By Todd VanDerWerff
The first five minutes or so of "The Oath" were pretty good Battlestar Galactica, if a little on the on-the-nose side of things (as the show can be every so often). But then, oh, then, "The Oath" turned into the awesomest thing that ever walked the face of this Earth. It had its flaws, and I want to pick on them, but, man, oh man, Starbuck shot a guy in the head, and Baltar and Roslin had to work together to help quell a growing mutiny in the fleet, and Adama and Tigh had their very own version of the impossible last stand of so many siege movies, and the whole thing just rocketed along like a leftover script from Season One (when the series was most overtly an "action" show). I'd like to criticize the whole thing, but did you hear me? It was AWESOME!
Let's set aside 8-year-old Todd for the moment, though, and see if we can't dig more into the meat of what was going on in this episode. The all-hands-on-deck mutiny is one of the few stock military plots Battlestar hasn't really used in the past (elements of it have popped up in a variety of storylines, but never something this streamlined and close-to-the-bone), which may explain why it felt like a Season One throwback (most of the stock military plots were exhausted in that season). Unlike the last handful of episodes, as well, "The Oath" had all of the major characters (I didn't see any regulars missing) focusing on the same plotline, and I'm sure the folks who've been concerned about the seemingly aimless plotting of the last two episodes were probably thanking episode writer Mark Verheiden and director John Dahl for an hour that never meandered.
In addition, the episode had some interesting parallels to the miniseries that kicked off the pilot and quite a few callbacks to the Pegasus arc and the TV movie "Razor," which preceded the fourth season. All of those arcs were, in one way or another, about how human beings deal with chaos, how they self-organize to create societies that make sense (or don't) and how they pull together or fall apart in the face of extreme circumstances. When faced with the prospect of the vast majority of their species dying in a genocide, the humans of the miniseries pulled together and gave themselves a purpose (finding Earth), something that could pull them together in the face of annihilation. From there, they reconstructed the society they had lived in as best as they could. The Pegasus, however, was unable to do this. Faced with the new chaos of the world they found themselves in, the crew of the Pegasus gave in to a kind of fascism, wherein Admiral Cain's (Michelle Forbes) word was THE word and all objectors were removed.
For this reason, the callbacks to the Pegasus arc and "Razor" (mostly from all of the actors in the episode who appeared in those arcs and seemed to be back to deal with unfinished business) stuck out. The Galactica and the fleet have discovered that Earth is not able to be occupied. Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and Adama (Edward James Olmos) are mostly unable to deal with the pressures of holding the fleet together now that things are so dire (there are offhand mentions to supplies slowly running out in the last two episodes). Baltar (James Callis) has turned to his new cult, while Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) seems just inches away from another nervous breakdown. Only Lee (Jamie Bamber) remains, trying to hold things together and trying to keep the rest of the fleet from rebelling in the face of the uneasy alliance he signed with the rebel Cylons in "Revelations." But the fleet wants to hear from Roslin. They trust her. And in the absence of her, they'll listen to the Cylon-phobia of Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch). After all, the fleet hasn't seen everything we've seen. They're going to find it very hard to just forgive and forget a genocide.
And so we find the seeds sewn for the action-packed "The Oath." But for as much complaining as last week's episode garnered for its strange, wandering plotlines and heavy focus on character moments (Entertainment Weekly's Michael Ausiello called it "the painfully tedious and self-indulgent art film that we had to sit through last week," somewhat uncharitably, but his opinion seemed to be the majority one in fandom), this week's episode doesn't work nearly as well without it. (The Webisodes featuring Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) aired in the build-up to this season also provided some interesting character background and may be the first time Webisodes have been used to beef up a main plotline to such a degree in the very short history of the medium.) Did we really need two episodes dedicated to showing us just how lost the fleet was without the hope of Earth hanging out there ahead of them? Maybe not, but last week's episode so effectively put us in the headspace that leads to this episode that I'm loathe to simply write it off as many have. But enough about that.
"The Oath" is like a primer as to why we came to love all of these characters in the first place. Even the weaselly Gaeta has a few moments where we see him contemplate the graveness of the task he's launched upon, the deaths that he's wrought, the lack of direction he feels even as he's accomplished his goals. It's rather brilliant that this mutiny is carried out, for the most part, by background characters like Zarek and Gaeta and Seelix (Jennifer Halley). Most TV series keep the characters in the background out of the course of decision-making, leaving them to simply live with whatever the main characters decide is best. For the most part, these characters just go along with whatever's decided for them (it's why we're watching the main characters in the first place, after all), but this has always seemed a missed opportunity. There's not really room in a novel or film to think about the agency of the background players, unless said production is consciously an attempt to ignore the main players in favor of the background folk (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), but a TV series has enough time to play with that, so it can do things like show us the growing sense among the people that the decisions being made are not in said people's best interests. "The Oath," by and large, pits the above-the-title stars (except for Gaeta) against the guest players, and in that regard, it's almost an amusing commentary on the television star system itself.
As mentioned, though, this is mainly an effort to remind us why we're on this ride with these people in the first place. (If we think of season 4.5 as its own mini-season, these episodes occupy the same place as "Exodus" did in season three and fulfill many of the same functions.) Baltar gets to upbraid Roslin hilariously. Roslin rediscovers her spine when she sees just how far her people have fallen and just how much it has hurt her beloved Bill. Lee picks up a gun and joins the fray. And Adama and Tigh (Michael Hogan) fight their way out of being dragged to the brig by the mutineers, then shoot their way to an alternate airlock to get Roslin and Baltar safely off-ship, ending the episode by holding off the mutineers in a lonely last stand (and providing the "to be continued"). Even Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), who's been a little underused, gets a moment to shine, getting said airlock in shape to get our heroes safely off the Galactica.
