The fifth episode of Battlestar Galactica’s third season opened with a lovely shot that seemed to encapsulate the episode that followed: A long shot shows us a lone figure, a bag over his head, being shoved forward by a small group of people, a single beam of light spilling down from the ceiling to illuminate the proceedings. The characters are all isolated in the middle of a huge, empty space. It’s an image of utter loneliness: one person accused in secret by a jury more interested in revenge than justice. The rest of the episode, aside from a few scenes, honed in on that formulation, asking, “Is revenge sometimes the best form of justice?”
While the opening was a neat little morality play—the accused begging for his life; his accusers standing mute, then ultimately jettisoning him out an airlock—the rest of the episode felt rushed in places, as though the show’s producers knew they needed to deal with the aftermath of the season’s opening mini-arc on New Caprica but didn’t want to spend too long spinning that plot before the next major arc began (if the previews for next week are any indication, future episodes will deal with the Cylons and humans racing to find Earth). There are a lot of good ideas here; most of the episode is a solid examination of just how scarred the New Capricans have become. But the scenes where briefly-in-power President Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch, the lone cast holdover holdover from the original Galactica) convenes a jury to decide the fates of Cylon collaborators felt perfunctory.
Written by Mark Verheiden and directed by Galactica’s directorial mastermind, Michael Rymer, the episode also took us, for the first time, aboard a major Cylon ship, as Baltar (James Callis) discovered himself both the robots’ fellow traveler and their prisoner. (A prior episode took us planetside to watch the Cylons rebuilding some of the worlds they destroyed in the series-opening attack, but this was the first time we got a glimpse of the workings of the Cylon fleet.) While it’s disappointing to think that Baltar won’t be among the humans, where he can cause the most damage and be the most interesting, this initial introduction to the fleet was nicely done, even if most of our knowledge of what was happening was related to us second-hand. The ship had a nice 1950s science fiction feel, all throbbing red lights and glowing blue corridors, and the episode used a series of subtle, quick cuts between roughly similar shots of a newly-awakened Baltar to make us share his disorientation.
The rest of the episode took place among the ships of the human fleet, cutting between the story of several members of the New Caprica resistance doling out punishment to those who collaborated with the Cylons and Laura Roslin’s (Mary McDonnell) re-ascent to the presidency. A seemingly superfluous examination of Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and her attempts to put her shattered life back together eventually converged with the story of the punishment, as she enacted her desire to hurt someone on a prisoner who was once her friend.
It’s easy to see that Galactica is aiming to evoke post-WWII France, when collborators with the Vichy government were punished in a variety of ways. And the episode is certainly willing to go to darker places than most television series would dare. The episode’s first set piece, after all, makes several beloved characters, the ostensible heroes, culpable for murder—state-sanctioned, legal murder, but still deaths carried out without a fair trial. More death warrants are signed as the episode goes on, though the opening killing is the only one we see. Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) argues that this isn’t an attempt to carry out vengeance, but, rather, a chance to mete out justice, but the scene where Tigh espouses this view is immediately followed with Tigh wanting to condemn Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) based on no real evidence, simply because the man worked with Baltar. Gaeta, of course, helped the resistance by leaking useful information, but this fact is obscured for too long.
The Gaeta subplot doesn’t make much logical sense, unfortunately. Even if you accept (as series’ mastermind Ron Moore argues in his podcasts) that Gaeta did not know who he was leaking information to (which seems like it could end up disastrously), wouldn’t he have learned who that person was immediately after reuniting with the fleet, if only to protect himself? And his dull resignation in the scene where he’s about to be killed seems a bit false. Gaeta was central to the resistance’s success; he would at least try to convince Tigh (known as the resistance’s leader) of this fact. Furthermore, the scenes with the jury felt off-kilter, thanks to attempts to give one of the other jury members a bit of a backstory (his son died on New Caprica) while doing the two other members (both women) no such favors. Since we don’t know these characters, their arguments for execution feel off-balance, especially when they go up against the three characters on the jury that we already know and understand; it’s a structural oddity that, while not fatal, undercuts some of the scenes where the futures of the collaborators are determined. Finally, Zarek doesn’t spell out the reasoning behind convening a jury like this until the end of the episode. While his argument has its own logic, by delaying it so long the episode unbalances itself yet again. The arguments for letting people live and stand fair trial, after all, are numerous. What are the arguments for methods like the ones shown here, for killing anyone who collaborated?
This is not to say that the episode’s central scenes are without merit. They work as dark morality plays, as mentioned, and the two confrontations in the empty landing bay are gorgeously shot and staged (the whole episode was full of scenes that took place in large, empty rooms, bathed in cathedral-esque lighting). The aftermath of the occupation was something that needed to be seen.
The other plot—Roslin’s return to power—felt shoehorned in, but it was well-played by Hatch and McDonnell. It’s interesting to note that the people at the top of the civilian ladder in Galactica don’t seem to place much trust in democracy (which, to be fair, is the institution that gave them President Baltar). Roslin was installed as president after everyone in line in front of her was killed. Zarek became president after Baltar deserted, but the threat of military imprisonment convinced him to install Roslin as his vice-president, then step down. While this unspoken wariness of democracy re-establishes the status quo that worked so well in seasons One and Two, it also offers a curious subtext for a series that has long argued that the military and the civilian system have a place in life.
One can’t help fearing that after Roslin’s climactic blanket pardon of collaborators (she believed trying every accused traitor would rip the fleet and her administration apart), Galactica will forget about this particular plot thread. But the images that play over Roslin’s pardon speech suggest otherwise: Starbuck frets; Tigh hangs up clothes belonging to his collaborator wife (dead at his own hand); Baltar leans against a wall, still imprisoned. The episode ends with Gaeta and Tyrol staring into the distance, unsure of what to say to each other. This final montage suggests that anger at the collaborators won’t easily fade away.
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.