Lords of Kobol, I’d forgotten how unpleasant Ellen is.
“Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is in contention for the worst episode of the first season, so it drags down the other episode for today, “Flesh And Bone,” just by association. “Flesh And Bone” is a perfectly fine episode of Battlestar Galactica, even if it’s a little clunky in execution. Meanwhile, “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” feels like a mistake from start to finish, and perhaps is one of those episodes the writers had to create so that the story arcs they’d planned would stretch over 13 whole episodes. But while I can make all the excuses I want for the writers, there’s at least one unforgivable mistake here Ellen Tigh—the most perplexingly awful character the show created. She’s more grating than Baltar, more awkwardly sexual than Six, more alcoholic than Tigh himself. And she lies—left, right, and center.
But the most important part here is that she’s no fun at all to watch. Perhaps someone else disagrees with me here; perhaps there’s an Ellen Tigh appreciation group that will be horribly angered with that statement. But in my view, Ellen is a wet blanket on the proceedings of the Galactica—a female character presented with almost no compassion or depth, so that she is instead some cross between the caricature of a whore and that of a shrew. It’s somewhat interesting that no one trusts her story, but it’s not so interesting, because no one really trusts anyone anymore.
No, Ellen mostly exists to characterize Tigh, and a) that’s just a flawed strategy b) Tigh is sympathetic, but not romantic-hero-in-doomed-relationship sympathetic. Their relationship in “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is an interesting contrast to some of the other romantic relationships we’re introduced to in this episode—in fact, the true story of “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is how romance is evolving for humans in the post-Cylon apocalypse universe. A quick tour:
The young lovers on a date looking at the stars from the observation deck (classic);
The newlyweds who can’t keep their hands off each other (or Gaius sticking his hand up Six’s dress in his lab);
The married couple Facing Adversity, in the guise of Sharon and Helo running around escaping the Cylons;
And the resident lushes, staving off retirement with a bunch of alcohol.
I’ve written a bit before about how sex and death are tied together really inextricably in this universe (and, you know, in our universe). The relationships here, in their various stages of consummation—pre-sex, during sex, post-sex, old-sex—are all tainted by some version of corruption, too, whether that’s Billy pumping Dee for information or Cylons deceiving humans or Ellen basically barging in and destroying Tigh’s life just because she gets off on it. It’s an unexpected little tableau illustrating how this potentially could be an interesting set of stories.
But mostly this episode speaks to wasted time—a lot of awkwardness over ambrosia at dinner; a lot of interrupted sex. Awkwardness tends to petrify me more than amuse me, so it’s very possible this episode is uproarious for others, and that’s fantastic. I’m glad it works for some people.
What “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” really indicates is how well Battlestar Galactica can use different modes within its own overarching structure. “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is a comedy of errors—Ellen’s sudden reappearance has Adama and Roslin at odds with each other, and Baltar is stuck in the middle, running tests on different samples and having sex with head-Six whenever he can. (So, masturbating? Hmm.) Basically, this episode is the Judd Apatow bro-comedy of Battlestar Galactica—the women are flat characters, the men are just trying to get laid, everyone’s got a secret that comes out at the least appropriate moment, and hello, the main scene of action is a dinner party.
But while the structure is intriguing, and the humor could work, I maintain that the tone is just so off for this show—this show where everything is taken very seriously. Note that the characters who aren’t taking things seriously end up looking like the bad guys. (This is Gaius Baltar, mostly, although Starbuck is also guilty of it.) Last week’s “Six Degrees Of Separation” worked with screwball comedy, too, but the episode had stakes. “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” doesn’t have much in the way of stakes—unless, I suppose, you either really think Commander Adama or Ellen Tigh could be a Cylon.
