Season Premiere: Battlestar Galactica – “Sometimes a Great Notion”

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“Sometimes a Great Notion”

January 16th, 2009

I had to wait over forty-eight hours to watch this, the beginning of the end for Battlestar Galactica as it enters its final ten-episode stretch. I logged onto Twitter in my hotel on Friday evening, as I am in Montreal for the continent’s longest running debating invitational; it was a force of habit really, but I found something I wasn’t prepared for. I saw a tweet that said the words “Final Cylon.” I paused, threw my hands in front of my screen, and immediately went on a self-imposed twitter ban (which failed miserably once I devised security methods to avoid spotting more spoiler material).

I was, regardless of my adverse reaction to spoilers in general, shocked by this news: here is this piece of news that we were so desperate to discover, so apparently integral to this final season that they changed the opening title cards, and all of a sudden we have the answer in this episode’s final moments. It all felt so counter-intuitive, so different from how we expected this episode to go down.

In that sense, it is almost exactly the opposite of the fourth season premiere last year, which felt like the very basic repercussions we had spent a lengthy time imagining. Here, the common trait was that everything was bigger than we imagined: while not outside of the realm of possibility and the breadth of internet predictions, the events which transpired had an extremist slant that never felt sensationalist and more importantly never felt as if they were ending or simply stalling for time. The “who” question for the Final Cylon is not really the show’s preoccupation: instead, their identity is a sharpening of focus, a lynchpin of identity for what we now know is a far more complicated Cylon mythology.

The world of Battlestar Galactica was broken open when we learned the identity of eighty percent of the final five, but what resulted was an isolation of their turmoil to an investigation into their psychological well-being. The irony is that here, as their identity becomes public and the entire fleet becomes part of their journey, their inner trauma only becomes more profound: these characters now have even more complicated questions about their identity, just as humanity does facing the scorched earth they believed and prayed was home, and they have new factors such as history or destiny to consider more carefully.

“Sometimes a Great Notion” feels like another stage of escalation in the season’s general purpose: it is not about who the Final Cylons are so much as who they were, who they are, what they are understood to be, and who they wish to be in the future. Answering those questions is not so much about naming them than letting them loose in a world now even more defined by their unique journey. The result here is an episode that, more than anything in the first half of the season, feels like we’re sifting through the denseness of this serious to the intersection of philosophical and personal interests that will define the series finale.

Now, with that pretentious preamble out of the way: Holy. Frak. This episode had two moments that defined, in my eyes, the very definition of what the show is capable of achieving. As the question of identity becomes even more dominant than before, the episode becomes about endings: about the memory of the original deaths of the final five Cylons on the 13th colony, about the unexplainable death of Kara Thrace at the same location, and the sudden end of humanity’s own journey as they discover that what they thought was their ending was instead a Cylon beginning.

To start with, I think it’s important we get to the last one first: while there are many individual deaths which have made impact on this show, I don’t think there has been one that has been so fundamentally representative of a broader societal force than Anastacia Dualla shooting herself in the head with the most contented smile on her face. One moment, she is happy kissing Lee good night and repeating to herself how Lee had so valiantly put a positive spin on the current events as a chance to break forward free from Pithea and free from the concept of prophecy. Inside, though, she was a damaged woman who on Earth found a set of jacks which shook her to the core, and which would eventually lead to a decision: in order to hold onto a dream of achieving what she felt was lost, those nostalgic images which adorn her locker and the life they represent, she shot herself to keep from having to live in a world where Earth is a 2000-year old nuclear holocaust site as opposed to a final home for all of humanity.

Ultimately she is only a very personal face on a broader impact: although one could argue that Cally’s fate was in some way linked to the ways in which society would react to learning of four more Cylon models within the fleet, there is something incredibly powerful about seeing it in such a pure moment. There is nothing false or protracted about this event: it is eerily calm, playing with our emotional responses in such a way as to render us entirely unprepared for the blood on that locker. It was one of the most powerful scenes the show has ever done not because the character was well loved (She has been marginalized all season and had any character momentum killed by her relationship with Lee) but because she was representative of something much bigger.

