“Blood on the Scales,” written by Michael Angeli and directed by Wayne Rose, wasn’t quite as good as last week’s “The Oath,” but it was still an excellent episode of Battlestar Galactica, taking the action-packed pacing of last week’s episode and layering on a few genuinely emotional moments amidst the panic. Battlestar is a show moving with confidence into its final hours (much like The Shield last fall), and that’s allowing it to carry out story turns with a sort of dread efficiency. Yeah, they didn’t kill Adama (Edward James Olmos), but there were other big moments aplenty. Also, Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) spent much of the episode crawling around in a pipe. So there you go.
Let’s get some of the bad out of the way first. Battlestar has always had a weakness for Big! Shocking! Moments! that turn out to just be dreams, and the show indulged that weakness this evening as it had Baltar (James Callis), of all people, dream up the execution of Adama by firing squad. The show already did some of this earlier this season, when Tigh (Michael Hogan) imagined himself shooting Adama in the head in the season premiere, and every time they do this kind of fakeout, it feels incredibly cheap, just another way to goose the suspense that’s so implausible you never really buy it. Meanwhile, the plotline where Tyrol played Die Hard and used the ship’s crawlspaces and tunnels to access the engine room, finally bringing the Galactica to a standstill, felt like the same beats played over and over until a rather nice ending and a shot that seemed to hold ominous portent for the Galactica. (The scene where Tyrol came across Captain Kelly, who finally decided to let him keep on with his crazy mission, DESPITE Kelly being a part of the mutineers, was also pretty nice, but too much of the plot was Tyrol wandering through tiny spaces, occasionally passing a toilet and grimacing.)
Also, the episode brought back Romo Lampkin (Mark Sheppard), the goofily over-the-top lawyer from the Baltar trial. I liked Lampkin quite a bit in those episodes, but every time he’s come back, he’s gotten a little less plausible and a little more like a collection of writerly affectations. Also, every time he comes back, he seems to be in a completely different show. During the trial, he was in a pretty standard lawyers-in-space drama. In the first half of the season’s “Sine Qua Non” he was in some sort of weird psychological mood-piece where he talked to a dead cat. And in this episode, he was killing dudes with a pen. I like Lampkin as an example of the other corners of the fleet we don’t get to see all the time, but the more the writers use him (and Angeli, in particular, who created the character, seems very fond of him), the less interested I am in his mannered quirkiness.
That said, the rest of this episode was really good. To a real degree, I feel like I could just leave it at that, because the episode didn’t play out in any terribly surprising ways. The leaders of the mutiny, Tom Zarek (Richard Hatch) and Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani), saw tension build between them over Zarek’s bloodthirsty methods. Gaeta slowly developed a conscience. The heroes “won,” in the end. A lot of really compelling story points apparently got shoved to next week’s episode (as is this show’s wont), including Anders (Michael Trucco) getting shot in the neck and Tyrol discovering some odd fractures in the ship’s hull. That these fractures were in the FTL room would indicate that the ship probably only has so many jumps left in it, so the fleet better find a new home right quick. (Tyrol’s visit to the engine room probably satisfied most of the hardcore SF geeks in the audience who are always curious about how the Galactica gets power, etc. The show has always mostly avoided clarifying any of the technological specifics of the ship, and it’s probably the better for it, but I like that it’s indulging in a little hardcore geekery this late in its run.)
And yet, as this episode went on, it managed to accumulate a certain power and a certain horror all its own. Despite the predictability of the moment, Adama marching through the ship and gathering supporters at every turn, only to overwhelm the CIC with his new army was a surprisingly poignant moment, trading in all of the goodwill we have for the old man and the folks who stayed steadfast at his side, including Tigh and his son, Lee (Jamie Bamber). The Adama/Lee relationship has often felt more strained that it probably should be, as if the producers have always felt that Olmos’ and Bamber’s easygoing chemistry needed some fairly rote father issues tossed into the mix, but seeing the two reunited in episodes like this one and “The Oath” still packs a somewhat primal power.
