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Battlestar Galactica lays down its burdens

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“Lay Down Your Burdens, Parts 1 and 2” (season 2, episodes 19 & 20; originally aired 3/3/2006 and 3/10/2006)

I’ll be honest: what I really want to talk about is the time jump. When ”Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2” aired, it was one of the most astonishing transitions I’d ever seen on television, and even now, after the novelty has worn off—after time jumps have become, if not common, than at least not entirely unheard of—the sequence of newly elected president Baltar lowering his head only to raise it one year later is so brilliant it still takes my breath away. There’s beauty in a well-crafted narrative. Battlestar Galactica regularly swung for the fences, and it arguably struck out nearly as often it succeeded, but when it connected… there really wasn’t anything like it. Still isn’t, not really.

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But the time jump doesn’t happen until the final act of the second half of a two part finale, and as remarkable as it is, it wouldn’t work nearly as well were it not for the groundwork done before those last fifteen minutes. The second season finale remains one of the show’s grand achievements, pulling in character drama, a nail-biter of an election story, a thrilling rescue mission, another twist in the Cylon saga, and the reveal of a new model played by Dean Stockwell (the oldest we’ve seen yet). The time jump is the sort of shocking conclusion that seems obvious in retrospect. All the pieces were there, and the hour and change leading up to that twist exist to set into motion the new status quo.

As it’s happening, though, it certainly doesn’t feel like a piece-moving story. Those tend to be a bit airless, especially when done poorly; the actual consequences won’t happen until later, so here’s all the tedious movement needed to make sure those consequences are satisfying to watch whenever they finally arrive. Here, everything that happens before the end works to resolve threads that have been hanging around for weeks. “Lay Down Your Burdens” would still more or less work even if it ended with Baltar lowering his head. It wouldn’t be as thrilling, but it would still be more or less adequate.

Cliffhangers are a pain in the ass to do well—everyone’s always so focused on the exciting, “What happens next?” part that they forget the work it takes to make that question matter. This finale gets around this by making sure that what we’re seeing is as much a conclusion to the second season as it is a tease for the third. Starbuck started the season trapped on Caprica; she ends it by going back and resolving the one question she’d had to leave behind. Roslin has been struggling to hold the fleet together, and now Baltar swoops in and gives the people what they want, regardless if they need it. Lee finally has a new position of leadership, and he and Dee are together. And the Chief is suicidally depressed and hungry for a purpose.

Admittedly, that last bit isn’t something that’s been a major runner this season—and yet Tyrol’s misery has been a consistent, if regularly backgrounded, element of the series for a while now. He lost his girlfriend twice, first when she revealed herself as a Cylon by trying to murder Adama, and then when she bled out in his arms. That’s hard to bounce back from, especially considering the stress and frustrations of his job, a position that demands an excessive amount of responsibility with little reward or glory. It’s not really surprising that stress and grief drive him to a breaking point. What’s surprising is how he inadvertently takes his pain out on Cally.

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It’s a hard scene to watch. Cally may be the show’s saddest character, and to see her get pummeled by the man who’s arguably the show’s second saddest character is almost too much. The episode doesn’t shy away from the violence, either. The Chief has blood on his hands before he comes to his senses, and a later scene of him apologizing to Cally, and her forgiving him (in fact, acting like he doesn’t even have anything to be sorry for) is nearly as painful to watch.

From a plot standpoint, these scenes exist mainly to introduce Brother Cavil (Stockwell); Tyrol requests religious counsel after beating up Cally, and Cavil gives him some hard truths on the nature of things. He’s so brutal that he borders on parody, a tough priest whose toughness is awfully close to contempt. The reveal that he’s a Cylon (he shows up in Anders group on Caprica, hitching a ride back with a message for the fleet) is like the punchline to a joke we didn’t realize we were hearing. It’s arguably a let-down for a new Cylon is be someone we’ve never seen on the show before, but that’s hardly the first time it’s happened. And Stockwell is just off-kilter and mean enough that he fits in perfectly.

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The Chief and Cally scenes also set up a pay off for the time jump. Knowing that the Chief is brutally depressed, and that Cally knows it, and knowing he needs a cause, and that she’s devoted to him no matter what he does to her, means the sight of Tyrol giving a Marxist speech on New Caprica with a very pregnant Cally by his side is entirely sensible and maybe even inevitable. It’s not that this would’ve been unbelievable if the jump had come sooner; part of the charm of time jumps is the sudden shock of seeing familiar characters in entirely new contexts. But by subtly building to this moment, by establishing that these two characters were on the start of a path and then pushing us forward to the end of that path, the episode makes the reveal less about shock, and more about learning. We’re getting a different perspective on characters we’ve come to love, and that perspective allows us a better understanding of them without changing their essential natures.

Like, say, Roslin being a teacher on New Caprica. Given that she was Secretary of Education before the Cylon attack, and given that the odds of her wanting to work in a Baltar administration are slim (not that he’d offer her a job anyway), this seems like a logical place for her to end up. Same with Lee still being in charge of the Pegasus and Adama staying on the Galactica, even as most everyone else has migrated below to the surface. This sets them up for escape when the Cylons arrive, but it also flows from everything before it. Just like Starbuck and Anders being together. Great storytelling isn’t about sudden shocks, but about surprising your audience with information they already know.

