One of the smarter things I heard about the film Rachel Getting Married, my favorite of last year, is that in a lot of cases, most of the things that people who strongly disliked the film disliked about it are the sorts of things those who really liked the film liked about it. It’s the sort of thing where the exact same element can rub two people in very different ways for very different reasons. It’s not even about rejecting, say, a specific story element (as with the many who just lost it over the final third of No Country for Old Men); it’s about rejecting something that lies deep within what the film itself and the creative voices behind it were trying to do. And, in a way, that’s increasingly how I feel about the back half of the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica, which had its final non-finale hour tonight in “Islanded in a Stream of Stars,” written by Michael Taylor and directed by series star Edward James Olmos. There are going to be a lot of fans of the show who rail against everything it did in this episode, which is basically a long throat clearing before the big, three-hour ending, and I’m going to be hard pressed to disagree with them. But, as with so many prior hours this half-season, I liked a lot of what it was doing, even if it wasn’t an all-time classic episode of the series. So when you say, “But it was slow-moving and there were no ANSWERS and where is this all GOING?!” I guess I’ll just have to agree and say that those were some of the things I LIKED about it. And a lot of this gets to some fundamental issues with how we watch and criticize television.
To a real degree, I’m willing to give Battlestar a lot of slack because it’s a story still in search of an ending. If we get to the ending two weeks from now and it’s terrible, then a lot of hours that I was willing to go with in the process of watching the series (like this one) will seem that much more pointless and meandering in retrospect. On the other hand, if the finale ties up the story in a mostly satisfying way or does something that throws the rest of the series into a new relief (a la the daring Sopranos finale), then hours like this will feel like vital puzzle pieces, even if they weren’t. All that remains for Battlestar at this point is to stick the landing, and what I’ve seen of the series so far gives me confidence that the series will be able to do that. Perhaps you don’t share a similar confidence. Perhaps you’re a pessimist. To me, though, Ron Moore and his staff have earned that kind of faith.
This is one of the things that makes television so hard to criticize and makes it so easy to turn these reviews into plot recaps that just recall all of the threads in an episode without really delving into what made that episode tick. Yeah, we can tell it’s fairly important (from this vantage point) that Adama (Edward James Olmos) has made the decision to abandon the Galactica, but we can’t be sure at this point that, say, the Cylons capturing Hera or Baltar (James Callis) rattling on about angels (like his Head Six) will pay off in any real way. I’ve tended to subscribe to the idea that unless something is egregiously bad (like, say, when the writers randomly armed Baltar’s cult in “Deadlock”) then I’m willing to keep tabs on it but mostly let it slide until the finale. Because American TV primarily subscribes to the Western narrative ideal (the “three-act structure,” you might say), it makes it incredibly frustrating to talk about things in a way that MAKES SENSE. I’ve found all of the Baltar as messiah stuff pretty interesting so far, but I’m not sure there’s a way to clear the bar of just what the hell is going on in the finale that won’t be incredibly stupid and betray some of what the show has been about. So long as the show is holding its final hand, an episode like “Islanded in a Stream of Stars” can seem fascinatingly complex and full of character-based goodness. Once the cards are shown, though, we could realize just how readily we were all played.
In a way, the thing that’s made the back half of Season Four so hard to write about is that it’s, thematically, all about coming to an acceptance of death. The show has expressed this point both subtly and heavyhandedly, but it has barely wavered from this conceit throughout. Even the action-movie paced coup diptych ended up having a buried arc about Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) struggling to come to terms with everything that had happened to him, only paid off in the split second before he was killed. Battlestar has always been a series about survival, about the things you’re willing to do to just get through another day as a member of a species knowing that death could be around any corner and that the meaning of life won’t necessarily be palling around with it. Battlestar’s first three-and-a-half seasons were all about people struggling to live, to realize their very existences to the fullest. But once that was all shown to be a lie (since Earth was an uninhabitable wasteland), the show became about a bunch of people casting about for a reason not to die. The shift is, in some ways, a profound one, and it’s an excellent postscript to a war story (so many war stories, after all, conclude back home, where the soldiers realize how utterly they have been changed by the experience), but because it’s a TV series, this postscript is also taking 11 hours of our time to examine things like the eternal love of the Tighs (Michael Hogan and Kate Vernon) or Starbuck’s (Katee Sackhoff) quest to understand just who she is and just how much she’s changed. It’s been fitfully great, some of the best television I’ve ever seen, but it’s also been rudderless and almost too depressing to bear by design. Again, if those are things you simply don’t want to sign up for, I don’t blame you, but they’re also the things impressing me about the audacity of what the show is doing.
