Battlestar Galactica – “The Oath”

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“The Oath”

January 30th, 2009

“Every revolution begins with one small act”

This was what Tom Zarek told Felix Gaeta when they made their uneasy alliance at the end of “A Disquiet Follows My Soul,” and the events of “The Oath” are in many ways the result of this particular theory, if not quite in the way that Zarek meant these words.

Fundamentally, yes, the act of mutiny that begins at 0630 hours was in fact one small act that would spiral into something much large, but at this point it is impossible to consider any action or any event as anything but a culmination of past tensions. The entire episode is spent taking a trip down memory lane: to Anders’ days back on Caprica surviving the Cylon attack, to the fight of the resistance on New Caprica, to the treasonous activities during the reunion of Galactica and Pegasus, they all played a role in who these people are and how they came to be there. They all took an oath, every single one of them, and although that Oath has been tested it is in this moment that they will make a decision.

The result is quite literally a showdown between the present and the past, one that each character on an individual level is forced to reconcile. Despite being the most action-packed episode perhaps of the entire season thus far, and featuring in my mind the most tense and human-driven action we’ve seen since “Pegasus,” this was much less about the action than it was about what it meant to the people involved. From grunt marines to basic civilians to the former political and military leaders of these people, humanity is indeed at a crossroads, and this is as much an inner revolution of their minds as it is an attempt to take over control of Galactica.

Every revolution may begin with a small act, but “The Oath” was anything but small, and certainly represents a return to seat of your pants, edge of your seat engagement without sacrificing the psychological investigation of characters that truly sets the show apart.

In the battle between valuing the present or valuing the past, there is very little question that Felix Gaeta is haunted by the past. There is a reason why, when he is leaving with Zarek, he delays long enough to scratch at his amputated leg: he is attempting to redeem himself for past acts (including what the Webisodes have told us about his time in Baltar’s administration), and more importantly he is attempting to gain retribution to those who have hurt him and who have let this happen to him. He has lost all connection to his present condition: he has no idea what he is going to do once he takes control of Galactica because he never thought that far ahead: his goal was never about creating a better future, because the reason he was taking action in the first place was because he had given up on the prospect of the future being put in front of him.

And we know, politically speaking, that Zarek is no better: his plan appears to have been to just sit over on Colonial One and let Gaeta do the dirty work, likely in order to give him an escape should Gaeta fail to secure the other side of the bargain. Zarek is positioning himself, rather than actually choosing a position. He doesn’t have a plan for what he is going to do with this fleet, and there is no sense of how they are going to survive without their Cylon alliance. It’s all stuck in the past: fear of the Cylons and what they’ve done, fear of the alliance that has been made. But like I said last week, Zarek is technically right in many ways, as Lee at one point says tonight. He tells Tigh, flat out, that he agrees with Zarek that this is fundamentally frakked up, that it shouldn’t have come to this. But Lee, unlike Gaeta or Zarek, sits contemplating past, present and future as a wholistic idea, whereas Gaeta is hung up on one, reckless with another, and continues to elide the third.

Alessandro Juliani has never been asked to do this much before, but I think he’s been up to the task: you hated him as he took control of all communications and refused to put Starbuck or Lee through to Adama, you loathed him when he finally took control and acted like he was in charge, but I have to admit that part of me felt for him as the chatter came over the wireless, all of the fleet captains asking who was in charge, what was going on. They were turning to Gaeta for a plan, an order, anything to give them peace of mind, and all he could do was radio off to Zarek who, like the reluctant father figure, questions Gaeta’s intelligence of keeping Adama alive as opposed to offering reassurance. The show never goes so far as to make Gaeta sympathetic, but you see in the final moments of the episode that he is going against the grain here. There is part of Felix that didn’t want to order them to shoot down the raptor with Roslin and Baltar on board, but he saw the looks on everyone’s faces and remembered something that Adama said to him earlier: there is no more amnesty, there is no going back, who you are will be decided by the decisions you make on this day. And for Gaeta, so tormented by the past, that means doing everything he can to complete his mission.

The other more interesting example of a character throwing all caution to the wind is someone who has thrown away past and future and, having stopped spending all of her time pondering her existential being, suddenly wakes up from a coma of sorts to kick some ass. Starbuck has been in a funk pretty much all season: ever since she almost died, she has become a character driven by uncertainty, motives that she doesn’t even understand leading her in new directions and confusing trajectories. She was one of the people who helped lead to this deal with the Cylons, but she has had no part in its makeup because she hasn’t cared, hasn’t been driven to do anything. And yet, when she pieces together that civilians are being armed, and realizes that something is very amiss aboard Galactica, something changes in Starbuck.

