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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Caprica: "Ghosts in the Machine"

Illustration for article titled Caprica: "Ghosts in the Machine"
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I try to reserve my A grades for episodes that really knock everything they do out of the park or episodes that substantially push forward what a show or the medium is capable of. By both of those measures, "Ghosts in the Machine" doesn't add up. The Amanda plotline, while vaguely interesting, still seemed to be stuck in neutral, and you can't say that Caprica hasn't engaged with many of the issues it's dealing with in this episode before. This is very much a "putting things in place" episode, one that is getting everyone in position for what should be a terrific midseason finale next week, if all of the things leading up to it are any indication.

But I gave this episode an A anyway. And why? Because the other two plotlines - the story of Daniel Graystone trying to trick his daughter into revealing that she resides within his robot and the story of Joseph Adama wandering New Caprica City searching for his daughter - are both among the best things this show has ever done. Actually, scratch that, they're among the best things the entire Battlestar Galactica universe has done, and when either plotline is on the screen, the episode is completely riveting. I normally despise easy TV tricks like making a club seem like a crazy place by tossing in a transvestite master of ceremonies straight out of Cabaret, but Caprica, improbably, made that work and just about everything else it tried too.

Both Caprica and its parent series are shows that are uniquely marked by loss. The scale of the loss was so huge on BSG that it frequently threatened to drag every person in that world down into the mire of depression, into a sea of greys and blacks. The loss on Caprica is smaller, more approachable. Some girls who were deeply loved died in a train explosion, and the events that followed that are unknowingly going to change the world. But first and foremost, this has always been a series about what fathers will do for their daughters, about how hard it is for a father to know his daughter once she reaches womanhood, once she crosses a threshold he can intellectually understand but never quite get emotionally. Zoe's the robot future of the universe, sure, but in this episode, she might as well just be a petulant girl who's slammed the door to her room. She has her reasons - and they're good ones, I think - but most of what she's doing stems from how little she and her dad can even be on the same page anymore.

In all of the writing I've read about Caprica, there's been surprisingly little talk about how the series offers a uniquely feminine twist on the science fiction epic. Obviously, it's partially in a genre that's often been derided for being the provenance of women (the soap opera), but the series is also examining a host of relationships from a female perspective, relationships that both the genre and fiction in general haven't done very good jobs of looking at in the past. On the surface, Caprica is the story of two men who change the world because their daughters died. But below that surface, it often seems like a meditation on the fact that once puberty hits, there's a wall that goes up between fathers and their daughters, a wall that is scalable but only occasionally.

Obviously, there have been plenty of stories about how daddy's little girl has all grown up and now he's sad to see her leave home (or get married or what have you), but there's always a creepy undertone to these. Too many of these sorts of stories twist what's a time-honored storytelling theme - parents realizing their children are becoming their own people - and turn it into a weird desire to keep daddy's little girl as daddy's little girl forever, shrink wrapped and never moving past childhood innocence.

Caprica has toyed with this from time to time but always shied away from it. The grief is there, all right, on both sides, but much of it is driven by untimely death. In a way, Daniel's desire to have his daughter back has always been a desire to return her to a person he understood, someone who wouldn't join a terrorist group or create an incredibly advanced avatar of herself and stick it in a virtual world. But even when he confines her to a robotic body, he can't completely pin her down. She's a person of her own, now, and while he'll always understand her better than most, he'll also always be cut off from certain parts of her. Daniel's battle to get Zoe to unwittingly reveal that she's in the Cylon tonight was practically about the story need to show this battle of wills. But metaphorically, it was about parents needing to learn when to let go. (The other storyline commented on this as well, in a lovely image where Joseph confronted the mark his daughter was leaving on the world - literally! - a mark he couldn't quite understand but could appreciate and a mark that was always going to keep him outside of her life.)


Now, Ron Moore and David Eick have always been good at creating great female characters in their various works. But what's going on here feels very different, and I think a lot of the way the show is building its relationships from a female perspective can be lain at the feet of former showrunner Jane Espenson, who seems to be bringing all of her prodigious talents to bear on this show. And while I've talked about the father and daughter relationships so much that I can't quite delve into this as much as I'd like to, I like the ways that she's turning some of the other relationships - particularly those between two females - into the sorts of relationships you don't often seen in fiction. I love the way that Zoe's a little too demanding of Lacy and the way that Lacy just puts up with it. It's a dynamic I've seen numerous times between teenage girls, but I don't know that I've seen it portrayed on television quite as well as it's being portrayed here. (Oh, who am I kidding? I can't think of another television relationship like this, period.) Similarly, the relationship between Amanda and Sister Clarice has similar elements of power struggling trying to one up each other, in a way that rings true, even when the scenes they're in don't work as well.

Caprica is maybe not as gutsy a show as it could be - I could have done without the show backing out of the decision to kill the dog (twice, no less) - but it's finding ways to hit all of the right notes at this point in its run. If nothing else, it's making me a believer in Eric Stoltz, who's utterly fantastic tonight in the scenes where he tries to get Zoe to crack. (And I'm amazed by just how much Alessandra Torresani can say with just her face and no words.) Somewhere inside of Stoltz's cunning and malice is a wounded man who can't understand just what  happened when his daughter grew up. And now, because he can't and because he needs her back, he's going to torture her. And maybe indirectly cause the near extinction of his species. Caprica is soap opera, yes, but it's also grand, Shakespearean tragedy in the finest tradition. And with "Ghosts in the Machine," it officially takes its place among the best dramas on TV right now.


Stray observations:

  • OK, that New Cap club was probably a little over-the-top, but I liked the guy playing the MC, so I'll let it slide. Furthermore, did we get an official answer to his riddle that I just missed?
  • I'm still intrigued as to the actual identity of Joe's escort through New Cap City. The series has done surprisingly little with the fact that when you're online, you can be anyone and that as technology advances, that will become even more true. Revealing the escort's true identity will be a good first step in this direction, I think.
  • I understand that some people missed the last minute of the program because their DVRs cut out. Well, basically, Zoe and Lacy hung out in V-world, and Zoe told Lacy that the robot could sense the gun she shot the dog with was full of blanks. She then insinuated that had the gun had bullets in it, she might have turned it on her father and asked Lacy to get her out of the robot before she did something she couldn't take back. (DUN DUN DUN.)
  • Those who saw the final two hours of the half season at a Paley Center event said that hour two was even better than this one, so here's hoping next week pulls everything together and sends us shooting forward into an exciting new section of the season.
  • Again, I'm not Noel, though I do love writing about this show. Noel will be back next week, with fewer ramblings heavily influenced by that one course he took in college on feminist literary theory.