So we’re ALL Cylons now.
Battlestar Galactica gets a reputation for being a dark show, and some of that is well-deserved. It’s a show that examines some of the worst things human beings can do to each other, and it’s often unflinching in its gaze. Especially as I was reviewing the series’ third season, I would often get in arguments with commenters over the balance between the series’ mythology-advancing episodes, which took the grand master plot and set it skidding in new directions, and the series’ more angst-y, character developing episodes. The character development can often feel glacial when watched on a week-to-week basis, but I’d argue it’s necessary to make anyone give a damn about the show in the first place. What was interesting about “Sometimes a Great Notion” was that it blended a series of big, mythology-altering story points with what was maybe the darkest story yet attempted by the show, an examination of what happens when all of your dreams are crushed. Most other shows, with only a handful of episodes to go, would find a way to give the characters a glimmer of hope at the end of the episode, but Battlestar’s smarter than that. The glimmer of hope here rests solely in the fact that these characters (or at least some of them) simply decide not to give up, even though everything rational might tell them to.
“Sometimes a Great Notion,” scripted by David Weddle and Bradley Thompson, ratchets between huge story points (Starbuck discovering the body of herself; Dualla killing herself; the “final four” flashing back to life on Earth; the identity of the final Cylon) and small, acutely observed character moments so well that it’s sort of hard to believe the whole thing was done without any writers (it was the sole episode produced entirely while the writers were on strike in late 2007 and early 2008). There are a few rough scenes that maybe could have used a rewrite or two, which we’ll get to, but for the most part, the episode is a testament to how far these characters have come and how far they still have to go.
Battlestar has always been one of the best-directed shows on TV. Since TV direction tends to consist of a long series of establishing shots, mid-shots and close-ups, this may not seem as impressive as it should, but the one-two punch of season 4.0’s closer “Revelations” and this opener to season 4.5 should point out just how far the direction here is ahead of most other dramas on TV (really, only Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Lost—where solid direction often saves clumsy scripts—can compete). The lingering shots of a natural world struggling to be reborn in a ruined, apocalyptic landscape are both compositionally beautiful and subtly foreshadow the episode’s final revelation (that Tigh (Michael Hogan) and his wife Ellen (Kate Vernon) planned the rebirth of their race over 2,000 years ago amid said apocalypse). In particular, the shots of the waves washing over rocks on the beach bring a peaceful quality to the desolation and find a matching point in the dialogue, with a long story Adama (Edward James Olmos) tells about hunted foxes swimming out to sea to die.
The episode was also a solid reminder of how well Battlestar uses lighting to make its points. Every critic in the universe has already spoken about the choice to film Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) building a funeral pyre for the body she discovered that seems to be her entirely in silhouette against a sky growing dark grey with twilight, but I’ll pile on as well. It was a bold piece of filmmaking, both in how it wordlessly played out and in how much it left to the audience to draw from suggestion, and it closed with another beautiful shot of Starbuck watching the body burn, the wind blowing the fire in the opposite direction from her, as though even the flames didn’t want to be in the same space as her (earlier, even Leoben (Callum Keith Rennie), the one guy who’s been the most constant shadow to Starbuck, wanted nothing to do with her when the two discovered the wreckage of the Viper that contained the body). The lighting in the scene where a drunken Adama and his son, Lee (Jamie Bamber), discuss why Dualla (Kandyse McClure) would kill herself was also beautiful, making excellent use of a key light tilted down from the ceiling over Dee’s body, medicine cabinets adding an eerie glow behind the two men hunched over the corpse. The scene was written so well that it probably could have gotten by with lighting that washed everything out, but the choice here offered a rather haunting effect, and the scene was better for it. Battlestar has never been awarded for its direction or cinematography, but the choices of director Michael Nankin and DP Stephen McNutt throughout this episode were uniformly strong (another favorite: Adama walking down the halls of the Galactica in Steadicam, on his way to confront Tigh).
After writing about 30 episodes of Battlestar, I don’t think there’s an actor I haven’t singled out for praise at one time or another, but every single member of the cast, from the regulars to the guest stars to the background players, had a sublime moment or two here. Olmos, Mary McDonnell (Roslin), Hogan and Sackhoff had the most to work with, and they offered up work that at least matched their best moments in the series. Olmos’ goading on of Tigh, followed by his delivery of the drowning foxes monologue was his finest moment in the series to date. And that’s to say nothing of Sackhoff’s raw, “What am I?” which closes out the second act or McDonnell collapsing into catatonia or Hogan walking out into the waves. But others who didn’t have as much to play all found moments of their own, whether it was Tahmoh Penikett and Grace Park as Helo and Athena playing with their daughter (one welcome moment of levity in the grim proceedings) or Bamber changing the number of survivors on that big, white board.