Like with Cally before her, Dualla’s central part in this episode was suspicious: from the segment of the “previously on” section that showcased her initial role in convincing Lee to help Galactica rescue the people stranded on New Caprica to her surprising prevalence during the initial sequence on Earth, a character that spent almost the entirety of season four in the background was suddenly thrust into it again. The result was two possibilities: either she was going to die or she was going to be the final Cylon. I leaned towards the latter, in many ways because I could not think of any reason for her to kill herself.

But her suicide is a stark reminder of the humanity of these characters: first introduced to us in “Final Cut” in season two, Dualla is a dedicated person who stuck with Adama and his vision for as long as she possibly could, and at a certain point people are going to give up. They are going to stop trying to solve these problems and decide that whatever role they have to play in all of this has come to an end.

The centerpiece of the entire episode is inevitably Adama’s metaphor, the foxes swimming out to sea and giving up any chance of living. It is not that they are necessarily suicidal than it is that they are done struggling, done fighting: the Dualla who shoots herself is not an angry or depressed Dualla but one who has accepted her fate and decided to face it with a certain perseverance or, more accurately, peace. She is at peace with her death, primarily because she realized that achieving such peace within her life had become impossible.

She is ultimately but a face for this broader sense of identity crisis: one of the most powerful scenes in the episode was Adama’s stumbling walk down the corridor, drunk and searching out Tigh for their confrontation, and walking by the scrawled “Frak Earth” along with the groups of depressed and angry people. It’s the kind of thing we rarely get to see, and when we have it’s been a point of contention: no one seemed to really dig the union storyline in Season three, for example, even though I personally felt like it finally let us see the ramifications of some of these decisions on people who don’t have their names in the credits.

Dualla’s death is the episode’s most shocking, a moment designed to blow the lid off of our preconceptions that this universe we’re in is somehow safe. For humanity, this has perhaps been the case: they haven’t had a non-offensive encounter with the Cylons since the end of the third season, and the search for Earth has dominated the show’s resources. All of a sudden, humanity is in a state of near-total crisis, even before they receive the news that shocks those in power to their core.

Yes, the 13th Colony were Cylons – they were Cylons who had centurions, who lived as humans lived, and who two thousand years ago suffered a nuclear holocaust to mirror that of the other 12 colonies on Caprica. The show has long drawn parallels between the two sides, but this episode was the most dramatic example of this. After the destruction of the Hub united humans and Cylons as mortal beings, they came together to discover Earth, which clearly meant something to both sides. Little did we know that it would be so destructive for those who believed it to be home, and that it would be a home for a people who never knew they had one.

For Laura Roslin, this is all too much to handle – she was able to weather setbacks, she was able to weather cancer, but learning that the 13th colony on which she placed the entire fleet’s hopes were in fact the very enemy that they were attempting to escape from is too deep a trauma for Roslin to easily recover from. Roslin was part of both one of the most public and one of the most private scenes in the episode. First, departing from that Raptor, the crew of Galactica standing there waiting for some type of news, some type of sign that their hope had all been worth it. What they got instead was two damaged people, both with no expression and without any type of artifact from the world below. Roslin couldn’t cope with their expectation, withering and getting out of there as quickly as possible to keep from having to face it.

It was so tragic for Roslin because this was her identity: she did not want to die as someone who no one remembered, but rather as the dying leader who would lead her people to Earth. She had no idea that what she would be doing was leading them to what was never their home, a place where they would find anguish and death more than experience and prosperity. It’s the exact opposite of what she had wanted, and as a damaged cancer patient she withdraws into her own sense of hopelessness: burning the scriptures, the Pithean texts which once gave her such guidance, is not an angry but a resigned act. As she burns that book, or later curls into a ball and holds the flower she brought from Earth’s surface, you realize that these people suddenly have no where to go: Laura Roslin’s destiny is now entirely unformed.

While Mary McDonnell was busy knocking her scenes out of the park, though, the episode had the opposite effect for the Cylons, who suddenly are living a destiny they didn’t even know existed. This episode is what I was sort of looking for earlier in the season, an expansion of the Cylon identities of the four (Tigh, Tori, Anders, Tyrol) to something beyond human and Cylon binaries. Their discovery sifting through the rubble of Earth, that they once lived here and were part of this society in various different roles, raises questions simultaneously broader (bringing into question why they and no one else from the planet survived as models) and more specific (raising questions about who they once were and what kind of lives they led). Forced before to reconcile one life with one lie, they are now trying to reconcile two lives, one which is so intensely personal to them and the other which feels by comparison, and are part of a web of confusion.

