Saturday, February 7, 2009

episode: battlestar galactica, "blood on the scales" (4.16)

Warning: Spoilers for last night's episode are to be found throughout this post.

"It stopped."

In the last few moments of "Blood on Scales," Battlestar Galactica broke my heart and I cried. Last week I said "The Oath" was my favorite episode of this season, but I think that award goes to this week's phenomenal ending to a tripartite narrative. I've divided my commentary by characters because, in a well-constructed pairing, this episode was just as much about the characters as it was the plot.

Kara: Last July, I complained about Katee Sackoff's joy at getting to use a gun on the show. I thought it was a fairly unintelligent answer -- compared to James Callis, everyone is intellectually inferior -- but now I understand. After a season of being stranded and essentially physically impotent on New Caprica and another season on an insane chase towards Earth, I now get why Sackoff was so happy to have a gun back in Kara's possession. Some random traitor takes a leak at the urinal, and kick-ass Starbuck comes up behind him and slams his head into the wall. (Let this be a lesson to you men; when involved in a coup, think twice before using the bathroom.) On the one hand, this scene is just awesome, but on the other, it's an exciting storyline for an actress. I also want to note that there was something visually engaging about Kara and Lee's pairing. Kara is in her military uniform, whereas Lee is in his civilian uniform. And yet their conversation and banter is familiar, as if they were never separated by these two worlds.

Roslin: Good Gods, Mary McDonnell was absolutely brilliant in this episode. In general, her acting is hit or miss with me. Sometimes I think she's too ambivalent in regards to Roslin's decision-making process, and other times I feel like her delivery is flat. But she's really been putting everything out there these last few episodes (her book-burning breakdown in the premiere, her rejecting cancer medications after that, and her sleeping with Bill Adama were exceptional), but her outright refusal to give up gave me chills. After Zarek (wrongly) informs Roslin that Adama has been executed, McDonnell delivers this speech: "No. Not now, not ever. Do you hear me? I will use every cannon, every bomb, every bullet, every weapon I have down to my own eye teeth to end you! I swear it! I'm coming for all of you!" I really thought that last week's kiss was a goodbye kiss, so I was pleasantly surprised to see these two reunite at the end of their separation. (And on the note of their separation, I thought this episode did an excellent job of pacing Roslin's scenes on the Cylon basestar in conjunction with Gaeta's scenes in the CIC. That was strong tension-building at its finest.) When Adama and Roslin do reunite, McDonnell does not play straight joy or relief; she mixes in hints of terror and fear, hopeless and despair. Her gentle patting on his shoulder -- in a moment where she can't even look him in the eye -- is so tender and personal that I really found myself caring about her.

Adama: After speaking with my friend who is a veteran, I have a better understanding of Adama's role in the coup. I was looking at this in terms of a civilian, some random person in the fleet who doesn't see one lick of sense in joining forces with a race who killed 50 billion (!!!) of our people. But I think the writers sat down in a room and consciously decided to avoid analyzing Adama's control from outside the military. Practically speaking, if BSG were to tackle civilian thoughts and fears, it would take much, much longer than the series has time for. Artistically speaking, it's a more interesting story to explain the coup from within the military. It's about honor and the uniform. It's about respecting your commanders and taking orders without question to ensure that the ship continues to run. When Gaeta first arrests Adama, the commander's first words are in response to Gaeta being a traitor to his uniform, that he -- that both of them -- had to declare an oath. So this narrative trilogy is less about an uprising in politics and more about an uprising within the military itself.

I bring this up because I was uneasy about Adama's complete disregard for Gaeta's questioning. Was Romo Lampkin just decoration and was Zarek going to find Adama guilty during his "trial"? You betcha. But Adama not explaining himself, not justifying his actions made it seem like he was in the wrong, that he's running a totalitarian regime where no one questions his authority. But in this military world, that's exactly how it needs to be. As my friend explained to me, soldiers cannot just go around demanding answers from the commanding officers. They need to trust and accept their decisions without judgement or skepticism. If Adama starts answering for himself now, he loses his Barthesian "commander-ness." So I was misreading Adama's decisions based on Adama-as-man, rather than Adama-as-commander. And it's very clear that the writers did not want to focus on Adama's relationship to/with civilians (where Adama-as-man would be explored), but rather this idea of trust and loyalty within a structure that needs to survive.

