Sunday, April 20, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 3, "The Ties That Bind"

A scant week after one of the worst episodes in its history, Battlestar Galactica returned Friday night to offer a nearly perfect hour of television, touching on all the themes that make the show so great without once striking the wrong note.

If last week’s episode was the series at its weakest—relentlessly didactic, stuffed with obvious dialogue and inconsistent character development—then “The Ties That Bind” was a stern reminder to audiences that Battlestar Galactica still has plenty of verve. From the oppressive confines of the Demetrius to President Roslin’s voiceless anguish during her chemo drip, it was a triumph of visual storytelling, and yet another point in favor of my belief that today’s best cinematic storytelling can be found on your television.

There were so many oh-my-god moments in “The Ties That Bind” that it’s difficult to discuss them at all without sounding synoptic. Cally’s murder, of course, was the most important, as her demise was not only the most gut-wrenching moment of the episode but also its central axis. The antipathy towards Cally has been growing steadily over the course of the series, and the producers often toyed with viewers’ hopes that she just frakking die already, repeatedly placing her in life-and-death situations from which she barely managed to escape. But in death, Cally joins her colleagues Louanne Katraine and Ellen Tigh as characters we loathed, but whom, in the end, we can’t help but mourn.

That there can even be sympathy for a woman who was prepared to send her baby out of an airlock is a testament to Nicki Clyne’s ability to convey Cally’s desperation at being in such a miserable frame of mind. Taking drugs to numb the pain of being in a loveless marriage with a man who savagely beat her (it was nice to hear Cally admit that she played on Tyrol’s guilt to get him to marry her), stuck in a job she hates but can’t escape, and, finally, finding out that her husband and her baby are cylon, Cally, who has always been the most avowed cylon-hater on the ragtag fleet, simply felt her only recourse was murder-suicide. I’m not saying that her circumstances make her decision defensible, and I’ll stop short of comparing Cally’s situation to the murderous mothers coming out of Mississippi every other week, but going into that airlock was certainly an understandable decision, and I don’t think there’s another show that could have made me feel that way.

In any event, when history judges Battlestar Galactica, it won’t mistake Cally for a strong female character. Though she certainly had her moments, biting off the ear of an attempted rapist, or her defiantly telling Boomer to frak off in a New Caprica prison cell, in the end, Cally was just a stop-lossed wannabe dental student, thrust into the flurry of events by dint of circumstance rather than any special destiny. She was the everywoman, and she’ll be missed.

Of course, the real horror of Cally’s death is that she had come to her senses, decided not to kill herself and her son, but was forced out of the airlock anyway by the newly cylonized Tory Foster (now with super-strength!). Because of all the shows on television, only Battlestar Galactica has the audacity to actually have Cally follow through with her ghastly plan, there was a palpable sense of dread when she walked into the airlock, clutching her child. But Tory’s appearance offered Cally, and us viewers, a way out. I wanted so desperately to believe in Tory’s good intentions that after she brutally sucker punched Cally, it felt like she punched me, too.

I can’t think of any equivalent to the total, cruel destruction of a major character on a TV show (maybe Angel killing Miss Calendar?), but it was done so artfully that I can’t possibly find complaint. That starts with Rekha Sharma, who, after having been treated as an afterthought during most of her tenure in the show, has proved herself worthy with the past two episodes. Her performance in the airlock was nothing short of a revelation, her manner and inflection alternating between tenderness and malice.

There will of course be debate behind Tory’s intentions. Is her programming finally taking over? Was she protecting herself and her compatriots? Did she just hate Cally as much as most viewers did? Whatever the case, she’s clearly made her bed. It’ll be interesting to see how Tyrol, who has always been anchored by his relationships, transitions from here out. His wife is airlocked, his deck crew friends are all gone (dead or on the Demtrius). The only human relationship he has left is Admiral Adama, who, in a nice parallel to his bedside visit with President Roslin, wordlessly consoled Tyrol in the episode’s closing moments.

