Battlestar Galactica goes all-out war movie in the fourth episode of its third season, featuring what seems to be the biggest battle of the show’s run. As in the best war movies, though, the focus is less on the explosions and more on the human cost of the struggle for freedom. There is never any doubt that the humans stranded on New Caprica will eventually be reunited with their counterparts in space and continue their galaxy-wide search for Earth (this is TV, after all, where you abandon the status quo at your peril). But all the characters bear scars of some kind from events detailed in the last few episodes. These same events dig tiny holes in the Galactica foundation that may grow into chasms given enough time.
The episode, “Exodus, Pt. 2,” forms a complete story with last week’s episode, “Exodus, Pt. 1”. Both were written by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson and directed by Felix Alcala. While last week’s episode was all build-up, Part Two is all climax, even if some of the plot threads devoted lavish attention in the first part are abandoned in the second.
“Exodus, Pt. 2” is a testament to the strength of the show’s technical crew. Due to a prior weekend commitment, I was only able to view the episode on a screener DVD that did not have completed visual effects. As the episode involved several battles between spaceships, this might have led to severe confusion, but the clarity of the storytelling and the show’s ability to delineate battlefield geography meant that I was able to follow everything, title cards or no. (There was one scene where the characters were obviously pinned down by a Cylon in a guard tower and one character helpfully said, “They’ve got us pinned down! We’re trapped!” On many other shows, that level of exposition would be helpful to the audience; here it just felt unnecessary, so perfectly had the scene been constructed to show us the relation of the characters to the gunfire.)
The scenes set on New Caprica, where the insurgency ups its efforts to get the Cylons to leave and the free humans launch their attack, have a bleak, wintry look, like colorized World War II newsreel footage. With snow and flakes of debris floating through the air and the wind whistling and howling, the scenes have an overall eerie effect, especially when the small camp is abandoned and only a handful of Cylons and Baltar (James Callis, who is playing his character’s fall from grace like the ultimate guilt trip) are left. Similarly, the scenes on board the Galactica during the ship’s battle with four Cylon basestars (the Cylon equivalent of a Battlestar) have the feel of a submarine movie (at least one filmed post-Das Boot) with smoke clogging the air, alarms bellowing and Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos at his gritty best) shot at tight, off-center angles.
The episode also reunites its core cast (save for Baltar, who appears to have gone off with the Cylons for now). While the idea of separating your cast for long periods of time to make it more dramatic when they re-gather is becoming increasingly popular, it is surprising how effective it is when everyone is brought back together at episode’s end. Backed by a solid piece of music from Bear McCreary (one of the great, unheralded TV composers), the final scenes eventually turn to silence as Adama’s victory is hailed, Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) again takes her seat at the presidential desk, Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) sees the child she was told was hers reunited with its real mother, and Tigh (Michael Hogan) can only watch as his old friend Adama is feted, even though he sacrificed a wife to make the humans’ escape possible. The episode concludes with Adama snipping off his mustache, returning to his look from the first two seasons, ready to command a full regiment again.
None of this is surprising—again, the status quo cannot be mucked with very much on a successful television series before viewers start to rebel. Even the fact that Starbuck’s daughter is not actually her daughter (which is structured as though the writers thought we would be surprised by it) seems anticlimactic. It might have been more interesting to follow storylines of Starbuck trying to grow accustomed to balancing military life and caring for a child—the ultimate working mother (though, to be honest, cute kids have ruined so many otherwise good shows that the writers can hardly be blamed for ridding themselves of this one so quickly). Still, the best things about the concluding passages of “Exodus, Pt. 2” come in the dirt and grime smeared over the flesh of those who have been on the ground on New Caprica as compared to the crisp, clean military personnel aboard Galactica. While the dirt will be washed off soon enough, the deeper scars will take time to heal, as one look at the haunted expression on Tigh’s face at episode’s end made clear.
The episode also further expands its political parallels. While previous episodes paralleled the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Nazi occupation of most of Europe in World War II, and the inhuman treatment of dissidents in the former Soviet Union, this episode more explicitly references the Israel/Palestine conflict. While there are no battles over tiny slivers of land or holy cities, the Cylons do speak of completely eliminating their enemy with nuclear weapons (an idea that is floated about in the more extreme sides of the Israel debate), and D’Anna (Lucy Lawless, in another pitch-perfect performance) points out that the feud between human and Cylon will last for eons unless a workable peace can be found or one destroys the other. She asks Baltar if his children would “nurse a dream of vengeance down through the years so that one day they could just go out into the stars and hunt the Cylons.” The Cylons, though they greatly outnumber the humans, clearly fear for their very existence, which again brings about shades of the Middle East conflict.
Two scenes in “Exodus, Pt. 2” stand out in particular. One is a tense confrontation between Starbuck and her captor (Callum Keith Rennie) that plays off of his twisted desire to have her love him (it’s interesting that as the show goes on, the Cylons seem to possess more and more human traits; they’ve begun having dreams and copping to psychological obsessions and feeling intense pain when they are regenerated after a death in battle). Shot in the extreme closeups the show is so fond of, Starbuck says she loves him, then kisses him and guts him in order to rescue the child he was holding captive. The scene is psychologically nauseating and Starbuck’s eventual turmoil over losing the child suggest that one of the show’s most compelling characters has a long way to go before she’s the confident warrior of seasons past.
The other great scene involves the baby Hera, the human-Cylon hybrid that figures so prominently in the Cylons’ religion. Sent, by Roslin, with armed guards to rejoin the fleet, the baby’s adoptive mother and the guards are slaughtered (and the show barely focuses on this point—one of its few glaring missteps). Later, after the planet is almost abandoned, the baby’s cries alert Baltar, Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) and D’Anna to the baby’s presence. Baltar takes the baby first, but eventually hands her over to D’Anna, who seems to feel she has found the mantle she was prophesied to take on. Baltar raises a weapon, but is not able to do anything with it. Set on a haunting, wind-whipped planet, this scene is not the episode’s most compelling, but it seems to drip with potential plot complications for both sides—a moment filled with portent.
The show has now attained a reasonable approximation of its status quo at the end of these four episodes (save for Baltar, who would not be welcome in the human fleet anyway) and can now return to the war-in-space series it was for its first two seasons. But the emotions arisen and the actions taken in this first mini-arc of the season look to reverberate throughout the year.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark. For more writing on BSG, see the sidebar at right.