Flirting in its every minute with being dangerously overstuffed, Battlestar Galactica’s second episode of its fourth season, “Six of One,” sets what must be all of the remaining plot wheels for the series’ end game in motion. Now, any episode that lets James Callis’ Gaius Baltar discuss the seduction of a woman with himself (literally) can’t be all bad, and the sheer pace of “Six of One” is often thrilling, but I do worry that the series will feel such a need to send all of its plot threads rushing to their conclusions that it will abandon some of the more lyrical and human moments that gave the series such power in its first three seasons. Still, falling into the headlong rush of a plot that’s pushing ever forward can be fun every once in a while, and episode writer Michael Angeli and director Anthony Hemingway do find room for a few grace notes here and there.
One of the bigger criticisms that could be leveled against the third season of the series was that individual episodes would occasionally abandon the rich, textured ensemble for episodes that would follow one character or another around through rather strained stand-alone adventures. The series made its name with episodes where dozens of things would be happening all at once, the characters rushing through storyline after storyline, tested to their very bones by the situations they found themselves in. While some of these character studies offered insights that were valuable (the lost-love/boxing mashup “Unfinished Business” remains one of my favorite episodes of the series), there was a decided sense that the loss of the ever-driving plot killed some of the momentum. If, in these first two episodes, Battlestar has pushed a bit too far in the other direction, it’s also found space for some of the personal stuff it was experimenting with last season.
Take the entire midsection of “Six of One,” a marvelous collection of small, character scenes (which, on a rewatch, almost seem to disprove my overstuffed thesis) that hook intelligently into each other and lay the groundwork for future moments in the episode. The section begins with a scene where newly-realized Cylon Tory (Rekha Sharma) gently probes at the edges of what Baltar knows, dancing around the question of whether she’ll go to bed with him to figure out if he might know who the final Cylon model is (and it really doesn’t make sense that the Cylons assume the final model will be someone they all know, but, then, maybe they all assume they’re in a television series where the identity of the final model will be teased out for maximum dramatic impact). Right in the middle of this scene, another Baltar pops up—specifically, the one that hangs out in Six’s (Tricia Helfer) head, similar to how she pops up in Baltar’s consciousness—completely throwing Baltar and introducing a note of ridiculous unease to the scene. Sharma, who’s often just sort of been there in previous episodes, gamely goes along with the terrific Callis (barely in this episode but making a mark with this scene—one of the best in the series history), who turns the whole sequence into something pitched at a middle ground between comic and terrifying (when Tory leaves and he wheels on his double with a “Who the frak are you?” it’s a perfectly realized moment).
But I said much about Callis last week. Later on in this midsection, the rest of the series’ cast gets a chance to shine, particularly Edward James Olmos as Adama and Mary McDonnell as Roslin. Sidelined for much of the third season, the two have been integral to these first two episodes and find themselves debating whether or not Roslin should have killed Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) when she had the chance and whether or not Starbuck’s survival when Roslin fired on her from a point-blank range (shades of Pulp Fiction) is at all miraculous. Though the conversation at first dances around the idea that Starbuck is a Cylon and that Roslin’s inability to hit Starbuck may have indicated doubt (or, perhaps, a high dosage of the cancer medication she was taking), the two are soon tearing into each other in the way that only two people who are very good friends and know each other very well can do. Roslin blames Adama’s unwillingness to dismiss Starbuck’s notions that she knows the way to Earth out of hand as just another symptom of his fatherly affection for his pilots (which has been exacerbated by the dwindling numbers of pilots since the Cylon apocalypse that began the series)—he’s more willing to follow Starbuck down into destruction than risk losing her again, while Roslin says that she can take a clear-eyed view of the situation. Adama lashes back at her, saying that she’s perhaps too desperate to be the dying leader who finds Earth, that she rather fetishizes her status as a perpetual patient. The two deeply wound each other, and a well-scripted scene really takes off when in the mouths of Olmos and McDonnell, who find the meaty subtext and gnaw away at it.
All of that is followed up by a loose trio of scenes where Lee Adama (Jamie Bamber) casts off the moniker of Apollo and his status as a pilot and major to go into the civilian field of the law (spurred on by his unlikely triumph in last season’s trial of Baltar). He first says farewell to Starbuck, the woman he’s befriended, loved and lost over the course of the series, letting her know that he believes her and that he’s still with her (Bamber and Sackhoff can be overbearing with some of the other actors—witness some of Sackhoff’s outbursts early in this episode, which occasionally push too hard—but they’re always note perfect with each other). After a passionate kiss, he goes into the briefing room, where he so often took the pilots through the missions they would be flying. Battlestar’s love of physical spaces—of command rooms and small dormitories and hangars—is well-used here, as Lee wanders the space, snippets of old conversations running through his head; it could have been overbearingly sentimental, but it isn’t. From there, Lee enters the hangar to find that all of the others have gathered to wish him well as he leaves the military (from the pomp and circumstance, it is almost as if Bamber were leaving the series proper, which he isn’t). It is another scene that pushes the edges of being too sentimental (especially when combined with the one immediately preceding), but something about it (perhaps the actors) keeps it tethered, even as Lee bids a temporary farewell to his wife (Kandyse McClure). An earlier scene also utilizes the story of Lee leaving the military well, as he launches into a drunken toast that never quite gets off the ground (in the way drunken toasts rarely do) before it concludes on a silent salute to friends who could not be there (always, Battlestar acknowledges the specter of death).
I don’t mean to imply that the episode is a long series of character moments, because all of these scenes together probably only add up to ten minutes of screen time (if that). A good deal more attention is paid to Starbuck’s constant screaming that the fleet is headed the wrong way, leaving Earth in the rearview mirror, as it were, toward a brewing conflict between the Cylons. This includes Boomer (Grace Park) leaving the others of her model to vote against them, something apparently unprecedented in Cylon history (“They’re doing stories about superdelegates now?” my wife asked). The bigger, brassier sequences in the episode certainly take place on the Cylon basestar, particularly a final sequence where a pair of Cylon centurions, at the behest of a Number Six, mow down a number of other Cylons. It is a horrific sequence, conveying all the terrifying drama of a massacre almost wordlessly, even as the very notion sort of doesn’t make sense (won’t all of these Cylons just resurrect soon enough anyway?). An earlier introduction to our return to the Cylon basestar is rather less well-conceived, consisting of a constant series of dissolves as the Hybrid (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight) babbles on about the identities of the final five and Cavil (Dean Stockwell) apparently watches one of the Number Eights twirl about in an impression of a music box dancer.
If this particular recap seems recappier than usual, it’s perhaps because the episode itself feels, even more than the premiere, like an episode designed to set up the plot lines that will keep the season’s wheels in motion (Baltar will draw Tory into a position where she opens up to her Cylon-ness, inadvertently; Starbuck and Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) will go on a voyage to find Earth in a sewer freighter; the Cylons’ civil war will spill throughout their society). While it introduces some interesting thematic elements (especially in regards to the Cylons’ relationship with their metal ancestors), it is also very much an episode where the series puts all of its pieces on the board. With all of this plot-shifting, the episode seems to move quickly and doesn’t leave a lot of room for introspection, which is why it’s necessary to play up that handful of scenes in the middle of the episode where the series’ characters confront one another anew. Despite its detours into strange places, Battlestar has always had a bit of a feel of a big, shaggy-dog science fiction novel, and in scenes like the ones between Adama and Roslin and Starbuck and Lee, it’s easy to feel the growing sense of finality as the series heads toward its close. The action in “Six of One” is necessary to get us headed toward Earth and the series’ end, but the smaller moments are necessary too, so we don’t feel gypped when we get there.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.