Maybe that’s the most insulting twist: Because although as a first-time viewer you might wholeheartedly believe it, the sudden reveal of something that totally changes everything is not how this show operates, even just based on the first 10 episodes. If Battlestar Galactica has a Cylon it wants to talk about, it identifies that Cylon and then places them front and center. The tension of “Flesh And Bone” arises from knowing that Leoben and Boomer are copies Two and Eight, respectively. Battlestar Galactica doesn’t play around, drawing out the suspense of who is a Cylon or not—it hasn’t done that since the second episode of the miniseries. We know who the Cylons are; it’s the humans that don’t. And BSG right now is much more interested in playing with that dynamic than in scaring us with a reveal.
Case in point: All of “Flesh And Bone” is about playing with a dynamic—that of Leoben, Cylon number Two, and Kara Thrace, whose meeting feels ordained as much as it is by chance. It’s also about Laura Roslin grappling with Leoben’s humanity in her dreams—and then delivering some grande-dame realness in person, exposing the intense determination at her core. It’s a bold and fantastic idea, drawing in broad strokes and dealing with major questions of what it means to be human or Cylon.
But it doesn’t land quite as well as other struggles we’ve seen—“Water” and “Six Degrees Of Separation,” to pick out just two examples, take interpersonal tension and blow them up into something that feels irresistibly universal. ”Flesh And Bone” feels more like a unique struggle between Starbuck, Roslin, and Leoben—something that could not be replicated in another form by other people, or cannot indicate anything more than what it is, itself. Because their meeting is entwined with prophecy and mysticism—Leoben has a “surprise” for Kara; Roslin has a vision of Leoben; Starbuck, at the end of the episode, prays for Leoben’s soul.
Fans of this show know that there’s important plot details being seeded here in the conversation between these three people; looking back on “Flesh And Bone,” it’s hard not to see it as only a harbinger of things to come. Through that lens, it falls a little flat, as all mysteries do in hindsight: Removed of the romance of possibility, the scaffolding of the myth is not particularly pretty. There’s also, of course, the contemporary element—like “Litmus,” “Flesh And Bone” is about the war on terror, examining how war makes us into monsters (just follow the word “dehumanizing” as it’s used in the episode).
But the war on terror is against other people. Humanity is not (yet) at the point where we’re fighting our own machinery. And the primary tension of “Flesh And Bone” is that Leoben is a machine, so he can be abused and tortured—but as anyone who’s watched The Brave Little Toaster can attest, it doesn’t feel particularly good. In Star Wars, the droids scream in pain for no clear reason. In Wall-E, a tiny robot’s loneliness is the focal point for the whole film. It speaks to our humanity, that we feel for machines that are made to “suffer”—and it also speaks to our humanity that we can feel the need to hurt humans who we know suffer, when we’re in the pursuit of something going by the name of justice. Torture is the process of denying its object humanity. The only difference with the Cylons is that they’re technically not human in the first place. A machine so sophisticated that it not only screams, like the droids, and talks, like the toasters, and feels, like Wall-E: Now look, it sweats, and hungers, and bleeds, too. Hey, there’s a Shakespeare quote for that!
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
But we’ve known the above for a while—we’re really just watching Starbuck and Laura Roslin come to terms with it as they stare at Leoben and try to convince themselves that he’s not human. We’ve seen this before: Commander Adama confronted the other copy of Two with a kind of rational reasoning; Gaius Baltar confronts Six with a combination of lust and desperation. Roslin and Starbuck are both a lot more ruthless. Starbuck starts sharp and turns sweet; Roslin starts by playing nice and ends by stabbing him in the back. Both are very definitive actions, and speak to each character well—nothing makes Roslin waver, while Starbuck is always operating on a gut intuition that she trusts to see her through. She tries to convince herself that Leoben is just a machine, and she can’t really do it.
One of Kafka’s most well-known stories is “In The Penal Colony,” an account of a torture device and the man who created it. The device is a machine, which until now had not struck me with its fascinating correlation. And the man who creates the device is so enraptured with the pure simplicity of the punishment that he submits to the machine to be tortured to death. On one hand, there is a reading of Battlestar Galactica that looks at the Cylons as a new designation of Other to be grappled with, and that’s where the Shakespeare comes in. On the other, there’s a reading of this show that looks at the Cylons as our most pure machinery, and that opens up a whole can of (critical-theory) worms. And though there is something to be written about Battlestar Galactica’s subtext about capitalism, Kafka’s story—where the creator is subsumed by his creation for a moment of pain and ecstasy in communion with the machine—feels, you know, just a tiny bit relevant.
