“Daybreak, Part 2,” the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, is about as audacious and ambitious a piece of television as I’ve ever seen. There’s basically no way the episode doesn’t end up being deeply polarizing (and, indeed, it already is), but outside of a few small moments, I found it pretty tremendous, first a fittingly epic action ending and then a sweet and enigmatic series of character endings. I suspect, as seems to often be the case with this show, that what I liked about the episode will end up driving the rage of those who hated it, but, as always, it really does come down to whether you’re more interested in watching the show for the characters or for the mythology. If you’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to figure out how discontinued Cylon model Daniel fits into things, you were probably sorely disappointed. If you’ve been spending the last few weeks, however, trying to figure out how the writers were going to close off the problematic Baltar (James Callis) character arc, then you were probably deeply satisfied. “I know about farming,” indeed.
(And I know we say it every week, but we really, really mean it this week. I’m going to spoil the hell out of this below the jump, so abandon this review unless you’ve seen the thing.)
I suspect what’s going to drive most of the anger over this finale is the fact that episode writer (and series mastermind) Ron Moore pretty much just issues a blanket “God did it!” to answer many of the series’s biggest questions. To be perfectly honest, I wrestled with whether this was an elegant way to close off the series’s obsession with mysticism or whether it was just a deus ex machina that served to cover up the fact that the series didn’t know the answers to some of its questions when it started and had built those questions up to such a degree that no answer would be satisfying. What tipped me over to the former, actually, was two things: the description of God as a force of nature and Head Baltar saying in the episode’s final scene that God “doesn’t like to be called that.” In a weird way, this avoided making God too much of a writerly conceit or an actual deus ex machina. It brought him, somehow, more down to Earth and suggested that, perhaps, he was of some other species, just hoping that some other species would get past its growing pains so someone would finally evolve enough to give him someone to talk to. To that end, he’s shepherding over and over and over and over and maybe this time (with us, specifically), he’s on the verge of getting it right. Battlestar has always had a weird strain of Gnosticism running through it (particularly in Baltar’s sermons), so the notion of God as a sometimes altruistic and sometimes destructive force that operates independently and can never be fully comprehended by our characters managed to plug into the series mythos fairly well.
It would be one thing if God had never been involved in the series and it took a late left turn into murky New Age mysticism in the last half-season, but God has always been in the details on Battlestar, like it or not. To a real degree, God has filled in for the technobabble Moore has often proselytized against. So, to that end, I’m not sure this WAS a classic deus ex machina (wherein the gods save the protagonist by, essentially, appearing out of nowhere). “Daybreak” was about a series of characters who end up staring into the face of the divine and, like Moses, have to turn away because they can’t fully comprehend it. Baltar’s perhaps on to something when he says that they’ve all experienced it but can’t quite understand it, but even he is unable to fully articulate what’s going on. I can see where that would seem frustrating, but it’s also in keeping with the series’s penchant for mixing up its relatively hard-SF setting with a weird, fundamentalist religious bent. (In this way, the “God” revelation recalls the series’s constant statement that the Cylons had a plan. The Cylons DID have a plan. It just didn’t really work out, and they had to keep improvising. That we’re dissatisfied with this suggests, ultimately, that we’re less willing to go along with loose ends all over the place in the science fiction genre—which is predicated, after all, on the idea that everything is explicable—than we would be in other genres. The finales for The Shield and, especially, The Sopranos had copious loose ends, but neither attracted the kind of grousing I’m already seeing on message boards.)
The “God did it!” portions of that first hour aside, I’m having trouble thinking of how big fans of the show would be disappointed in said hour. Everything that happened in that first hour of tonight’s episode (actually the middle hour of the finale proper) felt like the kind of action payoff the series has been promising for a long time. Battlestar has mostly eschewed huge space battles over the years, usually choosing to have said battles sputter out as quickly as they start or be averted through last-minute diplomacy. This has especially been the case in the fourth season, where every other episode felt like it SHOULD conclude with a massive space battle only to have the show GO OUT OF ITS WAY to avoid said space battles. (To my recollection, the only actual space dogfighting occurs in the season premiere, “He That Believeth in Me,” which aired almost a year ago.) It would seem that this was all because “Daybreak” had the series’s largest action sequence make up the entirety of its middle section, combining as it did all the space dogfighting you could ask for with the Galactica materializing directly in front of the Cylon colony, the big ships’ guns blasting at each other and various Galactica personnel making their way through the maze of corridors in both ships in pursuit of young Hera, whose rescue was the object of the mission.