Most central to this is Saul Tigh, who is the only Cylon model to get any real focus within the premiere. His discussion with Adama, as the Admiral asks Tigh to kill him because he isn’t able to do it himself, is very subtle compared to some of the episode’s other revelations but nonetheless feels extremely effective. The reason is that Tigh is beginning to gain some knowledge about his past experience: he is adamant, and I believe rightly so, that he chose to be Adama’s friend. There is clearly a difference between these Cylons and the skinjobs we first met in the series, and the ideas of hidden agendas and programming doesn’t seem to imply.

The episode raises a multitude of questions about Cylon creation, obviously: if they were the 13th Colony, did the rest of the colonies know they were machines? Was it the religious divide that led them to Earth, and if so did it also lead them to their end? Are the skinjobs in some way transplanted knowledge from the original fleet or, rather, are they an independent creation from Cylon forces? There are gaps all over the place, and those gaps are for us frustrating and, for humanity, devastating to their own sense of identity.

But they are freeing for the final five, who finally gain their last member. Learning that Ellen Tigh is the final Cylon wasn’t a huge shock: she appeared mysteriously during the first season with little to no explanation, her memory lingered for a very long time after her tragic death, and she returned to our narrative just this season as Caprica Six appeared to Tigh in her image. I always liked Ellen: yes, she was a bit obnoxious in the first season, but I found her much improved in Season Three when her relationship with Saul took that absolutely tragic turn in “Occupation/Precipice.”

The episode works without much time spent on Ellen, revealed only at the very end of the episode, because her identity has never been important to us. It is really a bade of honour for Saul Tigh, who realizes just as he’s about to send himself out to sea that his old life was in some way connected to his old one. This mythology he never knew he had didn’t in his mind complicated his human identity but in many ways explain it: whoever he was on Earth in some way transferred to his humanity if he and Ellen found one another in what we presume to be another life. Michael Hogan is an amazing actor, and the idea of the question of Cylon identity resting on his shoulders gives me great hope for where the show goes from here.

The decision to reveal it in the first episode of the season’s second half is certainly going to face some criticism, but I think considering her identity it makes sense: the reveal was going to be a “disappointment” in relation to the hype levels surrounding it, so the real test is less the person themselves and more how they interact with or alter our existing characters. While this isn’t quite as ballsy as making it a character we are still with on a regular basis, as it was with the first four reveals at the end of the third season, this seems like a smart expansion as opposed to a new distraction. We can continue with the fourth season’s storylines without much interruption, but all of a sudden we have this new and fresh perspective.

It’s a new perspective, though, that is going to need a lot more explanation. Sitting with friends after watching the episode, we immediately reverted back to the usual final season practice: trying to figure out which questions need answering, which storylines need resolutions, or which characters seem like their journey is not yet complete. The episode is not all-inclusive by any means of the imagination: we get very little time with any of the first set of Cylon models, and it results in one of the episode’s strangest moments. D’anna, who was only just recently unboxed in order to tell everyone what she knew about the Final Five, discovers the truth about the planet and then, unceremoniously, declares that she is going to stay on Earth and die with her people.

It’s confirmed that this is Lucy Lawless’ last episode, which is problematic for me. It’s not that I feel there was a lot of life left in the character (she died for a reason in season three, not just because it was fun), but rather that the episode didn’t seem to make a big enough deal of her departure. There are a few things that the episode glossed over more than a bit, and while I understand the impulse it seems weird not to discuss Caprica Six’s pregnancy in an episode focused on Tigh, or to investigate the issue of Cylon and human identity while relegating Baltar to a lab coat. Baltar, in particular, feels egregious: he represents one of those people who raises the question of how close Cylons and humans really are. Head Six is a lingering phenomenon that inextricably links Baltar’s fate to the Cylon race, along with his decision to preach their religion, and it is hard to put some of these events into context without wondering about Baltar’s role.

