The two times I watched “Revelations,” Battlestar Galactica’s mid-season finale for its fourth season (so-named only because all of the episodes were shot together, but the Sci-Fi Channel has decided to split it into two parts and air them almost a year apart), I did so under less than ideal situations. One time, I watched in a tiny box on my laptop monitor. The other time, I watched on a herky-jerky video tape recorded on an honest-to-God VCR (DVR, why hast thou forsaken me?). The tape, left over from the FIRST Bush administration (it formerly held a taped-from-TV copy of Rain Man), reduced much of the episode to indecipherable gibberish, jolting backwards and forwards, as though the whole thing were recorded on the deck of a clipper ship in the middle of a hurricane.
And, yet, both times “Revelations” kept my attention riveted. It’s a bold, gutsy piece of television that perhaps cuts a few too many corners but more than makes up for it with its raw ambition, its terrific script (by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle), its stellar acting (by pretty much the entire cast) and its wonderful direction (by oft-unheralded series mastermind Michael Rymer).
Battlestar has always given a sense that it’s willing to dispense with vital parts of the show’s premise for an episode or two (or, in the case of the New Caprica arc, four) if it means that the series will get to examine particularly interesting issues or themes or if it will put the characters through some kind of wringer (preferably, the story line will do all three). But the show is never REALLY interested in completely ditching the status quo (very few television shows, ultimately, are). Every time it does something out of the ordinary—from stranding the characters on a forlorn planet under a Cylon occupation to telling a long series of personal sketches with a military SF milieu as an incidental backdrop—it’s right back to the status quo (humans in a ragtag fleet on the run and outgunned, thanks to a robot menace, and searching for a lost home called Earth). This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. As it turned out, there were a lot of stories to tell in that general setup, but at times you could feel the writers straining against the dictums of the overplot. I remarked earlier this season that the map to Earth plot has always been one of the series’s weakest, and it was this master element that most seemed to frustrate the series’s writers.
So what made “Revelations” such a gutsy episode was that the writers essentially dispensed with most of the series’s status quo altogether. Now that the fleet has found Earth (and found it to be a post-apocalyptic one), the series could, presumably, return to following the adventures of a ragtag fleet out in space, but they would have nothing to head to, no one pursuing them (even if the peace with the Cylons is tenuous at best) and, really, no hope left. The final moments of this episode so drastically alter the series that we probably won’t even know just how much it has changed until we see the back half of the season. Even with the famed “one year later” twist at the end of season two’s “Lay Down Your Burdens,” the viewer kind of knew that the Galactica would return to save humanity from the Cylon occupation. Here, we have no such guarantees. Even if the final cliffhanger is a little predictable (the extended celebration that precedes it made it all but certain that something very, very bad was waiting for our heroes on Earth), its very existence is momentous enough to please the diehard season finale geek buried deep within me.
In an episode filled with great moments, the final shot—a highly ambitious tracking shot of the sort that is rarely attempted on TV—was probably the best, starting with a close-up of Adama’s (Edward James Olmos) hand as he holds a clump of irradiated soil, a Geiger counter clicking away mercilessly. The shot moves up to a two-shot of Adama and Roslin (Mary McDonnell), staring out opaquely at what is likely a bleak landscape (McDonnell gets the shot’s only line—“Earth”—and she wrings every drop of bitterness she can out of it). From there, the shot moves past most of the other major characters (I didn’t see Gaeta—Alessandro Juliani—but he’s missing a leg now, so…), obviously on the edge of absolute despair (Aaron Douglas’ Tyrol just offering up a disbelieving and bitter chuckle), finally ending on the face of Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), so sure of herself and her quest earlier in the season and now seemingly on the verge of tears. Actors move in and out of frame, wander into the background or step into the foreground, even as the camera relentlessly tracks to the right, finally panning off of Starbuck’s face to reveal the crumbling ruins of what appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge (though there’s some dispute about this).
The shot is nothing compared to celebrated tracking shots in films like Children of Men or Atonement, but (unlike in Atonement, especially) the tracking shot serves a greater purpose, neatly laying out all of the relationships between the characters at the season’s midpoint (Adama and Roslin a couple; Lee (Jamie Bamber) wandering from one party to the next, trying to unite them; Tyrol isolated from everyone else, alone in disgust; Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) striking an uneasy first step toward a nuclear family; and on and on) and manages to underline a new change to the series’s status quo—the Cylons and humans have united (they’re all in the same shot, after all), but now that they have, they’ve also united in shock and horror. So how, exactly, do they bounce back from THAT? (It also bears mentioning that this is the sort of ambitious, go-for-broke direction television rarely deals in, preferring, instead, to just get through things quickly and efficiently. Even if it hadn’t worked, you’d have had to give the show points for trying.)
