I don’t know another way to say this, so I’m just gonna get it out there. Battlestar Galactica? You’re kinda givin’ me blue balls. Now, obviously, this episode (“The Road Less Traveled”), written by Mark Verheiden and directed by Michael Rymer, is the first half of a two-parter, so you have to expect a certain amount of all-buildup, no-payoff (and the “next week on” made the next episode look like stuff is gonna start falling apart in a riveting fashion), but this is the second episode that has no real dramatic payoff. I’ve come to expect this in serialized television (where real payoffs rarely come outside of finales or, if you’re The Sopranos, penultimate episodes), and I generally don’t mind if the individual episodes have things in them that I enjoy, as all of this season’s BSG episodes—even this one—have. That’s one of the things you have to put up with if you’re going to enjoy serialized TV in broadcast, rather than on DVD. You have to put up with the long build-up, then the slow teasing out of the plot before things start coming together and you feel as though you’ve wisely or unwisely invested in the story. This is why I sort of suspect that, when we can inevitably download as many episodes of our favorite shows as we want at once, no one will voluntarily parcel these shows out at one-a-week.
The problem so far (and I say this as someone who’s so far been more positive toward this season than others) is that only the Cally-centric “The Ties That Bind” has had anything approaching a moment of emotional catharsis (that perfect final shot of Cally’s face, frozen in space). Last week’s Baltar monologue almost managed to achieve transcendence, but it never quite pulled it off. And with this week’s episode making for the second “to be continued” ending in this season, the vaguely queasy feeling the show inspires through its increasingly languid pacing and twitchy camerawork just doesn’t have anywhere to go. Each episode ends leaving the viewer saying, “Now, that was really something!” but also feeling a sense of growing dissatisfaction. A lot of this appears to be completely intentional—these last few episodes have very much had a “this is the way the world ends” feeling—but it conflicts with the way we’ve been conditioned to watch television (or even BSG itself, which has never felt as dependent on viewers knowing everything there is to know about the show as it has this season) that it’s tempting to decide that the show has lost it if, indeed, it even had it to begin with.
But, as mentioned above, I think the structure of this season is intentional. The growing frustration of the show’s audience (“When is this going to GO anywhere?”) is meant to mirror the growing frustration of the crew, increasingly at the end of their tethers, whether it’s because they’re out in space searching for something that may not exist with a seemingly crazy person in command or forcing themselves to confront their newly revealed Cylon natures or trying to start a new religion that will, in a way, absolve them of their former guilt. This is the first episode of the season that doesn’t have Edward James Olmos or Mary McDonnell in it, and the centerless feeling that pervades the show when these two aren’t around (in many ways, fan complaints about season three were often more about the classic structure of Olmos and McDonnell being the leads and everyone else playing support in their shadow than anything else) lends itself to the rudderless feel of the episode as a whole.
In a way, the search for Earth has always been the most lackadaisical plot point on BSG. While other series (Lost being the most obvious current example) build mythologies and massive conspiracies around central plot points, BSG has always been different because the “We’ve got to find Earth!” aspect and the “Who are the final Cylons?” aspect have rarely been as interesting as the character-based stories or some of the odder mythological aspects of the series that hang at the periphery of the central story. To a real degree, this is simply because the search for Earth has always hung on a pretty boring peg. To find Earth, the humans have followed a long path marked with waypoints, but every time an episode hinges around this type of story, the plot point is essentially the same (the humans don’t know how to read the signs, and then they do). There’s only so little drama you can get out of reading a map.
So that’s why the series’ most interesting work has always been when it built AROUND those central conceits and examined the people caught up in this story. In a way, the rudderless wandering of the central plot is a terrific metaphor for the plot itself and the talented writers caught in its grasp. But now that the show is finally pushing towards Earth, the audience more intuitively feels how intrinsically weightless the plot has always been. Because this is the singular focus of one of the main characters (Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck), we’re stranded in a plot where she just gets crazier and crazier (Sackhoff plays it well, but it’s really one-note) and where the plot points largely consist of “Starbuck looks for Earth ... and doesn’t find it!” The mutiny that begins to spring up this week finally takes this in a new direction, but the episode ends just as it is beginning to get interesting. And while Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie) always brings out an interesting gamut of emotions in Starbuck and the few hints he drops of the aftermath of the Cylon civil war are intriguing, this story also never quite gets going, as it turns into yet another test of the crew’s loyalties (though, to be fair, the show does a good job of suggesting that either way might be accurate).
It doesn’t help that the rest of the episode largely amplifies and underlines points from last week’s episode (though I’m always happy to see Aaron Douglas and James Callis share screen time as Tyrol and Baltar respectively) instead of striking out on new territory. I don’t mean to suggest that these scenes aren’t good, but combined with last week’s episode, they feel like an attempt to keep beating those points into our skulls. All of this wheel spinning is artfully done, but at some point, even I long to light off for new territory.
But, in the end, it’s useless to say anything about the episode other than that it doesn’t seem to work right here and right now. When you’re watching it on DVD a year later or in tandem with next week’s episode, it might play very differently because you’ve seen how it all ties together. It’s hard to separate individual units from the rest of the whole in television sometime, and few shows make it harder than BSG. Yes, “The Road Less Traveled” is full of wheel-spinning, but we’ll only know if it is fruitful much later on, when we see where all this build-up is going.