“Epiphanies” (season 2, episode 13; originally aired 1/20/2006)

Ah, thank goodness, a Roslin episode. We get flashbacks, we get drama, we get life-or-death. Although I’m still not entirely sure we get her. One thing I’ve been noticing this rewatch is how Roslin is the most opaque of the show’s major characters, at least partly by design. One of Mary McDonnell’s signature moves as an actor is her smile; it’s a look that you immediately recognize but that’s almost impossible to pin down completely. Whenever things don’t go her way, whenever someone says something she doesn’t agree with, she’ll smile—polite, slightly pained, and depending on the context, either heartbreaking or hilarious. It gives you a sense of just how smart she is, and just how determined.

But it’s also a shield that makes it hard to figure out exactly what she’s thinking. We know she’s desperate in “Epiphanies” because she’s dying, and we know a little more about her past because she keeps remembering her final days on Caprica, negotiating a truce with some striking teachers. She had a relationship with the now-dead president, although they didn’t see eye to eye on the strikers. She also just happened to see Baltar hooking up with Six, which I’m sure won’t ever come up again.

The flashbacks suggest someone who was already finding her voice in the old government even before tragedy pushed her into a more definite leadership position. President Adar (Colm Feore!) objects to Roslin’s efforts to meet with the strikers and negotiate; when he asks for her resignation, she refuses to give it. It’s a fight that never actually happens. The Cylons attack soon after, Adar is killed along with a whole lot of other politicians, and Roslin takes over.

All of which is well and good, and it’s great to see Roslin in action in the past—the flashbacks make it possible for her to spend most of the present lying in her deathbed while people hover over her and worry. She has a few important scenes, but most of the non-flashback time is spent on plots she either put into motion (aborting Sharon’s baby) or ones she, at least initially, has nothing to do with (the Cylon sympathizers). So this has all the makings of a classic “getting to know you” type hour, and Roslin’s decision to meet with the spokesperson of the sympathizers near the end connects directly to her flashbacks to the strikers.

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A lot of it works, a decent course correction after last week’s two-parter (and a brief oasis of quality before we dive into the muck that is “Black Market”). There’s a clear sense of stakes, and while I knew that Roslin wasn’t going to die, it at least seems possible that she might. The Cylon sympathizer threat is a smart, and inevitable idea; the show undercuts itself somewhat by having Gina as the leader of the group, but it’s still entirely believable that some people on the ships, sick of running and starving and dying, would want to find some easier answer, even if that answer requires a healthy amount of self-delusion.

But I still find myself frustrated at how much of Roslin’s story is taken out of her hands, and how the major decision she makes—to end Sharon’s pregnancy—seems to come more or less out of nowhere. Much like her suggestion to Adama that he’ll have to kill Admiral Cain, the problem isn’t that this is something Roslin wouldn’t be capable of; it’s more that the writers are so eager to show our heroes making horrible decisions that they don’t do the leg work to make the actual decision making plausible. At some point, Doc Cottle did some bloodwork on the fetus; the results were unusual; so Roslin decides the baby has to die.

It’s a bold, big choice, the sort of thing that could lead to plenty of argument and discussion outside the show, but not something that entirely works in context. One of the things I appreciate about BSG is its willingness to take narrative risks, but risk means that you don’t always get the pay-off. Roslin’s orders create a powerful conflict that pits characters we like against each other, and it shows how even smart people can let fear rule their judgement. But this sort of boldness can’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s hard not to shake the “someone picked ‘forced abortion’ out of the Awful Things Hat” vibe that lingers throughout.

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Doesn’t help that Roslin and Adama eventually back down after Baltar realizes that Sharon’s baby’s blood can actually cure Roslin of her cancer. That’s about as magical as magic fixes go, especially convenient ones that help prevent otherwise decent people from doing something vile. (A case could be made that ending Sharon’s pregnancy is the safe move, and one the things that’s frustrating about the premise is that they don’t really make that case at all. I’m not saying I’d agree, mind you, but the conflict only really works if it’s not a black and white issue.) We thought we had two problems, but it turns out they cancel each other out, somehow, so isn’t that nice to everyone?

If Roslin is still too much in the background, Baltar’s woes are front and center: he can’t do anything to stop Roslin’s orders about Sharon, not even when Six returns to threaten him (reminding us once again how everyone on the Galactica must be used to seeing their vice president wandering around talking to himself), and while he’s set to take over once Roslin dies, any pleasure he might take in the promotion goes away when Gina contacts him, assuming he’ll be willing to pave the way for the Cylons—once again painting him as a traitor against his own kind, and a tool.

Yet he gets an actual arc this week, and for once, we see how smart he is when he theorizes, and then successfully tests, the possible effect of Cylon blood on cancer cells. Infuriated by Gina’s assumptions (and maybe a little frustrated that she turns down his advances, although it’s hard to blame her; getting creepily aggressive at someone is never a good idea, especially when they’re getting over multiple rapes and other tortures), he temporarily turns on the Cylons and saves Roslin. Being Baltar, though, he can’t leave well enough alone. After reading Roslin’s letter to him (presidents write letters for their successors), and taking her criticisms about his lack of compassion as a sign of her lack of trust, he decides to help Gina after all, and sends her a nuclear warhead. That’s probably going to come up again.

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Stray observations

  • My delight at seeing Colm Feore is tempered only by the knowledge that, outside of another flashback, we probably won’t be seeing him again.
  • Lee and Kara are charged with finding out more about the Cylon sympathizers when their sabotage becomes too obvious. Always fun to see them working together. (And I love how amused Kara is when they find a terrorist and she starts ranting.)

