So let's assume - and I'm making a wild guess here - let's assume you're a geek. Tonight's a big test: what kind of a geek are you? Are you most excited: 1. that Ellen Tigh (Kate Vernon), now revealed as the Twelfth Cylon, makes an appearance tonight and unlocks more secrets of the tangled Cylon/Human canon? Or 2.: that John Hodgman - the PC guy, the This American Life and Daily Show guy, the dark dork prince of quirk - has a cameo? Count me in camp 1, because it rubs me wrong that one of the crucial plot nights of the series also has the misplaced comic relief of Hodgson's cameo. Come on Ron Moore, this ain't The Love Boat, and Hodgman ain't Don Ameche. Eyes on the prize, dude.
That said: tonight's episode, "No Exit," was one of my absolute favorites. Not because it had stellar action or stand-out performances, or even many emotional high notes. If you're the kind of fan who bathes in backstory, who wants to see how it all connects, tonight's episode delivered some of the best exposition I've ever seen from anything. It's not that I expected them to dish out the big secrets in the classic "one scientist explains something to another scientist, until - twist ending!" style of golden age sci-fi. But I never thought it would be this subtle, that they could focus more on the who's and why's than the what's, or that they could explain so much of the mystery while keeping it so mysterious.
The plot was simple: on Galactica, Anders is in the sick bay with a bullet in his brain, and he's started to remember things - how the Final Five knew each other on Earth, how they escaped, and how they played a part in the war that kicked the series off. To recap - well jeez, how far back should I go? Well, let's go back to Kobol. Humanity is born. People have sex and make babies and die, and it's a pretty good way to keep the species going. But the 13th tribe came up with a system of "organic memory transfer." It allowed them to transfer memories from one body to the next, and effectively invent resurrection. But somewhere along the way - either on the way to Earth, or after they landed - the 13th tribe, who became the Cylons, decided to go back to the sex thing, and they forgot about resurrection. Forgot it, that is, until the Final Five rediscovered it, largely thanks to Ellen Tigh.
Anders tells this to Tigh, Tyrol, and Tori - the other members of the Final Five, who are huddled around him on Galactica. They're only missing one Final Fiver, Ellen. And that's the other half ot tonight's story: Ellen's alive! Turns out that when Tigh executed her on New Caprica, she resurrected - in a secret facility on a base ship, where Brother Cavil could pick her up and hide her from the rest of (well, most of the rest of) the Cylons. So let's recap the rest of the history.
The Final Five were on Earth, and they rediscovered resurrection. But they also knew that a nuclear war is coming - presumably because the Earthlings had invented Centurions, and pissed the Centurions off, and somewhere a Centurion got hold of a nuke, and so we know how that goes. The Final Five don't wait around for it. They build a resurrection ship of their own, which is out in orbit, and when the bombs fly, they find themselves on their space ship - which they pilot back to the other 12 colonies, where they're going to warn the humans not to invent artificial life, or at least not to be mean to it. But of course they're too late.
But they're not too late to run into the Centurions - who want to invent artificial life, and who got as far as making hybrids, but who don't know how to make the flesh-and-blood Cylons. The Final Five agree to teach them.
Lemme just add here that I love the way we're learning this. We don't see flashbacks or dramatizations of any of these wars. We don't see this magical little space ship, which plods at sub-light speeds and in a relativistic time warp on its way to the 12 colonies. We don't see Ellen and the gang land at the Temple of Hope. We're just listening to Anders talk. Or Ellen and Cavil argue. It's one step above cavemen hanging around a campfire. It feels a little shady or shadowy: we don't get the objective truth of what the show can stage for us, but the limited viewpoint of what these characters can explain.
And these characters are very unreliable. We spend half the show with Ellen and Cavil, as well as Cavil's "pet" Eight, Boomer, who watches them bicker. No mystery where they got the episode title this week: the episode is staged like Jean-Paul Sartre's play (and a Centurion as the Valet is a great touch). Except that instead of a three-way torment, we're really focused on one relationship: Cavil hates his creator Ellen, in part because he hates himself. By the timestamps, we are led to believe that he and Ellen have been tormenting each other on the baseship for eighteen months, Ellen staying cool and a little maternal while Cavil rages and rants at her. Why did she make him so human? Why does he have these squirrely little eyes, instead of sensors that could see the whole spectrum of light? "I'm a machine. And I could know so much more. I could experience so much more. But I'm trapped in this absurd body."
