is where the stuff with Six and Tigh is interesting. She says that we’re like you, only more, presumably referring to humanity. They feel more and are more in synch than the fractured humans. Tigh has been losing it ever since he killed Ellen, and that guilt returns now because he realizes that he has punished Ellen for doing something far less bad than what he is.

This all gets wrapped up in a sado-masochistic framework, where pain becomes the way to know that we’re alive, the means of discovering our deeper humanity. This is presented in the scene with Tory plucking Baltar’s hair. It’s an odd scene, but makes sense as a thematic overture for the episode to follow. She tells the other cylons that she’s moved beyond guilt, she doesn’t seem to care that she killed Cally, she is beyond traditional morality. In this way, she’s quite similar to Roslin, who says the closer you get to death, the less you care about societal conventions. Tory probably feels like she will be found out eventually, so she can do anything to sustain her life, and in the mean time, she’s going to experience as much as possible.

Now that the cylons have moved beyond the shock of finding out who they are, we’re getting some interesting schisms. They’re all together now, but both Tigh and Tyrol seem to be one bad day away from snapping and giving the whole thing away. Tory appears to be more in control, but we’ll see if that sticks.

Elsewhere, Baltar continues his role as a prophet, and continues infuriating Roslin and Adama. I’ve always found Baltar more likable and engaging than Roslin or Adama, even though I’m sure Roslin and Adama are the best leaders, they’re just not as fun to spend time with. It always bothers me when Roslin blames Baltar for what happened on New Caprica. I think it was perfectly logical to settle there, if you’re on a boat at sea searching for a place you don’t know the location of, that may or may not exist, and you come across another island, it’s not that ridiculous to settle? I think it’s easier for them to blame Baltar for all their problems than face up to the fact that Roslin would have probably had to do the same thing in that situation.

The thing I love about the Baltar storyline is the way we’re not sure what’s true and what’s not. It’s quite possible he’s delusional and saying whatever he can to protect his own self interest. However, it’s also possible that the Six he sees is a messenger from God, that’s what she’s said all along, and maybe it’s Baltar’s destiny to begin a new age on the fleet. But, is this one god the same god of the cylons? Maybe this is the path to reconciliation for cylons and humans. It would be fitting that Baltar, who caused the initial destruction of Caprica, would be the one to find a way to heal the rift.

The best scene of the episode is Baltar getting knocked down and seemingly dragged up by the invisible Six time and time again, leading up to his huge speech about the love God has for all of us. It’s phenomenal stuff, watching him believe more and more in his message. In such a nihilist show, with people falling deeper and deeper into despair, maybe Baltar is the light they need? When does it stop mattering whether he really believes what he’s saying or not?

Practically every scene in the episode worked really well. I liked the scene with Adama and Roslin, watching Adama’s squirminess at her worsening condition. He doesn’t want to face up to that, even as she gets more and more unhinged on her way out. The big conflict in the offing is Lee’s rebellion against his father and Roslin. Will he be the one to finally knock her out of office?

If anything, this season seems to be about the conflict between old and new orders, and the gradual restructuring of societies. Here, we’re watching the older generation fade away. Roslin is dying, Tigh has lost sense of who he is, the hardliners are on the way out, and they’re no longer able to shape the fleet’s destiny like they’d want to. Baltar is just the first to harness the forces of evolution and change that will alter the fleet. Over on the Cylon ship, the same kind of thing is happening, a new generation overthrowing its elders, plunging the fleet into conflict. Lines are blurring, and everything seems uncertain going forward. The season really came back strong with these last two episodes, I’m loving where the show is right now, and looking forward to the stuff with Kara next week.


Anonymous said...

I am so impressed with how the show has weaved in these new plots, while also exploring the characters' natures. So many reviews I've seen think the fourth season has lacked plot progression, but I think that just means those viewers are missing what's really happening - both the Cylon civil war and Baltar's role as prophet (also Roslin's dying leader and Starbuck's destiny) are all long running stories that have had ample development in these first four episodes of the season.

And you're exactly right - we don't know what's right and what's wrong. Usually with these kinds of stories, you know who will eventually be right - ie. Roslin has been reading the prophecy from season one, so most shows would make her right. But I'm becoming convinced that she is not what she seems at all.

And maybe Baltar - who is being made the scapegoat again, just because of a personal dislike - may hold the key to going forward.

Patrick said...

I'm guessing the Cylon civil war plot and the Baltar one god story will converge somehow, and possibly create a splinter faction in the fleet. I was trying to think of how the Demetrius side plot could play out. They can't find Earth yet, but I don't think they'll leave them out there for sixteen episodes. So, my guess is Kara will find some kind of signpost for Earth, then come back and try to get everyone to follow her. Roslin won't want to, and Baltar may seize this as his chance to direct the fleet.

When I was at the Battlestar panel at the comicon, the Sci-Fi channel guy said this season's cliffhanger was the craziest yet, so we've got something big happening soon to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

It looks like the cliffhanger comes at episode eight, too? Not sure. Also no way of knowing how long the mid-season break will be, even though they are close to shooting the last episodes now - only a few weeks until shooting is complete.

I really hope we don't have to wait the rest of the year for them.

Patrick said...

I thought the cliffhanger/mid season break was at episode 10. IIRC, it was a 22 episode season, two of those were Razor, then we'd have ten in the first half, ten in the second half. But, that might be wrong.

I believe they're shooting 17 right now, so it should be wrapped up by the Fall, however I'm worried that they'll hold off on showing the second half until January, so they can get more media attention than they would for a Fall launch.