For a while, I was concerned that the action sequence’s geography was completely inexplicable. Aside from the opening shots of the Galactica appearing right next to the colony, the subsequent shots of guns blazing and ships launching to do battle felt too chaotic by half. But episode director Michael Rymer kept slowly expanding our focus from the tight, docudrama style framing that has been the series’s hallmark to take a more epic view of what was going on as more and more of Adama’s (Edward James Olmos) ultimate plan was revealed. This was the show’s biggest action sequence since the marvelous Galactica-dropping-into-the-atmosphere moments of Season Three’s “Exodus, Part 2,” and this episode mirrored that one by never having Adama spell out his plan for the audience, choosing instead to let us see the plan as it unfolded without a hitch until Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) got shot in the leg, Athena (Grace Park) stopped to help him, and Hera raced off, leading to everything almost falling apart. The episode also made good use of the long sequence of all of the units checking in with Tigh (Michael Hogan) to set up that Lee (Jamie Bamber) was HERE and Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) was HERE and Roslin (Mary McDonnell) was down in the sick bay and so on. This made it clear how the characters were split into smaller factions, which allowed the later explication of the plan coming together to work as seamlessly as possible.
But, really, there was just so much great, geeky STUFF going on in that whole middle hour that I’m tempted to just list all of it. (I mean, they had Centurions fighting each other! Awesome!) The final five using Anders (Michael Trucco) to override the other Cylon hybrids ended up being an inspired choice and brought back one of my favorite incidental characters. Boomer (Park, again) twisting Simon’s (Rick Worthy, an excellent actor who never got enough to do on the show when he was on) neck when she finally turned on Cavil (Dean Stockwell) and rescued Hera was a nice little moment for her, as was her final sacrifice when she turned the kid over to her mother (dignified by the show with a flashback to the heady days of season one, when she was still struggling to come to terms with who she really was). Hell, I even liked Baltar and Caprica Six (Tricia Helfer) looking over at their respective angel/demon/things and realizing that each had been plagued with one for so long. And I REALLY liked the arrival of Baltar, Six and Hera into the CIC, where things had obviously gone very, very wrong but we only saw the very tail end of it with Adama gritting it out and the blood of Cylon and human alike on the floor.
There’s some consternation over how chaotically the storyline ended, with Tigh and Cavil coming to a truce (Hera’s return to the fleet in exchange for the final five sharing the secret of resurrection with the Cylons) that was just as quickly undone by Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) realizing that Tory (Rekha Sharma) had killed his wife so, so long ago and interrupting the download of the resurrection intel to the Cylons so he could remove his hands from Anders’ goo-bath and murder her. Yeah, it might have been nice to see the humans and Cylons come to a truce, but would anyone have believed it was going to last when it was formed on as shaky a foundation as that? The sudden twist of having Tory’s duplicity revealed (even if it was too quickly telegraphed by having her say, “Hey, let’s let bygones be bygones huh?” nervously before sticking her hands in the goo) worked for me because there’s never going to be any such thing as a lasting peace for these characters or these races. On a purely structural level, I was tickled by just how long the show sat on that reveal (I had mostly put it out of my head until Tory’s line mentioned above). Most other shows would have dealt with that within a couple episodes of it happening. And it all concluded with the dual destiny hammer of Racetrack’s (Leah Cairns) corpse’s hand just happening to slip and hit the button to launch the nukes that took out the Cylon colony and THEN Starbuck knowing just how to enter the coordinates to get everyone to Earth. Only, this time, it was OUR Earth.
