It’s significant that both of the Cylons who take up most screentime in this first season of Battlestar Galactica are women. Copies Six and Eight aren’t the only versions, of course, but at this point in the series we only know of one more copy, and as interesting as Five/Aaron Doral is, he ends up dead almost every time we get a bead on him. Six and Eight, meanwhile, are integral parts of the story. This, in a series that famously gender-swapped the charismatic lead of the original series to be a woman, instead of a man (but with otherwise the same characteristics, more or less).

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I noticed it because while both “Litmus” and “Six Degrees Of Separation” are episodes that examine just how deeply the Cylons have betrayed humanity—and their continued power over the race. But both episodes enter the question of Cylon/human interactions through the lens of romantic relationships. In “Litmus,” it’s Chief Tyrol and Boomer; in “Six Degrees Of Separation,” it’s Gaius Baltar, with Six. The pain of loss, of inferiority, of betrayal, is felt not just as a loss of power in defeat but as a rupturing of intimacy, too. Battlestar Galactica is fond of using interpersonal conflicts as canvases to better depict the global conflicts of the show.

But insofar as the Cylons, especially in their human form, are almost entirely an expression of how humans deal with and process the Other, it’s deviously brilliant that the two we see the most are women—the identity category that is the first Other. Simone de Beauvoir devastatingly unpacks this in The Second Sex; here’s a bit from the introduction:

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. Michelet writes: ”Woman, the relative being…” And Benda is most positive in his Rapport d’Uriel: “The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself… Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.” And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called “the sex,” by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.

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It might be a little reductive to conclude that Battlestar Galactica is secretly about gender, so how’s this: Battlestar Galactica is at least in part secretly about gender—which is to say, it is about examining what it means to be One, not the Other. For example, in this paragraph:

Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself. If three travelers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile ”others” out of all the rest of the passengers on the train. In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are “foreigners”; Jews are “different” for the anti-Semite, Negroes are “inferior” for American racists, aborigines are “natives” for colonists, proletarians are the “lower class” for the privileged.

… it would be just as correct to add, “… and Cylons are ‘toasters’ for the 12 Colonies”—or “… and humans are ‘sacks of meat’ for their Cylon invaders.” (Not that Simone de Beauvoir would know what either of those was. But I feel somewhat confident stating that Simone would be way into BSG.)

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This is particularly relevant for “Six Degrees Of Separation,” which is both the stronger episode of the pair we’re looking at today and the more subtle, too. As densely mythological as it is—in terms of making wild connections between the One God and the Cylons and Six’s powers and Head Six vs. Shelly Godfrey—it plays, primarily, as a love story—through breakup to reconciliation, with hurdles along the way. A screwball love story, even—a romantic comedy—because in addition to implying startling new developments for our heroes, it is also the funniest episode yet of the entire series. That would be true if all James Callis petulantly declared in this episode was “No more Mr. Nice Gaius!” a comeback he has probably been working on for decades. But it’s not just that—it’s the whole thing. The entire scene in the bathroom, even though it’s tinged with desperation, is pure comedy; even when Gaius is desperately trying to destroy the incriminating image of him on the computer monitor, the mounting terror is undercut by mounting comedy. Unplugging it doesn’t work! Neither does hitting delete! It’s a farce. A type of farce that exists to underscore just how little control Gaius has over his life. It’s funny, in part because it’s a little fun to see Baltar squirm, and in part because the odds are so hilariously stacked against him.

And those odds are being put in play by Six, who holds in her hands not just the power of Baltar’s weakness for her (sexual, loving, or otherwise) but also the power to utterly destroy his life aboard the Galactica. Whether that’s through a special relationship with God or her own heretofore unknown Cylon powers, the point is clear: She’s holding all the cards. And as that last scene unsubtly emphasizes, her power is that of a phase-shifting, God-fearing Cylon just as much as it is that of a woman—a sexy, mysterious, loving woman. (Which is itself a callback to a moment from the first half of the miniseries: Gaius: “You’re a Cylon.” Six: “I’m a woman.”)

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“Litmus,” by comparison, has a shorter shelf life. It is an episode best appreciated the first time around, because then, it really does feel like a witch hunt. In hindsight, “Litmus” has a confusing message—after all, though Master-At-Arms Hadrian is wrong, perhaps, to badger the deck crew, she is not wrong to target them. They do have a secret, and guess what? The weak point is the Chief’s relationship with Boomer, though it’s not quite in the way Hadrian thinks. It’s an episode that exists to make a specific kind of point—this aired in the midst of the post-9/11 furor around military tribunals, after all. But devoid of that context, it becomes a confusing exercise. It would be more interesting if Hadrian were a character we had an existing relationship with, for example, or if the shadowy panelists behind her were characters we recognized.

As it is, Hadrian and her shadowy tribunal draw another line between Us and Them, except this time, Us includes a few Cylons and Them includes a few good guys. Which is fascinating, given the complicated shades of gray that Battlestar Galactica wants to explore with Us and Them and Ones and Others. But there’s no follow-through to “Litmus”—it’s terrifying, but it doesn’t connect to the rest of the story. Hadrian doesn’t come back; Specialist Socinus isn’t mourned for too long. And though the Chief makes his difficult choice ostensibly because of the tribunal, the real problem is that knows Boomer is not what she seems. He doesn’t want to say Cylon; she doesn’t want to ask him if he is thinking Cylon. But it’s clear enough when he asks her whether or not she left open the hatch coaming—he can’t trust her anymore, and without trust, intimacy is not possible.

