A friend recently, at my prompting, began watching Battlestar Galactica through from the beginning. “Hey,” he MSNed me a few days later. “You’ll never guess who my favorite character is!” After discussing the relative awesomeness of Baltar, Starbuck and Roslin in roughly that order, he then admitted, “Well, it’s Cally.” This kind of threw me for a loop. Y’see, fans HATE Cally. Hate her with a white-hot, burning passion. It would be easy enough to list all of the reasons, but let’s zero in on the number one reason for just a second here, a reason that pops up all the time when it comes to fans of anything hating one character or another (usually, in a sadly sexist fashion, when they’re females): Cally is whiny. She’s every character in every war movie who starts out the film wondering why they got involved in the first place and then learns along the way about the Greater Good and things like that. While Cally believed in the cause she was fighting for and hated the Cylons like a good human, she was still pretty pissed about all of the ways it affected her.
But what my friend said threw me because, y’see, I like Cally too. A lot.
And it’s not just because Nicki Clyne, the actress who portrays her, has a terrifically unreadable face that’s fascinating to puzzle out. It’s also not just because Clyne, all things considered, is pretty adorable and once briefly featured in a New Pornographers video (I swear). Cally was certainly a hard character to like, particularly on a show with more fascinatingly complicated female heroes like Roslin and Starbuck, but Clyne and the writers’ dedication to making Cally as unlikable as she could be, as relentlessly unhappy about the things that happened to her, seemed somehow perversely brave to me. Marriages on this show remain strange and opaque (there’s often more passion in extramarital affairs in the fleet), but the marriage between Cally and Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) was even more frustratingly opaque. Sure, we knew Cally had always loved Tyrol from afar, but they only hooked up after he beat her up. And then they had a kid? We’ve occasionally gotten into the heart of the Anders/Starbuck and Lee/Dualla marriages, and the Helo/Athena pairing makes sense, but Cally and Tyrol remained a mystery, often because Clyne herself was so opaque, an unreadable face broken every so often by a dazzling smile. I like a girl with some mystery to her.
So when I saw that Clyne had been added to the regular cast (in the “Also Starring” section at the top of the first act), I was pleased. Then, I immediately realized she would die. And die she did. But “The Ties That Bind” is probably the most Cally-centric episode of the show’s run. I’m sure that frustrated a lot of fans, but it also took us the furthest inside of both Cally herself and the Tyrol marriage than the show ever has. I’d rate it up there with the series’s best, and the only thing keeping it from being one of the top two or three episodes is how rushed it feels, since Cally has been persona non grata since at least “A Day in the Life” (when she ended up in an iron lung for largely unmemorable reasons) and really hasn’t had all that much to do since the New Caprica arc, when she was nearly executed. She perfectly fits the profile of the character a show hasn’t been able to utilize terribly well for long enough that killing them off makes sense while still holding enough shock to surprise the audience. She’s a Mrs. Landingham, in other words.
Even if Cally’s been on the sidelines for a long time, this episode got into her headspace relatively well and remarkably quickly, even if it did use the old, obvious TV trick of “This person has been suffering from a bunch of stuff for a long time, but we didn’t think to tell you until now.” Just from an excellent bit of visual shorthand (the Tyrols’ son’s light mobile glinting its stars and moons around their small room) the show conveys the way that Cally’s having trouble reconciling the fact that she got the life she always wanted with the fact that she’s completely miserable. Through a series of quick flashes of the fights the Tyrols, we see how their marriage is falling apart in the wake of the revelation that Tyrol is a Cylon and his struggles to keep that from his family and override any programming underlying his actions.
