Battlestar Galactica: A Newbie's Guide to Season Three
Battlestar Galactica's third season was the best so far, in my opinion, mostly because it had the most ambition and its scope was more sprawling than ever before. However, a higher aim inevitably leads to a greater chance of failure, and there were more mishaps in this season than in the past two combined. This is not a complaint, as I genuinely believe that taking risks and making mistakes is a much better avenue for a show than taking the safe route for the sake of remaining unblemished, but it does mean that there's a whole lot to talk about.
The Cylon Occupation
What Worked: Where do I even begin? This was by far the most politically relevant storyline Battlestar has done thus far. First, the suicide bombing arc was extremely difficult to watch in the best way. The audience knew that Tigh and Tyrol were going too far even as we understood where they were coming from and almost rooted for them; I almost wished I could screen the first two episodes of this season after every showing of American Sniper. Battlestar challenged any notion that "terrorists" are inhuman; to the contrary, they are acting on the most human of impulses. It was careful not to excuse their behavior, though; there was a great moment with Roslin in which you can tell she sympathizes with their decision and feels disgusted with herself for that sympathy. Mary McDonnell is such an amazing actress, that one look got to the heart of the moral ambiguity of this entire storyline. We're not meant to justify the suicide bombing, but we're meant to understand it. What other show goes out of its way to not only sympathize with so-called "terrorist" actions, but make their relatively likable main characters the terrorists?
What it comes down to, in the end, is an "us versus them" mentality. People think that terrorists are inhuman, or more like subhuman, in large part because they're acting against "our own." If "our own" took the same action, we might still morally condemn it, but we wouldn't reduce them to animals. This "us versus them" mentality came to a head during the genocide plotline; poor Helo was the only one who could see through everyone else's deep-seated prejudices against the Cylons in order to remind them that they would be wiping out a sentient race of beings. Even worse, that they would be sinking to the level of the Cylons, who tried to wipe them out during the initial attack (but also, to be fair, kept them alive during the occupation). The fact that otherwise morally thoughtful people would have the knee-jerk reaction of "they're coming after us, we need to get them first," was appropriately alarming. Very similar rhetoric is used in the war on terror, which is fitting, as Battlestar is widely regarded as a post-911 commentary.
What Didn't: Honestly, everything important about the Cylon occupation worked for me. Similar to the nearly flawless Pegasus arc, if I had one major complaint, it would be that they pulled the trigger on moving on from the occupation too quickly. I enjoyed the fractured dynamics that came afterward, particularly the wonderfully sketchy tribunal in "Collaborators," but the actual occupation was Battlestar at the height of its political allegory powers (at least so far), and I wished it hadn't ended so quickly.
The Lee/Kara/Dualla/Anders Quadrangle
First, Unfinished Business. It didn't work for everyone, but it worked for me. While Battlestar is ostensibly a genre show, it has always been more concerned with the exploration of the human psyche and of human interaction in high-stress situations. The character development is central to the show's success, and this episode delivered that in spades. It perfectly explained the relationships between all of the characters: Kara and Sam genuinely love each other, but Kara has enough baggage from her tortured childhood that she is incapable of either carrying on a functional relationship or admitting what she really wants. Lee has some affection and respect for Dualla, but mostly he's just settling for her as long as Kara is an impossibility. And Lee and Kara- I'm still a shipper, but this episode got to the heart of why they haven't been able to make it work thus far. I do think they love each other, and in a more real way than they love their respective spouses, but the only way they know how to relate to one another is beating each other half to death.
This might have turned me off of Lee and Kara, actually, as the melodramatic, self-destructive, on-again off-again relationships on television are too often romanticized, even when the players are clearly terrible for each other (see: Blair and Chuck on Gossip Girl, Olivia and Fitz on Scandal, Dawson and Joey on Dawson's Creek, basically every "meant to be" couple that continually finds reasons not to make it work season after season). But the ending saved it, as it showed that they can't help being kind and tender with each other any more than they can help being so dysfunctional. Just when I was about to overdose on the melodrama, they hugged it out, and I loved it.
Strangely, the one part of this quadrangle that consistently worked for me was Dualla's reactions. The "playing second fiddle" plotline would not be interesting on its own, as it's been done so many times, but Dualla's emotional arc makes it a little more than the sum of its parts. She is clearly setting herself up to be hurt by Lee, which could be annoying, but she has so much maturity and grace about it that it appears almost tragic. Although she's making ill-advised decisions, she's so self-aware that it never came across as irritating or unsympathetic. (She also benefits from comparisons to an increasingly jerky and self-pitying Lee.) In my second season's review, she was my least improved character, but this year she's definitely most improved, by a landslide.
Most of what happened after Unfinished Business. Lee tells Kara that he "can't cheat on Dualla," and everyone around him seems to accept this as nobility. It makes sense that he thinks he's being noble, as he is exactly the kind of person to deceive himself into thinking he's nobler than he is, but Kara and Dualla both seem to accept this characterization of his behavior as well. Maybe this is just me, but I don't really see openly admitting your love for another woman, making out with her, and asking her to leave her husband as "remaining faithful" to your wife.
