“Someone to Watch Over Me”
February 27th, 2009
For an episode driven by the power of melody to transcend minds and to bring people together, there was a return to a familiar rhythm to “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a return to form for Battlestar Galactica as it heads into its final three episodes. What’s been missing in the last few episodes is the sense that this is all coming together to add up to something, that what we’ve been seeing and the answers we’ve been searching for have been worth our time. While, perhaps, the content of “No Exit” or “Deadlock” will make a difference in the end, neither episode in and of itself added up to something profound, something progressive, or something that gives us some peace of mind that the show knows where its most powerful material lies as it heads towards its finale.
But this week this all changed under the guidance of Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, delivering their last episode with a deft sense of pacing and momentum. It is an episode that leans heavily on the past to demonstrate the power that it has over us, and then allows that to play out in the present in a way that is simultaneously revelatory and, more importantly, diversionary from the laidback, almost nonchalant path the show has been on since the end of the mutiny. The result is a clear path to the future, centering its storyline on the two major unanswered questions and using both of them to drive us into something approximating a climax. More importantly, though, the actions in the episode are ones which actually have broad implications for almost everyone: while the most recent drama has remained far too isolated to one side of humans and Cylons, here we finally have something that everyone can get really frakking pissed about.
And, well – finally.
The opening of this episode, directed by Michael Nankin, was by far the series’ most powerful use of imagery since the mutiny, and might have actually been even more effective for me. In fact, Nankin is apparently enormously good at Starbuck episodes – he handled the season premiere as well, so maybe the show was just waiting on Nankin’s schedule to clear before they actually returned in earnest to Starbuck’s struggle. Regardless, the scene was a true powerhouse, intercutting between Starbuck preparing for her day (getting up amidst the flickering lights due to the construction, showering, getting dressed, lying in bed) while practicing her CAG speech and the speech itself, given in a monotone of sorts. I’ll be saying many great things about Katee Sackhoff, but that first scene was by far the standout: listening to the speech does little to remind us of the power she once held, but from seeing her preparing the address we see that she’s planned out her jokes (including the one about wanking in space – it was whacking in her preparation), getting the proper language for her directions and explanations. This is someone who, once spontaneous and emotional to the point of being a loose cannon who is suddenly having to practice the smallest of speeches.
This is what happens, apparently, when Kara Thrace forgets who she is, when she loses touch with the part of her we know as “Starbuck” outside of the alcohol consumption. She has to construct Starbuck from memory, in a way, piecing together something approximating that died when she realized that, well, she did actually die on Earth. She is living every day in what she believes is not her body, is not her life, is just a shell of something else, something that she doesn’t understand. Sitting at Joe’s, with the piano being played, she begins to interact with the piano player because there is something about the piano that still fires her up, something about the process of composition that makes her forget for a second about her existential crises and remember something far simpler, something that made her both happy and sad without creating an internal binary as a result. It was a memory of her father, who abandoned her and her mother, that wasn’t tarnished by his departure, that still felt real even though in her dream she saw her childhood self one moment and her skeletal remains the next.
There were a few moments early on when it was clear that this piano player was not just some guy, primarily the moment where she tells him about the body on Earth, reveals to him what she has revealed to no one else and what caused even Leoben to shudder. There just wasn’t a reaction there, wasn’t that moment wherein a real person would have questioned it. He was there for no other reason than to be a sounding board for Starbuck’s emotions, to be there to wake in her something that proves not only that she has some sort of connection to the Cylons but that she also has some sort of connection with her former self, with the child who learned the song to begin with. The moment where Starbuck and her Head Father, if we can call him that, begin to play that final song together, there are two emotions: one is the “Holy Frak” realization that we’re going to get to in a few paragraphs here, and the other was the power of seeing them complete the same little motions, the blowing of the finger, the sudden connection with something very real. Sackhoff may have been acting with a ghost, but in those moments we got something that when paired with her crises from “Sometimes a Great Notion” demonstrates her ability to overcome even the most powerful of plot-based revelations with something very character-driven, very emotional, and ultimately very effective.
