“Scar” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 2/3/2006)
Both of this week’s episode’s follow the standalone approach of “Black Market;” neither is quite as narratively isolated, but both introduce new concepts that arrive at definitive conclusions by the end of the hour. And neither is entirely successful in its aims, although thankfully neither are quite as lousy as “Black Market.” There are elements in each hour worth digging into, ideas that would have a long-term impact on the series at large, but the standalone elements in “Scar” and “Sacrifice” are under-cooked, forcing the writers to lean in harder on character emotion to try and justify everything.
Battlestar Galactica is a melodramatic show—and I mean melodramatic in as neutral a way as possible, simply indicating that this is a series full of people who go on big emotional swings week in and week out. Sobbing, screaming, crazy laughing, that sort of thing. And the reason this works is because the writing earns the emotion. Extreme situations call for extreme responses, and it’s hard to imagine something more extreme than “having your civilization destroyed and ending up on the run from murderous space robots.” It’s freeing to watch Lee break down or Kara drink herself into oblivion, or Chief Tyrol rage against the miseries of his life. Decorum is lost because circumstances no longer allow for it, and the fact that the show (and actors) are willing to commit to this honestly and without concern for embarrassment, is part of what makes it so compelling.
That said, it’s a tough line to walk, and if the threat slips—if the situation becomes less than a knife’s edge between hope and despair—then it can all look a bit, well, silly. “Scar” comes close to walking the line, close enough that its failures sting that much more. Starbuck takes center stage, and her struggles to deal with her feelings for Anders, and her grief over losing pilot after pilot, are raw and believable. There’s a gorgeous sequence late in the hour, of Starbuck watching footage of a pilot getting killed while she downs another bottle of whatever she’s been drinking, that is just about perfect, beautiful in its grief and loss and confusion.
It’s just, the reason people keep dying is that there’s a special Cylon raider they’ve named “Scar,” and it’s extra good at killing. Which is a bit goofy, isn’t it? I mean, all this time, the raiders have been personality free animals, but now there’s one who’s extra special somehow. Sharon’s explanation is that dead raiders get downloaded into new bodies the same way the human models do, and while her reasoning is logical—they never have to train new ships, just keep letting old ones learn from their mistakes—it doesn’t sound feasible in a practical way.
But that’s really just nitpicking. This really doesn’t work because it robs the raiders (and, to an extent, the Cylons) of some of their mystique. They aren’t supposed to have opinions about the humans they’re killing. The fact that Scar’s ship has, well, scars on the front of it is bizarre. According to Sharon, it’s been reborn several times. Does someone redo the scars each time? The reason the Cylons are terrifying is because they are alien, mysterious—even the ones we’ve met are difficult to completely understand. Scar is just the Red Baron in sci-fi trappings, and the Saturday morning cartoon simplicity of that doesn’t fit well with everything else.
Another problem is the episode’s efforts to pit Kat against Starbuck. It makes sense that Kara would face off against younger pilots, now that she’s moving into a position of authority; time comes for us all, that sort of thing. But Kat is so aggressively unpleasant that the scenes between the two of them are a trial. The actress isn’t great—she’s humorless in a way that makes her antagonism simultaneously hard to take seriously and impossible to ignore. When Starbuck gives Kat her due near the end, it should play as a strong sign of her maturity. And it sort of does, but all I really wanted was for her to dump the bottle of booze over Kat’s head.
Still, I can’t completely write this one off. Starbuck playing tribute to all the pilots Scar killed (whose names she claimed she couldn’t remember) was unexpectedly moving, and while not all of the world-building of the hour works, I liked the reminder that the fleet needs to mine for additional resources as it goes—any indication of the cost of maintaining an on-going exodus helps to ground everything else. While Starbuck’s interactions with Kat were too one-sidedly annoying, her scenes with Apollo and Helo worked well. Her frustrated efforts to have sex with Lee made sense; she’s trying to get Anders out of her head, and she and Lee have always had a weird relationship. This just ratchets up the tension between them more, as they both end up frustrated with each other and not able to understand exactly why. As for Helo, he’s just a good friend. It’s nice to see Starbuck hanging out with someone she doesn’t want to punch or fuck.
- This may be even more subjective than usual, but just hearing them say “Scar” over and over got silly. And the were all so serious about it, too. The episode might have worked better if the whole idea of “Scar” was just something the pilots had created to make their enemy more understandable; as is, the script goes out of its way to confirm that there really is a Scar, and it really is a badass.
- The episode’s structure—starting in the present, but spending most of the time in flashback—is clever, and mostly effective. Although I think it used the cliffhanger of Starbuck playing chicken with Scar twice, which is a bit of a cheat.
“Sacrifice” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 2/10/2006)
In “Sacrifice,” Billy starts standing up for himself, so of course he has to die. After weeks of spending most of his time lurking in the background, or popping up solely to serve as a temporary romantic inconvenience for Lee, he finally gets a few scenes that let him show off what he can do. He holds his own against Adama, he proposes to Dee, and later, when he finds out that she’s seeing Lee, he tells her (more or less) to fuck off. Then he tries to be a hero and gets himself shot. Sweet kid. He’ll be missed.
But hey, Dana Delany! I mean, she gets killed too, this one has a pretty high body count, but it’s fun to see her. Once again, an outside force intrudes into our heroes’ lives, sowing chaos and horrors in its wake, although at least here, unlike with the black market and Scar, the threat isn’t something we should’ve heard about before. Delany plays Sesha Abinell, a woman who lost her husband during a Cylon attack. Having realized that Adama is keeping a Cylon in the brig, Sesha puts together a group of like-minded men (including her brother-in-law), takes a restaurant on Cloud 9 hostage, and demands Sharon be delivered to her, or else she’s going to start killing people.