Over on the “horror” side of things, you had Zarek slaughtering the entire Quorum. The moment was perhaps a bit over-the-top (did Zarek REALLY think he could win the hearts of the people after carrying out such a naked power grab?), but it had that icy chill to it that most coups have, when the leaders realize they need to consolidate their power as quickly as possible. Zarek’s always been an interesting presence around the periphery of the show, and it was interesting to watch him improvising without a net and doing the things that Gaeta just couldn’t do. The act one closer of Zarek ordering the Quorum’s execution is one of the show’s better moments, and it actually picks up a sly theme that’s run throughout the series.
Battlestar doesn’t seem to have the greatest faith in democratic society, even among such a small group of people who, presumably, would all be able to meet the candidates one-on-one. Roslin (Mary McDonnell) stole an election in Season Two, and the show seemingly expected the audience to side with her. In Season Three, the fleet’s power apparatus goes out of its way to push Zarek out of the presidency and restore it to Roslin, without so much as another election or any way to validate it in the eyes of the people. And now, Zarek, a figure elected as Baltar’s vice president, lest we forget, pretty much abandons the separation of powers and just goes all in. To a real degree, this is less the writers not trusting democracy as it is making the assertion that those in power will tend to grab for more power, whether they think doing such a thing is altruistic in nature or not, but it’s no wonder the people of the fleet often seem suspicious of their civilian government, and I don’t think any of them will be surprised if the final handful of episodes simply features Roslin and Adama as some sort of unchecked leaders.
Speaking of Roslin, McDonnell got to do the commanding yelling thing she seemingly does better than anyone on television when she called out to Zarek, seemingly ready to go to war both to protect her fledgling alliance and as an act of revenge. (For that matter, Zarek seems to have an unwarranted amount of faith in Gaeta’s ability to carry out military operations if he’s willing to risk full-scale war with the Cylons all over again and test Gaeta’s ability to get the fleet through the encounter. Yet, he lies to try to push Adama and Roslin into impossible positions, telling each of them that people they care deeply about are dead, clearly trying to push their buttons. I’m not ENTIRELY sure of his play here, but I do know he likes being a jackass. So.) In general, McDonnell had a fine episode, keeping the Cylons from leaving and shattering the fragile peace (as well as leaving Adama and the other mutiny resistors without cover from the Basestar) and working out some of her aggression. The writers continue to play the “can he commit or not” game with Baltar, and it’s becoming a bit tiresome, but it’s a game Callis plays well, so I’m OK with it, especially as he seems to have had an epiphany while in the arms of yet another lovely Six (Tricia Helfer) he got into the sack.
The best work of the episode, on both the part of the actor and the writers, goes to Gaeta, though, who is given a somewhat predictable arc of having regrets but manages to make it somehow eerily redemptive—a redemption arc for a character who didn’t really need one, arrived at through having the character carry out very grave sins. Juliani plays Gaeta’s growing guilty conscience mostly silent, framed in tight close-ups by Rose, who seems to trust the actor’s face (Juliani doesn’t let him down, for the most part). Gaeta’s been waiting for a redemption for quite some time now, and he’s been acting out in some very interesting ways to get there, from leaving secrets to the New Caprica resistance to stabbing Baltar in the neck to perjuring himself to make sure Baltar would be executed (didn’t work), and that most of his attempts to win that redemption have come through doing very bad things is one of the show’s more sly commentaries on the natures of sacrifice and heroism.
Gaeta’s attempt to win redemption through the mutiny are unfounded, he suddenly realizes, but he tries to keep up the pretenses, tossing together a sham trial for Adama and trying to spare more bloodshed before his actions finally catch up with him. The resigned look on Gaeta’s face as Adama returns to seize control of the ship says it all, even as he realizes it will mean his end. The final two scenes, featuring Gaeta discussing his long-ago dreams of being an architect (fond of restaurants shaped like food) and then facing down a firing squad, suddenly realizing that the pain in his missing leg has disappeared (a bit writerly as a psychological device, but it worked so well here that I’ll allow it), an instant before he dies, were both intensely moving, and that’s saying something for a character who was a little ill-defined in the build-up to this arc. The best kind of character development on TV is that which throws seemingly disconnected actions by a character in the past into a new kind of relief, and these moments clarified much of Gaeta’s arc in Seasons Three and Four.
