What is it about science fiction that makes it a genre uniquely qualified to concern itself with ideas and questions about the afterlife? There’s something about it that makes the metaphysical bullshit that a show like, say, CSI or even Mad Men wouldn’t be able to get away with somehow palatable and even understandable. When Tony Soprano spent an episode or two in something like Purgatory, a lot of fans complained (I loved it). But when Dana Scully spent an episode in the very same place, only in a far more blatantly symbolic version, it became a highlight of the run of The X-Files. Similarly, this latest episode of Battlestar Galactica, titled, simply enough, “Faith,” finds its strongest theme in ideas of what happens after we die—where we go and what the end is. In a series where one side of the conflict couldn’t truly die (until only recently), it is a surprisingly moving episode about the things we tell ourselves about the greater purpose and the end of things.
For starters, the episode is absolutely gorgeous, perhaps the best in this regard of this season’s run so far. Written by series newcomer Seamus Kevin Fahey and directed by Michael Nankin, the episode has its action-adventure bona fides (right down to a ticking clock propelling much of the conflict) to drive it along, but it also has an almost elegiac tone. A scene set on board a Cylon basestar that Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and her crew have infiltrated to find information on the location of Earth and the Cylon civil war offers a good example. After a Cylon centurion shoots and kills a Number Eight (Grace Park), she stumbles, blood spilling from her mouth into the pool that houses the Cylon Hybrid (Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, who really doesn’t get enough credit for the sheer gleam of insanity she brings to her character).
The blood drips slowly into the water, spreading out like a work of abstract art, the wailing from the hybrid providing a backdrop for the action. There’s a sudden cut to a shot of the hybrid’s mouth open in the wail, red light and shadow flashing over it, before we cut to Starbuck leaning over the hybrid, demanding it tell her what it knows, the blood still filling its pool. After the hybrid gives up its information, Athena (also Park) cuts the power to it and everything goes dark, followed by another perfect cut, this time to the sick bay on Galactica, where Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and her new best friend Emily (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine vet Nana Visitor) sit talking about the world after this one, their silhouettes framed against the curtain around Emily’s space, the small light inside the only light in the room. For all the world, it feels as if Emily and Roslin are up late at night in the dorm, talking about what it all means, man—or it would, were Roslin not bald from her latest treatment and were Emily not so obviously decrepit.
It’s the intensely created scenes like this one that set Battlestar apart from most televised SF (from most television, period). The cuts and shots in the sequence are so jarring and then so, seemingly, peaceful that I was able to recall most of it strictly from memory, simply because the assemblage of the scene seemingly branded itself on my mind. Battlestar is great at marrying its big themes and weighty (occasionally ponderous) dialogue to images that specifically underline them. While much of the praise of the show focuses around the political themes of the scripts (and, indeed, that’s one of the best things about the show), the series’ direction, which occasionally reins in some way-too-big idea and brings it back down to Earth, keeps all of this moving and honest.
So, in its own way, does the special effects team. Tonight’s episode teems with terrific CGI constructed vistas, from the detritus of the Cylon battle that the raptor picks its way through (and was that the planet Jupiter or were my eyes mistaken?) to the shot of the Cylon basestar warping in to sit right on top of the much smaller Demetrius (closing off a moment which had a kind of false tension, since you knew the heroes were going to come back in the knick of time, with a great visual gag). The VFX personnel on the series are often its unsung heroes, and their work in this episode is uniformly stellar and beautifully realized.
But the strongest moments of the episode are the ones where the characters ruminate on where all of this is heading. The season has previously delved into the religious life and rituals of the fleet (in the fourth episode, “Escape Velocity”), and the religious cult of Gaius Baltar (James Callis, heard here only as a crackling, ghostly voice on a transistor radio, piping in tales of the hereafter, seemingly 24/7) has been an important plot point. The dark and dank Battlestar (especially when the series sets foot on the Demetrius) gives way to a dreamy visit to a ferry that ships Emily over to the next life, while Roslin looks on, her inscrutable smile giving way to tears as she sees her long-dead mother on the other shore (Fahey also scripts a terrific monologue about Roslin’s mother that McDonnell nails earlier in the episode). The water imagery here is gorgeous, even if the usage of a river to suggest eternity isn’t the most original idea in the world, and the shots of Starbuck awaking on the Cylon basestar have a subtle overlay of water imagery (is she really dead after all?). The best stuff in this storyline are those scenes between Roslin and Emily, but the episode has quite a lot of death, even for this show, and what is notable is just how human all of this death feels, even the Cylon deaths.
Notably, I think, everyone who dies had someone there for them at the end, whether that be barely-recurring player Jean Barolay (Alisen Down), who finds herself beaten by a Six (Tricia Helfer) and then mourned by Anders (Michael Trucco). The Six then dies, shot with Anders’ gun by Natalie, another Six who had just comforted and kissed her. Finally, the dying Eight is also held by Anders, who points out that she is looking past all of them, toward something awaiting her on the other side (all of the Cylons are out of reach of a Resurrection Ship and thus cannot be brought back), before tenderly closing her eyes. If Roslin and Emily’s vision of the afterlife is accurate, that’s one thing, but Battlestar also suggests that how we leave this life can be just as important. When Roslin goes to Adama (Edward James Olmos) and says that she’s starting to find something in Baltar’s sermons and he chastises her, she seems shaken by the notion that there are other things, deeper currents she can’t yet latch on to. Even the physical pain of Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani), one of my least favorite characters, plays into this theme, as he doesn’t want to lose the leg that Anders had shot out from underneath him. The fear of his own mortality, of his own ability to be injured, plays in his eyes, even as Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) comforts him.
The episode even has something for fans of the show’s mythology, when the Hybrid suggests to Starbuck that she needs to find the final five, using D’anna Biers (Lucy Lawless), who knows their identities. From there, the final five can help Starbuck find Earth. It’s a rather neat idea, and it provides a good bit of business to propel us through five or six episodes, I imagine, and it even leads to a pretty terrific little bit of business for Trucco (one of the final five) to play within the scene itself, where he is well aware that his wife is going to find out he is a Cylon and that he is supposed to know the way to Earth, even though he has absolutely no idea where to find it.
The episode isn’t perfect, by any means. The ticking clock of when Starbuck and company can manage to rendezvous with the Demetrius again is kind of teeth-grinding, especially as the show extends that bit of business to the absolute farthest point that it can be stretched. The ticking clock device almost always provides a quick jolt to an action-adventure show like this, but it’s usually a false jolt, simply because we know there’s no way that Starbuck would be left to drift in space for eternity. She’s a major player, and she’s not going to die until the finale. Not seeing Tigh or Tyrol in the episode also is a bit offputting, especially as so much time was spent with the latter in the last two episodes and the notions of new religions and afterlives might have played best off of our newly-revealed Cylons. I did like the decision to keep Baltar as only a spectral presence in the episode, his voice a quiet beacon in a seemingly abandoned sick bay.
In the end, though, episodes like “Faith” are among the many reasons I watch Battlestar Galactica. By mixing together a terrific script with some great direction and uniformly strong performances (special mention should be singled out for Helfer and Park, who continues to find different notes in a large number of characters from week to week), “Faith” closes out most of the stories that opened up the season and sets us ricocheting off into another series of storylines. We know, again, where we’re going, and even if we can’t quite see Earth yet, we know we’re on our way.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.