The episode is moving at a pretty decent clip at most points, but it hits hardest when Lee is taken off of that Raptor and ambushed, nearly shot before Starbuck is able to shoot his asailant first. It was a fantastic point of tension for the episode, as I believed in that moment that Lee was in danger, and Starbuck suddenly appearing behind the falling marine was a brilliant directorial decision. But what the scene really establishes is that Starbuck doesn’t care about the past or her own future: she shoots Racetrack’s co-pilot the second he offers a word of resistance, and later tries to shoot Adama and Tigh’s hostage primarily because she has drawn a clear line in the sand. Starbuck has been looking at her life as shades of grey since she returned from her death, pondering where it fits within this question of human and Cylon and identity, but when placed into this situation she sees black and white: there are those who support the mutiny, and those who are against it. She shoots at them because she is at a point where she doesn’t care about feelings, or consequences, or loyalties: she holds the Oath, if not by name, as sacred, and something that one can’t take for granted in leading such an uprising.

My favourite scene with Starbuck, though, was with Lee in the storage locker, taking a break before investigating the situation further. Lee tries to pause, waffling on something and overthinking it, and Starbuck just kisses him and tells him that she hasn’t felt this alive in a long time. And it’s true: we haven’t seen an episode this action-packed since New Caprica in terms of ground combat, and Starbuck often works best in those kinds of environments (plus, she hasn’t been in a raptor since the season four premiere either). As a character, she works best in these kinds of environment, where her moral standing coincides with her decisions in the field, but what we see here was the most unflinching Starbuck yet. It brought out more of her character than we’ve seen recently, and nicely situates her for the rest of the season.

The other two characters to wake up in the episode were the two who in many ways mattered the most. In terms of the show’s narrative, Gaius Baltar has been woefully unrepresented this season, given only a few speeches and a few token appearances. While the show has acknowledged that he has continued to spread his philosophy and speak his wisdom to the people, and that he has turned on his Cylon God in the wake of Earth’s destruction, it has never given us a real sense of what he will be doing as this fleet moves forward. However, it is no coincidence that he is onboard that shuttle for a reason, and I for one am very glad for it. While he doesn’t get a hugely redemptive speech in the episode, what he does get are smaller moments of reconnection: with his battles with Roslin, with his past actions as President of the colonies, and with that sense of political drive that has been dormant during his religious phase.

It isn’t that Baltar is making a shift from religion to politics, but rather that he is making the leap from the abstract to the tangible; before he believed that the Cylon God had a plan for them all, but without that plan he has only the past to turn to in order to plan for the future. It fits perfectly with his turn to an atheist-like perspective in the wake of the state of Earth, that all of a sudden he is a man without a God who reconnects with something very real. Religion was something that made sense for Gaius because of his relationship with Head Six and his complicated involvement with the Cylons, but the show has more or less wiped away religion in favour of a more complicated philosophy: life. Baltar’s lived an interesting one, so on that merit alone he has a lot to give to these people and in his phone call with Gaeta we sense that he’s willing to give it. He reaches out to Gaeta for many of the same reasons why Roslin talks to the people: they both know that they have some sort of clout, and are now discovering a reason to use it.

It’s hard not to root for Laura Roslin, especially as she wakes up from her post-drugs euphoria to discover that her civilization is falling apart without her leadership. I love the first few scenes with her and Adama discussing the resistance to the Cylon jump drives: it’s like being inside the Clinton household about now, as Hilary comes home with complicated foreign policy issues and Bill can’t help but interject his opinion into the matter. But Roslin, unlike Bill, doesn’t want to remain involved at that point: she is content to play domestic partner to Adama, with her bathrobe, her book, her coffee, and the dinner she’ll have on the table when he gets back. It’s a tragic picture of domesticity when we know what’s abut to happen, but Roslin eventually overcomes any sense that this will be for her a tragic journey when she opens the hatch door to meet Lee and Starbuck, dressed with a wig on her head.

She was already ready: there was a new rhythm to her speech, a power in her voice, a determination we haven’t seen in quite some time. Roslin has more or less been coasting all season, letting the relative peace lead her to a complacency. It wasn’t a fast shift in just the last week: even beforehand, she was dealing with mortality, her time aboard the Cylon baseship a lesson in the idea that she would let the people decide Baltar’s fate and that her own would be decided by them. She let her anxiety over death, rendered so brilliantly in “Faith” and in other episodes, take over her to the point where the destruction of Earth was the last thing she could handle: here was supposed to be this vindication, and then there was nothing. Her past was suddenly all a lie, her worst anxities proven true as she would become the dying leader who led the people to a nuclear wasteland. She gave up on past, present and future in that moment, but here discovers that the people need a leader, even one who lied to them.