The cylon civil war material was equally good, but in a less immediate way. In my analysis last week I glossed over what had happened, but the developments in “The Ties That Bind” are too important to ignore, essentially fulfilling the hybrid’s prophecy from Razor:

“The seven, now six, self-described machines who believe themselves without sin, but in time, it is sin that will consume them. They will know enmity, bitterness, the wrenching agony of the one splintering into the many, and then they will join the promised land, gathered on the wings of an angel. Not an end, but a beginning.”
During the oft-maligned third season, many criticisms centered on the fact that increased focus on the cylons stripped them of their menace and mystery. That still holds true, but with the reveal of four of the final five, as well as the prophesied intertwined destinies of human and cylon, fleshing out the cylons, so to speak, was important narrative legwork. I’m not sure what the ultimate fate of humanity will be (I’m not sure Ronald Moore knows, either), but I know the cylons will have something to do with it. And when the end comes, I’d much rather them be a known commodity than just some faceless, monolithic killing force.

Of course, if the hybrid’s words are true about the cylons, they’re probably true about Starbuck as well: “She is the herald of the apocalypse. The harbinger of death. They must not follow her.” That dramatic irony is surely going to factor heavily into the upcoming episodes. But for now, all’s quiet, as the events served primarily to set up just who was on the ship (Athena, Helo, Gaeta, Anders, and Starbuck—who the hell is guarding Galactica now?) and to give Starbuck a speech that was a BIG GIANT SIGN to suggest that Starbuck is a cylon, claiming as she did that she feels untethered from her body.

For my money, I don’t think she’s the fifth. For one, it’s too obvious. For another, her description of alienation is totally opposite of Tory’s heightened sense of sensation. There was obviously something done to her in absentia, but I have a hunch it’s more supernatural than not.

The missteps, what few there were, naturally came with the Apollo stuff. Lee continues to be the least interesting character on the show, manipulated once more by Tom Zarek (after being the puppet to Romo Lampkin’s puppeteer in season 3’s finale). I think the writers have always had trouble with establishing Lee’s character, but in Zarek, they have a layered personality to balance him. A freedom-fighter/terrorist whose principles can get in the way of his humanity, it was nice to see someone on the fleet finally acknowledge some trepidation with regards to Roslin’s inclination towards totalitarianism, however benign (and scripturally justified) that totalitarianism can be.

Some other thoughts:

The cylon centurions have always looked frighteningly real, and even seeing them cleaning up some cabinets in the basestar didn’t detract from that menace.

Bear McCreary’s soundtrack has long been one of Battlestar Galactica’s secret weapons, and the Persian-inflected guitar filtering through Cally’s eavesdropping was the latest example of that.

There was a certain savageness to Cally taking a wrench to Tyrol’s head, but it was nonetheless realistic: two sickening thuds, Tyrol staggering but not going down, eyes bulging and unfocused. It was the best fight I've seen since Dan Dority grappled with The Captain in Deadwood’s thoroughfare.


Sofistafunk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sofistafunk said...

Actually, that sucker punch feeling ... that was me punching you in the face.

I'm surprised to not see a vehement complaint about the episode's lack of Baltar. I can only imagine what mischief he's up to.

Re: hating characters and then mourning them when they die. I think the worst part of it is that the show gets you to finally like them right before they're killed off by having them go through these fleeting moments of intense and poignant humanity. You get that, "Hey, maybe they aren't so bad after all" feeling and then boom, they're downing a cup of poison, succumbing to radiation sickness or being vented out an airlock.

I also have to add that I've not only felt sympathy, but profound guilt for loathing the loathsome characters and unabashedly wishing death upon them once they've died. BSG has an uncanny knack for not just pulling but violently wrenching heartstrings (read: emotional manipulation).

I like to think that once Baltar dies, and I do think he will eventually die (I mean I hope he does), I won't feel sad about it because I hate him so much. But knowing BSG, I'm sure Ronald Moore will find some way to make even the despicable cockroach of a human being Gaius Baltar worthy of sympathy. And of course I'll feel guilty.

Steven Simunic said...

You know, for the longest time I thought that the death episodes were sort off a narrative cheapshot, because I found it dishonest to redeem some character before killing them (like they did with Kat)

But looking back on it, Ellen died an ignominious death, and Cally certainly wasn't presented as an angel worthy of living, either. I guess there's something to be said for the writers of BSG that we can actually mourn people we hate (even though I never really hated Ellen or Cally). Good on them.