Spoilers for Friday’s Battlestar Galactica coming up after the jump:
I’m back. Kind of. First, I want to offer a public thanks to TIME’s Richard Corliss and John Cloud for their volunteer guest-blogging last week. It’s a nice feeling to fire up your browser, go to your blog, and see that somebody has already written something for you there. A guy could get used to that.
That said, I feel I owe an apology, at least to John. He got stuck reviewing the weakest episode of Lost so far this season (more on that later, time permitting). And only the intervention of the hotel cable service kept him from drawing duty on a surprisingly off BSG.
Now, before I complain about the episode, I should first say that I don’t agree with the complaints I’ve already seen in other recaps and comments: that BSG squandered one of the few remaining hours on a “character episode.” What makes BSG a great series rather than just a cool story is that it has always been a layered character saga—even though Sci Fi and a fair chunk of the fan base would probably be just as happy with one episode after another of heavy Cylon mythology, like we got last week.
But when you do character stories, you have a responsibility to have the characters behave, well, in character, and not to change their characters in service to the plot. This week’s BSG offended on a few fronts, but the main problem was Ellen.
I can’t fault Kate Vernon’s performance, because the fault lies with the whiplash turns of character the last two scripts have required of her. Aboard the baseship with Cavil, we saw a far different Ellen from the scheming boozehound of earlier seasons, before her death. Presumably—given what we were told about the Five and how Cavil fiddled with their mental circuitry—this was the default Ellen, or Ellen as her personality existed pre-Cavil. This Ellen was generous, rational, mature, forgiving, self-aware and—a big shift from when we saw her last—tremendously composed, able to measure her reactions and control her behavior in a high-stress situation. This episode, Ellen stepped off the Raptor, and while her bearing was different, in about five seconds flat she became Old School Ellen again.
Now there are reasons that her behavior might swing wildly aboard Galactica. (Though the fact that your viewers have to work at rationalizations for a character shift is itself a sign something is wrong.) For starters, she was reunited with Tigh. This, no doubt, was what their reunion-frak scene was meant to convey—that once they saw each other, the old dysfunction and fire clicked into gear again. And of course, there was the little matter of Tigh having knocked up Caprica Six—naturally, dude would have some ‘splainin’ to do. It would have been unrealistic for there not to be fallout.
But this fallout? Lashing out and manipulating in the same petty way that pre-New Caprica Ellen would have? I couldn’t buy it. Consider: Ellen has undergone an experience that more or less makes her the most literally self-aware person/Cylon ever to have existed. She has recovered memories of thousands of years of her existence, has confronted the results of the Five’s creation of the skinjobs, and learned Cavil’s role in making her what she was. For all that, she still loved the sadistic, fratricidal Cavil as her own son.
Now that Ellen returns to Galactica and finds that Saul—who not only believed her dead but was unaware of the Five’s creation of the skinjobs—and not only does she not take this into consideration, but she jeopardizes the future of the Cylons out of personal hurt? How does this comport with the way we saw her on the Baseship? Should we assume she might have acted better if only she had gotten a yoga session in?
OK—we have to consider emotion. She could not but be devastated by Saul and Six’s coupling, and it’s believable that she would consider it to be incest. But that makes her behavior simultaneously too absolutist (about the “infidelity”) and too forgiving (about the “incest”). You could make a good argument that for a “mother,” Saul’s violation of their “daughter” was the greater offense than his finding another woman. (Not to mention, oh yeah, his having killed her, which does not keep her from wanting him back.) In that case, though, it makes absolutely no sense that Ellen would treat Caprica—her badly used daughter, in this reading—like a romantic rival, threaten to reveal her to Cavil and possibly cause her miscarriage. (Again, this is the Ellen who told Cavil she loved him, even after Daniel, his Oedipal rape of her, and all the rest.)
In fact, for the newly aware Ellen to be anguished by Six’s pregnancy and Saul”s betrayal—and yet, to realize that the greater good requires her to manage her emotion—would not only have been more in character with New Old Ellen of the baseship, but it would have been a more emotionally interesting story than the soap opera love triangle that played out. (It also could have played more on Adama as the true object of Ellen’s jealousy, the one redeeming feature of the episode’s climax.) To have her suddenly become Old Ellen, on the other hand, went beyond simply falling back into old emotional patterns—it seemed more like temporary, and plot-contrived, insanity.
Because the only way I can explain Ellen’s swing is that it was driven by plot. There needed to be conflict—in this case the drama over whether the Five would leave the fleet. The Tigh-Caprica relationship (and the pregnancy) needed to be driven to crisis. And so the script undermined the fascinating transformation of Ellen’s character that we’d seen just a week ago. Combined with some other character swings—Tyrol’s inexplicable vote to leave the fleet (which again seemed driven simply by the need for a deadlocked vote) and Baltar’s lurch once again from true believer to fraud—made this episode a letdown.
That said, the cast did good work with what they were given, particularly Michael Hogan and Tricia Helfer, whose scenes in the sick bay and with (respectively) Adama and Roslin were gut-wrenching. And given that the resolution of the love triangle seemed largely limited to this episode, I’m ready to look past it and move on. Maybe Ellen is, too.
[Oh, a bonus question, since we never got to discuss the Cylon backstory from last week. Now that we know the origin of the Cylon models—Kobol’s humans begat the Thirteenth tribe, who begat the skinjobs for the Centurions—what does this mean about the relationship of BSG’s “Earth” to our Earth? Is it our Earth or, as it would now seem, a similar planet that, in this story, happens to have the same name? That is, the Earth Cylons, if I’m not mistaken, knew that they were Cylons, and knew how they came to Earth, correct? They didn’t believe they had evolved from Australopithecines and later come to discover their true origins, right? Because otherwise—talk about an intelligent design theory. Apologies if this has been covered here or was explained in the episode and I somehow missed it.]
I’m well over a thousand words, have barely even touched on the other storylines of the episode and am still, technically, on vacation. So I’ll let you discuss the human-Cylon merge, Galactica’s osteoporosis, the piano in the bar and Baltar’s harem/army in the comments. Good to be back.