Then, they are both cut loose by their exceedingly mature spouses, and they still just can't bring themselves to make it work. Just as the scene in which Lee and Kara cap off the melodrama of "Unfinished Business" with a bear hug saved it, the scene at the end of "Taking a Break from All Your Worries" in which Lee and Kara stare at each other while they are ostensibly with their spouses tipped the scales into annoying territory. There was too much juvenile drama, especially if they expected us to continue to root for Lee and Kara (I still do, but I'm extremely loyal once I start shipping people, so that doesn't necessarily mean anything).
So by the end of the season, I had finally made my peace with the idea that Lee and Dualla had some kind of significant bond. Although he clearly is "in love" with Kara more than he is with Dualla, the show rammed down our throats that there was more to their relationship than met the eye at first, that there was a lot of respect and admiration on both sides. Even if they aren't soulmates, they care very deeply for one another and, like a lot of bad marriages in real life, are just sort of stuck with each other. This would have been an impressive bit of character work, especially since the relationship seemed completely baseless and underdeveloped to the extreme when it first started. But then, of all things, Dualla leaves him because of the trial. He spent their entire marriage pining after Kara, he revealed himself to be in love with her in "Unfinished Business" right in front of Dualla, he was openly carrying on a non-affair with Kara, but she leaves him over the trial? And after an entire season of convincing us that they have a real, if dysfunctional, marriage, it takes the writers all of five minutes to dissolve the relationship?? This made me incredibly angry, if you couldn't tell.
And then there was the characterization of Lee, which took a major hit this season. I could have almost made my peace with his behavior regarding Kara, because love makes almost everyone do stupid things, but there were a few times I lost my patience with him. The most memorable jerk moment he had with Dualla was a scene in "Taking a Break from All Your Worries," in which Dualla is being perfectly reasonable, confronting Lee about his constant intoxication and his overt love for another woman, and he has the gall to say "Our only problem is that you don't trust me." He's borderline gaslighting her here, and it's the absolute worst.
characterization of lee, in favor of genocide, now my favorite character is helo
not just the fangirl in me that didn't like it, it makes him less complex, in season two he had his morally compromised moments, but when combined with his overall nobility and moments of true grace, it make him multi-faceted, and it's not a degeneration because people keep saying he's noble, which just seems like sloppy writing
Racism Against Sagittarons
What Didn't Work:
We're going to talk about what didn't work first, because honestly, that covers almost everything. "The Woman King" was one of the worst, most heavy-handed episodes of Battlestar. It's the Black Market of this season. I was really looking forward to BSG taking on a racism plotline, because I thought they would handle it well. But first, just on a basic narrative level, the foundation was not laid in previous episodes that's required to make us believe there's a systematic problem. I would have gotten on board with discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status, as the memorable conversation between Dualla and Billy in "Bastille Day" laid the groundwork for that, but we had never once heard of the Sagittarons being religious fanatics. Shoehorning this piece of information in three seasons later just felt sloppy; all of a sudden we're supposed to believe that everyone has overt hatred for the Sagittarons and that their fanaticism constantly gets in the way of others' lives, even though we've barely heard of them before?
But it's the word "overt" that really gets to the crux of the problem. This episode reminded me of Elysium, in the sense that it was a ham-fisted metaphor for a social issue that was not only clunky from a writing perspective, but managed to completely miss the point. The reason institutional racism is so hard to combat is that it's never as simple or clear-cut as a doctor straight-up murdering poorer patients. At the expense of limited supplies, no less. The most insidious racism- or any other kind of prejudice, for that matter- is the kind that comes out of relatively good intentions. If curing the ills of racism was as simple as throwing a sociopathic doctor in jail, we'd be home free by now. If the writers had just been a little more restrained, as they usually are, then they could have had a perfectly serviceable racism plotline in which the doctor is just giving some preference to people who are either from rich colonies, like the Adamas, or worked their way up the ranks, like Dualla. But instead, they wrote this horrifically melodramatic showdown in which, it must be said, a white, privileged man tries to save all the savages. Badly written, borderline offensive, this episode was just terrible.
"Dirty Hands" was a much better episode, likely because they have a better handle on socioeconomic prejudice than racism/religious intolerance. Although it still wasn't as subtle as it could have been, and its ending was a little too neat for my taste, it at least had some sort of grasp on the subtleties of institutional discrimination. Seelix being expected to do laundry and failing to be promoted even after she had proven her merits were very apt examples of subtle prejudice, and the conversations between Tyrol and Roslin got to the heart of why "social mobility" is so often a pretty lie. This episode struck me as a sort of "do-over" for "The Woman King," and it worked well enough.
But the real MVP of the racism storyline was Helo. At the beginning, he and Lee were my favorite characters because they were the ones who were willing to challenge authority and the status quo when their consciences called for it. Lee demonstrated this character trait somewhat during the trial, but Helo has since become the most consistently moral and compassionate character on the show. Between his willingness to stand up for the little guy in "The Woman King" (however misguided) and being the only one who was against the Cylon genocide, Helo rocketed up to favorite character status this season.