But it's Starbuck who shines the most here. Grumblings about how Starbuck has turned into a whiny soap opera character have plagued the show since the start of its second season, when she less frequently featured in action sequences, but by keeping Starbuck out of the action so often, it makes the episodes when she takes initiative (like this one) that much more effective. Starbuck is a born warrior often sidelined by circumstance or her own hang-ups, but she'll be there when you need her the most. And, man, does the fleet need her in this episode. From the moment Starbuck sees the mutineers arming themselves in a gun locker, Sackhoff takes complete control of the episode, finally turning her live-wire performance from this season into an excuse to cut loose and beat some people up, and it's thrilling to see. She singlehandedly takes down a group of several mutineers aiming to kill Lee. She arms herself. She passionately kisses Lee. She seems to be having a ton of fun, even if the circumstances are dire. And she's the only one who realizes exactly what's at stake when she reminds Adama that the mutineers are no longer his men. They are the enemy. In a society as small as the one pictured in Battlestar, this isn't just a mutiny. It's a civil war.
I was impressed by Juliani's work as well. Gaeta's long been one of my least favorite characters, simply because he's never seemed as developed as some of the other CIC denizens. But here, as he singlehandedly stays one step ahead of Adama and Tigh in order to bring about their downfall, Juliani plays both the moral doubt and the sheer conviction to the cause that the role requires. He always seems like he's about three seconds away from throwing up, but he also realizes that what he's done can't be undone, and if he doesn't see it through to its end, he'll be a dead man ("You'll have nothing," snarls Adama). He blanches when Zarek brains Laird (Vincent Gale) with a wrench, killing him, and he hesitates perhaps a moment too long when issuing the order to shoot down the ship bearing Roslin and Baltar to the Cylon basestar, but he's quickly gaining control of a situation that could very rapidly spiral out of control. Despite his essentially villainous intentions (from the audience's standpoint), Juliani plays just how necessary Gaeta seems to think this is and makes the audience feel it as well.
If there were characters who got short shrift, it's everyone who got sent to the brig, including Helo (Tahmoh Penikett), Athena (Grace Park), Anders (Michael Trucco) and Six (Tricia Helfer). There were points raised in this storyline (like Athena's insistence that Anders pretend to know more than he did if questioned), but for the most part, it seemed to be foreshadowing for what's to come next week, though the moment where Seelix came to reminisce with Anders about when they were good friends down on the Caprican surface was a nice scene that felt like it might be another understated character moment and quickly turned into the queasy horror of an insurgency in its infancy.
"The Oath" isn't perfect. There are lines that are a bit clunky (Starbuck suddenly has an affinity for action movie clichés), and the opening five minutes contain two monologues that are a bit on-the-nose (Roslin admonishing Adama about his passive-aggressiveness and Zarek talking with Gaeta about the problems of revolution). And this is to say nothing of the moment when Lee somewhat unexpectedly turns on Tigh for being a Cylon (of all characters who would know just how much Tigh is dedicated to the human cause, Lee would be one of them). But the whole thing moves like a rocket and does a good job of wedding the show's high-minded ideas about how humanity deals with chaos with strongly dramatized action beats. If the previous two episodes were necessary to get us to the place where "The Oath" would happen, "The Oath" does a good job of lining up payoff after payoff, to the point where we have no recourse but to groan loudly at the "To be continued" and ask what comes next.
Some other thoughts:
- This week's Sci-Fi channel original movie is something called Wyvern, which is apparently about a small Alaskan town terrorized by a Wyvern (which is an amphibious dragon and I'm not going to tell you how I know that, no). The film appears to star some sort of cut-rate Wilford Brimley knockoff in a cowboy hat and looks like it could be ridiculous in a good way.
- Sci-Fi is also apparently reading these comments and deciding to taunt me, if all of the on-screen bugs advertising "NOW IN HD: CALL YOUR SERVICE PROVIDER TO UPGRADE" are any indication. Sorry to blame you, Sci-Fi! Now I will turn my wrath on Charter.
- I'm not sure how I feel about the specter of rape returning as a threat. On the one hand, I totally believe it would happen (what with the Pegasus folks still hanging about), but on the other hand, I do think that a queasily disturbing plot point in the Pegasus arc has lost a bit of its punch in the repeat of the threat.
- I try not to geek out too much in these reviews, but that early shot of Starbuck getting her guns was five or ten kinds of iconic badassery.
- It's been a little sad to see Callis not get a lot to do in the last two episodes, and when he sat out the first half of the episode, it seemed this might follow in that tradition. But the late scenes of Baltar and Roslin negotiating to get her voice out to the rest of the fleet were terrifically funny and played off both characters well. I'm a little uncertain about what Baltar's little secret is that he holds over Gaeta (I presume it's something to do with the death warrants they signed on New Caprica, though I have a habit of missing the obvious), but it was neat to see he's still the only one who can rattle the kid.
- I find it somehow amusing that one of the Battlestar items you can purchase on the Sci-Fi site is a toaster. I'm also amused that KFC is sponsoring the season with something called a "Frak Pak."
- The show's props people do a fine job of making everything the characters eat that's algae-related look really disgusting. Check out that glop Hera has to choke down. Even the coffee looked pretty watery and gross.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.