But it is extremely interesting to me that, as a commenter elsewhere noted, "It really is startling to have a not-altogether-unsympathetic character act out of principle and die for it at the hand of the series lead." Adama executed Gaeta. Gaeta, the officer who always tries to do the right thing. Gaeta, the man who wanted to kill Baltar for his shady dealings with the Cylons on New Caprica. And Adama -- our beloved, supposedly morally righteous hero -- killed him.

Lee: As mentioned above, Lee is wearing typical black slacks and a blue button-up Oxford shirt throughout most of the episode, including the final scene where Gaeta and Zarek are executed for their crimes of treason. This is visually significant because you have this well-dressed man with a gun in his hands and the ability to assess situations quickly. Lee is working within two spheres -- the military and the law -- and it isn't until this episode that this dichotomy really becomes a thematic focus. While in the Quorum, and even during his stint as Baltar's lawyer during the season three finale, Lee tried bringing his military knowledge to the political realm, but he never truly had the opportunity (or reason) to showcase his military skills in politics. With Zarek's merciless massacre on the Quorum, Lee is sent into survival mode first, kick ass mode second. Once he is able to secure his life as stable, his first and only order of business is to find and save his father and he does this by carrying a big, scary weapon around the halls on Galactica.

During Gaeta's execution, it's very intriguing having Lee's presence in the room. Whereas Adama's presence represents the world of the military -- and Baltar's presence marks a civilian presence -- Lee is between the two worlds. He is a man of law (truth, justice), but he is also a man of structure (loyalty a la the oath, getting the job done). I don't think that Lee's face should be read as anger, but rather disappointment. Here he was thinking that these two conflicting powers could reconcile their differences, and they couldn't. He's disappointed that Zarek was not the leader he thought he was, and he's disappointed that political order is falling apart. (How can there be a democracy without the Quorum of 12?) He's also disappointed because, like Gaeta, he's a man of principle, and just last week he mentioned that there was some truth to Zarek's concerns.

Baltar: First of all, thank the gods that he admitted he was putting on a religious show (presumably as a means of securing his own survival). Baltar is a creature of habit, as I will discuss in a moment, and I simply did not buy that our scientifically-minded atheist would all of a sudden become a prophet. Even with Head Six telling him there was one and only God. So I'm happy that Baltar admitted to this scam. Second, Baltar's main purpose in the narrative of the series is to run. It's how he's stayed alive. He runs. Some may call this cowardly, but not all humans are noble. I would run, too. Some people would call it selfish, but I don't think there's anything selfish about wanting to live. One of the people I watch BSG with hates Baltar, but during his speech discussing his need to go back to Galactica to save his followers, she said, "Okay, finally I like him." But it's not just this switch of personal behavior that's interesting. What's intriguing about this revelation is that, after having sex with one of the Six models (Lida), he still feels awful and lonely and regretful. Normally when Baltar runs (or is being tortured by D'Anna), he rely on either an apparition or a real-life Six model to make him feel good through sex. But not this time. Even sex will not cure him of his regret. I think Baltar is finally realizing that it's lonely at the top, and even though his followers were strange, he was surrounded by people, and I think Baltar was reminded of his love for the spotlight, his need for people to pay attention to him. And this is in no way a selfish realization. He just realizes that there's more to life than surviving yet another day just to have sex. There are other people. There are other situations outside of him. And I truly think it's this revelation that leads to the beautifully shot coffee scene with Gaeata.