What Worked: Full disclosure- I love courtroom drama. Between doing mock trial in college and watching about twelve seasons of SVU, it's a huge weakness of mine. So I thought this entire arc was a ton of fun, but it also brought up a lot of interesting questions. Baltar is clearly a weak, self-serving human being, but he wasn't guilty of treason, at least not during the New Caprica occupation. Even when he assisted Caprica Six with the original Cylon attack, it was completely against his will. So the ultimate decision to exonerate him was correct, just as it made sense that Tigh would be emotionally motivated after killing Ellen, and that Roslin would be too stubborn to admit that Baltar was in a genuine bind, and that Gaeta would try to distance himself from Baltar's betrayal and his own, even though they're not that different. And while Adama's reaction to Lee's decision to help Romo was immature and irrational, it was also perfectly consistent with his character.
The trial also had the benefit of making me like Lee again (for the most part). I'm exaggerating, I never completely stopped liking Lee, but he was testing my patience for a while there, particularly with the Dualla/Starbuck nonsense and supporting the Cylon genocide. But almost everything he said in this trial was spot-on truth, particularly when he called for everyone to admit their own fallibility and to at least acknowledge that Baltar was becoming a scapegoat for the failings of many. That's the Lee that was my favorite character back in the first season.
What Didn't: I know I said I loved this storyline partially because it was like Law and Order, but that's a guilty pleasure, while Battlestar is usually just a pleasure. At times, the courtroom drama was relatively restrained, but sometimes it veered into melodramatic Matlock territory. Like I said, the speech Lee gives in Baltar's defense is 100% correct, but the circumstances in which he gives it are completely corny. There is absolutely no reason for one of the defense attorneys to be testifying about whether his own client "deserves a fair trial." It just barely made sense that he would be called to testify against his father, because Adama was definitely biased and never should have been on that jury to begin with, but the rest of it strained credulity.
I was also a little annoyed by Lee's interpretation of what a "fair trial" actually means. Most of his defense seemed to genuinely contribute to giving him a fair shake of things; a judge believing that he didn't deserve a fair trial, the fact that Tigh was drunk in court, these are all relevant pieces of information that should have come out. But when he interrogated Roslin about her usage of a drug, it wasn't a hard-nosed decision he made for the sake of justice, it was tantamount to a dirty lawyer trick that doesn't actually impact whether Baltar got a fair trial. They threw out the charge of treason on Caprica, so none of Roslin's testimony was direct eyewitness testimony, nor did it even go into any facts that were actually in dispute. There were many other witnesses that could have testified to anything she said. So bringing up her hallucinogenic drug use definitely hurts her credibility with the jury, but if that had gotten Baltar off, that wouldn't have been justice, it would have been a technicality. But Lee, for all his righteousness, thinks the same way a real lawyer would be forced to think in our legal system; that the "right thing" to do is always the right thing for his client.
Watching this so long after the fact, I was shocked that I wasn't spoiled on either this development or the Final Five reveal (more on that later). The episode in which she apparently died was well-done and emotionally affecting, particularly the sequences that involved her younger self. I liked the episode less when it focused on her "special destiny," which I still think is a little hackneyed, but loved it when it was a character study of a strong but psychologically broken person who essentially loses the will to live. Using Leoben as a stand-in for her spiritual guide was a nice touch as well; it became clear early on that it wasn't really Leoben she was seeing, but a manifestation of all the trauma she's suffered in her life and the resilience that got her through it up until now. It was also touching to see various characters' reactions to her death, from Adama's scene with the model ship to Anders's hilarious yet heartbreaking drunkenness (his huge wipe-out followed by a slurred "...I think I fell..." made me laugh harder than it probably should have).
Then she came back. Three episodes later. I am, of course, happy that I don't have to watch an entire season without Kara Thrace/Katee Sackhoff, but it does feel like a little bit of a cop-out. The "you didn't actually see her die, and she's a main character whom everyone adores, so therefore she probably miraculously survived" is a trope that belongs on a lesser show. But, at least she and Lee can end up together now (right??).
(Fun fact: Like the kiss between Adama and Roslin in the second season, the destruction of the model ship was not in the script, but ad-libbed by Edward James Olmos. He thought the ship was a prop, but it was actually a real museum-quality model that cost thousands of dollars. Woops.)
The Final Five Reveal
Loved everything about this. "All Along the Watchtower" was brilliant, the choices were relatively unexpected, and I can't wait to see where they go with this. After Tigh killed Ellen fighting the Cylons and Tyrol's reaction to Sharon's Cylon status, this reveal will make the show look very different when I inevitably re-watch it.
I complained a little about the religious mythology in my review of season one, and I haven't really warmed up to it thus far. We'll see how I feel at the end of the show, but for now it still seems a little too precious about the characters. Battlestar is at its best when it's humanistic, when it's treating its characters with respect and maybe love, but also acknowledging their flaws and foibles with great precision. Glorifying any of them as having some kind of "special destiny" isn't in line with the gritty, naturalistic tone of the rest of the show.
Whew, that was a long one, sorry. Only one season left!!