And here’s where I started to worry the episode was going to lose me. The reveal that Earth was a bombed out wasteland in “Revelations” had struck me as one of the series’s strongest moments, and reducing the fleet to utter despair in the wake of that revelation was the kind of gutsy decision the show was famous for making. (Actually, at first, I thought that there were two identical planets in the universe, one bombed-out and the other lush and new and with prehistoric humans wandering its savannahs, which would have been too preposterous for even me, but a quick revisit of “Revelations” confirms that the show played fair. We never actually see enough of dead Earth to prove conclusively that it’s our Earth. It’s just HEAVILY SUGGESTED.) But that ended up being the right idea from a storytelling point of view, since it left the audience thinking that any new home for the characters would be an improbable ray of hope, so, of course, that improbable ray of hope ended up being what we always thought it would be, arrived at after we had mostly forgotten it even existed.
From there, the series settled into a long series of perhaps slightly TOO indulgent goodbyes, hinged on the premise that the characters would fly all of their technology into our sun and then settle down as best they could among the natives and slowly, over the generations, lose the idea of who they had been. Obviously, there probably could have been more debate over Lee’s crazy idea of everyone just giving up their tech (the final hour seems to randomly turn technology into the enemy until you really think about what the episode is trying to get at), and I’m not sure everyone would go along with it just that easily, but it DID make a kind of internal sense. After so long wandering the wilds of space (the three-hour finale opens with a shot of the entire friggin’ Milky Way with good reason), I can buy that enough people would just be content to settle down on that impossibly green and blue world (seriously, have we EVER looked that lush and verdant?) and frolic through what appeared to be the default desktop wallpaper from Windows XP for the rest of time that they’d pretty much do whatever Lee said. I also get that Moore didn’t want to turn the final hour into some sort of hamhanded “Technology: Yes or no?” debate, but the sudden jump to “We shall fly our ships into the sun!” ended up too quickly jumping to the “no” side of the question and added to the sense that technology was being demonized, however inadvertently. On the other hand, they still have enough knowledge for now to at least build houses for themselves, to dig into the earth and grow things, to survive at a level above that of the hunter-gatherers around them. (And that final, lyrical passage of Anders flying the fleet into the Sun was just beautifully done by the VFX team, as was the shot of the Centurions heading off in the basestar to whatever awaited them.)
But no matter, because the character stuff down on our Earth was just gorgeously done on all levels, and it finally incorporated the flashbacks that had been interspersed throughout the three hours in a way that made them seem less like fascinating episode padding and more like the proper sendoff for the characters the show had always been about. Last week, these flashbacks struck many as indulgent. While I didn’t share in those concerns, I could definitely see where some would have them. The final two hours (even that action-packed middle hour had some of this material in it) more properly placed all of that in the context of the idea that this story is about these people and we’re going to see how they got started on the journey that led them to the Galactica (Roslin joins a presidential campaign; Adama rejects a cushy office job to go back to being a commander; Lee and Starbuck almost have sex but are interrupted by his brother/her fiancée sleeping on the couch; etc.). Too often, characters in TV shows or in science fiction works take on a too easily acquired mythic status. This can be one of the things people like about science fiction or about television, but Battlestar has always been careful to undercut that. If nothing else, these flashbacks serve as the ultimate reminder that for all of their moments of brilliance and bravado, these people are still just people, and their journeys have been full of pain and heartache.
And all of those flashbacks had a mirroring scene in the final hour that, once again, made them feel much more significant in the show’s structure as a whole. Anders talked about perfection, his smile lighting up the screen, right before he flew the ships into the sun. Tigh and Ellen (Kate Vernon) mused about the idea that they might just get some time to be together right before they finally had world enough and time. Adama, bristling at having to take a lie detector test, rejected the cushy desk job that would result, then finally found a few small moments of peace on a new world with the woman he loved. Roslin, of course, was finally able to let go of her inner strength (that she had drawn upon in the wake of her family’s death) and just ... pass on gently in a beautiful little scene. (And while we’re handing out acting awards, check out Olmos and McDonnell in that scene where they’re watching the gazelles. Both are absolute perfection.)
