Battlestar Galactica episodes that don’t strongly tie into the show’s mythology often rank among the show’s weakest, so it was a relief that the third season’s eighth episode, the stand-alone “Hero,” was a mostly subdued hour—a meditation on the nature of heroism that resisted the bombast that marks Galactica at its worst. While the story was slight, the ideas behind it weren’t, and the show’s actors made it a master class in how to perform ridiculous material without looking ridiculous.
Carl Lumbly (most recently the stalwart Dixon on Alias) dropped in as the week’s big guest star, Bulldog, the focus of the episode. Lumbly has long been an underutilized actor even on series where he was a regular; his ability to project calm in the face of overwhelming odds suits these sorts of fantastic situations. He played easily off of Edward James Olmos (as Admiral Adama), Mary McDonnell (as President Laura Roslin) and Michael Hogan (as Saul Tigh). The quickly-forged chemistry between these actors made the show’s Very Television premise (the return of a character who was once very important to the main characters even though his existence was never mentioned) work rather well.
Scripted by the show’s other executive producer, David Eick (Ron Moore is usually the producer most associated with the success of the series, but he and Eick split the duties on the show fairly evenly), and directed by the show’s lead director, Michael Rymer, “Hero” was surprisingly quiet. It opened with a disconcerting closeup of Lumbly’s panicked, disoriented eyes, instantly presaging a storyline filled with trauma. The episode quickly cut to Roslin putting her ship’s affairs back in order following the short reign of Baltar (James Callis, now among the Cylons, and apparently having threesomes with them). This continued the general feeling that the show is reorienting itself after the New Caprica arc that opened the season. But the setting quickly shifted to the CIC, where Adama was watching two Cylon raiders chasing a third raider, piloted by the newly escaped Bulldog. From there, “Hero” proceeded along fairly predictable lines. Bulldog reunited with Adama and Tigh, under whom he’d once served, only to learn that he’d been betrayed by them (Adama shot down Bulldog’s craft to protect a covert operation behind Cylon lines at a time of tenuous peace between Cylons and humans). Of course there some question as to whether Bulldog escaped Cylon imprisonment on his own or with the help of his captors; it was ultimately revealed that the Cylons released him, hoping he would take his revenge on Adama when he found out the truth. Of everything in the episode, this resolution was the element of “Hero” that rang most hollow. The Cylons rely on their faith in their God, but their plan in this episode seemed overly dependent on happy coincidence and a level of knowledge they may not have possessed.
But all that was inconsequential in the face of the episode’s true reason for existence—an inquiry into the idea of heroism, the often dark deeds that support it, and humanity’s need to sweep those deeds under the rug. The loss of Bulldog stung Adama and Tigh deeply both because he was a friend and because of the No Man Left Behind ethos of the Galactica universe’s military (and that of most Western militaries, for that matter). One of the most durable and powerful war film tropes is that of soldiers doing their best to save a comrade who’s so badly injured that he’s beyond saving. “Hero” neatly flipped that formula on its head, asking, “What if you had to leave that man behind? And what if he came back and learned the truth? Would that make what you did—an understandable decision in the face of war—wrong?”
The episode also subtly probed the idea of building up heroic myths around those who don’t really deserve them—think of real-world analogues Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, who should already be considered heroic just for going into battle but found themselves the subjects of a vast legend-printing machine. Here, however, it’s likely that only a handful of people will ever know the truth of what happened between Adama, Tigh and Bulldog behind enemy lines. Roslin suggests in her closing speech that maybe the true penance heroes pay is having those around them believe in their image without ever knowing what awful facts might lurk behind it. Both Adama and Bulldog are allowed to be held up as legendary figures, even though Adama arguably betrayed a friend and Bulldog’s escape was less than heroic (the Cylons left his cell door open). Adama may fear that he caused the Cylon-human war that occupies the series (though Roslin quickly disabuses him of this notion), but he can’t put those fears on public display. For the public, he must appear to be a calm and steady leader, something he’s never been behind closed doors.
On the mythology front, Galactica took a few tentative steps forward, mostly onboard the Cylon basestar, which retreated into the background after being prominently featured in recent weeks. D’Anna (Lucy Lawless) sent herself on an odd sort of spirit quest provoked by strange dreams and fueled by her death and download into a new model. Her dreams end with her reaching a door marked “End of the Line” and being gunned down by commandos. These dreams seem prophetic, but their true import isn’t immediately obvious. Along the way, an interesting subtext was introduced. The human-looking Cylon models to which we’re most accustomed were built by their less-evolved, more robotic-looking Centurion ancestors. However, the new Cylons appear to have put the old Cylons under their control—perhaps to prevent the old Cylons from rebelling, as the old Cylons did against the humans years ago. The Cylons still fear human control, but they have no compunctions about enslaving other sentient beings.
The episode ended with a reconciliation between Adama and Tigh. It was a long time coming. Tigh finally found a proper patch to cover the gaping hole where his eye used to be (a nice moment earlier in the episode had him testing his new field of vision by waving his hand in front of his face, trying to determine when it came into view). Thus “Hero” ended where it began: with the characters patching up wounds sustained over the course of this young season.
A note: There’s no new episode next week, as SciFi uses the Thanksgiving weekend to show movies. In the meantime, I’m indebted to Wally, who points out a few things about last week’s lackluster episode that I neglected to mention, and Bear McCreary’s site, where he talks about the score of Galactica in great detail. Both sites would make fine reading while you wait for the show to return.