There is a scene (rather overwritten and a too-easy attempt to make acceptable the fact that Cally married someone who beat her—even if it was an accident) with Doc Cottle (Donnelly Rhodes) where Cally speaks of her life so far and is revealed to be taking mood-altering drugs. Between that and the crying child and the claustrophobia and the indifferent husband, Cally’s “whininess” takes on a whole new light. Yes, Cally has always been one who seemed to stand in the way of the show’s true heroes, wanting her way and wishing she had never signed up for the military in the first place (girl just wanted to go to dental school, after all), even if that saved her life. Cally never got what she wanted, and now that she has, it’s still not what she wants. When she gets that last bit of information, that her husband is a Cylon, when she hates Cylons more than anything (thanks, Tigh, for reminding us, as Tyrol, obviously, would know that, so there’s no good reason for you to be telling him), it makes sense that she takes her kid—a hybrid, after all—to an airlock and prepares to jettison both herself and him out of it. Battlestar usually captures the bigger headlines of the day in its drama, but it can also capture the smaller headlines that we shake our heads over—like mothers who kill their children and themselves—and somehow makes them relatable. Michael Nankin’s excellent direction and tight framing put viewers in Cally’s headspace, and the jarring editing, cutting between past and present, as Cally decides to take a wrench to her husband’s face, expertly conveys just how lost she feels. I know everyone hates Cally, but did anyone look at that last shot of her frozen face, drifting in space (after Tory sent her flying out of the airlock), and say, “Glad she’s gone”?
Cally, I think, irritates so many of us because science fiction and military fiction are two genres predicated on the idea of larger than life heroes who make the hard choices. They may have failings, but they’re huge, tragic failings that give them even more of an extraordinary quality (as this guy I knew in college that irritated me was fond of saying, “I don’t want to read fiction if it doesn’t have extraordinary characters or extraordinary situations”). It’s more comforting to watch Battlestar and imagine that we’d be Adama or Starbuck or Roslin, but the reality is that most of us would probably be Cally. We’d whine, and we’d want our way, and we’d wonder why the guy we have a crush on is interested in the hotter Asian chick and can’t see our awesome qualities. Cally’s like a character from a New Yorker short story who’s just wandered onto a spaceship, and it’s that jarring disconnect, that complete sense that this is not how the rules of the genre play out that, I think, drives a lot of fan antipathy toward her. (There’s a lot of talk on the BSG imdB boards about how Clyne is not as attractive as the other women on the show, but I’m just going to assume that reflects one of those Internet-only opinions. Most of you dudes would give your eyeteeth to date someone who looked like her, Tricia Helfer be damned.)
There was plenty of other good stuff in the episode (Battlestar seems to have its momentum back in the sense that nearly every scene features something worth commenting on), which will be touched on briefly, so as not to make this a novel. For starters, Michael Taylor’s script has very little wasted space (the scene with Cottle being among the few ones that could have been trimmed), and Nankin’s direction strips it down even further (Battlestar has been framing even more characters in doors than usual; it’s a popular directorial choice in general, of course, but it seems like the series is pushing for something with all of these door uses—thoughts?). The plot with the Cylon civil war continues to be incredible television—tonight Cavil (Dean Stockwell) commits genocide as Boomer (Grace Park) tearfully looks on (apparently, they’re having a thing, which, ew). And the series makes good use of tying Cally to the suffering Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and the increasingly messianic Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff). An exquisite scene where Adama (Edward James Olmos) reads a bad pulp novel to an ailing Roslin shows McDonnell’s full range of skills, all without her uttering a word, and Lee’s (Jamie Bamber) introduction to the world of Quorum politics is the most interesting political plot the series has had since the second season.
But what I really wanted to do once the episode ended was turn this whole piece into a love letter to Nicki Clyne and defense of Cally Henderson Tyrol, even though the episode itself is top-notch across the board. The general tone surrounding Cally has always been that of fans who wished the character would just die already so they could get on with the space opera, but in wishing to see Cally’s death, we wished to see the end of the audience proxy, the one character who behaved like most of us. Of course we had to be removed from the story at some point, because this is a grand story with grand characters, but on our way out, it was nice to get a little sense of the gravity of being us.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.