I’ve made much of my desire to know what Starbuck had returned as in the last few weeks, but I found the show’s complete non-answer perversely perfect. It was clear that SHE had found the answer for herself (the look of peace on her face at the end was a new look for the character, and Sackhoff played it beatifically), and that ended up being enough for me. Again, the flashbacks helped, as we learned that her ever-present flirtation with death had been around long before the days chronicled in the series and that her greatest desire, to not be forgotten, would be realized, as she passed into mythology. Making the character a Christ figure and then having her just disappear (again, similarly to Christ) in the blink of an eye is going to enrage plenty of people who were hoping for a more concrete answer, but, as stated, I thought it worked, staying just enough on this side of concrete to keep it from being TOO ambiguous. She had fulfilled her purpose, and now, whomever sent her back was calling her home. (As Maureen Ryan points out, it’s hard not to watch that scene of Adama, Lee and Starbuck walking through the leafy green expanse of Earth and not see it as a kind of Holy Trinity analogue, though in this case, it’s the son who is left to bear witness, not the holy ghost.)
And, good God, then there’s Baltar, the character the writers often had no idea what to do with through the back half of this season. (I’ll go along with Moore’s assertion that Baltar had to be put in charge of his cult just so he could start to accept the role of the divine, but I REALLY HAVE NO IDEA why they ended up being so politically powerful OR why they were just randomly given guns back in “Deadlock.” I guess the writers just wanted to give Callis shit to do. Which is no big deal, since he’s so great, but it still would have been cool if it had, y’know, MADE SENSE.) “Daybreak” probably did the most to right his character more than any other. His flashbacks showed just what sort of person he was running away from becoming (his feisty farmer father), while his storyline—of joining the mission to rescue Hera and brokering the uneasy truce with Cavil—was the first time he’s been well-utilized since “The Hub.” His scenes with Six, though, threaded throughout the episode, putting a capper on a relationship that has always burbled away in the corner of the show and managing to make their reconciliation seem believable. And, ye gods, his breakdown after saying “I know about farming” was worth four seasons of deception and writerly indecision.
Baltar (or, at least, the “Head” version of him) also figures into the coda, which leaps 150,000 years in the future to the present (and now I feel sort of silly for saying only Lost would have a title card like “Thirty Years Earlier”; thanks a lot, BSG!). As Head Six reads over the shoulder of Ron Moore himself about humanity’s earliest known common ancestor (who turns out to be Hera, natch), she and Baltar commiserate about how our world has approached a level similar to the one the Capricans had reached, that we are on some sort of precipice wherein we might be smote or we might be spared. The robot montage that follows is a little goofy (and also inadvertently contributes to the sense that Moore has suddenly decided all technology is evil), but the pan from two homeless people past a racecar over to the screen displaying the robots is telling, I think. The homeless, forgotten by a society moving faster and faster, and the race car, which was impressive to many just 50 years ago but is now passé, are both symbols of a world that is constantly pressing forward, rarely stopping to ask just where the hell the end point is. The perhaps overly literal coda of the episode suggests that, yeah, we COULD end up like the Galactica folks, but we don’t HAVE to. We just have to stop and take a look at the things we’re passing by. For all the talk of God and destiny in the series, there’s plenty of free will to go around still, or so it would seem. And then as “All Along the Watchtower” (of course) blares the two angel/demon/things walk off into the Times Square crowd, gradually swallowed up by the mass of humanity (or, more properly, human/Cylon hybrids), until we can just barely see the platinum blonde head of Six amidst the crowd. And then she’s gone. Considering how prominently Helfer has featured in the show’s advertising, it’s about as good a visual metaphor for the end of a TV series as I think I’ve seen.