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What’s odd (and again, speaks to the power of “Six Degrees Of Separation”) is that the Chief and Boomer’s best scene this week isn’t even in “Litmus.” It’s instead the scene with the Cylon raider, where Boomer comes up, perhaps hoping to talk to the Chief about something else entirely, only to unexpectedly tap into some level of her own programming that recognizes these raiders as being horse-like beings, Cylons designed to be fighters. That scene works against everything we see in “Litmus,” where Boomer is part of the persecuted “Us” and she and the Chief are working to protect each other. And naturally, it plays up her femininity—she runs her hands over the machine, and her voice changes tones, sounding sultrier, more intimate. She’s sort of talking to it like she would talk to a horse, but she’s sort of flirting with it, too. (Which, as you might know if you’ve read enough horse books directed at young girls, is kind of the point.) Boomer flips from One to Other so fast that the Chief is stunned; when she snaps out of it, she tries to brush it off, saying that’s just her guess. “Your guess?” he responds, with incredible line delivery from Aaron Douglas. It’s not mean-spirited; it’s not without affection. It’s incredulous and awed and a little terrified.

Which leads directly to one of the most tense moments in “Six Degrees Of Separation”—Boomer opening her locker to find that someone has scrawled CYLON on her mirror. It could have been the Chief. It could have been Boomer herself, given that she’s prone to counter-programming she doesn’t know about. It could have been Cally, who covers for them both, or someone else on the deck gang. Or Crashdown, her co-pilot. Or a total stranger, someone who doesn’t like the way she looks. It’s not solved for us—it doesn’t really need to be. The subconscious mind of the Galactica knows about Boomer. Now it’s just a matter of time.

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A lot of these two episodes, in fact, are about knowing or not knowing, and the space between the two. When Tigh drops by sickbay to see if Starbuck is on her feet yet, he purposely or not galvanizes her to get out of bed, though she refuses to acknowledge it at the time: “Do you actually think that reverse psychology crap is going to work on me?” Ironic, because, it is totally going to work—knowing that she’s making Tigh happy is enough to make her overcome her fear. Similarly, when Gaius wanders through his own mind palace, looking for Six, he yells petulantly: “It’s my fantasy. See if I care.” But of course he does—in fact, one of the finest moments in this doubleheader is Gaius wandering the rooms of his old house in Caprica City while living hellishly in Galactica, now accused of being a traitor. The editing is masterful, and Gaius is forced from brazen swagger to tentative desperation. “I love you, okay?” and “I thought we had something… something special.”

Six wants faith from Gaius, the ultimate act of knowing. And then she won’t answer his questions when he follows her up the stairs. It doesn’t matter if there was a Shelly Godfrey or not—the knowing is irrelevant to the experience of faith. Just as it doesn’t matter to Commander Adama if the tribunal found the truth—the knowing of the truth is irrelevant to the fact that there’s something crumbling at the base of his understanding of the war against the Cylons. (As he says to Laura Roslin, he’s known the Chief for five years. “If he really wanted to take this ship down, he could.”) There’s knowing, and there’s knowing, as Boomer looks in the mirror with the undeniable truth printed on them and starts rubbing them out, in a panic. There’s Sharon knowing that Helo loves her… and knowing, as he turns and begins to walk north. Roslin essentially flat-out tells Gaius that she knew something was wrong with him, before he begins to pray.

Since Six’s God is, as far as we can tell, the Hebrew God of the Bible, knowledge, and the price of knowing One from the Other is a major part of that religion’s scripture. Or to quote another section of it entirely, he who increaseth knowledge—especially on a fleet of beleaguered humans escaping annihilation—increaseth sorrow. Or maybe I should say “she”: After all, it’s Cally, standing on the hangar bay, who reacts to more terrible by news with an impatient, sad, and slightly naïve pronouncement: “I don’t even want to know this!”

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So say we all:

  • Original airdates: 2/11/2005 and 2/18/2005
  • Survivor count: 47,957
  • Six theme count: 5 (starting to grate on me.)
  • Adama monologue count: 2 [It’s taken me this long to realize that the previous title for this section, “Adama speech count,” isn’t what I was really thinking of. It’s the monologing—a certain tone of voice from Edward James Olmos, a distinct portent to the words. They’re both moral and eminently quotable. Sometimes those are speeches, but sometimes it’s also just the way he talks to someone. This week: His cutting words to the Chief are monologue-level. “Somewhere in this there’s truth; care to take me to it?” And of course, the takedown of Hadrian during the tribunal.]
  • “You forgot to wash your hands!”
  • “They look like us now.” President Laura Roslin, not even pretending to be subtle.
  • Everything else aside, why on earth would Six try to seduce Adama? The whole thing is bizarre.
  • “Not the Chief.” “How do you know?” “I know.”
  • Helo and Sharon consummate their love during a sudden thunderstorm, because everything Ron Moore does feels vaguely like a romance novel.
  • “Well of course it was a fake! I’d never wear a shirt like that.”
  • Look, I don’t know about you guys, but the OCTAGONAL DISC that Shelly brings to the CIC had me cackling.
  • The queering of Starbuck, part two: “Well, your new boyfriend’s a bit of a jerk, sir.” “It’s a girl.” “If you don’t mind her goo all over your face, she’s all yours.”
  • Office of the XO: Hearing from multiple sources that BSG isn’t going to be on Netflix anymore starting October 1. Does anyone know of alternate ways to watch, besides buying the DVDs? Also, NETFLIX, COME ON, THAT’S OUR SHOW, I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMETHING HERE.
  • And now it’s your turn: How do you think Six pulled off the events of “Six Degrees Of Separation”? Mind control? Corporeal possession? The hand of God? (Of course, it doesn’t really matter what the answer is; the point is that it’s a mystery. But of course of course, the right answer is mind control.)

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