It’s not a great plan. It’s made even less great by Sesha’s lack of planning. By coincidence, she happens to grab the restaurant with Lee, Ellen Tigh, and Billy inside, all of whom would make excellent hostages—but she didn’t plan on getting any of them. It just happened. Coincidence in storytelling is sometimes a necessity, and it can work all right if it makes things harder for the good guys rather than easier, but this just seems like sloppy planning, and also reinforces the idea that nothing of any real importance happens in the Fleet unless it directly involves someone we already know and care about.
A hostage situation isn’t a bad set up for a TV episode; it creates immediate stakes, lots of potential drama between the hostage takers and the hostages, and a chance to get to know a limited amount of space in a very intimate way. But it can also be tedious, because once the situation starts, the hour turns into a waiting game. There’s very rarely a surprise resolution at the end of this sort of storyline. Maybe someone will fuck up and get shot before the end, but the ending always comes down to the hostage takers getting either killed or arrested, and the hostages stumbling out into freedom. That predictability makes the tension less vital.
Weirdly, “Sacrifice” sort of dodges this issue by never really offering up much tension at all. I’ll admit this could stem from the fact that I’d already seen the episode and knew what was going to happen, but that’s true of every episode in this rewatch. “33” still gives me jitters. This was considerably less effective. Delany does what she can with the role, and her rage and frustration are legitimate and understandable, but she and her friends never come across as a truly dangerous threat, not even when the shooting starts. They don’t kill any of the hostages in cold blood—Billy dies because he gets involved with the fighting, not because Sesha isn’t getting her way.
The real suspense, then, comes from Sesha’s demand. She wants Sharon, and that puts Adama in a position to once again consider his feelings about the Cylon prisoner. He’s been softening to her somewhat in recent episodes—not “let’s hang out and be friends” softening, but I’d say they’re at a level where Adama doesn’t have to work that hard not to shoot her. It’s a fascinating dilemma for him and for all the major characters who regularly come in contact with the woman who looks exactly like their former friend. She’s the enemy, an enemy who’s done horrible things, and she hasn’t exactly repudiated her compatriots. But she has saved the ship, and provided them with whatever information they’ve asked for. It’s like going through a bad break-up, only to be stuck living with the person afterwards—even when things are calm, there’s subtext behind everything.
In comes Sesha, revealing Sharon’s existence to the Fleet (an idea which would carry more weight if the show had done a better job establishing just what the rest of the fleet is like), and demanding her revenge. This should create a difficult, if not impossible, ethical problem. Does Adama give up a Cylon prisoner to save human lives? Or does he risk his son and everyone else to protect someone he, at best, maybe doesn’t despise? Only, it’s not that hard a choice to make, since, as multiple characters point out, you don’t negotiate with terrorists.
So maybe the drama should come from the fact that Sesha is arguably justified—if not in her actions, than at least in the motivations behind those actions. Adama’s secrecy in regards to Sharon is a complicated concern, and it speaks to a refusal to treat the rest of the survivors with the openness they deserve. He and the others have a personal connection to Sharon, and that clouds their judgment, however much they’d deny it. Unfortunately, Sesha is just not that interesting a character. She’s mad she lost a husband, but everybody in the Fleet lost someone in the attacks, and there’s nothing more to her grief to distinguish her or make her struggles compelling.
Instead, we get small stories. Billy has an arc, which means he’s doomed; Lee tries to pull a Die Hard and gets shot for his troubles; Kara tries to be the hero, and accidentally shoots Lee. Also, Ellen is a nuisance, although we knew that already. Adama trying to reckon with Sharon’s value (she still refuses to reveal the identities of other Cylons in the fleet) is hard to dramatize because he’s such an internal character. Like Roslin, he does most of his thinking and feeling quietly. His decision to protect Sharon and offer Sesha the other Sharon’s corpse instead makes sense, but it’s hard to say exactly why he does it. Is he just refusing to negotiate? Or is it something more profound?
The only truly memorable part of “Sacrifice” is Billy’s death. It’s a brutal, terribly sad moment. One minute he’s walking around; the next, he’s a corpse, without any chance to say goodbye to anyone. The last we see of him is on a slab in the morgue, and Roslin’s response—she’s hit by a wave of grief so intense it nearly knocks her over—is very well done. As an action thriller, the episode fails to satisfy, and it doesn’t really work as an investigation of Sharon’s place with the humans. (Odd that Helo, the human with the closest connection to her, doesn’t even show up.) But it works here and there. Goodbye, Billy.
- Another no show, in both episodes this week: Baltar. I don’t know as he would’ve added much, but it’s unusual to have him gone this long.
- I like Billy well enough, but his proposal to Dee is bizarre; I’m not sure if it’s just the writers trying to wring the most pathos out of a situation, or a conscious choice to show how immature he is. Whatever the reason, you don’t ask someone you’re barely dating to marry you, and expect to get a good answer.
- “People look for complicated answers when something terrible happens.” -Adama. Which is true, but also maybe a little self-serving of him to say in this particular instance.
- Dee and Lee end up together in the end, and Kara manages to catch them with them seeing her, in an echo of Lee seeing Billy and Dee earlier. Nobody ever catches a break for long.