There are some questions, of course: did the rest of Joe’s bar just think she was crazy when she was talking to this piano man, sitting there talking to herself? If we are to presume, as I feel we are, that he was a vision to her in the way that Baltar has visions of Head Six, or Head Baltar, then we know that she would have appeared to be talking to herself, or playing the piano with someone else, the entire time. I understand why we are to ignore this for the sake of dramatic purpose, and the reveal at the end was effective when paired with the particular composition they created, but nonetheless it’s something I was left wondering as the episode came to a close. It was a bit of a dramatic copout, no doubt about it, but I think it was worth it for that moment.
That moment, of course, is when you realize that Starbuck was playing a song we’ve heard before, and that the man with the eyepatch sitting in the corner knows it all too well. The fact that Starbuck’s father, whose name isn’t Daniel as we had perhaps thought but does start with the letter D (Dreilide), taught her the music to “All Along the Watchtower” is one of those moments where things come together almost out of nowhere, and in this episode where two moving parts (Starbuck’s visions and, surprisingly, Hera’s picture of what we thought were stars) suddenly evolve into something entirely different. One of them had the melody, the other the chords, and when played together they formed that Earth melody which we presume that Ellen might have taught young Daniel before his death, and which certainly adds a great deal of speculation to the equation. While the episode was touted as being the big “Starbuck-centric Episode,” and she did certainly play a fundamental role, it was not a question of answering her origins but rather finally connecting them more carefully to some more clearly defined associations. We don’t know what precisely Starbuck is, but we are much closer to the truth.
It didn’t seem that way at first, though. This episode started off with the recurrent power outages, and with the ship almost at a stand-still. The construction was ongoing, and they tell Adama that the ship could only handle two or three jumps before its hull would breach. The situation is actually quite dire, but they’re trying to go on and live every day: searching for habitatable planets, bringing a new six model (who I thought was Caprica for the longest time) into the Quorum as the representative of the Cylons, settling into an uncertain future not quite depressed but, rather, accepting. The prize for finding a new home isn’t something lavish or ceremonial, it’s the final tube of toothpaste: hygiene has become opulence in this twisted scenario, and while they have a direction they’re making so little movement that it feels like they’re grasping at straws, living life as best they can because they don’t really have anything else they can do about it. They can’t jump, and they can’t just sit around doing nothing, so they just sort of keep up the appearance of keeping on while, silently, perhaps not feeling the emotional drive behind it.
But the episode follows one man who has that emotional drive, one Cylon in fact who more than the others feels like there is something that he needs to be doing right now. I love the choice to bring together Tyrol and Starbuck’s stories because they relate to similar ideas of identities and the past. While Tigh had a powerful enough connection to the human world that his re-entry into that society made sense, Tyrol’s is more complicated: as the episode showed, Tyrol’s most profound remaining personal connection is to another Cylon, to the woman that he loved when neither of them knew their true identities, who still loved him even after she knew her own, and who he still loves now that he knows their love wasn’t built on lies once you tore away their false identities. Much as Kara would have latched onto any sign of her own past, Tyrol literally has his sitting down in the brig, and when he learns that she’s about to be extradited to Cylon custody to be tried for treason and likely executed he isn’t able to contain his emotions.
First, let’s acknowledge the kind of symmetry we’re getting between humans and Cylons leading up to what we are quickly realizing to be the cooperation between these two societies and their races. The Cylons have thier mutiny in the first half of the season, then the humans have theirs in the second half; the humans take back Gaius Baltar and try him for Treason for his cooperation with the Cylons, and now the Cylons want to do much the same thing with Boomer. You can go through and continue drawing them, but the fates of these two peoples are closer now than they ever were, political and social pressures lining up to provide alternate histories for two groups that will forever be connected. There’s a lot of power in that, and while I’ve felt that some episodes needed to more clearly make those connections for the sake of their individual effectiveness I feel as if it’s becoming enough of a trend to build nicely into the series’ finale.