I loved the scenes between Roslin and Baltar not just because of how much I like these two characters but because here they are completely stripped down: a companion piece of sorts to their scene in last year where Roslin saved Baltar from certain death, here we find two characters who have taken down all of their defences. Baltar can sense that Roslin isn’t there to set a trap because he knows her character too well, sees that her guard isn’t up and that she is here because he has something that she needs and that she believes he will let her use it. And he does, and she uses it to discuss the crossroads the fleet is now on: not only is this fitting considering the season three finale’s title, but the sheer power of her voice creates havoc for Gaeta and Zarek. The Ship’s captains want to know: what is Roslin going to do, why was Roslin cut off, why isn’t Roslin in control? And while I will agree with Baltar to an extent that the show is perhaps overestimated her oratorical skill in terms of how it outweighs the fleet’s unrest in the face of the post-Earth period, I also feel her speech hit the right note: she is not selling them fear, and is contextualizing her comments as their last hope where Zarek is offering nothing but blind change.

Roslin is suddenly, terminal cancer and all, thinking about the future again, but this is ultimately not her battle to be fighting. I don’t care what you think about any other part of this episode, but the image of Admiral William Adama pulling out a semi-automatic and settling in next to Colonel Saul Tigh in a last stand against an oncoming mutinous force is just frakking badass. There are no new shades to his character here, just the grit and determination we’ve seen in the past overflowing in abundance. The show did an amazing job balancing the characters’ motivations and their actions tonight, which I’ll get to in a bit more depth in a moment, but with Adama they didn’t even have to try: Olmos is in such control over this character that him wielding a gun still felt less violent than his vicious speech while the CiC was being taken over. He brought the Oath, to us an abstract construct in many ways, into very clear focus, and he placed to all of them a very simple comment: there is no more amnesty, there is no more forgiveness, this is the final straw.

And that’s Adama’s relationship with temporality: he doesn’t give a frak about anything but being able to live with himself. It’s quite similar to the current attitude of Tigh, for that matter: Adama is simply deciding to live life by the values and morals he knows best, which means that he is neither willing to back down to Gaeta’s demands or willing to kill in cold blood the marine who seems willing to share old war stories and relucant to being a part of this mutiny. Adama is, like Kara or even Gaeta, throwing caution to the wind, but he is not throwing himself out there at the same time: while he might be acting differently than he did before, he is only removing the shackles of the responsibility of the Admiralcy as opposed to the fundamental nature of his identity (which Kara has stopped trying to identify and which Gaeta sees as the source of internal corruption). He would never be able to live with himself if he went on that shuttle and abandoned his own ship, but he sure as hell is going to make out with his woman before he stays behind, and doesn’t care how awkward it made his son (answer: really awkward).

The fascinating thing is that all of this character development was in one hell of an action-packed episode, which is a testament to Mark Verheiden’s script. All of the action built to something, and there are even loose ends that we haven’t even picked up on heading into next week’s episode. What I loved is that it really was a reunion tour, and most definitely was meant to remind us of the past human-driven conflicts that we have seen. Why else would it have been the engineer from the Pegasus, a civilian forced into service by Cain’s orders, who challenged Gaeta and Zarek’s shuttle? And is it a coincidence that both of the main civilian conspirators were the guy who was on New Caprica and who tried to kill Baltar at the start of the season and one of the Pegasus officers who was involved in the attempted rape of Athena? Anders got much the same treatment, attacked for being a Cylon and for not loving Seelix like she wanted him to. It was, in many ways, like the war stories Adama told later in the episode, designed to remind us of the history that these humans (and Cylons, I guess) have with each other.

But it’s all the same story: all human/human conflict we’ve seen in this series has been driven by the question of the human/Cylon binary that forms the underpinnings of this threat. It is the thing which threatens the Oath most often, the threat from Pegasus being over the treatment of Athena and Gina, Baltar’s trial resulting from the balance of resistance vs. cooperation on New Caprica, and even the short-lived mutiny about the Demetrius being over the question of whether or not to even believe the Cylon refugees. It is Roslin and Baltar who can bring these two sides together, it is Starbuck who has some type of role to play in discovering their identities, and it is the final Five Cylons who are the key to understanding at least part of this complex relationship. But for this week, the Cylons remained in a holding cell aboard Galactica because this isn’t really about them: they claim it is, but it’s really about humanity’s attempts at reconciling the past, figuring out the present, and grasping for a future.