“Islanded” is, again, not the best episode of the show ever (of this half-season, it’s probably only better than “Deadlock”), but it’s still very good, willing to turn the imminent death of the Galactica into a rumination on how everything ends. The episode had its inconsistencies (Adama’s breakdown over the death of Starbuck in season three’s “Maelstrom” was terrific, but his similar breakdown here—throwing paint against a wall?—was a case of the show trying to replicate a well it’s gone to before and just coming up short), but it also had its flashes of brilliance, from a callback to “Unfinished Business” (my pick for best Battlestar ever) with Adama and Roslin (Mary McDonnell) toking up at her hospital bed and ruing the life they’ll never get to lead together to Starbuck accosting Baltar while she’s on the can. The episode’s one action sequence, which comes near the top, is well-staged and not the sort of thing the show has done before, involving as it does the massive tear in the ship’s hull sucking a bunch of workmen trying to repair it out into the void, and the closing passage, of Adama and Tigh realizing the ship must be abandoned, was an understated bookend to that sequence.
It would be easy to be a little ambivalent about the idea of the Galactica slowly crumbling into dust in a way that threatens the people inside of it. The idea of sheer loyalty to a SHIP is probably madness to everyone in the audience who’s never served in the military (the love of a kid for his or her first car doesn’t seem to even come close to the sheer passion Adama feels for the Galactica). The whole thing kind of reeks of the series finale of Little House on the Prairie, of all things (where—spoiler alert—they BLEW UP THE TOWN OF WALNUT GROVE; it was the best finale ever), and it’s just one of those things where you can understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing but still can’t get into their headspace. I think, though, you have to approach the idea of the Galactica as a grander metaphor for the people in the fleet itself. It started out as outmoded and quirky in its detail. It certainly wasn’t the ideal battleship. However, the people crewing it, from a drunken XO to a manic-depressive hotshot pilot to a president with absolutely no idea how to lead, were similarly outmoded and quirky. The Galactica, in some ways, is the show’s most ever-changing character. It has been threat, safe haven, cumbersome bucket of bolts and ungainly monstrosity. Now, however, it’s falling apart completely, even as virtually everyone protected by it or living on it is similarly falling apart. (Save, of course, Lee (Jamie Bamber), who has mostly disappeared in these episodes and seems, whenever we see him, to be living the end of days up—tonight, he actually seems to proposition Starbuck, whose husband is in a coma! Smooth!) And when the ship is finally “put down” in the finale, can there be any doubt that it will take many of these characters with it? Seen in this light, the creaking, dying Galactica, lights flickering in and out (in a nicely eerie effect), groaning loudly in the depths of space, is not just a plot device, but a metaphor that ties the whole of “Islanded,” indeed, the whole of this half-season, together.
The episode, after all, features Baltar finally telling Starbuck that, yes, she died but then she apparently came back from the dead. (She can only slap him in a response some are reading as out-of-character, though I think it shows that she really did want the knowledge out there to some degree and held the full brunt of her potential fury.) It features an elliptically edited funeral for the victims of the hull accident. It takes us to the last hope of the Cylons for resurrection technology (which, my wife accurately points out, looks weirdly like Ursula’s lair from The Little Mermaid), as Boomer (Grace Park) delivers Hera to Cavil (Dean Stockwell). It even shows us Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) and Athena’s (Grace Park) marriage on the brink of ruin in the wake of Helo seriously letting his guard down and his tearful request that Adama allow him to take a raptor out to look for his daughter. Everyone’s on the brink of some major life changes (a la the Death card in Tarot), and the show even breaks out Adama and Tigh’s matching twin sons for the second time this half-season, when Adama’s dead son had mostly been forgotten since season one.
