When Battlestar Galactica began its run, if you had held a poll to see which character fans most expected to be portrayed as a Christ figure, James Callis’s Gaius Baltar probably would have ranked near the bottom of the list. But in “Taking a Break From All Your Worries,” Baltar—who, with his beard and mustache growth while in Cylon captivity, has been looking superficially Christlike—died and was resurrected by a trio of Number Sixes (Tricia Helfer) posed like Raphael’s cherubs. Granted, this happened in a hallucination; the real Baltar died and was resurrected in a far more mundane way (via CPR, it would seem), waking up with his arms outstretched as though he had been crucified. From there, Baltar was strapped to a table and sent into a second hallucination in which death always hovered nearby (not unlike the Harrowing of Hell, but with water substituted for fire), then forced to submit to a series of God-like voices and betrayed by a close confidante (or at least that’s how Baltar saw it).
It all begs one question: Does Galactica mean us to take these Baltar-as-Christ suggestions at face value (and these are hardly the first the show has dropped), or is the series just having fun at the expense of Baltar’s tendency to hold his own interests above everyone else’s, even during the End of All Things? Given how little patience the series has shown for Baltar’s sniveling self-regard in the past, the latter seems more likely—but it’s also possible that Baltar’s utter failure as a leader and long captivity among the Cylons has sent him on some sort of redemption arc.
Last night’s episode blended the question of what to do with the deposed leader Baltar with the show’s ongoing soap opera plot about the failing marriages of lovers Apollo (Jamie Bamber) and Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff). As is often the case with Galactica, some elements didn’t work as well as they should have. Nevertheless, this episode, which featured a strong script by Michael Taylor and excellent direction by series star Edward James Olmos, was one of the season’s best. On evidence of “Taking a Break” and the two preceding hours (“The Eye of Jupiter” and ““Rapture”), Galactica seems to have regained its footing after a string of early Season Three episodes that didn’t hit all of their marks.
Galactica has been known to restage famous news photos and works of art to give key shots a layer of subconscious resonance, but even by this show’s standards, Olmos’ direction was notably iconic, packed with compositions modeled on religious iconography. Baltar’s hallucination of being drowned slowly in an endless sea was probably conceived as a way to do a dream sequence that reveals hidden secrets on the cheap; these sorts of plot cheats are used so frequently in genre fiction that I actually groaned the first time Olmos’ character, Admiral Adama, said the word “hallucinogens.” But the setup’s simplicity had the benefit of making an old plot device seem vital again: as Baltar treaded water on his back, a bright light (the eye of God?) shone down on him from above, guiding him toward the truth. The other portion of the hallucination—Baltar coming to in a Cylon resurrection tank surrounded by Cylons done-up in makeup to made them seem ever-so-slightly off—came as close as this series does to outright horror. Beyond visceral impact, the script used the dream/hallucination images to advance the plot (the other characters have now learned the depths of Baltar’s duplicity, and how he was occasionally an unwitting pawn in the Cylons’ game).
The season, so far, has given some of the show’s less-heralded players some good material to work with (Sackhoff and Bamber have been consistently strong this year), but this has come at the expense of sidelining some of the series’s more potent actors. Mary McDonnell’s President Laura Roslin and Olmos’ Adama have mostly been stranded (with the conspicuous exception of that one great scene in “Unfinished Business” where they toked up and talked about the future); since McDonnell and Olmos are capable of carrying the series’s weaker episodes by themselves, their recent under-employment has been discouraging. Taylor’s script, however, finally gave the duo something to play, with the added benefit of letting them share screen space with the equally-up-to-the-task Callis and Michael Hogan’s snarling Colonel Tigh. An early scene where Roslin interrogated Baltar—trying to uncover his role was in the series-opening nuclear attacks and threatening to toss him out of an airlock—might have seemed over-the-top in another drama, but because McDonnell’s portrayal is usually so reserved, it was quite effective. The scene also utilized the oft-recurring visual motif of the wall of photos of those who died in the attacks (recalling the 9/11 “missing” posters) intelligently, almost as a silent jury indicting Baltar. The device might have worked even better if it hadn’t been accompanied by too-obvious Roslin dialogue about the deaths Baltar helped cause.
Earlier this season, in “Collaborators,” Galactica asked what a society should do with those who’ve worked with an occupying force. The episode was bracingly frank in its willingness to engage the issue, but the issue seemed to come out of nowhere; its appearance might have seemed more organic if the series had spent more time setting up the crew’s anger at the collaborators. Now, with Baltar, the series is asking what to do with a leader who sold out to occupying powers; because of our prior familiarity with Baltar, and the series taking its time reuniting him with the main cast, this seems a more effective recasting of the “Collaborators” storyline, coupled with some notably raised stakes. Plus, in suggesting that Baltar knew Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) was slipping information to the insurgency, the series is both asking how little we trust Baltar and to what extent “good” exists in the politics of war. If Baltar really did know what was going on, by allowing it to continue, did he actually do something moral on behalf of his species? The series, which is supposedly building toward a trial for Baltar in this season’s final three episodes, seems willing to pose these questions more bluntly and honestly than it asked what should happen to civilians and rank-and-file soldiers who served the wrong side in a conflict.
The episode featured yet more instances of Starbuck and Apollo almost leaving their respective partners for each other, then choosing to stay put. These scenes are always well-acted, and tonight’s were intriguingly scripted as well, suggesting that Baltar’s betrayal of humankind was different in degree, not kind, from a husband’s betrayal of his wife (Galactica often seems to believe it’s not the magnitude of the sin, but the act of sinning itself). Nevertheless, I hope the series is done with this plotline. The Starbuck/Apollo pairing is better when it’s in the background; for a series that tries so hard to engage the audience in considering both its genre and the political questions inherent in its storyline, Galactica has an unfortunate tendency to satisfy its serial narrative obligations with typical tales of forbidden love.
But these are comparatively small quibbles with an otherwise superb episode—one that sent Galactica into the homestretch of Season Three operating from a position of strength.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.