By Todd VanDerWerff
After two episodes full of deliberate but pulse-quickening pacing, Battlestar Galactica's latest episode, "Sine Qua Non," written by Michael Taylor and directed by Rod Hardy, feels a little scattered. Part of that's by design (the fleet is thrown into chaos after the sudden disappearance of Roslin, Baltar and a whole Basestar), but some of it just feels like the show trying to cram a bunch of plot points in so it can get back to the basestar and answer the questions everyone has. Battlestar almost never exposes the hands moving its various chess pieces around, but tonight, those hands were too obvious in a few scenes. Still, the last act gave the episode a grandly epic feeling, even pulling back for a rare long shot (albeit, a CGI-enhanced one, but still). In its final season, Battlestar is almost taking on the feel of something romantic and sweeping, even as it remains committed to its vision of following a fleet full of people who are very, very frakked up.
The big jaw-dropper here is the revelation that Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) is pregnant by Colonel Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan)—the first pregnancy between two Cylons. Hogan's reaction to finding out she is pregnant is priceless (snarked a commenter at TWOP "his missing eye bugged out too"), but the whole plot point feels like it could have been fleshed out a little more. We've gotten several hints that Tigh and Six were carrying on something approaching a relationship, but the fact that the revelation is dropped in the middle of the episode and then barely followed up on gives it a feel of something that wasn't all that important in the end, when the very concept itself profoundly alters the series' cosmology. The fight between Tigh and Adama (Edward James Olmos) is nicely choreographed and shot, but the result (Adama beginning to realize that he's losing his grip on the fleet) reduces the revelation to something too small. It will almost certainly come up again, but the lack of follow-through on the plot point is surprising, to say the least.
Better is the sense of the fleet deteriorating after basically no one can figure out what has happened to Roslin (Mary McDonnell, sitting this episode out). The early scenes of the Quorum fighting over what, exactly, has happened (and finding no explanation) are terrific in a way that scenes like this rarely are. The show's trademark directorial style (all close-ups and cameras whipping around) really accentuates chaotic moments like this one. The stately camerawork on a series like The West Wing never really allows you to get the sense that the world can fall apart at any minute, but the way Battlestar shoots chaos suggests that the world already has fallen apart and everyone in any given scene simply wants to hang on to whatever last shreds of their former lives they can catch hold of.
Sadly, the political plot goes to some very predictable places from there. As soon as Lee (Jamie Bamber) suggests that Zarek (Richard Hatch) step down so that another can step up (ostensibly so the admiral and the president can work more closely together), it becomes blatantly obvious that the selection committee will pick Lee (if only to give Bamber, a good actor who the show rarely serves well, something to do). At first, this seems as if it might be a fun diversion on the way to the inevitable Lee-as-president ending, since Lee consults shifty and quite possibly insane attorney Romo Lampkin (Mark Sheppard). Though fans are divided on Lampkin, his work in the episodes making up the trial of Baltar last season was always riding a perilous knife's edge between too crazy and not quite crazy enough.
Sadly, in this episode, Lampkin slips off onto the side of too crazy, selecting Lee all by his lonesome, carrying on conversations with a dead cat and then pulling a gun on Lee to "convince" him to take the job. We learn that Lampkin has barely left his quarters in the time since the trial (though he does in this episode to help Adama realize that his concern over Roslin is going to drive him to push the fleet toward something like suicide), and we also learn that he's as fond of spouting crazy gibberish dialogue as he was last season. The thing that's most unsatisfying about his appearance is that he seems solely to be there to push Adama off onto his lonely quest at the end of the episode and to push Lee into the office of the presidency. Like with the Tigh storyline, we don't get a sense of what Lampkin's been up to all this time, and that makes a lot of this feel too perfunctory, as other characters simply tell us what we need to know. That Lampkin is carrying out his own mini-Sixth Sense routine with his dead wife's cat is kind of ridiculous all by itself; that he uses that dead cat's corpse to convince Lee to take on the presidency is the kind of stupid thing Battlestar only does when it chases its own desire to explore the darkness of its central conceit down a rabbit hole of its own devising.