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“Black Market” (season 2, episode 14; originally aired 1/27/2006)

Credit where it’s due: while Lee’s suicidal tendencies at the end of “Resurrection Ship, Part 2” seemed to come out of nowhere, at least the show followed through on them. His depression drives much of his behavior in “Black Market,” and it’s the major justification for why he shoots a man in cold blood. Lee’s supposed to be an idealist, but here is he, taking out a bad guy and being ruthless as though he’s figured out a trick or two at the edge of despair. You know what they say about people with nothing left to lose: you probably shouldn’t give them guns.

But that’s about as much credit as I’m willing to give “Black Market,” which is about as ridiculous an episode as the show has ever produced. Heavy-handed, plodding, and almost shockingly childish in its attempts to deal with emotionally complex issues. This is a show that, by and large, tries to avoid cardboard cut-out villains. The Cylons, who have murdered millions, are allowed moments of sympathy, even grace, and none of our heroes are entirely sinless. Yet here we have Lee facing off against an apparent crime lord boogeyman, played by the always unsettling Bill Duke. Duke is fun in the role, but it’s just such a flatly uninteresting character. He exists to be awful, and then die.

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The idea of a “black market” running between the ships of the human fleet makes complete sense. When resources are scarce, there are always people who exploit that scarcity to make a profit, regardless of the moral cost of their efforts. And it’s smart from a world-building perspective to spend some time getting into the details of what it’s like for humanity to survive, out gunned and constantly on the run. Space battles and philosophical intrigue are great hooks, but there’s nothing wrong with giving the occasional hour over to how the sausage gets made. It strengthens the illusion that there’s more to what we see than just a handful of rooms and hallways and a cast of a few dozen.

But illusions take craft and effort, and can’t just be something you throw together without any apparent knowledge of what you’re talking about. The basics Lee learns are obvious enough: if you’re willing to pay more (heh heh heh), it’s possible to get much needed supplies under the table. Which honestly seems more like a failure of the administration to get the medicine and food to the people who really need it—and that’s sort of the point the episode is trying to make, but then it shoots itself in the foot (and the chest) by having the bad man Phelan (Duke) have people kidnapped, beaten, and murdered for crossing him. Oh, and he keeps a vault of kids on hand for, well, just imagine the worst reason and it’s probably that.

There’s no clear sense of the market as a functioning system beyond the most immediate of logistics. Everyone we meet who’s involved could’ve stepped easily out of the Crime Cliche Handbook. There’s Phelan, of course, the mastermind who lurks in the shadows and also turns out to be kind of a terrible judge of character (at least when it comes to Lee). There are the various thugs in Phelan’s employ, idiots to a man. And there’s the hooker with the heart of gold, Shevon, who Lee’s been seeing on the side. Shevon exists primarily to give Lee a personal connection to the criminal underworld. She even has an adorable, sick, and vulnerable daughter to threaten.

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That’s bad enough. Worse is the way the episode uses flashbacks to try and create a tragic backstory for Lee; he had a pregnant girlfriend who he abandoned back on Caprica. She died during the Cylon attack (not that the abandonment and the attack happened at the same time), and now Lee is pining for her and feeling impotent guilt in that Lee Adama sort of way. It’s just nonsense, the rankest of cliches used to motivate a character who already has more than enough reason to be depressed and lost. Lee is most interesting as someone who should have everything, but can’t quite figure out his place in the world. To give him such a blandly generic douchebag past is to rob his misery of its complexity.

Another minor, but still annoying, misstep: Jack Fisk gets murdered about ten minutes in, which means all of the characters brought in from the Pegasus are apparently gone. (There was the flight captain who booted Starbuck off mission, but the only reason Captain Cole registered was the fact that he was played by John “Pete’s Piece” Pyper-Ferguson.) What had seemed like a major status quo upheaval was, in retrospect, barely even a blip. The entire subplot has been neatly cauterized, and the efforts cost our heroes more or less nothing.

I’d love to embrace the idea of a BSG that occasionally dabbles in procedural elements, just to keep things varied. At 22 episodes long, this is a season that has room for the occasional outlier and oddity, and turning briefly into an old school murder mystery, with various familiar faces paraded around as suspects, could’ve been fun. But it needs a defter touch than this. By the time Lee’s facing down Phelan in a creepy red-light bar, the way has been lost. His decision to shoot the bad guy should be a transgressive act—Lee has gone to the dark side! His torment has forced him to accept a world with shades of gray!—but is more of a shrug than anything else. And a relief. I like Bill Duke well enough, but I don’t see how Phelan really fits in this universe at all.

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There are a few interesting scenes here, most of them unconnected to the main plot. Roslin asking Baltar to resign is terrific, as it brings their conflict just that much closer to the surface; Baltar, who will go where the tides take him so long as he doesn’t think he’s being insulted or ordered around, immediately goes on the defensive. (It doesn’t hurt that Six tells him Roslin’s afraid of him.) Also, Dee confronts Lee with her feelings for him, and when he finally comes to his senses and goes to take her up on her offer, he sees her and Billy kissing. It’s a bit of personal drama that in some ways is just as much a cliche as anything else, but it’s a cliche where the stakes are small but meaningful, and the relationships have been well-established, so the familiarity doesn’t matter. Lee losing out because he takes too long to make up his damn mind makes sense. Not much else in this hour does.

Stray observations

  • Lee finds a bracelet engraved with the initials “E.T.” in Fisk’s box of booty. “Ellen Tigh” was not the first name I thought of.
  • “I can’t be what you want me to be.” -Shevon. Sure, fine, whatever.
  • I like how Lee and Shevon have this whole, clearly painful emotional confrontation in front of all the black market guys who’s boss Lee just shot.

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