In general, it’s kind of a struggle to say much about this episode. There were moments that were as well-done as anything the show has attempted before (like the Quorum mass assassination and those shots of Adama’s army marching through the Galactica, which bristled with a kind of electricity), but, in general, this was an episode that went largely where you expected it to go, closing off the plot threads from “The Oath” and “A Disquiet Follows My Soul” ably but predictably. Predictability is not necessarily a bad thing in an episode like this (if Adama had suddenly sided with the traitors or something—which a lot of lesser shows might have tried—it would have been unpredictable but also bad writing), and the show, of course, was going to return to its status quo at some point.
While I’m expecting a bleak ending for the series, seeing the major players bumped off one by one while Gaeta and Zarek wander the cosmos (perhaps with Tyrol causing mischief in the engine room) and starting that ending this soon didn’t quite fit the show’s profile. There’s been some grumbling that everything’s right back to where it started before this coup arc, but that’s not necessarily true. Everyone’s seen just how far the bonds of this fragile society have been frayed, and just how unlikely they are to hold the next time. The fleet got lucky this time, but it’s not a given that everything will go right the next time. If there’s going to be any ray of sunlight at the end of the series (as the title of the series finale suggests), in true Battlestar fashion, it’s going to have to be earned through darkness.
Some other thoughts:
1. SPEAKING of lesser shows that have crazy-ass, out-of-character plot twists for little-to-no reason a lot of the time, I usually watch the week’s Damages while I put this piece together, and while watching it, I noticed that Katee Sackhoff, of all people, is going to be guest starring on Nip/Tuck, of all shows, as apparently, some sort of sexy plastic surgery enthusiast. I really like Sackhoff (I think she’s got one of the best faces to watch in television, a medium more dependent on faces than any other), and I appreciate her desire to get away from the ass-kicking (reportedly, she wants to do some rom-coms), but I’m not sure the show or the character (at least as promo’ed) are the right fit for her.
2. The pilot for the upcoming BSG prequel series Caprica is going to be available on DVD and various download sites in April, even though the series debuts in 2010. I’m deeply intrigued by Caprica, which sounds like it has huge potential for being absolutely awful but also sounds just crazy enough to work. I’m not sure I ever wanted to see something that aspires to be Falcon Crest with lengthy ruminations on the nature of sentient machines, but it looks like we’re all going to get it!
3. SPEAKING of Katee Sackhoff, I really hope that the Starbuck/Anders/Lee triangle doesn’t resolve with Anders dying (like Dee) so that Lee and Kara can skip off into the ever-after as each other’s ain true love. I have no problem with Kara and Lee ending up together, but if they do, Anders should at least be alive so that SOMEone can make them feel like shit.
4. I’m routinely amused by just how much the “Next week on Battlestar Galactica” promos give away. It’s like the Sci-Fi promo monkeys don’t know when to quit. They’re either being wackily misleading (“You’re one of the final five!”) or they’re giving away huge plot twists. When they say, “YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH,” they obviously mean because they’re going to spill it in some promo somewhere. (And if you’ve done any crawling of BSG vids online, you know that the Canadian teasers are EVEN WORSE. Nice work, Canada!)
5. Sadly, I missed the promos for this week’s Sci-Fi Channel original movie, but I DID catch the weird, pseudo-Grindhouse promo for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (an occasionally very good series) and Dollhouse (which, from all early accounts, sounds like that most frustrating thing of all—a problematic series with just enough potential to keep you watching). This looks to be a potentially fascinating evening of television, and Fox is really promoting the heck out of a Friday night (when was the last time THAT happened), but have pseudo-Grindhouse promos worked for ANYone? They didn’t even work for GRINDHOUSE.
6. Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) really got the short shrift in this coup trilogy, didn’t he? According to this report, that’s because he was off in LA, making another show (Dollhouse, probably), but it was still weird to see him relegated to the background in an arc that utilized pretty much every other regular in a smart way. (And that link is well worth reading for some insights from Angeli on stuff that was cut and the behind-the-scenes parts of the coup.)
7. For a side project I’ve been working on, I’ve been watching the 1989 Oscars (don’t ask), which was the year Olmos was nominated for best actor for his work in Stand and Deliver (he lost to Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man performance). I really think his characterization of Adama would be improved by having an unfortunate combover.