Olmos’ direction of the series has always been steeped in religious iconography. Sadly, he didn’t get as much of that to play with here, but he managed to work it in around the edges. Starbuck, for example, wondering if she’s one of Baltar’s miraculous angels, was framed by almost ethereal light while stepping into the room where her husband (Michael Trucco) was plugged into the Cylon network to try to reboot his brain and then completely bathed in fuzzy, pixellated red once she stepped into the room, going from hope to Hell in short order. As Baltar speaks of his angels, also, Head Six (Tricia Helfer) turns up, grinning malevolently while he tries to shave, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. Olmos has always been one of the series’s most interesting directors (he was at the reins of Season Three’s exemplary “Taking a Break from All Your Worries,” which is simply rife with religious imagery), so it was a bit of a pity to see him get an episode that didn’t play fully to his strengths, though he made the most of things like the funeral sequence, turning it into an overlapping series of grief-laden vignettes rather than anything too straight-up.
It’s all dependent on the finale at this point, though. “Islanded” was a solid episode in the moment (though, again, I expect most of you to patently disagree in comments), but whether or not it plays as a nice setup for the series’s final hours or one last disappointment before the biggest disappointment of all is entirely reliant on everything working out in the weeks to come. They’ve just gotta stick the landing.
Some other thoughts:
• There were a lot of nice little moments built into the episode tonight that the series has been building to for quite a while. For some reason, I thought that this was the first time Baltar had seen Caprica Six since the miniseries, though, obviously, he spent much of Season Three wandering the cosmos with her, so that was inaccurate. Still, showing just how much both characters had changed, how much Baltar longed to take care of her now (she seems to be the angel—the one he most loved—he’s talking about, anyway), how much she longed to have nothing to do with him, was a powerful way to remind us of the growth of all of the characters on this show over the years.
• I haven’t praised the VFX team on the show at all this half-season, and tonight proved how remiss I was in not doing so. They’ve mostly been backgrounded (probably due to budgetary reasons) for this handful of episodes, but tonight featured a lot of really stunning composites, mostly on Boomer’s voyage back to Cavil. The use of a handful of shots showing the gradual repair of the hull to both drive home the inevitability of death concept and show the passage of time also paid great credit to their skills.
• My DVR didn’t tape 24 this week for reasons you don’t care to hear, so I’m watching it on Hulu while writing this piece, instead of watching it while doing my Lost piece. Suffice it to say that the TWO-HOUR EVENT was the best the series has been in a while, even if that means it was mostly just a dumb-fun action movie, with occasional bizarre political posturing thrown in. (I would quite honestly be fine with the show just going back to torturing absolutely every character if that meant it would stop constantly coming up with ridiculous object lessons to show why Torture Is OK, See?)
• A friend was lamenting that Bear McCreary, the show’s composer, wasn’t pulling together all of his musical themes in the final handful of episodes. No sooner did he say that than the Starbuck/Anders scenes tonight saw the return of the “Promise to Return” theme from when the two first met. SO THERE, LOGAN.
• I really would rather not see the series end with Starbuck and Lee just blithely running off together (as previously mentioned), so I sure HOPE something wakes Anders up, even if I enjoyed seeing Trucco handle the wacky Hybrid dialogue, particularly quoting the lyrics to “Hole in My Bucket.”
• Things I hope the show manages to pull into some grand, unified theory of BSG (probably by revealing who’s pulling the strings) in the finale: Cylon projection and what it means, Baltar’s seeming prophetic abilities, Starbuck and Hera being tapped into ... something, the idea of Cylons only being able to conceive while in love, the assorted “Head” players (probably THE biggest question still hanging over the show), what Starbuck is, what happened to Daniel, the opera house. Percentage of those things I actually expect to be adequately made sense of: about 50%, give or take. Things the finale will probably spend a lot of time talking about for no discernable reason: the eternal love of the Tighs, Adama’s love for the ship.
• After the series is over, James Callis should come up with a creepy AM radio religious program, the sort you might tune into on a hazy summer night while you’re driving around the middle of nowhere.