Monday, February 23, 2009

Battlestar Galactica - 'Deadlock' (4x16)

The entire backhalf of season four has been problematic in a lot of ways. I’ve loved pieces of it, the premiere particularly, but since then, the show has been drifting and struggling to find an emotional focus. Last week’s controversial info dump hour was thought provoking and really challenging like only this show can be. This episode reverts to a weird kind of soap opera, as character motivations are thrown around in service of an overarching narrative that’s making sense on a thematic level, but doesn’t seem to have the kind of drive that a series entering its final four episodes should have.

A lot of shows are rejuvenated in their final seasons, having the liberty to make lasting character change and tear the premise apart in dynamic ways. Six Feet Under is a great example, the final fate of Nate is the obvious example, but even before that, the show broke out of the soap opera drift of its weaker fourth season, where you feel like plots are spun just to keep characters on the show, rather than because they’re stories that need to be told.

This show hasn’t really taken advantage of that freedom, sure last week’s episode revealed most of the big mysteries surrounding the show. But, I’m not the kind of viewer that’s as interested in the answers to questions as in how characters grow and change. In most cases, mysteries are more interesting than their answers, and those answers are primarily interesting as a device to lead us to new, more compelling stories. In this case, the answer to the great mystery of the Final Five has worked on a thematic level, and was really compelling to hear last episode, but hasn’t led to a particularly interesting story in its followup.

My major issue with this episode was that the Tigh/Caprica Six relationship felt like kind of an afterthought last season. It was interesting in the context of Tigh exploring his new role as a cylon, and a continued exploration of his grief over Ellen’s death, but I never thought that he really loved her. So, Ellen claiming that Tigh must love her because she’s pregnant didn’t work on an emotional level. It makes sense on a mythology level, but we know that Tigh loves Ellen more than her, or at least that’s what the scenes we’ve actually seen have led us to believe.

The last season of The Sopranos drew a lot of fire for its slowed down pace and dedramatized style. I think they’re trying for something similar here, cutting character beats to their core, and skipping over scenes that would seem like big dramatic moments to instead focus on the daily routine of the fleet. It worked on The Sopranos because there wasn’t that much narrative baggage to deal with. Sure, the war with New York was in play, but the show was always extremely character driven, so you could have no narrative resolution and still feel satisfied.

Here, the narrative has become so convoluted, just telling us what’s happening takes up a ton of time, and doesn’t leave a lot of time for character beats. Another central issue for me this year is that they’re hitting the exact same character beats in every episode, and neglecting a lot of the cast. Yes, Olmos and Hogan are great actors, but how many scenes of them bonding do we need to see? It feels like they’re the only two characters who get any real screen time and development now, everyone else just does whatever the narrative requires.

Tyrol is a great example of this. In one scene, he’s urging Adama to use the cylon goo to fix the ship, and doing everything he can to save Galactica from Gaeta and his rebellion. Then, this episode he’s saying that they should abandon the fleet and fly away on the baseship. It could make sense if we’re given any insight into his motivation, but we’re not, and are left to piece together a complex set of motivations without anything onscreen to back it up.

Plus, I think last episode’s revelations throw into question the whole notion of these characters as “cylons.” They’re technically cylons, but on Earth, they were the equivalent of humans. Couldn’t this have been a key moment to say, see we’re the same as you, accept us again. Instead, it’s just glossed over and he and Tory decide to go back to the baseship, seemingly ignoring everything we learned from Anders last week.

Why is Tory so resolutely committed to the cylons? What makes her different from Tyrol and Tigh? There’s so much potentially interesting stuff there, but instead we’re spending all our time on the same three characters who have been the subject of every other episode this season.

Along those lines, the Baltar storyline in this episode is disappointing because, while often hilarious, it doesn’t make any sense in the overall story, and basically invalidates everything interesting about his arc in the early part of the season. I found Baltar really interesting as someone who’s decided that all these voices he’s been hearing in his head are a message from God, and that’s his purpose in the fleet. He may enjoy the attention of his harem, but on some level, he has to believe to make that story interesting. Here, we see him as the same goofy guy from earlier in the series, but inexplicably Adama decides to arm him with guns, a mere episode after a similar civilian force overwhelmed the ship and caused mass chaos.

It’s frustrating to watch the show hit the same beats again and again because it can be so great. The scene where Tigh talks about letting his love fill the frakkin’ room is awesome, but the story it’s in doesn’t have an emotional impact to match the impact of the scene itself.

I guess my central issue is that the show has just abandoned any attempt to evolve most of its characters, and decided to focus exclusively on Adama and Tigh, with the convoluted cylon mythology as a backdrop. There hasn’t been much interesting work done with Sharon, Helo, Baltar, Tyrol, Tory, Leoben, D’Anna or even Kara this season, and that’s frustrating because they’re all great characters, and could have great stories. When they do appear, it’s merely to serve the plot, and that’s frustrating.

This wasn’t an awful episode, but it’s symptomatic of a lot of the problems the series has at this point in its run. I think it was a huge mistake for them to ever leave Earth. As the show often does, I was all excited about a new status quo. How would they try to rebuild Earth and make it livable? Instead, we got the same Galactica on a search that we’ve already seen. I know there’s budget issues with filming outside, but I just see the end product, and I know that the show’s most exciting episodes were the New Caprica arc, where everything was different and we saw the characters in a new light. Let’s see that again before the end.

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