And while they think that’s all about the Cylons, it’s not: it’s about their interpretation of The Oath and their belief in the collective will of humanity, questions that are given surprising depth by some kickass gun battles, a dual-wielding Saul Tigh and an explosive cliffhanger that will send this one into the books as one of Galactica’s most accomplished hours.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m curious to know whether or not the various timestamps, going from 0620 to 1040 or so, were in the original script. There were a strong device at demonstrating how quickly this was all happening, and how little reaction time everyone really had to it all. It kept things in perspective, and in many ways heightened the tension because we knew there wasn’t huge gaps between events, like this was 24 and they’re magically on a road with no traffic when we come back from commercial.
  • No, seriously, dual-wielding Saul Tigh, people – it was just plain kickass. All of the gun stuff was pretty great: we don’t get to see much of it, so to have marines opening fire in the CiC and to see people actually dying and going down was shocking to the system in a very good way. It brought out some great character stuff first and foremost, but it was also freeing for the director and even the sound guys to really give the ship some atmosphere with the muffled gunshots proving more of a soundtrack that Bear McCreary’s music (which was pretty unnoticeable in this episode outside of a few refrains of Roslin and Adama, although I was a little distracted by the action).
  • It’s interesting that we still haven’t returned to Tory at all – it seems odd to be ignoring her entirely, although I understand that she is the most reconciled with her Cylon self out of all of them. I’m guessing that the next half of the episode, with Roslin and Baltar heading to the baseship, will open our eyes a bit to the Cylon side of all of this, especially considering who is being held in Caprica’s cell.
  • Speaking of those people: you have Anders, who is the real bargaining chip it appears, but you also have Helo and more importantly Caprica, Athena and Hera. We’re starting to unite the people who are in the Opera House dream, and already you can see tension between Caprica (who is posturing about how they’re threatened by Cylon procreation with her baby) and Athena who clearly wants nothing to do with any of it and wants to shelter Hera from these broader ideas of destiny. There’s a lot of awesome dynamics there that we never really get back to in this hour, and I can’t wait to be a fly on that wall next week.
  • My other favourite character moment in the episode was everything that Tyrol did: seeing him there helping Baltar, organizing against the revolution, was one of those moments where you realize how he really is a decent person. His reasoning for helping Adama, that he didn’t think the old man deserved to go down that way, was such a perfect representation of where the character stands, and he is another one who is ignoring traditional identity binaries in favour of going with his gut instincts.
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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Battlestar Galactica – “The Oath”

  1. Again, a wonderful review.

    I especially enjoyed your insight into Roslin and Baltar. Everyone’s been bitching about Baltar, about his non-role this season, about how his religious views are no longer interesting as we come to the end of the show. But I still think they have a plan for the character, and that he will be with us until the end.

    Tigh with the guns – frakkin’ amazing!

  2. Pingback: The Morning After “The Oath”: BSG Links « Cultural Learnings

  3. Myles, I have to say yet again you and I are in agreement.
    In my review I posted on my blog
    , I also wrote about how this story really is about how all these decisions made by a select few are now coming to bear on all of them; that until now, we’ve just seen a fleet that just followed along blindly with whatever decisions were made, no doubt because they hinged that acceptance to the condition that it would allow them to find a new home called Earth. Now that Earth has been found, it’s only understandable that people want accountability for these decisions given what it provided them in the end.

    I wasn’t surprised by Tory’s absence since she’s holed up on the Cylon ship and the story at this point, as you mentioned, is about the human fleet and what to make about the decisions they made. However, with the separation of the key characters between Galactica and the Cylon base ship, that might change next week. That is, if the Viper pilots cede to Gaeta’s order to shoot Roslyn’s Raptor down – or if one of the other ship’s pilots doesn’t run interference after hearing Roslyn’s speech.

    As for the timestamps, apparently those were added in post after they found that it wasn’t evident how quickly the events were unraveling. A good decision on the part of the director as it gave the episode the right level of urgency and chaos needed to mirror the character’s own internal emotions.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in regards to my review. I must admit I felt like I was going to end up writing a tome as there really was so much to digest and discuss from this episode.

  4. This episode messed with my head so much that I’m having trouble formulating thoughts about it. I just keep seeing Tigh with his two guns and his one eye. Shiver.

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  6. Andy

    Why can’t every episode be like this? Well maybe not every episode but this was the most thrilling episode since exodus part 2. We shouldn’t have to wait that long for an edge of seat episode. Overall, excellent episode though. I would go as far as saying it was their best episode since the New Caprica arc.