And none of that has yet singled out McClure. If I was the only person on the Internet who liked Cally (Nicki Clyne), I was never all that interested in Dualla. Most of this was the fault of the writers, who threw a romance between the character and Lee at us out of nowhere (though I really liked the choice to play the dissolution of their marriage in the background of the larger story in the season’s first half). Like the other cast members, McClure always played what material she was given well, but one of the show’s failings has always been that it rarely knows what to do with its straitlaced and optimistic characters (like Lee and Dualla). This may be a function of the fact that the idea of an eternal optimist facing the end of everything he or she cares about is more one to carry a movie or a novel, since there’s really only one emotional beat there, whereas seeing a bunch of pessimists and screw-ups confront the end of times offers much more potential for a long-running series, but it often stranded McClure in storylines that didn’t utilize her well. The choice, however, to play her as a bit of a beacon of hope throughout the first half of the episode was both a clever misdirection (I was sure she was the final Cylon) and a way to make her suicide as jarring as possible. Few TV developments in recent years have had the jolt of Dualla pulling out that gun and matter-of-factly blowing her brains out, particularly after her happiness just seconds before. McClure’s work in the scenes leading up to that was exceptional, and she gave Dualla a sensual quality she had lacked before that made her whole relationship with Lee click into place.
This is not to say the episode was perfect. Sadly, it had to follow “Revelations,” which was a long series of huge payoffs and, therefore, more visceral for an audience to sit through. But there were also a few clunky scenes at the script level, particularly the early scene where Lee and Dualla talk about what he’s going to say to lift everyone’s spirits. The scene had to carry a lot of water, from reminding us of Lee and Dualla’s relationship to reminding us of where Lee stood in his ever-shifting role within the fleet to giving us an idea of what Lee might ultimately say in a scene we wouldn’t see (though I did like the choice to have most of his speech play out as something he says to Dualla AFTER the meeting, as the two wander the halls of the Galactica), and it just never was able to hit all of these points without making some on-the-nose pronouncements. Part of this was just the old serialized TV problem of having to make sure everyone’s caught up. It’s obviously structurally necessary to remind those of us who are joining late of everything Lee and Dualla have been through before, but at the same time, I do wonder if there’s any way to simply get around this (the “Catch up, audience!” scenes are regularly the weakest on the show) at this point in the series’ run. Is there anyone watching who DIDN’T know of the relationship? Probably. But Dualla regretfully taking off her ring before committing suicide would have conveyed all of this just as well.
But a few small scenes that overstated a thing or two are ultimately a minor quibble. At this point in its run, Battlestar is humming along with a confidence that speaks of a show that knows where it’s going and can’t wait to bring all of us along with it. “Sometimes a Great Notion” is as depressing as television gets, but the storytelling’s confidence gives me hope all the same.
A few random points:
• I suspect 50 of you are going to call me on that “Lost is well-directed!” line, since I seem to be the only apologist for the series who visits this site, but let’s save it for the debut of my Lost recaps on Thursday, OK?
• I was fortunate enough to see tonight’s episode projected in high definition on a movie screen. Many times, when a series is projected onto the big screen, it suffers because standard TV direction can feel claustrophobic and stultifying when blown up that big and because TV acting can often feel overstated on that big of a screen. Battlestar, in contrast, held up remarkably well, and seeing it that huge flipped a subconscious switch in my brain that made me more cognizant of the direction than I normally would be. I later watched the episode at home in standard-def to make sure my enthralled response wasn’t a result of seeing the thing projected onto a movie screen in a room of fans, but my response was roughly similar on my own couch with cats crawling all over me.
• The premiere screening was preceded by a screening of “Revelations,” and I’m still as knocked out by that tracking shot at the end as I was when I first saw it. I notice something new in it just about every time I watch it.
• Most of the series personnel didn’t believe this would have worked as a series finale, which this would have had to have been had the strike dragged on much longer, and it would have left a lot of stuff open and hanging (much more than “Revelations” would have) to be sure, but I think it almost perversely could have worked. At least it would have answered the largest remaining question still out there and hanging (while, admittedly, introducing a host of others).
• Normally, I’d speculate some about where I expect the story to go and my predictions for the future, but I literally am out of ideas, outside of my long-held belief that Starbuck 2 (as I shall call her from now on) was grown from the ovary stolen from her in season two. But everyone else has already come to that conclusion, so I’ll just say that I tend to be quite wrong about these things. I actually spent most of this week defending this insane idea I came up with about how Boomer was the final Cylon, so no one should turn to me insofar as things like this.
• I guess I was one of the few shocked by Dualla’s death, if fan reaction after the screening was any indication. Still, I was sure she was a Cylon or going to kill Hera or something.
• And, hey, welcome back! Let’s have a good time for these last ten episodes. I expect to see all y’all in comments.