Caprica: Murders, Bombs, Betrayal – and the Slight Whiff of Desperation

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I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to notice the rather startling shift in tone and intensity of last night’s Caprica. All season long, the show has been trying to find a way to pull in bigger Battlestar Galactica-like ratings, even as some sci-fi pundits have mused that the show isn’t electric enough for their tastes. Now, full disclosure: I’ve been saying from the start that while this may not be the punchiest sci-fi series, it ranks right up there as one of the most provocative. Focusing on a father trying to resurrect his dead daughter as a computer-generated avatar, revolving around the use of technology by religious zealots in promising a virtual heaven for the most obedient followers, I’ve been enjoying immensely this turbulent tale of mourning, mad science and the race between gangsters, capitalists and religious prophets to take control of Frankenstein. That is, until last night… 

Something about this particular episode, Retribution, felt so jarring and overt to me; so bombastic in its approach – from the ubiquitous shaky-cam to the saturated colors and the multiple murders or attempted murders that dotted the storyline – and so aggressive in its determination to titillate. And no doubt this was done intentionally, in a bid to make the show a bigger draw for those audiences craving excitement (last week’s ratings, coming off an extended break, were weak). Yet for me, one of the most committed Caprica fans, the strategy had just the opposite effect. I felt more alienated than ever from a series that, for at least one week, abandoned all its headier themes for some rather pedestrian soap opera silliness. It was sort of like how I felt while watching Friday Night Lights, season two: Here’s a great show, doing such memorable things, which then decides to waste its efforts in trying to be just another primetime melodrama.

If this is the direction Caprica is going, count me out. (Then again, if this style attracts more eyeballs, no doubt Syfy will be happy to show me the door)

Across the Caprica universe, Retribution found characters in unprecedented situations, behaving unusually. The episode started with Lacy, clumsily rushing to carry out a terrorist attack, clearly not up to the challenge. It’s an intriguing theme – the terrorist who doesn’t have the stomach for terrorism – all but wasted when she returns to leader Barnabas and is brutally attacked for her “disloyalty,” flailing about as she pleads for her life, so upsetting her colleagues in the process that one threatens to quit the clan and is killed on his way out the door. Lacy, who once served as the shy friend of Zoe, has now seen herself reinvented each and every week – from the tough-as-nails terrorist in training to the coward to the guilt-ridden teen in over her head, now realizing that she is responsible for the death of a friend.

Daniel Graystone, meanwhile, has pulled a full Michael Corleone, selling out all hints of ethics and morals in a bid to take back control of his company. Sipping on hard alcohol, barking orders at his new henchman, threatening to kill his enemies – or destroy their families – it’s interesting to see Eric Stoltz go dark, but last night’s one-note performance makes Graystone a little less riveting than the mourning-maniacal scientist that we encountered earlier in the season. His wife, meanwhile, has similarly reached her breaking point. Confronted with the truth that Clarice knew of her daughter’s terrorist involvements, and very well could have aided Zoe in hatching the scheme that took her life, Amanda Graystone grabs a gun and gets ready for the endgame. Then at the last second she decides to be a snitch instead, to bring down the terrorist-in-chief not via bullets but via serving as a government informant.

As for Clarice, she is on the warpath. Eliminating the competition one bullet and bomb at a time. Last night, as she took out Barnabas, we might as well have been in the middle of an episode of The Tudors or The Wire, as Caprica all but gave up on its sci-fi themes to present us with verbal showdowns and bloody shoot-outs instead. Increasingly, the larger discussions about what it means to create an avatar of a living person, and what can be accomplished/lost in a virtual universe, are being brushed aside for more asides about organized crime, religious tyranny, backstabbing and betrayal. While last night’s episode had a slick, stylish look, almost all of it was geared at making Caprica look more like other things we’ve seen before. The fiery cop in the trench coat, the Days of Our Lives Amanda-Clarice revenge storyline, the Adama brothers as hired goons…in abandoning all the heady stuff, Caprica now looks a lot more familiar, but a whole lot less unique.

So I’m conflicted. This the first episode of the series that, to me, felt like an out-of-left-field moment, like a turn away from all the unique characteristics of the Caprica universe and towards the derivative. I’ve seen this happen to so many other series that introduce deaths and murders and babies in a bid to drop jaws and hook loyal viewers. Yet while these are often successful short-term strategies, sparking a couple interesting episodes, they are often disastrous in the long-term. Because after a character like Daniel takes the plunge into organized crime, and threatens murder against his business associate, you’ve kind of limited the arc of his character. He’s never going to go back to being a purely gentle and heartbroken father. And if he does, that will be an even more unbelievable change of face than the plunge into darkness.

Maybe I’m making too much out of the whole thing. Maybe this was simply a darker episode for a series that has been flirting with the shadows from the outset. But replaying the twists and turns in my mind this morning, something about Tuesday’s Caprica was so over the top, so out of keeping with the series thus far, that I’m a little concerned a state of panic is setting in. A show that was about smart philosophical debates seems to be tilting instead towards intimidation, revenge and violence. It will be interesting to see how the show balances and builds upon the last two weeks next Tuesday.