  7. “I love the first few scenes with her and Adama discussing the resistance to the Cylon jump drives: it’s like being inside the Clinton household about now, as Hilary comes home with complicated foreign policy issues and Bill can’t help but interject his opinion into the matter.”

    Brilliant!

  8. Syrin –

    I totally agree that Baltar’s journey isn’t over, but I will concur with some fans who are complaining that he is taking so long to get there.

    I know that some reviewers, including Alan Sepinwall, felt that it felt cheap for Baltar to suddenly be willing to abandon his flock and leave Galactica, but I think this is more another situation where things happened off camera. We discussed last week about the Head Six scene missing from that episode, and even here we don’t get to see why Baltar has reverted back to his former personality. I LIKE that he has done so, and feel that there are a multitude of reasons, but not seeing them does feel like we’re missing an integral part of the character. Oh well – now that he’s on his way to the Baseship, I feel better about his path as well.

    Tanveer –

    Now that Earth has been found, it’s only understandable that people want accountability for these decisions given what it provided them in the end.

    Hmm, I kind of feel like this is somewhat different from your own review! ;) Payback and accountability are not the same thing, and the problem is that people have a very narrow view of accountability. They are more concerned with blame, if understandably so, than they are about discovering the true meaning behind things. If we view the fleet as one grieving widow over the death of their dream, of their hope, then it seems somewhat one-minded to focus on one individual, or one establishment, considering the complexity of the journey. I’ve got a feeling that humanity will come around to this fact in time, but the initial confusion is a very interesting story point.

    Ashley –

    If only Tigh has also been piss drunk at the same time – the image was fifty kinds of badass already, imagine it with slurred speech and overuse of the word frak.

    Andy –

    I figured after last week that you’d find this episode more appealing, and I will agree it’s the first time the show has done anything on this level since Exodus. I think that’s less a problem with the fourth season, which has been built on a very interpersonal character buildup with the final Cylon models, than it is about the back end of the third season. Season Four, to me, has been intensely focused, whereas the end of Season three was all over the place, and the algae planet was the most uneventful of the mid-season/end of season pit stops of sorts.

    But apparently next week is even more action-packed, so you’ve got more to look forward to!

    Thanks for the comments everyone – while Kari may find my topical political humour brilliant, your contributions are far more apt a use of that particular superlative.

  9. @Myles – Heh. It’s actually funny that you brought up my use of payback and accountability here as I mentioned that in a comment reply on my blog to your comment there. :D

    Now as my reply to your comment to my blog’s review is rather verbose (I swear I thought of making it its own entry – “BSG The Oath – My Rebuttal to Myles” :) ), I’ll be succinct here and just say that as one of the old Pegasus crew pointed out in the episode, they’re not interested in holding people accountable through the process of another trial; as far as they are concerned, those in charge have been left at the helm long enough. This isn’t a matter of reparations, but of people standing up and saying enough is enough.

    Oh, and our little discussion regarding the Zarek character has resurfaced in my reply to your comment – couldn’t help it after you mentioned him not having a bone to pick. I have to admit that of all the characters featured in BSG, I never would have guessed such an engaging discussion could be entertained over the Zarek character.

    Looking forward to reading whatever comments you may have to my lengthy reply. :)

  10. Heh, don’t worry about it Tanveer – I’ve definitely made a comment to a blog post into a post before, because it got so out of hand. For now, I think we can stick with this.

    And I think that one of the problems of the fourth season is that the fallout from Baltar’s trial has been very isolated: we got the initial anger, the guy trying to kill him while he was shaving, but afterwards we kind of forgot about it. So it’s tough to suddenly return to these ideas of justice here at the end, and I thought that the idea of not wanting to wait for trials was a bit of a mixed message. They SAY that, but Gaeta has Adama arrested for treason instead of being shot: it’s clear that not everyone thinks the same way, which is exactly what makes this mutiny so complex and fascinating to watch.

    And off I head to your post: we’ll see how long my reply to your reply is!

  11. LOL! Myles, I swear I didn’t read this before I replied on my blog, but in replying to your comment regarding Zarek, I drew comparisons to Gaius and through that comparison pointed out the similarities between what Gaius did and what the rebel Cylons are now offering the fleet.

    Freaky on so many levels . . .

    In any case, you’re right – I think the comment section approach works for now since it offers our readers the chance to not only follow this like a tennis match, but maybe join up for a pairs game (man, I’m using a lot of sports analogies in my writings and I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl).

  12. Pingback: Mutiny Revisited: Rewatching “A Disquiet…” / “The Oath” / “Blood on the Scales” « Cultural Learnings

  13. Director of photography Steven McNutt, relative of yours :D

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