Other characters act out of character simply to put everyone into place for the final two episodes before the show goes away for a long while. After all that time as a raving lunatic, Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) is suddenly competent and able to command pilots again (she, also, tells Adama that he's losing it, regardless of what he thinks). Adama, after having that cataclysmic fight with Tigh (who's pretty clearly not thinking straight) puts the man in charge of the fleet while he's away. And Zarek simply gets out of the way when Lee steps into the office of the presidency. To a very real degree, the episode simply feels like everyone involved realized they needed Adama at this point and Tigh at this point and Starbuck at this point and Lee at this point to achieve the results needed to set the next two episodes in motion. Now, Battlestar always has its moments where it's obvious that the creative team behind the show is pulling certain strings to achieve certain results, but it usually feels much more organic than it does here, where the show simply displays where the pieces need to go and then shoves them in that direction as quickly as it can (again, presumably, so we can drop in on the Basestar folks next week). In addition, the political plot suffers simply because the motivations of all of the parties involved never quite make sense. Obviously, Adama has had his differences with the constitution in the past, but it appears Zarek has the law on his side (in as much as we know about Colonial law), so it makes no sense that everyone would try to push the guy out of the way. Again, it just feels as if all of this happens to get Lee into power.
Still, the episode is saved by its beginning and end, which both achieve the epic-in-miniature feel that marks the best of Battlestar. The opening, where Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes) works frantically to save the life of Natalie (Helfer, again), who was gunned down by Sharon (Grace Park) last time around, achieves some of the religious transcendence this season has aimed at so often, as Natalie's eyes flutter closed and she sees a peaceful green forest, even as she seems to draw back further and further from those trying to save her, sucked backwards into a tunnel (the use of point-of-view camerawork nicely accentuates Natalie's state of mind here). It's a gutsy move to kill off Natalie and further screw over the fleet, and the repercussions should be interesting to follow. This sequence is intercut with the confusion in the Quorum, amping up the tension even more and is then followed by Adama dressing down Sharon (whose motivations seem weak to the old man) and the discovery of a ship that went off with the basestar when it disappeared, its pilot dead and a copy of Roslin's favorite novel found inside, charred and battered. The tantalizing hints of what happened when the basestar disappeared (including another terrific CGI sequence set in a graveyard of Cylon ships) keep a lot of the dumber stuff in the episode afloat.
It's the end, though, that really works well here and almost saves the entire episode. Adama, having stepped down and handed over the fleet to Tigh, takes leave of his son and heads for the hangar, where a ship has been prepared for him. Throughout the episode, Adama has begun to realize that his feelings for Roslin extend beyond the professional. While this has been obvious throughout the series to viewers, the two characters are too attached to their sense of duty to ever give in to such passions. But now, faced with the possible destruction of his beloved, a rattled Adama resolves to simply wait for her until she returns. The shot of Adama, clad in flight gear and walking into the hangar, pans around Olmos' head to reveal Starbuck and Lee waiting for him by his ship as the music rises and the whole thing takes on the feel of something stirring and grandly emotional. Battlestar is so often suspicious of such deeply felt emotions that it's surprisingly moving to see this moment. Even better, though, is what follows, as Adama sits in his ship, the fleet disappearing around him, soon only the black expanse of space and the shining stars remaining as his companions. He opens the charred novel Roslin left behind and begins to read, as the camera pulls back and back and back, revealing a small ship in an expanse of black. He's ready to wait, and so are we, and for just these few small moments, an episode with a lot of problems becomes something small and recognizably human, even as it makes some of the series' grandest romantic gestures yet.
No guarantees on a review of next week's episode, as I'll be traveling. I'll certainly try to get something up, but if I can't, I'll review the last two of this half season together. Hopefully, the gang here at The House Next Door will put up a talk thread or something for our regular commenters if I can't be here.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.