February 20th, 2009
“Imagine, instead of 50,000 survivors, there are only five.”
The above are the words of the fifth and final Cylon, words that are in fact quite resonant: considering what we have learned of the Cylon back story in the last few episodes, the Final Five are survivors of a sort, the last of a dead race that have worked to create their own legacy. The Cylons are actually a weird race, in that there is this battle between control and destiny that defines them: if they hadn’t started to rely on pro-creation, taking the future of the race into their own hands and out of their more natural resurrection, maybe the holocaust wouldn’t have hit Earth. And if the Final Five hadn’t agreed to work with the Centurions in order to create the other 8 models, perhaps the attack on the twelve colonies wouldn’t have happened, and there could have been something approaching peace. These are just some of the points wherein questions of blame and responsibility tickle up and down the Cylon timeline, creating the backbone of what we thought would be at least half of the series’ trajectory moving into its final episodes.
What fascinated me about “Deadlock” is that instead of focusing on these types of questions, it removes us from the show itself and places us into the minds of the writers, as they move the characters around like they’re playing checkers on a chess board (Yes, that was a “The Wire” burn). While it was understandable early in the show’s run to have blatant transition episodes like this one, where people start taking on new roles and where old trajectories are shifted into new directions, both this episode and “No Exit” are so blatantly the result of setup that one can’t fully engross themselves in this world. We are coming to the point in the show’s run where the audience is more engrossed in the fate of these characters than ever, and I find myself consistently being drawn out of that element of the series in favour of pondering just how blithely they are willing to state the obvious, linger on that which needs not lingering, and delve into the absolute wrong kind of opera at this late stage of the game.
And if they seriously couldn’t plan out even half a season well enough to avoid episodes that read like this, then forgive me if I don’t join those who are concerned about how this is all coming to come together in a month’s time.
I am aware, by the way, that my cynicism is growing for Battlestar at an alarming rate, and I really wish it wasn’t. For me, it’s been a period of escalation: it started with “Blood on the Scales,” which I felt moved too quickly, and then continued into “No Exit,” an episode that felt like too much exposition with not enough to show for it. The problem with “Deadlock” is that it only plays into my earlier concerns, rushing various storylines and entirely squandering the breadth of content that “No Exit” made available to it.
I equate it to playing checkers on a chess board, because “Deadlock” essentially takes an incredibly complex situation (made even more complex last week) and turns it into a series of simple jumps, diagonal movements where everyone follows the same rules and where things which before required a great deal of concentration now just require a few convenient leaps of logic. The funny thing is that, for all of the simplification that needed to happen in order to make the episode work, it doesn’t actually go anywhere: the pieces barely get halfway across the board by episode’s end, and to compromise the narrative integrity of the series for this seems extremely misguided.
I want to start with what is the dominant storyline of the episode, the boiling down of the Cylon future into a soap opera entitled “Should We Stay or Should We Go?” I want to start off by saying that I really do love Kate Vernon, whose return as Ellen Tigh has brought back a character who was always enjoyable to watch because while she was conniving, and while she was vindictive, in most situations she used these traits in order to save Tigh or to assist him, as misguided as she often was. Her arc during the time on New Caprica was an actual tragedy because she was betraying the Resistance in order to save Tigh, in order to save his life and in order to keep him from being harmed. Their love story was never normal, and certainly never entirely happy, but its tragic end of sorts was incredibly powerful stuff.
And yet, here it was cheapened into a total soap opera: a wife comes back from the dead to discover her husband has impregnated another woman, and she reacts with intense passive aggressiveness and eventually causes the child to go into crisis and eventually die. It’s ripped right out of “Days of Our Lives” at a certain point, but the storyline in and of itself would be one problem. The concern is that the question of the Cylons, and whether they should abandon the human fleet, is ultimately made entirely based on this pettiness, this squabble between lovers. The entire fate of the Cylon and human fleets almost came down to whether or not Tigh had sex with that woman, and you’ll forgive me if I find this particularly reductive for a show where destiny has rarely come down to something so shallow. There were a lot of major questions here, like why Tyrol went from being Adama’s right-hand man to suddenly willing to abandon humanity, but they were all left behind in favour of the melodramatic bickering.
