By Todd VanDerWerff
Over my years of reviewing Battlestar Galactica for The House Next Door, I've found that the hardest episodes to write about with any authority are "Part 1" episodes. Generally, these are setup episodes where the payoff is uncertain. They tend to invite speculation rather than analysis, and it's hard to see, exactly, where they're going (or, at least, it SHOULD be hard to see that). So if "Part 1" episodes are hard to analyze already, then the first part of the EPIC, THREE-HOUR SERIES FINALE is probably going to be REALLY hard to analyze. So this might end up being a little short because, as much as I loved "Daybreak, Part 1," written by series mastermind Ronald D. Moore and directed by series directorial head Michael Rymer, it's still just the beginning of a story that will lead to the End of All Things Galactica, and that's a little sad. So let's talk about other things!
It may seem improbable, perhaps, that after a full half-season of setup, the first hour of the finale was even more setup, but I think this setup was slightly different from, say, last week's setup, which was all about putting everyone's emotions in play against each other in the face of having to leave the Galactica. While there's a lot of emotional setup here (why else did we get Baltar's (James Callis) arc replicated in miniature?), "Daybreak, Part 1" goes in more for reconceptualizing the show as a sort of character-driven epic, grand in scope, but intimate in detail. The series has flirted with this over the years, but it has rarely done anything as all-in as the flashbacks to life on Caprica before the Cylons killed all of humanity. Some of these were clearly setups for bigger payoffs to come next week (particularly the story of Adama's (Edward James Olmos) one-hour obligation and Lee (Jamie Bamber) drunkenly chasing a pigeon around his house). Some were just designed to remind us of the character's journeys, such as seeing Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) smiling and goofy and very much in love with the long-dead Zack Adama. And some commented on the episode's main plot obliquely—if Roslin (Mary McDonnell) could pick herself up before, then she could do so again, one last time, for the man and fleet she loved. Did we really NEED to see all of this stuff? Of course not (even if seeing Anders (Michael Trucco) hanging out in the hot tub was cheekily amusing). But all of it serves to remind us of who these people are, of the years we've spent following them and the peace and happiness we hope is waiting for them just around the corner but suspect cannot be.
All along, I and other reviewers of the show have been saying that the big answers that are still floating around out there in the ether (like, say, the nature of the head characters) will likely come somewhere in the finale, but with only 90 minutes of this series proper left, it's starting to seem distinctly unlikely that every little stone will be overturned to expose everything hiding beneath. This may seem to contradict some of what I've said before, but "Daybreak, Part 1" convinced me that I don't terribly CARE if I get answers to every question. If Battlestar ends with a Sopranos-esque ellipsis, that might feel insubstantial, since the series has always been much more about definitive punctuation marks than The Sopranos ever was, but outside of a handful of things (I'm still dying to know the nature of Starbuck), I more want to see a solid end to the stories for these characters than I want to find out what the Cylon plan was all along or what's up with the opera house. I want to see Roslin come to peace with her death. I want to see Adama pull off one last impossible military maneuver. I want to see Starbuck smile again. The genius of "Daybreak, Part 1" was that it shoved these questions to the forefront and, via the flashbacks, made the journeys the characters have been on seem like they predated the series, even. These people deserve some sort of break, and "Part 2" is going to be entirely about finding out if they get it, not about us getting the answers we only think we deserve.
Since I'm already on this roll, I may as well go whole hog: Answers are overrated. There is literally nothing Moore could drop on us next week that hasn't been speculated about SOMEwhere on the Internet at some point. Battlestar has always had a far more complicated relationship with its fans than any other drama in its weight class. Something like Lost openly entices fan speculation and creativity, while a series like Breaking Bad or Mad Men really just isn't the sort of thing that fans would delve into so deeply as to fill blogs with feverish speculation (though the thought of Mad Men developing a deeply complicated mythology is making me smile at this late hour). Battlestar has all of the elements of shows that drive fans crazy with speculation (the big mythology signposts, the crazy plot twists, the character reversals), but the writers have often seemed rather uninterested in the big mythology points and have been rather content to admit they're making a lot of it up as they go along. The creative personnel behind Battlestar have always been more dedicated to keeping the character beats more or less consistent, rather than being wedded too conspicuously to the plot. The writers barely cared about the race to find Earth, halfheartedly tossing in a few roadmap to Earth episodes every season and only really engaging when it was discovered Earth was a nuked-out wasteland, which gave them a lot of room to play with their characters' despair. When I interviewed Battlestar director Michael Nankin earlier this year, he described the show primarily as a sad drama with strong character moments. I suspect most of the show's fans would primarily describe it as a science fiction show, and I think that's where the growing polarization over the final handful of episodes is stemming from.
But enough about that. For those of us firmly on the side of making sure the show goes out doing its characters as many favors as possible, "Daybreak, Part 1" was full of oodles of great, tear-jerking moments like Roslin hobbling onto the side of the folks heading off to rescue Hera or Adama telling Starbuck that no matter what happened to her after her death, she was still his daughter. All of these things could have been hokey as hell, but something about the honesty of the performances and the understated direction and Bear McCreary's nicely subtle score managed to keep the whole enterprise from falling into the great quicksand of cliché. On the face of it, the idea of Adama taking a ragtag band of misfits (which seems to consist primarily of the series regulars and recurring players, minus Baltar and Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes), who wants to go but is refused by Adama) to go and rescue Hera is preposterous, even if the show does a pretty good job of pinning a tail on it by insisting Hera is the answer to everything (as it has all along), but when Adama looked for a long time at the photo of Hera and Athena (Grace Park) hanging on the now mostly empty wall of the dead, then walked off sadly, then paused in the doorway before, after a long moment, going back to take down the photo, dammit, it felt EARNED. That word—earned—may be the best descriptor of this episode there is. This was all stuff that could have felt stupid, but it had 78 episodes and a miniseries backing it up, so it, improbably, worked.