But more importantly here, it gives us Tyrol reconnecting with Boomer, and the very smart creation of the Cylon projection, pretty much unused since Baltar left the Baseship (which itself, if you remember, is technically all a projection), wherein Boomer and Tyrol are living a life happy and together. Those moments actually make you emotional: we once knew Boomer in the show’s first season as a tragic figure, someone who was trapped in a body that wasn’t theirs and who knew she was something beyond human and a danger to those around her. That conflict was something that created great sympathy, even after she shot Adama, and considering she was one of those who organized the original positive intentions of New Caprica and who we saw just two weeks ago listening to Ellen’s beliefs and then whisking her off of the Baseship towards humanity, this is someone we downright cheered for. We have become so used to Cylons who are humans, or are like humans, or who are sympathetic to human causes, that we fully believe that she has seen the light, and Tyrol and Boomer could be for the series a true love story amidst this chaos. That idyllic scenario Boomer created in her head was just perfect – of course, it was too perfect.
As this all began to unravel, you see the strength in the first half of this episode moving slowly, of things seeming as if they’re just going to fall into place. When Tyrol sees the Extradition order signed, your first reaction is that Tyrol is going too far for love, that he is putting his dignity at risk in a way that impacts others. But then all of a sudden we’re in a bathroom, and Boomer is attacking Athena, and we start to realize that he truly has unleashed something very powerful. But even then I thought it was just revenge: that she was going after Athena for in a way taking her life, for turning her back on the Cylons before it was kosher to turn your back on the Cylons. I should have realized, of course, that even if it was just anger it would be coming from a place of Cavil’s argument for purity, and that her actions were not just of a woman who wanted to get her punches in. She and Helo having sex right in front of Athena was just plain cold, and was one of those dark moments where you begin to see Boomer descend further and further.
And yet, I don’t think I was prepared for the moment where she picked up Hera at the daycare center and walked off with her. It was so sudden: there was no slow-motion, no build-up, no “Oh no!” look on Athena’s face that indicated her plan. It was just a quick scoop and, all of a sudden, you realized where it was all heading. All of it had been one giant plan: the show had pulled one over on us, preying on our past experience with Boomer and with Tyrol and hoping we’d view her alignment with Cavil as a brief diversion, all the while knowing that she was really only there with the mission of bringing Hera back to Cavil. It was a brilliant build-up, and it has profound ramifications for the rest of the season’s direction because of two words: Opera House.
If the episode had just dealt with the two main storylines above, this wouldn’t have been the episode it needed to be. If this was just about Tyrol and Kara, if we had ended just with Kara figuring out that she knows the same song that woke the Final Four from their slumber and Tyrol frantically searching through the house Boomer fabricated to trick him for the child they had, for the wife he desperately wanted and unknowingly placed Hera into danger for, the episode would have again felt like the ramifications were being lost, that stories were being comparmentalized away from the other characters in an attempt to keep things simple. However, what happens to Starbuck is not only profound for her, but also profound for the fact that it was Hera who had the other side of the equation. And the fact that Boomer makes her way off of Galactica in a damaged raptor, jumping into space in a dangerous manuever, has profoundly changed the paths of two of the show’s most powerful forces.
The first, of course, is Laura Roslin, whose Opera House dreams have finally come to fruition in the form of what appears to be some kind of episode that results in her pulse being checked. I am not convinced that Laura is dead, but rather that something has taken over here: there is a part of her that has a connection to Hera, and it makes her the third human (or we presume Starbuck and Baltar to be humans) who has some sort of a connection to the Cylon destiny. While last episode brought Baltar back into the equation, this week elevated Starbuck and Roslin to the point where this destiny is now there’s as well. The Opera House image has always been about Hera, and now that the Hybrid (who once saved Roslin’s life, and who Roslin helped care for while on New Caprica) has been taken away there is a sense that the Opera House has become even more important, and its answer solves the not just to our desire for information but also an actual crises depicted on screen. That’s something that the show needs to be doing more of: it can’t just be that we’re getting answers because it’s the end of the show, but because what’s happening to these characters, this universe, dictates it.
