While Battlestar Galactica’s serialized stories tend to have some heft and sweep viewers along into a dense science fiction world, the stand-alones (save for a few in season one) increasingly seem to be ripped from a book of classic war movie templates. Thus far we’ve seen the disgraced captain who redeems himself by sacrificing his life and the soldier returning from captivity, scarred beyond recognition. Now, with “The Woman King,” we’ve seen the story of the soldier who fights everyone, even his superior officers, to put away someone he knows is corrupt. (Granted, the show has done a lot of “lone soldier against the whole military” stories, but this one, with its racial overtones, felt like a Stanley Kramer film.)
This is not to imply that “Woman King,” scripted by Michael Angeli and directed by Michael Rymer, was a fiasco. Series mastermind Ronald D. Moore and the show’s other writers seem to view the standalones as breathers that keep the show’s mythology from becoming too all-encompassing. (Indeed, the overarching storyline never disappears from any episode; even this one had the business with Mary McDonnell’s Laura Roslin overseeing the interrogation of Tricia Helfer’s Caprica Six.) But the stand-alones can still feel too on-the-nose, too much like what plagues the rest of television. Such was the case with “The Woman King.” Like most of BSG’s stand-alone episodes, it was a series of good scenes that never cohered into something grander.
“Woman King” was strengthened by the central performance of Tahmoh Penikett, who has often been confined to the sidelines as the idealistic, often headstrong Helo (if this were the 1930s, this would be Jimmy Stewart’s role). Helo and Tyrol (Aaron Douglas, who appeared briefly in this episode) are the show’s “regular guys,” the working stiffs of the BSG universe. Even though they’re both military men, their contributions are never as heralded as those of Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) or others with flashier skills.
The main plot focused on Helo’s efforts to expose the murders of sick civilian refugees (and, apparently, practitioners of alternative medicine) by a much-loved and respected doctor (genre journeyman and character actor Bruce Davison) who nevertheless had it in for the Sagitarrons and their mystical ways. No one believed Helo (who, for the record, is married to a Cylon—Grace Park—and the father of the Cylon/human hybrid that may be the key to the entire mythology of the show; pretty good for a blue collar guy). His sympathy for the Sagitarrons was written off as just another case of him siding with the underdog. (Earlier in the season, he argued against wiping out the entire Cylon race—and in that episode’s web-only bonus scene, admitted to sabotaging the plan to do so.) Here he mostly chased a gut instinct with little to no proof, getting close to hard evidence only in a scene where he identified damning statistics indicating that members of a certain race were more likely to die on the doctor’s operating table. Helo’s hunch was vindicated when Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes) revealed that one of the victims had poison in his blood. Admittedly, the story told to Helo by that victim’s mother (Gabrielle Rose) would have been cause enough for a little snooping around—but it might have been a more interesting choice to have Helo, often the show’s conscience, be proved wrong.
This was all tied together with good scenes, many of which had Penikett and Park arguing about how much Helo hates his job and how much the rest of the fleet hates him. Often shooting in tight close-ups, Rymer showed how Helo’s marriage, often a bedrock for him, wasn’t enough in this situation; Penikett also got to share strong scenes with Edward James Olmos’ Admiral Adama and Michael Hogan’s Colonel Tigh.
Unfortunately, a lot of the episode relied on the revelation of facts that we weren’t privy to before. (Kandyse McClure’s Dualla is a Sagitarron who believes that the mind and body are one, and not subject to medicine? I’m sure there’s a Web site someplace that details how this information was foreshadowed, but it sure seemed to come out of nowhere.) What’s more, the resolution was too pat. Everyone simply forgave Helo and lambasted the doctor for his crimes, when at least a few might harbor suspicions that the doctor was doing the right thing, especially if the Sagitarrons are as despised as the episode said they were (another tidbit that seemed to come out of nowhere).
Part of what makes Helo’s character so riveting is his old fashioned virtuousness. He’s always looking to do what’s moral when many in the show’s universe settle for what’s convenient. When Helo stands alone on behalf of what he thinks is right, it can make for a some great episodes, and when he makes a suspect choice, it’s all the more compelling. If he’s well and truly forgiven, he may lose both qualities.
Directorially, the episode wasn’t as interesting as some recent ones have been. Rymer has overseen many hours of BSG, and he was instrumental in crafting the seminal look of the show, but this one was shot in fairly standard TV grammar (establishing shot, two shot, close-up, mid-shot, etc.) on existing sets. This season looks to have been an expensive one, and crafting a bottle show that didn’t feel especially bottle-y (thanks, largely, to the presence of lots and lots of extras and the non-BSG-like main narrative, which was almost a detective story) is an accomplishment in and of itself. But after Olmos’ compelling direction of the last episode, “Taking a Break from All Your Worries,” this one felt flat.
The B-story, involving Roslin attempting to figure out how she could use Caprica Six as a witness in the trial of Gaius Baltar (James Callis), only took up a handful of scenes, but it did advance at least one plot point by giving Roslin the knowledge that Six communicates with someone who isn’t there (a hallucination of Baltar, which matches his hallucination of her). Perhaps Roslin will pursue this knowledge, and figure out just what is causing those especially knowledgeable matching hallucinations in the first place.
While “The Woman King” wasn’t BSG’s finest hour, it was remarkable in one regard—its treatment of the fleet’s civilian population. The civilians have often been afterthoughts on BSG—an undifferentiated mass of followers—and past attempts to individualize them have been borderline laughable. But the New Caprica arc which began this season seems to have kickstarted the writers’ imaginations into thinking about how people would really live in spaceship refugee camps (the refugees’ cells resemble cattle pens). The show is also dangling the idea that not every civilian is enamored with every decision Roslin and Adama make (this episode broached the idea that a trial of Baltar could touch off riots). And the scenes set onboard the hangar that had become the refugee camp were full of life—busy frames, teeming with extras. BSG has always been interested in evoking humanity in unusual situations; every attempt to widen its lens is significant, even if those new souls are just extras in someone else’s story.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.