The “episode where we find out a whole bunch about the backstory of a regular character who’s about to die (or be changed in some significant way)” barely existed five years ago, and it’s already become a cliché. The closest ancestor to this type of episode was probably the one where the kindly guest star who had a big impact on everyone’s life died before the final credits (a template still seen on procedurals). The biggest offender in the “series regular, we hardly knew ye” camp is, of course, Lost, which has killed off three series regulars at the end of episodes dedicated to parsing out more of their lives pre-island. Battlestar Galactica first killed off a semi-regular after letting us get to know her better in last year’s “The Passage.” Now the series has done it again, but with one of its most significant characters—indeed, one of the four or five that makes the show tick. The audacity of this move (and the fact that the character died in a rather pointless fashion) has me sure there’ll be a return, perhaps in in the season’s final three episodes; but it still feels like series developer Ronald Moore and his writers are playing for keeps.
Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck has always been a focal point of Galactica. Before the inaugural miniseries had even debuted, she was the focus of controversy, largely dredged up because the character she played was conceived as a heroic masculine ideal in the original 1978 series. The idea of making the best pilot in the fleet into a troubled woman with mother issues sent fans of the first Galactica into an uproar. But the show ultimately utilized the character well. She was a seething ball of subtext that never quite spilled over into becoming text (she had mental stability issues! her mother abused her!). Sackhoff’s Starbuck danced artfully on the edge of cliché, even when she was engaging in fistfights or breaking up marriages, largely because the writers and Sackhoff understood that there are people like this in the military—people who join a greater cause to sublimate their personal pain. Even when Starbuck was doing some slightly unbelievable and out-of-character things (like mourning for a child that was never hers to begin with, though she had been convinced it was), Sackhoff found the emotional center of the scene. Her portrayal of the character and the writers’ understanding of her grew in tandem, transforming Starbuck into one of the show’s most vital characters.
But as season three went along, Sackhoff turned up less often. Her initial arc on New Caprica (involving her being held in captivity by the Cylon Leoben—Callum Keith Rennie) worked for the most part (aside from the storyline with the kid, which never really went anywhere), and the initial episode involving the love quadrangle between her, Apollo (Jamie Bamber), Apollo’s wife Dualla (Kandyse McClure) and Starbuck’s husband Anders (Michael Trucco), “Unfinished Business,” was a season highlight, even if the quadrangle itself never quite worked as a story element. But other than those elements (and cryptic warnings about her “destiny”), Starbuck didn’t have much to do this season—which is why a Starbuck-centric episode seemed like such a good idea. It was as though Moore and the writers wanted to bring the character back into sharp focus for the final trio of episodes (which will, reportedly, be a three-part finale focusing on the trial of Baltar). Instead, the episode, “Maelstrom,” written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson and directed by Michael Nankin, turned once again to Starbuck’s odd religious mysticism, then killed off the character after a particularly harrowing vision.
It wasn’t quite as glib as that description makes it sound. Starbuck’s death resonated with the characters who cared about her most (Bamber offered another fine performance as Apollo, and Edward James Olmos acquitted himself well when Adama dissolved into tears of frustration in the final scene), and the scenes that fleshed out her backstory weren’t as bad as they might have been. Starbuck’s abuse at the hands of her mother (played here by Dorothy Lyman) has always been one of those story points best played in the background (making it too literal could make Starbuck too sympathetic and destroy the careful calibration of the character. But the episode didn’t dance around the issue either, confronting it head-on in a series of harrowing shots of the young Starbuck getting her hand slammed in a door. Sackhoff—who had to bounce between timelines, confronting her mother, trying to get Apollo to agree she was still good enough to fly missions, and making peace with death—made a lot of this work just through her chemistry with Lyman and her ability to put over the rougher aspects of Starbuck’s character.
But all of this might feel like a waste if there wasn’t a sense that Starbuck is destined for something bigger (unless the destiny Leoben kept hectoring her about was, indeed, to simply die, in which case, I have a very special destiny, too). The episode returned again and again to Leoben’s words and Starbuck’s paintings of a giant swirl of color that adorned her apartment back on Caprica (introduced in season two). Those swirls were echoed nicely by the visual effects crew (who deserve a lot of praise for the planetscapes of this episode) in the titular maelstrom, which Starbuck lost herself when chasing a Cylon raider (one that no one else seemed to see, until Apollo finally saw it at the end of the episode). Starbuck’s death came about when she disappeared in another swirl of clouds and was attacked by the raider (leaving her spinning into the visions of her mother that made up most of the last half of the episode). Her demise was un-heroic. No one was saved by her death, and nothing was gained. Kat, who died in “The Passage,” had a more heroic exit.
Certainly in war, talented warriors die pointlessly, just as good people die pointlessly throughout life; but that truism doesn’t gibe with what Moore and his writers have always seemed to have in store for Starbuck. The character was always played as someone destined for much greater things. So perhaps the Cylon raider that pursued her will rescue her (perhaps Leoben taking her to explore the land between life and death, as mentioned?); or maybe she’ll wake up a Cylon (earlier in the season, Lucy Lawless’ D’Anna went looking for the final five Cylon models between life and death). But either plan seems almost too predictable. Hopefully Moore has something bigger up his sleeve for the finale—maybe something involving Mary McDonnell’s Roslin, who rarely shares scenes with Starbuck, but had one with her tonight and seemed to catch some hidden meaning in what she said.
Then again, maybe Starbuck is just dead. It would be a wry comment on how, even in war-torn fictional universes, where great destinies are always given the chance to play out, sudden, meaningless death is still a possibility. Or it could just be a way of shocking the audience, galvanizing them into thinking that anyone could be next (Starbuck is the first above-the-titles death in the show’s run). The war series has always been plagued by the fact that the regulars can’t die; maybe Moore and company are saying yes, they can.
If she is simply gone, though, it’s an unfortunate choice, simply because Sackhoff was a fine actor who brought a bleeding heart to the show. (Look again at the scene in tonight’s episode, where she talks with Apollo about how much has changed in the fleet but how little has changed for them—a fine example of what Sackhoff does best.) The long shot of the control deck after Starbuck’s ship was lost, red lights flashing and warning bells blaring, seemed like it was another TV fakeout—a way to make us think Starbuck was “actually” dead before pulling the rug out from underneath us later on. But it also had the hollow ring of emotion that accompanies a real death, a real void left in lives. If she truly is dead, no one can accuse Moore and his writers of not having guts.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.