One of the great pleasures of long-form serialized TV is an episode when a long string of seemingly unconnected plot threads tie together to reveal something approaching a grand master plan. The build-up to these moments is often frustrating, and it can make even the most stalwart viewer question what he or she is doing wasting their time with a show, but when the payoff comes, if it’s any good, it can be an experience unlike any other in art. Certainly a well-crafted novel or film can have a twisty plot that resolves in unusual ways in the waning passages, but neither form requires the sheer investment of time that a television series does. A TV drama can take a whole season of 20-plus episodes to unfold a story (or, in the case of a very few, the course of a 100 episode-plus series itself). With a novel, you can skip to the end. With a film, you know it’ll all be over in two-to-three hours. With a television series, you’re along for the ride for months to years.
That makes a big payoff all the more important. When The X-Files fizzled to an end, it frustrated viewers so thoroughly because of the time they had invested in the series. Because of the time element, television fans tend to be unforgiving, which makes episodes like Battlestar Galactica’s “Crossroads, Part 2,” written by Mark Verheiden and directed by Michael Rymer, vital to a series’s success. Fan complaints about the series’s third season have been legion, ranging from the meandering nature of the plotlines to a new lack of menace in the Cylons (whom we learned much about before they disappeared for roughly a third of the season) to a long string of episodes that seemed to exist only to provide character development, instead of the plot momentum the series had blended with character development in its first two seasons. If “Crossroads, Part 2” didn’t negate all of those criticisms, it certainly made the case for the series as an intimate examination of the personal problems of a fleet at war, tempered by big action sequences and even bigger plot twists.
The episode answered many of the biggest questions about the show almost casually. Would anyone ever discover Earth? (Why yes!) Who are the final five Cylon models? (Though a case can be made that they’re not actually Cylons, it seems Michael Hogan’s Colonel Tigh, Michael Trucco’s Sam Anders, Rekha Sharma’s Tory Foster and Aaron Douglas’ Chief Tyrol certainly think they’re Cylons.) Is Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) dead? (No! And she discovered Earth.) Because the bulk of the episode was taken up with the trial of Gaius Baltar (James Callis), most of these revelations were shunted into the episode’s closing 20 minutes, and while the show was breezing past them with a minimum of pomp, their very existence and the speed with which they were revealed seemed designed to leave audiences with their mouths hanging open. Few series haul out major, series-changing events with the ability of Galactica, which seems almost happy to mess around with the status quo at times. And, indeed, even if you’re a fan who felt let down by the series’s pacing this season, it’s difficult to imagine you not wanting to see what happens next right now.
The episode wasn’t all about its plot twists (even though they’re, naturally, what one most wants to discuss). Baltar’s trial came to a chaotic close as an impassioned argument from Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber, never better) led to his father (Edward James Olmos) deciding to vote for acquittal, freeing Baltar to plague the humans for another season. The moments following the announcement of Baltar’s acquittal were nicely shot and edited, mimicking the shocking resolutions of real-world trials. The only misstep in the storyline was that Apollo’s speech came from the witness stand, instead of in a closing argument. Obviously, the writers believed that Apollo would never be asked to make the closing argument (or would have the wherewithal to do so), but even in a universe as far removed from our own (though perhaps not as far as initially thought) as this one, it felt like the sort of thing that would never, ever happen. Even though all of the actors and the strong writing worked to suspend disbelief, they couldn’t quite pull off the sheer unbelievable nature of the scenario. It’s easy to see someone as fair-minded as the senior Adama having his mind swayed by such an argument (namely, that everyone else in the fleet has gotten a break, but Baltar is forced to stand trial because those in power don’t like him), but it would have been better to somehow contort the storyline to have Apollo making the closing arguments.
Callis, who’s held some of this season together with his performance, was essentially comic relief in this episode (memorably calling a would-be assassin butterfingers and rolling his eyes at the bizarre turns of his trial), but his scenes with Apollo and his lawyer, Romo Lampkin (Mark Sheppard) got back to the essential nature of the character—he’s determined to survive, and he’ll do anything he can to make that happen. In a show that piles bibilical allusions on frequently, Baltar has become more and more like a weird amalgam of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx this season, even as the other characters seem to hate him more and more. Baltar’s story came to an end this season as he seemed to fully become the former, whisked away by new disciples, a shroud draped over his head, so he looked like the stereotypical image of Christ. While Baltar’s character shifts haven’t always been plausible this season, his journey from disgraced president to Cylon captive to working-class hero has been the season’s most fascinating, and Callis has been responsible for much of that.
But, even as the show’s first two-thirds were the series at its best (the early scene where Adama and Mary McDonnell’s President Roslin shared a late night phone call was a particular highlight), that final third, packed with revelations as it was, seemed to fly off into some new stratosphere, as though the creative team behind the series knew the season was building to these revelations all along and they simply couldn’t wait to unspool them. The strange music that had wandered in and out of the soundtrack in both parts of the finale came to a head, sounding something like Middle-Eastern rock music and bringing the four newly revealed Cylons together in a small room to confront each other about this new knowledge. Hogan, who hasn’t had as much to do as he has this season, made the most of this scene, culminating in a monologue where he said that no matter who or what he was, he would think of himself as Colonel Saul Tigh. Tigh, who has hated Cylons throughout the series, seemed, perhaps, the most likely to crack under this new revelation, but it seems to have only given him new reservoirs of strength to call on. (And isn’t it interesting, in hindsight, that the right-hand people to both the fleet’s military and political leaders were revealed to be Cylons? Furthermore, since Chief is a Cylon, is his son now the second human-Cylon hybrid? And how huge will the pressure on those two hybrids to someday become a couple be?)
And then the music returned, resolving itself into (of all things) “All Along the Watchtower” as the paltry number of Viper pilots headed out into battle against a (once-again) overwhelming Cylon thread, Apollo with them. Apollo disappeared into a nebula, only to come across an unidentified ship which pulled alongside him to reveal the thought-to-be-dead Starbuck, who told him that she had been to Earth and would lead the fleet there. Cut to a visual effects shot racing through space to show us that, yes, Earth is out there and ready to be found. Between Leoben’s earlier assertions that everything here has happened before and will happen again and the appearance of a familiar song as the Cylon music, the series certainly seems to be building to a revelation of an unending cycle of Cylon-human warfare (or something, I never can tell).
It’s tempting to just turn this review into a plot summary, the blog equivalent of a little kid enthralled by a new tale trying in vain to recall the entire narrative (And then this happened! And then that happened!). But that’s the effect this show can have on its fans when it’s spinning its tales with confidence, as it was in “Crossroads, Part 2.” Because of episodes like this, even the more frustrating episodes can leave the audience hanging on every word, longing to have that age-old question answered: So what happens next?
(A couple of quick notes: Feel free to use the comment section to discuss the season as a whole, as well as this episode in particular. I’m ready to pick apart any and all aspects. In addition, go read this interview with Ron Moore where he talks about the perils of serialized stories vs. standalones as well as the removal of an entire arc that he felt damaged some of the episodes in the season’s second half.)
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.