But aside from humans grappling with their own creations, there’s also something here about Cylons grappling with their own creation—other frakking Cylons. Because now that number Eight, Sharon, has hit that Karl Agathon product, she’s all like “Hold on, I’m in love” and has flown the coop, leaving Six and Five behind to bitch about her. At this point, it’s not totally possible to see how the Cylons created themselves—but there are obvious differences between the models, now that we have four to compare. On Caprica, Six is annoyed and bitter and unexpectedly emotional; she’s less at-peace than head-Six, but you can see how they’re two aspects of the same personality. Five is oriented towards rules; a bit of a hard-ass, a smooth-talker. Two believes he is a prophet, and concerns himself with being in God’s bosom.
And Eight, maybe because she’s the “latest” model of the ones we know so far, is the most impulsive and “human,” as Six pronounces her: “She’s one of them.” Even when she’s being a Cylon—in “Flesh And Bone,” one of the most fascinating subplots is that Boomer goes to Gaius desperately hoping for him to clear up her confusion, and this after singing to the Cylon raider like it’s a horse and she grew up on a prairie tending to baby robot raiders with a whole bunch of copies of herself. Her Cylon-ness, I mean to say, looks and feels the most like human-ness; she doesn’t have that unmistakable Otherness that Six has all the time. Which is why both copies of Eight that we know of are undercover, posing as two different versions of the same human; she’s just really good at it, because she basically thinks she’s people.
But here’s the most important takeaway from all of this talk; the shift from something something robot apocalypse to set phasers to love me. The Cylons can kill quite easily; they love less well. And they’ve begun to find that they need humans to love completely, or even at all; compare the images of human/human or human/Cylon relationships above to this sad, perfunctory, antiseptic one of Six and Five, walking the world they just conquered:
Cylons might be perfect, but they’re not really happy, are they? People need machines; machines, it appears, also need people.
So say we all:
- Original airdates: 2/25/2005 and 3/4/2005
- Survivor count: 47,905 (NOTE: My count would have put as 52 survivors higher, at 47,597. Presumably there were some off-screen deaths over the last 25 days. That being said, as Ellen just showed up, the count is technically 47,906 by the end of the episode. Or it’s 47,905, and they just know who she is this time. I’m not sure.)
- Six theme count: 3
- Adama monologue count: 0 (BECAUSE HE’S A SECRET CYLON.)
- I’m not fully able to represent how annoyed it makes me that Laura Roslin actually believed Adama was a Cylon for a hot second there. It just doesn’t seem like her, to accept the lies of a Cylon that she just confirmed to Starbuck tells a bunch of lies.
- “If I’m a Cylon, you’re really screwed.”
- “You have a thing about rivers and streams, don’t you.”
- Two (Leoben) and Five (Aaron Doral) look enough alike that I confuse them, so please do call me out on it if I end up doing that in the future.
- SPOILER SPACE: There ended up being so many little references in this episode to future events that I thought I’d at least acknowledge it, though I don’t want to delve into it too much. For example: Kara Thrace is the one who ends up finding Kobol, birthplace of us all. Leoben spoke true prophecy to her. And then deceived Laura for some reason. And that whole thing I wrote about BSG being uninterested in the sudden reveal? Yeah, it’s into that until it totally isn’t anymore, ha ha ha.
- Office of the XO: Other places besides Netflix you can watch Battlestar Galactica: Amazon Instant Video, for a price; iTunes, for about the same price. Project Free TV has links for the entire series. And if you want hard copies, each season goes for about $20, while the whole series is on sale at Amazon for just under $100.
- And now it’s your turn: Well, you’ve heard which character I find superfluous, at length. Who’s your most useless BSG character? Like, not just unlikeable, but literally you do not understand why anyone bothered to insert them into the narrative?