And that became even more clear when Boomer’s close proximity to Galactica upon jumping creates a powerful surge of energy which shatters part of Galactica’s hull, rendering the ship even more damaged than it was before. Those final moments were such a shift from the start of the episode: they were talking about a tube of toothpaste there, and now here Roslin is fainting, Athena is stumbling into the Ready Room bloodied and thrashing, Adama is staring down Boomer from CiC without much control over the situation, and what we saw in this episode mattered to absolutely everyone on board that ship. This wasn’t some isolated pocket of drama, something that mattered only to a few characters, but an escalating and expanding piece of character-driven drama that ultimately affects both the parts and the whole.
This is the kind of episode that the show has been missing as of late, stories that feel like they have equal ramifications for the characters as they do for us as viewers. No, this doesn’t actually delve into the mythology in an expositional fashion: we presume that Daniel could be Starbuck’s father, but we get nothing definitive, and only hints (vague at that) of its greater meaning. But, finally, we’re getting a big picture here: the various things that have happened all along are lining up to become something greater than themselves. If anything, perhaps we’re getting set for one big metaphor, wherein the ship is broken and battered and humanity now must rely on the Cylons, and themselves as individuals to keep Galactica’s spirit alive just as the show itself is going to be kept afloat not by finishing off the broad strokes but by emphasizing the characters that have crafted this great dramatic series.
Regardless, it felt like BSG was finally accomplishing something, and that for once I have some belief that next week’s episode is going to pay attention to the one previous. And that’s the jolt of life that I’ve been waiting for.
- I don’t want to fundamentally single out too many actors here, but Grace Park did an amazing job of bringing Boomer back to live in this episode, and Athena’s reaction in Helo’s arms, literally attacking him with every bit of her remaining energy as he held her, was just some very powerful stuff. We haven’t actually spent time with an 8 for quite some time, not on a personal level like this, and even though I dislike “Deadlock” its clear that Helfer and Park have evolved a great deal from the Miniseries in terms of their dramatic performances.
- Special mention has to be made, of course, of Bear McCreary, whose piano music drove much of the episode home. This was the episode wherein he was actually on set, ensuring that the piano scenes were done properly I presume, and it must have been a thrill for him to be so hands-on and to have music play such a key role. I’m a sucker for piano melodies as it is, and it seemed like the tones were perfectly woven into the episode’s identity starting with the opening montage and moving through to the eventual duet. I’m glad that, this late in the game, McCreary’s music has become so foregrounded, and I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve for the final episodes. And if you were wondering if this was a lot of work, check out McCreary’s THREE-PART series on the composition here.
- I loved the scene where Tigh, listening to the plight of Anders and the people, was downing his alcohol mumbling “we’re all in hell.” The character really hasn’t changed, and while he did just lose his son he’s still his old self, as he’s always had his demons to contend with.
- I really want to know whether or not the little tidbit, where the few Cylons who attend to Anders’ bedside with Ellen and suggest that they should hook him up to the Cylon datastream as if he was a Hybrid, will come to fruition – it seems like a really intelligent idea to me, and it might help them discover where Cavil might be going.
- Speaking of, what do we think Cavil wants with Hera: is it just to keep her away from the humans, or is it so he can study her like he said he wanted to study Ellen? He might believe that within her is the secret, and while I don’t really want Cavil to go all evil mad scientist too much on us it seems like that would be the threat: that he believes that, on top of a melody or two, she has some deeper answers in that little head of hers.