There’s been some grumbling that the montage preceding the final shot is overlong and makes for too obvious of a cliffhanger. As much as all of the show’s viewers probably guessed that something very bad had happened down on Earth, the celebration preceding it is fundamentally necessary. For one thing, the music by Bear McCreary (no longer the show’s secret weapon, his music has become so praised—if Battlestar is going to win Emmys in only the technical categories, please give him one, Academy) during the montage is one of his best compositions for the series. For another, the VFX composition of the fleet passing in front of the sun just outside of Earth orbit is another gorgeous shot. And, finally, the episode needs this moment, needs to give these characters the space to have one last moment of hope before dashing it under a blackened sky. The montage, again, ties together the community of the fleet (something the show does particularly well), but it goes more wide-ranging this time, pulling in elements as disparate as the Baltar (James Callis) cult, the miners from season three’s “Dirty Hands,” a pair of extras who play deckhands (and get a lovely moment of romance) and the famous wall of the dead, Starbuck looking at the long-dead Kat, as others in the fleet weep behind her, relieved at the journey’s end though also still grieving for what came before. The fleet is a community that has sustained losses, but they have finally reached a moment of triumph—an end to war and a new home. (OK. Lee also jumped up on a chair and threw his jacket into the air and looked stupid doing so, but anything goes in moments of unbridled joy.)
Now, since the episode is almost overstuffed, it’s easy to complain that this could have been tightened up more to give room to, say, the fleet’s reaction to the revelation of four new Cylons (though Olmos’ gut-wrenching sobs after he finds out Tigh is a Cylon essentially made up for this) or to explaining how Athena (Grace Park) got out of jail or Starbuck, exactly, figured out how to get to Earth, but the audience needs just as much of a breather as the characters need to celebrate. Some might suggest that because the fleet has been burned so many times before, they’d be skeptical about Earth too, but this has been the sole thing they’ve been clinging to all this time, and they’d have no reason to be skeptical, particularly with the fragile peace struck with the Cylons granting them a fledgling security. The only reason they would have to be skeptical about Earth would be because there are ten minutes or so left in the episode, which is information obviously unknown to them. In addition, the length of the celebration is necessary, so the audience gets a buffer between the unbearable tension of the episode’s first three-quarters and the bleak final shot. Just as the characters need to celebrate, we need to breathe, to spend a few final moments with these people we have come to know so well before everything is taken away from them again.
Please note that I have, essentially, only described the final ten minutes of the episode and that so, so much more is packed into the whole thing (from Hogan using his one eye to turn in one of the best performances of the season to Douglas doing the same with essentially no dialogue). The rapid-fire cross-cutting between Baltar trying to talk D’Anna (Lucy Lawless) down from nuking the human race out of existence; Tigh standing in an airlock, about to be blasted into space (after revealing he is a Cylon to Adama, no less); Lee wavering for just an instant before killing Tigh, one of his few bargaining chips; and Starbuck racing through the ship, trying to get to Lee in time, is expertly done, even if it is the old “Will they get there in time?!” trick a million action and suspense shows have pulled before. And, finally, the Cylon-human peace accord, so unthinkable early in the series, feels earned somehow, after a whole season spent building to it (especially after both sides have, essentially, committed genocide). The peace feels as fragile as one struck between two peoples who hate each other but realize that eventually there will be no one left to kill always feels, and the final negotiations between Lee and D’Anna are well-played by Bamber and Lawless. Hell, it is good to see the episode just figure out how to use Lee (a character I keep meaning to do an extended piece on, since the show clearly doesn’t know what to do with him half the time, but feels obligated to keep around).
But there are only so many words anyone is willing to read, and, as good as the rest of the episode is, it is, essentially, that old Battlestar status quo—complicated people living in a time of trouble and fighting their way through it, often just in the nick of time. Everything that follows is out of the category that makes Battlestar such a great and compelling show. There are few series willing to take risks like this, and even if this one doesn’t ultimately pan out, there is something riveting about seeing a new chapter begin, this close to the end.
Thanks to Myles McNutt for doing such a smashing job with the review last week that I felt compelled to step it up for once. And thanks to all of you for following along and commenting. We may not be great in number, but I truly enjoy discussing the show with all of you and being challenged to defend my thoughts more clearly. Now we get to wait until 2009 (eep) to find out how this all plays out. Predictions? I guess I’ll say that the back half of the season is a minor letdown, simply because the series has more or less run out of master plot and will now begin wrapping up backstory (expect lots of flashbacks). Still, there’s a compelling arc to be written out of “OK, so, now what?”, and I think the writers are up to the challenge, if any writing staff is. And, of course, the series finale will be hailed by all and will also be horribly, horribly depressing.