Sunday, February 01, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: 'The Oath' (4x13)

I’ve seen this episode getting a lot of love from the online world, and I just don’t get it. I feel like I must be on the opposite wavelength from a lot of BSG fans, starting right from the miniseries, which I’d consider to be one of the series twin highpoints, along with the New Caprica arc, but most people seem to find lacking next to the series. This episode had all the flaws of recent serialized TV shows that have lengthy plot arcs, but no real change. Events happen, but they spin like suspended wheels, turning forever, but not really going anywhere.

After reaching Earth, it becomes unclear what the show is about. The thematic and narrative substance of this season has been the humans’ uneasy alliance with the cylons, and the changing nature of humanity/cylon in a world where the people closest to you can turn out to be the enemies you hate the most. That’s rich thematic territory, but it’s been handled really poorly here, with almost all the interesting parts of the story happening offscreen, while onscreen we’re treated to a succession of scenes that spin wheels before our return to the inevitable status quo, with the possible cost being the sacrifice of a minor character, not even a surprise when we’re in the show’s final season.

That may sound harsh, but it’s simply because the show can be so incredible, it’s frustrating to see an episode like this. There are characters I really care about on this show, Sharon, Baltar, Starbuck, Helo, D’anna, but most of the characters actually on the Galactica never grabbed me. I love Michael Hogan’s performance as Colonel Tigh and he’s always fun to watch, but when you put him and Adama in a situation like this, you know exactly what’s going to happen. You might not know the plot events specifically, but you’ll get some gruff masculine bonding, some barely audible mumbling and two old men acting bad ass. It’s fun to watch on some level, but I just don’t really care because we’ve been through so many similar conflicts before. There’s been so many attempted coups, mutinies and power struggles between these characters, this just feels like the same thing. We know that Roslin and Adama will get back in power, and we know that they’ll keep going forward on the Galactica because the show resolutely refuses to change from that status quo. This episode reminded me more than anything of 24. It’s the same story told on cycle, but the intensity of the performances can make you forget that.

That’s not a huge deal in and of itself, you could make the same argument of any show. The Sopranos basically repeated the same arc in seasons 2-5, new guy shows up in town, causes trouble, creates conflicted feelings in Tony then gets killed at the end of the season. But, we got a sense of real change in Tony. The point there wasn’t the narrative, it was about exploring the characters. But, the characters here just aren’t as complex and layered as the people on The Sopranos or the cast of Buffy. And, the ones who are, or at least had the potential to be conflicted and challenging in that way, are almost perversely left out of the center.

In the show’s first season, I was so wrapped up in what was going on with Sharon and her arc. But, since then very little interesting has been done with her. She’ll get a couple of scenes an episode, but no sustained arc or personal development. Baltar has been sacrificed at the altar of whatever the plot requires, here reverting to his cowardly old self after a seeming real conversion last season. Either arc is okay, but we’re not given enough time with him to really appreciate the distinction.

And, I don’t think the cylon metaphor really makes sense in this episode. It feels kind of like a Nazi soldier discovering they’re actually Jewish. It should be a shock to the person, and put them in the position of having to figure out who they actually are, if everything they believe conflicts with their own true identity. I don’t get why the Chief isn’t saying I’m the same person I was before, nothing’s changed, the conflict between label and person. For Tori, it seemed like being a cylon liberated her to do what she really wanted to do, her conscience was off, any action justified by her cylon programming. But, I think there’s a lot of missed opportunities in exploring what being a cylon means to these characters.

Ultimately, the things I love the show for are its more metaphysical and philosophical elements, and the surreal beautiful images it conjures. We’ve seen that recently. The Starbuck finds her own body sequence in the premiere was as haunting and beautiful as anything the show’s ever done, but since then, they’ve stuck with the people messing around doing stuff that doesn’t really matter.

You may say, what matters at all? This is just a TV show, time will pass either way, there is no tangible measure of progress. One man’s wheel spinning is another’s riveting action. And, there’s really no answer there. Art is subjective, there are elements in this show that enthrall me and others that I just don’t care about. And, the more I watched this episode, the less I cared. Where are the cylons, where’s an interesting story with Baltar? I hate to judge art on what I want it to be rather than what it is, but when you’ve got so many interesting elements on the bench, it’s frustrating to spend all this time on a story that just didn’t do it for me.


theoldboy said...

I personally loved the episode, but I had some problems with it, mostly with a few lines here and there. I don't think this is another easily-reparable disruption of the status quo, and even if it is, it's echoing a lot of the events of the previous seasons in a way that has a real sense of finality to it, and it will be really hard for the characters to shake it off. Another thing I like is how the two halves of this season so far are sort of symmetrical, with the Cylons breaking apart in the first half and the humans breaking apart in the second.

Patrick said...

I don't know, I just didn't get into either this episode or its followup, which I'll write up shortly. Sure, they killed Gaeta, that was a consequence, but the basic structure and tension of the story has been played out a lot of times before, and I wasn't engaged.

One of the problems for me is that I don't really get a sense of the Cylon/Human alliance. That was set up last season, but we never saw the alliance in action, and outside of the installing the jump drives thing, we never got a sense of it as real. I'd have loved to see the humans and cylons working together more, and exploring the cultural difference, in a way that would make this conflict more fleshed out. It works conceptually, but I don't think the alliance was given enough screentime to make an impact.

But, I seem to be in the minority on my response to this one.