Battlestar Galactica does not do flashbacks well. In its second season, it ran a number of episodes that jumped back to life before the Cylon attack, and what we saw was almost always less interesting than the space action that made up the episodes’ A-stories. So longtime viewers could be forgiven for skipping last night’s episode, “Unfinished Business,” on the basis of its description: the crew engages in an impromptu boxing tournament in which any crewmember can challenge any other, regardless of rank, with flashbacks to life on New Caprica during the year that last season’s finale skipped over.
Yet “Unfinished Business,” while not perfect by any means, was better than it had any right to be. Aside from an unfortunate B story clumsily welded on to a compelling A story, the episode, written by Michael Taylor IV and directed by Robert Young, came close to being one of the season’s best, spurred on by an escape from the cramped confines of the Galactica and a return to New Caprica. It opened with a tersely edited fight that cut between Helo (Tahmoh Penikett, mostly scenery in this episode) and Apollo (Jamie Bamber, turning in what was probably his best work on the series to date) beating on each other, and Apollo’s memories of a fateful day on the ground on New Caprica, capturing snippets of memory that would gain context as the episode went on—a long kiss with his wife, Dualla (Kandyse McClure), a dance with Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff, also never better), waking up outside, naked on the ground. While disjointed narratives are nothing new in film or television, the rhythms of this sequence (and the other flashbacks which would pop up later, full of shots reused and expanded upon to offer more information) were reminiscent of the early films of Christopher Nolan, whose occasionally gimmicky timelines bend over backwards to replicate the way events get jumbled up in memory—recalled, seemingly at random.
There have been very few episodes of television constructed this way. On most TV dramas, a flashback tells a story complementing a present-tense narrative that takes up the bulk of the episode; think of how the flashbacks in Lost often comment on the action on the island, even if indirectly. Galactica seemed to be going after something different, something that circled almost maddeningly around the truth, never quite hitting on it (though the truth was rather easy to guess). Taylor and Young recontextualized shots reflect how memory often avoids the truly painful things (Starbuck returned again and again to a memory of her greeting of her boyfriend-soon-to-be-husband Anders, played by Michael Trucco, which led to her looking over to Apollo—only later did we learn that Dualla was just off to the edge of the shot, as though Starbuck were trying to crop her out of memory itself). This strategy was built into the very structure of the episode itself, avoiding the painful incident at the center of Apollo and Starbuck’s anger.
The conceit used to get at all of this was a bit ridiculous. This private tradition of impromptu, cross-rank boxing matches has never been mentioned on the series before, and it required so much exposition (and, frankly, seemed constructed simply to set up Starbuck and Apollo’s one-on-one) that it threatened to topple in on itself. Fortunately, the boxing scenes, while not original in execution, were serviceable enough to not call too much attention to the absurd premise.
That said, having Roslin (Mary McDonnell) present in the room and the explanation for her presence—her dad loved fights and she loved her dad so she loved fights—was silly, and her subsequent presence as a cut man was laughable. And Admiral Adama’s decision to get in the ring was problematic. Edward James Olmos’ character has always gotten too personally invested in relationships with his subordinates, and his guilt over leaving so many of them on New Caprica feels real. But having him crawl into the ring with one of those subordinates to teach everyone (and himself) a lesson about doing one’s duty felt excessive, especially when followed by a heartfelt but hackneyed speech about how a commander and his soldiers can’t be friends. To the episode’s credit, Adama didn’t exactly defeat the much younger man he challenged in the ring (things looked to be headed this way when Adama slammed his competitor from the first, but he took a pummeling eventually). And this storyline did give us a great flashback scene between McDonnell and Olmos where Roslin and Adama laid on the ground and smoked what appeared to be marijuana, talking about their hopes for what New Caprica could become. But all in all, this thread was weak; it felt shoehorned in to prove a point that didn’t need to be proved.
The episode’s heart was what happened between Starbuck and Apollo on the day to which the flashbacks were anchored. The characters finally consummated their long flirtation, falling onto a patch of ground and sleeping together, declaring their love for each other to the night sky; the next morning, Apollo woke to find Starbuck gone, then returned to camp to find her married. Shots that wound their way through the sequence early in the episode found their place in this storyline; their impact deepens on second viewing.
This is the stuff of soap opera, but Bamber and Sackhoff played their scenes with feral rawness, unleashing emotions both characters often bury under macho exteriors. The Starbuck-Apollo pairing has never been central to Galactica (it pops up once or twice a season, as if to remind us that it exists), but Bamber and Sackhoff do have a palpable chemistry that makes their sex seem as likely as their final sparring match. (The series also didn’t flinch from the brutality inherent in their fight—Apollo didn’t shy away from hitting a woman, as might have happened on another series, because Starbuck can hold her own.) The faceoff culminated in a nakedly emotional stalemate, shot in the extreme close-ups the series is so fond of—a clinch that seemed unlikely to be resolved by the start of next week’s episode.
Some fans have grown tired of the Starbuck drama, not to mention the angst of nearly every character that’s not Roslin this season; the dark stasis that’s trapped every character is inching toward misery for misery’s sake. Part of this impression, though, may stem from the New Caprica arc which kicked off the season (and that was more or less closed off tonight). It expanded the show’s universe. Suddenly, we saw sides of the humans and Cylons that we’d never seen before. The show grew from being a military drama to a drama about a community of people, some of whom happened to be in the military. Once the New Caprica arc ended, the show raised the stakes even further by taking viewers inside of the Cylon civilization (the Cylons weren’t present in “Unfinished Business”). The stand-alone military stories that once dominated multi-episode swatches of Galactica feel increasingly stale and hermetic now, as though the show is trying to force a new part of itself back in the closet. The characters are still vital, but their world has gotten so big that when the show tries to close it off again, it just feels wrong. It’s as if Galactica has forgotten the lessons it learned on New Caprica—something the characters could never do.