Writer Michael Angeli (see previous post) intended for viewers to think Gaeta got off on the charges. After all, we are in Gaeta's quarters. But between Gaeta's topic of conversation and Baltar's near-tears reactions, I don't think anyone was fooled. Regardless of Baltar's profound pity for Gaeta, Gaeta's reflections on his past -- his love for architecture, then science -- indicated that the end was looming for him, and it really spoke to the logical nature of his character. Gaeta's reflections gave us a further insight into who he is, how got to this point in his life, and what his life was like before Galactica. It's a very touching scene, and Gaeta's complete resolve during this scene really makes you empathize with him. It's also a humanizing scene for Baltar because, following the scene with the Six model Lida, you know that Baltar respects Gaeta. He respects this man who acted on principle, even though it would most certainly lead to his demise. He's sitting across from the man who took to the stands to ensure that Baltar was found guilty (and who later tried to kill Baltar), and he respects Gaeta's rational understanding of the situation. Unlike Baltar, Gaeta doesn't run, he doesn't hide his head, and he doesn't beg for forgiveness. Gaeta knows what he did was wrong (he dishonored the oath), and that has a price. And for the first time, possibly ever, Baltar-the-Coward understands the logic of action and reaction, and he respects Gaeta's stoic acknowledgement of this natural law. There has been no character on the show other than Gaeta who I think is an equal to Baltar.

Gaeta: Alessandro Juliani, my Gods, you broke my heart. During the episode, I thought the cuts to Gaeta's throbbing leg were a bit overdone. We get it; his leg hurts. We get it; there's turmoil on the ship, and the leg gets progressively worse. We get it; Gaeta can't receive better care for his leg because Dr. Cottle is too busy tending to the Cylons. We get it. But then the episode ends on this moment of complete acceptance, and it tore my heart right out of my chest. "It stopped." The pain stopped. The mutiny stopped. Gaeta's life stopped. Everything stops. The absence of Gaeta's leg symbolizes a sort of phantom honor (in the same vein as a phantom limb), in that the absence of his leg is a constant reminder for all the times he sacrificed for his ship. Hell, the secret council (made up of two Cylons and a Cylon's wife) almost airlocked him for being a Cylon coconspirator, when really he was leaking them information from the Cylon camp. Anders shot him in the leg because he tried to save their ship instead of waiting for Kara to come back. Throughout the series, he tried to do the right thing -- the honorable, moral thing -- and what does he have to show for it? Nothing but phantom honor. When his leg was taken, the real pain set in. Gaeta's never really been angry that they took his leg. It was the situation in which his leg was taken that aggravates and disgusts him. When that leg was taken, his honor was taken, and now he's just running on the last bit of gas he has. He's putting all of his chips in. He's acting on the ghost of honor.

When Gaeta and Zarek exchanged smiles before their execution, it was like looking at two sides of the same coin. Both thought that they were right (and I happen to agree with Gaeta, as a non-military citizen), but Zarek knew there was going to be bloodshed whereas Gaeta had a more idealized vision. I don't think Zarek is necessarily evil (killing the Quorum should be seen more as killing democracy than killing eleven individual bystanders), but he understands the necessity of killing the opposition, where Gaeta is still trying to give Adama a proper trial to answer for his crimes. It's two sides of the revolution -- violence and moral high ground -- and both sides lead to death. And then comes Gaeta's line...

"It stopped." This line certainly could have been referencing my heart. This line could have been talking about time, since Gaeta's entire character narrative replayed in my head as if time had stood still. This line was a remark on Gaeta's calmn before the darkness. It was about his acceptance of the consequences, his complete resolve.

First Callie, then Dualla, and now Gaeta. Ron Moore, stop breaking my heart. I only have a few pieces left.


Tim Rideout said...

Wow - thank you so much for your opinion piece on this episode. This is some of the most intelligent, well-structured, non-internet-lolling analysis I have read to date on this most amazing series. Keep up the great work. So say we all.

keyser soze said...

Aww, thank you very much. In my opinion -- which is always right -- BSG is the greatest show ever made, both in quality of production and quality of writing. It's difficult sometimes to express how much I love this show (I want every word to be as awesome as the show is), so writing these episode reviews tends to be a daunting task because there are so many thoughts swirling in my mind.

This episode was amazing. Dualla's death may be the most interesting to me, but gods dammit, Gaeta may be my favorite character. He's had such a fantastic character arc.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you took the time to research the military aspect of series lead character Adama. As a retired Navy man, I find Olmos' (and the writers', certainly) depiction of a senior fleet officer absolutely spot-on. Also noteworthy is the character Tyrell, a dead-on portrait of a modern aviation Senior Chief Petty Officer. I have long wondered how many of the cast, writers, and crew have actually served in the military - BSG just too damned accurate!