And its reductive to Ellen’s legacy on the series, turning her back into someone without a heart and who isn’t capable of realizing when her conniving goes too far. She was trying to hurt Tigh, ignoring the fact that she would also be hurting the child that was supposed to be the one hope for them. I think I get what the show was stretching for here: they were trying to show how just because Ellen, Tigh and the rest of the five were the creators of the other Cylons does not mean that they are perfect, that they too are human and are capable of mistakes. However, it felt like the nuance of that was lost behind the soap opera, with Liam’s death serving as too blunt an endpoint for that particular statement. There was nothing subtle about this storyline, and subtlety is something that I would like to see more of from the show right now.
I think I would feel better about the whole storyline if the episode hadn’t so clearly choreographed Liam’s death the moment that Roslin and Caprica started discussing the Opera House visions; Caprica oh so subtlely mentioning that “Huh, you know, we haven’t had any visions since I got pregnant” was a big hint that, considering the show absolutely must answer the question of the Opera House before the show is done, Liam is probably going to have to die for that to happen. And what bothers me about this is that it’s entirely a writer’s construct: they had total control over how to close the Opera House story, and killing Caprica’s baby was the way that they chose to do it. I know as a critic that I’ve trained myself to think in terms of what writers choose, but at this point in the game it feels like none of this is flowing organically, and scenes of exposition just scream out the reason we’re being told this or shown that.
And when it becomes most frustrating is when the writers have chosen to do something in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, like stretching all of the above action into an entire episode. Ellen could have shown up on Galactica, heard about the baby, confronted Caprica angrily (perhaps maybe even hitting her while in an angry rage at Tigh), and then Caprica could have lost the baby and we have an entire half an episode to start getting into the ramifications of this. When it’s clear that this is something that is being done in order to clear the path for the future, simplifying the game of chess down to a game of checkers to get to the other side in time, we can’t help but start to wonder why it wasn’t done sooner, and why they made things so complicated if they were just going to have to start throwing things aside in this manner as we approached the show’s conclusion.
It’s becoming an issue where we spend more time focusing on what we’re not seeing than what we are: I spent a lot of the episode wishing we were inside Boomer’s head instead of inside Ellen’s, seeing how she is adapting to being in that cell, to seeing Tyrol again, to coming to terms with her own decision to abandon Cavil. But perhaps I should be glad that she wasn’t caught up in all of this, that her own past legacy of identity crises and turmoil weren’t boiled down into jealousy, lust and petty squabbling.
The episode’s other major storyline was unfortunately following the same lines, the decision to attempt to take Gaius Baltar and have him play a completely different game without really justifying this shift in identity. The problem with Baltar all season has been a lack of real character development: we’ve had little bits of pieces, but it has felt as if we’ve never really been there with him in those moments of transformation. We got that one moment in “Blood on the Scales” where Baltar stopped and had no idea what he was running from, but for Baltar to return as he did here, suddenly deciding that he needs to do more to help the people, feels like a leap that hasn’t been justified by anything that we’ve actually seen.
There are some interesting things in this storyline, including yet another viewpoint into the people of the fleet, something that I usually quite like to be honest with you. And ever since the end of the Mutiny, the show has been missing a face of the people, someone who can give us a better sense of what is happening on the ground level. This episode, on that front, attempted to do two things: to indicate the ship becoming “blended” was beginning to create tension, and that there was a need for an intervention from Adama and Roslin in order to fix this. And yet, in a roundabout piece of logic that I don’t quite understand, this ends up with Baltar returning to his harem and getting them armed with high-powered military weapons, becoming a sort of state-sponsored aide organization with giant guns.