As I attempt to put a cap on not only “Daybreak,” which has so much in it that I’ll be unpacking in the months and years to come, but on the whole series (a series I will dearly, dearly miss, even if it aggravated me to no end from time to time), I am struck by just how Jungian it all ended up being. “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again” is as good a pop cult explanation of the collective unconsciousness as I’ve ever heard, and if we accept that the Galactica crew met and mingled with our ancient ancestors, then the series’s constant mashup of assorted classical literature and religious reference points takes on an even more amusing spin, as we imagine that these storylines were passed on to our ancestors and eventually took form in new shapes, arising again and again, the rough edges hammered off, until we had the myths and legends we now take for granted. Similarly, the power of Battlestar has always stemmed from just how much it seems like it has arisen, wholly formed, out of some primordial part of ourselves, as though it was just the show we needed at just the time we needed it. Much has been made of the show’s embrace of major social themes and plot points that recalled current events, but it also combined a heady brew of pulp fiction, religious mysticism and solid character drama. It closed with a note of hope, with a few moments of hard-earned grace. This ending, rooted as it is, so heavily, in our ideas of ourselves is somehow perfect. They aren’t people “just like us.” They ARE us.
Some other thoughts before we cross the 4,000 word mark:
• Seriously, if you didn’t much like last week’s “Daybreak, Part 1,” rewatch it with “Part 2.” It makes all the difference in the world towards making “Part 1” work. The episodes were written as a two-hour movie event, Moore says, and not intended to be split up like that.
• It seems like I pay homage to these folks every week, but composer Bear McCreary and the VFX team headed up by Gary Hutzel turned in awesome, awesome work as always. I really, literally don’t think I’ve seen anything on TV quite like that second hour, which looked like the most expensive thing in the history of the medium and put all other VFX sequences on the small screen to shame. It was suitably epic, something you can’t say about much TV with a straight face.
• I am TV-less for the time being (meaning my Big Love review—how much overlap IS there between those of you who read these reviews and those of you who read the BL reviews?—is probably going to be fairly late), so I was happy to attend a screening of the show at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The show still blows up incredibly well on a big screen, and that really highlighted the terrific quality of the VFX work, which didn’t look cheesy on the big screen at all.
• Pleasantly unexpected in the episode: the amount of laughs. From Starbuck asking Athena not to tell Boomer the plan to Tigh yelling enthusiastically for strippers, this had more goofy moments than you might think.
• We did get a couple pretty definitive answers on a few points, and I think I was most satisfied with the reveal that the opera house was a kind of road map for how all of the characters involved would have to behave to get Hera to safety.
• I’m a LITTLE unclear on just why Hera was ultimately so important. She, obviously, led the fleet to our Earth indirectly and ended up being our ancestor or something (and I guess those are both pretty important things), but I’m still not sure why she was just so important in the show’s mythos. Still, I loved seeing her walking along between Athena and Helo, whom I had just assumed was dead, until he showed up with his awesome walking stick.
• As much as I’m glad the show came to a definitive end, a small part of me would have loved to have seen a fifth season about the misadventures of President Romo Lampkin.
• Seriously, Sci-Fi? SyFy?
• I guess the science fiction version of Chekhov’s gun didn’t really hold true here. I’ve long maintained that if you introduce a black hole in the first act, someone’s plunging into it in act three, and no one really did here, unless you count the detritus of the ruined Cylon colony, but that’s boring.
• And, on a personal note, when I first talked with Matt Zoller Seitz about recapping Battlestar Galactica for The House, he thought it was a great idea. “I don’t think that show gets the kind of intelligent discussion that its fans want and deserve,” I paraphrased him saying. In the early days of the job, I was incredibly nervous about doing it, but it’s become something I’ve really enjoyed, and I’ve really enjoyed talking with all of you over the last 40 episodes or so. I may return to blog “The Plan” this fall, and you can always read my Big Love, Breaking Bad and Lost recaps, if you’re so inclined, but if this is the end of the line for you, I appreciate your thoughts and your comments and your e-mails over the years. Writing about this show has been a tremendous privilege, and so has been talking with all of you. If you’ve got a question or if you just want to talk, feel free to e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or talk at me on Facebook. It’s been a great run, and you folks are a big reason for that. See you around.