It also helped that the crew spent most of the episode stripping down the Galactica, driving home ever more the sense of the finality of what was about to happen. Most of the time, a series finale that doesn't try too hard is preferable to something that tries to pay off several seasons' worth of storylines, but there's something thrilling, all the same, about seeing a series really swing for the fences with its end game, letting us know that this is really, really it. There will be no more Battlestar Galactica (outside of prequel TV movies and series) because there literally will be no more Battlestar Galactica. That ship is going down in a hail of Cylon fire next week, almost certainly, and seeing it emptied down to a shell of itself, trash littering the halls, other ships squabbling over its best bits and pieces, gave the episode the weight it needed to be as affecting as possible.
If I have one concern about the finale next week, it's that the show will not be able to find an ultimate meaning for the character of Baltar. The series was on to something interesting in the first half of season four when it made him an unwitting prophet who may not have believed his own words but certainly found enough people who did that he had to at least pretend to truly mean what he was saying. Baltar then upped the anger of what he was saying after Earth turned out to be worthless, but in the mutiny storyline, he went back to the old, self-serving character the show seemed as if it had mostly ditched. The series then made him the person who heard Gaeta's (Alessandro Juliani) final confessions before his execution in a moving scene that seemed to push Baltar towards finally moving past only being interested in himself. But right away in the next few episodes, Baltar was back to his cult (this time minus the interesting religious overtones) and arming them and insisting he didn't really believe what he said. While Callis played the hell out of this (he plays the hell out of everything), it felt like a disappointing regression for a character who had grown a lot in earlier episodes. Here, though, we finally get to meet the lower-class father he was so embarrassed by and see just how deep the relationship between him and Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) was before she ended the world as he knew it. It seems likely that Baltar, despite his inability to cross the line to join the Hera rescuers at episode's end, will throw his hat in with them in the finale (I mean, c'mon), driven both by memories of his selfishness and by seeing just how much the woman he loved so long ago has changed, has moved past the woman who loved him, has, indeed, grown past him entirely. The series has been using the contrast between the growth of Baltar and Caprica Six well, especially when we always have Head Six around to remind us of how Caprica used to be, even if it seems to go the disappointing route with Baltar week after week. Here's hoping that next week shows us what he's been up to this whole time.
There's plenty more to touch on in the episode, but I'd like to focus on Lee, whom I said earlier in the season has been the major character the series has often had the least idea of what to do with, which was something I had hoped to revisit and which I don't expect to happen next week. The scene of Lee drunkenly chasing the pigeon was emblematic of the problems the show has had with Lee. Bamber is always game to play whatever is thrown at him, but his throughline has always been the most muddled of any of the major characters. He started out as a hotshot pilot with father issues, but the series quickly abandoned this. His inborn optimism and quest to do the right thing might be interesting in a Battlestar novel or movie, where the plot would be able to hit this one-note storyline more thoroughly, but in a television series, it quickly grew cumbersome to always see Lee changing which side he was on simply because of his misplaced idealism. I think there WAS a compelling arc for Lee—the idealist worn down by the utter end of days—but the series was never able to make this jump, so he ended up doing baffling things like drunkenly chasing pigeons or reminiscing about women he once loved or getting into politics in a fairly unbelievable fashion. If I'm hopeful the writers can pull together the Baltar storyline next week, I'm not sure there's a place to take Lee even if he, paradoxically, seems the one character that is most likely to survive the finale, simply because his hope for a better future remains untarnished. I love Battlestar's commitment to its characters, and I'm glad these things are being paid off in the finale, but it's good to remember that the series hasn't served all of its characters equally well. Still, there are two hours left. Let's see what they come up with.
Some other thoughts:
- Because I'm morbid, here's how I'd rank the major characters' likelihood of survival in the finale, from most likely to survive to least likely: Hera, Lee, Starbuck, Helo and Athena (I assume they will be a package deal), Baltar, the Tighs (another package deal, likely), Anders, Adama, Tyrol, Caprica Six, Boomer, Cavil, Roslin, the Galactica itself.
- I used to think there was no way Baltar got out of things alive, but he seems, increasingly, to be fulfilling the function of the Fool within the classical literature tradition, and the Fool often gets a last-second reprieve in the final act so he can wonder at all of the carnage in a bitterly ironic fashion.
- Which former players do you think we'll get to see again? It would be one last chance for Cally (Nicki Clyne) to show up. Make it happen, Battlestar!
- How long has it been since Doral (Matthew Bennett) or Simon (Rick Worthy) showed up? I remember Simon was in the first half of the season, but it's been a while since we had a Doral sighting. Also, I know Callum Keith Rennie is much in demand, but Leoben better show up next week.
- One of the nice things about a series finale is checking off all of the "final" times certain things happen. The big one this episode was a small scene, but it was nice to see Skulls (Collin Lawrence) and Racetrack (Leah Cairns) going on one last scouting mission.
- Ron Moore was one of the primary creative masterminds behind Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where a wormhole featured prominently. I'm guessing there's no way someone doesn't go through that black hole the Cylon colony is perched on the edge of next week, and it's also very possible the answers we seek will lie on the other side of that black hole (even if such a thing is physically impossible).
- I'm hoping to get a few BSG-related pieces up here at The House this week in the build-up to the finale. If you've got something you'd like to pitch, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll see if we can't make it happen.
- See y'all next week for our last Battlestar blowout ever (unless I randomly review The Plan this summer). Bring party favors and gather early in comments, because there's no way the review isn't at least 10,000 words.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.