And all of them have some type of connection to the one thing that Hybrid said that we have yet to understand, the truth about the opera house: Roslin still has a part in that, but so does Athena, so does Hera (and any and all other hybrids for that matter), and so does Caprica. Why does Roslin see what they see, when they are both Cylons and she is not? What is it about some of these people that they so easily cross between these two worlds? Those are a lot of questions, and especially for Baltar we didn’t get a real sense of where they fit into this puzzle.

But it makes sense, in a way, to ignore Baltar here in favour of the other most prominent intermediary of sorts between the two groups: Starbuck’s journey that led her to Earth and then back into that nebula has always been left a mystery since the season began, but in an identity twist not dissimilar from something you’d expect to see on Lost Starbuck returned to Earth to find that the colonial emergency beacon was coming from her own ship, her old ship. It culminates in a terrifying discovery that still disturbs me: Starbuck finds her own corpse, in a destroyed and mangled viper with her wedding ring and dog tags around its neck.

While Dualla was the most surprising moment in the episode, this was the most disturbing: as Starbuck, in a stunning shot done entirely in silhouette, builds her own funeral pyre, essentially, you just want to fast forward to the end to see what exactly this all means. Is it like Lost in that there became two of her; she clearly isn’t a Cylon, but then what is she precisely? We’ve always had two views of Starbuck: the hybrid’s insistence that she would be the harbinger of death, and Leoben’s idea of her destiny with the Cylons. Leoben, upon seeing the body, admits that he was wrong, which implies that the Hybrid may in fact have been closer to the truth. It isn’t immediately clear what Starbuck will do with this information: yes, she burned any evidence to keep from having people question her, but surely she questions herself enough for this to be an important issue of identity.

It also, I think, gives Starbuck a more clear trajectory moving into the second half of the season; she slowed down the first half in a large number of places, and it seemed as if she was more angry and annoyed than she was really searching for meaning. Here, with a more volatile secret at stake, it feels like we’re getting a very real representation of Starbuck, which I think is good news for both fans of Katee Sackhoff and fans of the show delving into dramatic material without having to split its crew apart.

What makes “Sometimes a Great Notion” work is not so much a great notion than an intelligent one: it knows not to drag out the question of the final Cylon, it knows to use its dramatic influence to improve its existing characters as opposed to introducing new ones, and it demonstrated a keen eye for both visual style (some great shots) and a slow reveal of the true complexity before us. It was well-paced, extremely well acted, and demonstrative of the show’s high pedigree in a way that I’m not convinced 4.0 was outside of the finale of sorts. It is an exciting return, and certaintly a continued formal triumph.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m going to have a nap right now, but later tonight I plan on catching up on my reading of other blog posts: you can check out Alan Sepinwall’s review, Mo Ryan’s interview with Ron Moore, Devindra Hardewar’s thoughts at /Film, and Todd VanDerWerff’s detailed analysis at The House Next Door.
  • I am really curious to know where in British Columbia they shot the stuff they did on Earth: there was some amazing vistas within the episode, and I was very impressed by the work done on it. Directed by Michael Nankin, and written by veteran writers Weddle/Thompson, the episode really captured both the emotional and visual aesthetics that the show works best within.
  • I’m BSG’ed out for now – feel free as always to leave your thoughts below, as I’m stille jonesing for some discussion even if I need to spend the next couple of days getting myself into a Lost frame of mind.
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4 Comments

Filed under Battlestar Galactica

4 responses to “Season Premiere: Battlestar Galactica – “Sometimes a Great Notion”

  1. Damn, that’s an awesome post! I mirror a lot of your thoughts on everything that was revealed. My head was spinning for 2 days after watching it, and now everything is becoming more clear.

    As for Dualla’s death, I saw it as a way for her to regain control of her life. She has no control over what happened to humanity, her marriage, their promised land, but she does have control to end things on her own terms. Taking her own life was sad and tragic to watch, but from the character’s perspective, it must have been liberating and empowering.

  2. e

    I still want to know how Baltar survived that explosion at his house

  3. I forgot to mention it, e, but we discussed that after the episode: it’s a question that, like Head Six, makes us wonder what precisely Baltar’s role is in the future of the Cylon and human intersection.

    And totally agree, Televixen, about the question of control: it just doesn’t make it hurt any less, does it?

  4. Pingback: Season Premiere: Lost - “Because You Left / The Lie” « Cultural Learnings

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