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This also applies to events to before the jump. Sharon more or less turning on Helo in her grief and anger over the loss of their child is the first real break we’ve seen in their relationship, but it’s not a forced break. This is how drama is supposed to work, and why the season’s weakest episodes were so frustrating. The show plays at a very high level, and that makes it all the more obvious when the writers take shortcuts or throw in sudden swerves solely for the sake goosing the narrative. It’s easy to understand the impulse, given that, at its heart, the series relies on huge stakes and regular subversion of audience expectation as a key part of its identity, but that doesn’t make the mistakes any less absurd.

Thankfully, there are no real mistakes in “Lay Down Your Burdens,” at least none that I can point to. Again and again, the finale capture the core emotions of a conflict even if the specifics are left to the viewer to imagine. The presidential election isn’t a particularly comprehensive study of political intrigue—at heart, it’s more a parable about the difficulties of giving people what they need over what they want, and how making the ethical choice is maybe not always the right choice. But because our focus is on Roslin and Baltar, we don’t need a procedural on the democratic process.

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Instead, we get Roslin rehearsing in Adama’s room with a set of notecards, tearing up each talking point as she memorizes it. And we get Baltar, being petulant and annoyed as he loses, and petulant and injured as he wins. Really, while Baltar wins (and is also inadvertently responsible for the Cylons discovering New Caprica), this is Roslin’s story. Again, a reasonable woman finds herself in a situation where, through no fault of her own, the unreasonable is going to overturn her best intentions. She’s a better candidate than Baltar, a better leader, and her instincts about New Caprica are dead on; even before the Cylons arrive, the place is a grey and miserable dump, with limited resources and not much to recommend it beyond solid earth.

Yet despite killing him in the debates, and despite Baltar having all the commitment and depth of a high school senior who just discovered pot, Roslin loses the election because of a single issue. She indulges in a conspiracy to try and swing things back her way, and it’s the latest example of the show’s willingness to show characters we respect making controversial decisions for entirely understandable reasons. When Adama catches her out, she’s apologetic but not precisely defensive, and it’s hard to blame her. Baltar’s leadership is an unequivocal disaster for the surviving humans, and Roslin’s a better choice for the role. And yet, if she had gone through with the plan, if Adama hadn’t inspired her to change her mind, what then? Maybe they would’ve stayed off New Caprica, maybe they would’ve been spared everything to follow that decision, but maybe some essential quality of her presidency might have been lost. Roslin is a ruthlessly pragmatic leader, but in order for pragmatism to avoid dictatorship, it has to be balanced by morality. Some means can never be justified by their ends.

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But we don’t know. That’s the key: in the end, we don’t know if Roslin should’ve stolen the election. (I’m guessing she made the right call, if only because this seems like a universe where the easy choice always backfires horribly.) We don’t even know what the Cylons intentions are when they arrive on New Caprica, not for sure. Six and Boomer have managed to convince the others to give humanity a break, and when they show up at Baltar’s doorstep, they don’t immediately murder everyone in sight. So maybe they’re telling the truth when they say they want peace. Yet it’s hard to trust an enemy who murdered millions, especially when they arrive as an occupying force. Baltar immediately surrenders, but there’s no chance in hell that Starbuck and the others will do the same.

Time jumps work because they offer a chance to skip ahead, to see how things turn out without needed to get bogged down in the turning itself. In jumping ahead one year, “Lay Down Your Burdens” gives the writers new conflicts to explore, and a new status quo to up-end, while still playing fair with everything that came before it. A new chapter in human/Cylon relations has begun, but no how much the machines are smiling, it’s hard to believe they’re friendly.

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Stray observations:

  • The episodes stay largely with the humans, but Cavil’s message to Roslin offers a small insight into the Cylon power struggle. Namely, that there is a Cylon power struggle, and that for all their confidence, they’re working just as hard as the humans to figure things out. Which is almost more unsettling than if they were simply homicidal. It’s like finding out a group of children have all the nuclear launch codes.
  • I love Dean Stockwell on this show. I mean, I love him in general, but he brings this edge of disgusted weariness that really sets him apart from the other Cylons. He seems to hate everyone.
  • Goodbye, Gina. And all those people you killed with that bomb Baltar gave you.
  • “You are a genius.” “And?” Baltar spends so much of his time looking wounded or unsettled that it’s fun when his incredible arrogance gets a chance to stretch its legs.
  • Roslin’s meeting with Baltar, in which she asks him to do the sensible thing and put New Caprica on hold until after the election, is terrible politics. It seems reasonable of her, but part of being a politician is facing issues as they come (remember when McCain tried to suspend his campaign against Obama when the housing market collapsed?). Besides, it’s literally the only reason Baltar wins, and it’s hard to imagine him sacrificing that, no matter who she saw him consorting with on Caprica before the attack.
  • “I’m going to wipe the floor with you, Gaius.” -Roslin, before things go pear-shaped
  • We’ll get into the “one year later” setting next week, but for now, I’ll just say I appreciate how quickly the show conveys the passage of time, even if some of the changes (Lee’s weight gain) are borderline comic.
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