I have two problems with this, the first to do with Baltar as a character. The episode begins with the Baltar we always know and love, the conflicted man who awkwardly balances his dislike with these people with his search for some kind of purpose. He runs into opposition when he realizes his peaceful harem wasn’t the same innocent group that he had left behind during the mutiny, but then he begins to recapture his past glory when he awkwardly decides that a young boy conveniently named Gaius looks hungry and that he deserves food. This Gaius the Humanitarian is leaning a bit too close to Gaius as a Jesus-figure, but as the episode progressed he takes it on as his purpose: when Head Six arrives to help him inspire the people and convince them not to give up their humanitarian cause just because of a few people with big guns.
I just don’t quite understand what the show wants us to take from this: is the appearance of Head Six a sign that Baltar is back on the right path, or rather a sign that he is once again being led astray? Unfortunately, Baltar never stops to ask himself this question: he doesn’t get to converse with Head Six, but rather just takes her word for it. Even when we got more Baltar than we had before, it felt like we were never quite inside his head, and wasn’t that really the character’s appeal?
And Adama’s decision to agree to arm his harem doesn’t make a lick of sense: sure, Baltar would argue that the non-military people have a better chance of getting the food out to the people as long as they’re protected, but I don’t think that positioning Baltar as the last human who is able to be amongst the people is really all that logical. It feels, to be honest, like Baltar is being forced into a role of prominence for the sake of the storyline as opposed to what would actually happen in this scenario: they have no reason to trust Baltar, and considering that Baltar started the episode without an honest bone in his body I’m finding it hard to buy it all.
It’s not necessarily that the episode is dealing with the wrong things: you can’t ignore the human struggles of the Cylons, or Tigh and Ellen’s complicated relationship, or Baltar’s search for his identity, and I’m not suggesting that the show should have dealt entirely with mythology or Starbuck’s identity or any other such questions. It just seems that, if these kinds of issues were going to pop up, that there were other ways to deal with them. None of this felt particularly novel or well-thought out, just as “No Exit” seemed like a hodgepodge of different ideas thrown together.
There were moments in the episode that fit better: Tigh and Adama sitting together, drunk, discussing the dependence they have on the Cylons and the effect on the ship. That’s the kind of scene that works because it plays into the legacy of their relationship, but the rest of the episode the only real content we got on the Cylon cartiledge of sorts was numerous almost identical shots of Adama staring at the construction and then staring some more. Those were moments that felt entirely unnecessary, moments that didn’t seem necessary.
“Deadlock” just didn’t do anything for me: the acting was pretty darn good all along, especially from Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon and Tricia Helfer, who did elevate this beyond the level of a daytime soap opera. But I think were to a point where this show can’t just be about good acting, and where an episode can’t quite indulge itself as this one does. There were some sharp little comic moments here (Roslin realizing that she’s never called Caprica by a name, Hot Dog remarking that space is filled with dead women from their past), but they never amounted to an episode that (like “A Disquiet Follows My Soul”) that was about establishing a mood, or preparing characters. Instead, it was about rushing characters into new roles, and about spending too much time setting up a Cylon storyline through base human emotions, a philosophical discussion that was played out last week and felt cheapened here by this particular portrayal.
- It seemed a little bit weird that in the episode about Hera potentially being the future of the Cylons that we never saw Hera, or Athena, who you would think would have something more of a role to play in events like this one. The same goes for Helo, but we can blame that on Dollhouse.
- While I had my issues with how the whole storyline played out, the tense final standoff where Ellen held Tigh and Caprica’s baby hostage was filled with a lot of truth, including the idea that Tigh is married more to Adama than he is to any woman. We’ve known about that bromance for a while, but it was an apt point of escalation in that scene.
- I found the last two scenes of the episode to be the exact opposite of one another: I was actively moved by Michael Hogan’s emotional scene in Adama’s office despite its fairly simple staging, while I found the “Cylons have their own spot on the Sympathy Wall” to fall in with the rest of the episode’s lack of subtlety. I think I’m probably being unfair to the latter, but I also just felt like it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know: didn’t we deal with that often enough at the end of the mutiny arc to not have to be so bloody obvious with it?
- I will end, now that I’ve remember it, with the one thing I uncategorically loved about this episode: Tigh’s “Great Grandpa was a power sander line.” Cracked me up.