He doesn't want to be human, yet he's vengeful and jealous. We learn that back in the day, there was actually a 13th model of Cylon. Don't get excited, it's noone that we've ever seen: the 13th model, Number Seven, was Daniel, a sensitive artsy-type who was a favorite of Ellen's. Cavil got jealous - so jealous that he didn't just box the Daniels, he killed them all, infecting the amniotic fluid in their tanks. Cavil also imprisoned the Final Five, and eventually wiped their minds and dropped them in the 12 colonies, so they could suffer with the humans, and endure terrible pain and torment, all so they could come back and tell Cavil that he was right, humanity sucks, being a machine is a good gig. That's what he wants Ellen to say, and he also wants Ellen to admit that everything wrong with him is her fault, not his, plus he loves her - and in their final exchange, they bicker like God and Lucifer, mom and son, father and daughter, and two lovers, all in one scene.
Also, he wants to cut her head open and pick her brain apart, because he needs to know how they can start resurrecting themselves again. (Remember, they lost the Resurrection Hub. They lost resurrection. And the Cylons in Cavil's fleet are all guys. You do the math.) The thing is, Ellen can't - or won't? - tell him the secret.
Like I said, it's complicated. I only just watched the episode and I'm only on my second cup of coffee. We really all need to go back and watch this one again.
Anyway, here's the fun part: We've learned a lot about what makes a Cylon a Cylon, but now we know less than ever. What makes you a Cylon? The resurrection process? Earth was peopled by Cylons, but they weren't the artificial, made-from-whole-cloth models like Cavil. And yet, if flesh and blood Cylons are a step back, are they really machines? Is Cavil really a machine, just because someone grew him in a tank? He almost seems to want to transcend anything we've seen so far, a perfect machine with a vengeful heart and eyes that can see gamma rays. At the same time? He's just a confused, petulant little man. With a well-armed fleet at his command.
The Final Five are still working out what it means to be a Cylon. Tigh starts making cracks about "skin jobs" again, and without really thinking about it he expresses a particular kind of racism - "I may be an 'other,' but I'm not as 'other' as these people." After all, the Final Five used to be real people; the skin jobs are multiple, and manufactured. (Presumably the old 13th colonists were not?) So now Tigh, after feeling so bad about being a Cylon, actually has someone else to look down on. Except that one of those skin jobs is having his kid.
Is Starbuck a skin job? She seems to hope so, and she even keeps Anders out of surgery just a little too long so she can find out if maybe she's a Cylon or she's tied into this somehow. "I'm sorry. I'm so very sorry," she tells him while he's under, "I thought maybe I was the seventh. I had to be something." Is she special? It's pretty clear she was reborn through this organic memory transfer thingie - but so, couldn't anybody use it? Does that make her a Cylon? And is she really in love with Anders again, or is she just drawn to him because he's on his deathbed? … Or because of what he knows? (And by the way, as the episode ends, his brain waves are flat - and as Tori says, "I forgot to ask him about that frakking song.")
Adama delivers what may be the most racist line of the season, when he and Tyrol - who is once again, the Chief - are wandering through the guts of the Galactica, and examining the shape she's in. Last week, we saw stress and damage in the walls; this week; Chief Tyrol confirms that the whole ship is wracked with damage and hairline fractures, and it's probably not even fit to make a jump. Adama turns to him as the one man who can fix it - but almost matter-of-factly he demands that the work crews be staffed entirely by humans. Adama might have learned to love the Cylons, but Galactica? Galactica's still sacred, and Cylon technology is unclean. I mean, the place barely even has telephones. Of course, at the end, as Adama sees just how close it is to falling apart, he agrees with Tyrol's plan to use Cylon technology to spread some kind of organic superglue all over the metal and heal it - making the ship a true hybrid of both species. Maybe now they'll finally get a 3G network too.
But ultimately, Ellen's and Cavil's - sorry, John's - exchanges are the heart of the show. We learn practically everything about what they've done and what they're capable of. We learn how completely Cavil is the show's villain, the one who dominated his own creators, the one who told the other Cylons that they shouldn't ask questions, and the one who still - lest we forget - is going to try to blow our fleet sky-high. And we learn that Ellen has lived to be a gamechanger, though we don't know how.
But we've barely scratched the surface of who these people are. They are full, messy characters with motives we'll never fully parse. And even Boomer, who's spent the last year and a half learning to be a better machine, starts to act human again: right when Ellen is on her way to get her skull cracked, Boomer sneaks her off to a shuttle and jump the hell out of there.
Let's close with Anders' final words to Tigh before his own brain surgery: "Stay with the fleet! It's all starting to happen! It's a gift from the angels!"
Final Grade: A
– In the podcast for last week's episode, Ron Moore indicates that he wanted to wipe out the Quorum as part of the storyline. Looks like we'll be replacing it with representatives chosen by ships of the fleet, rather than by the planets where they don't live anymore.
– A "tumbrel" is a cart used to carry the condemned to an execution, in case you were wondering what Ellen meant. But I have no idea why she chose that word, so again, par for the course this week.
– Hey, where the hell was Baltar?