Monday, May 5, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, Episode 5, "The Road Less Traveled"

“You have to make peace with your past. That part of you is gone.”

Couched in the cryptic doublespeak of a half-mad cylon, the sentiment above is more than a stern injunction to our hero, Kara Thrace. It is, simply, the refrain of the events of “The Road Less Travelled”, and all that has transpired early on in Battlestar Galactica’s fourth season.

Since its universally praised premiere, “He That Believeth In Me”, complaints have been legion about the subsequent episodes of this season, ranging from the unwelcome evolution of favorite characters (specifically, the rather curious transformation of the once-proud Kara Thrace into a frenzied shadow of her former self) to its glacial plot developments. Hell, a peek at the TWoP forums leaves one with the impression that Ronald Moore and company deserve a fashionable coat made from some hot tar and feathers, expiation for the destruction of what was once so good and true.

As perfect as the most of the episodes in the first 3 seasons were, there are only so many logistical crises and cylon attacks the ragtag fleet could withstand without spinning the wheels. In that respect, perhaps it’s a mixed blessing that Battlestar Galactica has never enjoyed monster ratings—it’s a virtual certainty that a cash cow would never be allowed to leave on its own terms, but to be stretched out as long as possible, intention in art be damned (think Lost). I don’t doubt that there’s still lots of potential in exploring further the politics of the fleet, or fleshing out some of the minor characters (I’m still waiting for a Doc Cottle showcase), but better to get out a season early than a season late. A ragged group of humans on the run from an inexorable killing force is a great conceit, but the up-and-down reception of season 3 signaled to audiences and creators alike that it was time to move on, to move in a different direction and have the fleet find Earth or die in the process.

Of course, it’s one thing to acknowledge that a new direction is needed, quite another to agree with the one taken. Episodes like “The Road Less Travelled” should assure viewers that Moore and company have things well in hand, its echoing motifs bouncing off character parallels to create a very literary and very watchable 44 minutes. While the episode ended with the fleet no closer to Earth, the real progression came, as it consistently has this season, in the characters themselves. The majority of screentime was given to the increasingly-troubled Demetrius, but the more affecting moments lay in the person of Chief Galen Tyrol, who, in becoming both cylon and widower in a matter of weeks, was very obviously falling apart. I’m consistently amazed by the scope and talent of Galactica’s stable of actors, but here, Aaron Douglass may have given the best work of any of them this season. Tyrol deliberately dehumanizing himself, both physically with his freshly shaved head and psychologically with a gun to his cheek, worked mostly thanks to Douglass’s commanding presence and miraculous facial control (seriously, he must have been paying attention to Michael Hogan’s eyeball during the past year and a half).

In other words, Tyrol’s downward spiral felt earned, ultimately, and that made his reconciliation with Baltar that much more satisfying. I speculated earlier that Tyrol losing his wife might untether him from the stalwart character we had come to know, because, like Boomer before him, he would be alone. That eventuality certainly came to pass (though the Boomer parallels stop short, since Tyrol, crucially, didn’t pull the trigger), but who could suspect was that Tyrol would find his support—his salvation, even—in the words and deeds of Gaius frakking Baltar? As this season progresses, it’s becoming easier to understand just how it is that Baltar has been able to accumulate, and maintain, such a devout following. However tantalizing his message that all of God’s children are perfect beings is, without a compassionate figurehead it would sink under the weight of the established Gods. Baltar, if nothing else in this episode, for the very first time in the character’s history proved himself to care deeply about someone other than himself. That’s progress, people.

As for the Demetrius saga, it’s difficult to speculate on the early events of a two-parter. Helo’s mutiny certainly would have been more emotionally compelling had it not been established previously that he was willing to break military protocol to follow his conscience—remember, this is the man who squandered humanity’s only chance to permanently eliminate the cylon threat because he couldn’t countenance another genocide. That said, it was mostly good, if (and I’ll cop to what others are saying here) mostly pointless. Starbuck is still crazy? Check. Anders and Athena are still not getting any airtime? Check two. Leoben’s introduction was an interesting development, but he only briefly interacted with anyone outside of Kara (his scene with Anders, however, was worth the price of admission, each man knowing something the other doesn’t), and those scenes were predictably maudlin. And he only confirmed what was already suspected: that the cylon civil war is devastating. There aren’t any more resurrection ships. They’re playing for keeps.

Still. Baltar. The savior. Of both cylon and human. Yowza.


Steven Simunic said...

Amazingly, SciFi's press site didn't have any Tyrol pictures from this week's episode. Boo to them.

Sofistafunk said...

I still hate Gaius Baltar with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.