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Guns are pulled and blood is shed on Battlestar Galactica

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“Fragged” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 7/29/2005)

There are plenty of ways to generate drama, but my favorite is one that Battlestar Galactica excels at: putting people into nearly impossible situations and watching them squirm. It’s an approach that’s become fairly popular in the years since BSG went off the air, with Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead currently leading the charge, ratings-wise. But every show, even the most lightly comedic, does this to some extent. Something you need gets in the way of something someone else needs, and all hell breaks loose. It’s about the application of pressure, and how that pressure generates suspense through character. We want to see what happens next, and more importantly, we want to see what these specific people do.


Like, say, President Laura Roslin—she’s stuck in the brig suffering withdrawal from the chamalla extract she was taking to treat her cancer. As is so often the case on BSG, the initial problem wasn’t enough; a simply military coup wouldn’t keep Roslin down for long. So now she has to deal with being half out of her mind while trapped in a position where any sign of vulnerability is going to make her position even more precarious. A president who ruined a military operation to follow a religious precept is a tricky sell. A president who did this and now can barely string a coherent sentence together is someone doomed to not be president much longer.

It’s especially painful to see Roslin laid low; at her best (and even with terminal breast cancer, she’s nearly always at her best), she’s a sharp, driven politician with a good grasp on the demands of the office, and a deeply vested interested in keeping her personal life out of the public eye. Which isn’t to say she has much of a life to hide at this point. Aside from the cancer diagnosis which she reveals to the Quorum of 12 (the government, basically, or at least the people in charge who aren’t her) near the end of the hour, Roslin doesn’t have many secrets to keep. Or if she does, they’re so well-hidden that even the audience doesn’t know about them.

Which isn’t a bad way to build a character. As Roslin, Mary McDonnell has about the same level of gravitas as Edward James Almos’s Adama, but where Adama is closed and mournful (and awesome), Roslin has willed herself into a kind of holy optimism, a private woman who, when confronted with both her own mortality and the potential mortality of her entire species, chooses to push up her sleeves and start grasping at every straw she can find. Adama comes up with a lie to give others hope; Roslin works to make that lie come true. Done badly, this could make her look like a fool, or worse, but the writing, and McDonnell’s terrific performance, work brilliantly. The actress’s dry-as-dust sense of humor is especially important—she always looks like she’s a heartbeat away from arching an eyebrow at some fresh piece of nonsense.

Roslin is so competent that it’s easy to forget she’s still fallible. Her suffering in “Fragged” speaks to that, a suffering which has her so deluded that she shows vulnerability to Ellen Tigh. (Ellen is the worst. Just the absolute worst.) Ellen tells her husband, who’s already annoyed with, well, everything, and Saul decides to make it a point of humiliating Roslin and shutting the Quorum up at the same time. This could’ve ended Roslin’s presidency, but some last minute good fortune lets her turn the tables on Saul.


Poor Saul is turning into a monster. His dislike of bureaucracy and civilian command (plus his horrible, horrible wife) keeps driving him to make stupid, potentially disastrous decisions, up to and including dissolving the Quorum and declaring martial law at the end of the hour, something he himself has said Adama would hate. This is where the character work the show’s been doing for a season and change pays off, because Saul isn’t just a one-sided authoritarian jackass; it’s possible to see the shifts of self-loathing, fear, and rage which push him to make each foolhardy decision. Adama wasn’t the perfect leader, but he had the confidence to believe in his ability to command without pushing every order to its absolute extreme. Because Saul doesn’t believe he can do the job, he makes mountains out of what he should be at least pretending are molehills.

The psychological cost of command is an important idea for the series. Every survivor carries a burden of loss with them, and the extent of that loss means they also carry an enormous, soul-crushing responsibility: if they fuck up badly enough, the species dies. Every living person on the show bears the weight of the dead on their shoulders, and the individuals tasked with leading and protecting everyone else have the added pressure of lacking anyone else to blame for their failings. Every choice they make is potentially the choice that drops the fleet into Cylon hands, and most of the time, there’s no way of knowing what you did until it’s done.


You see this ruining Crashdown’s life back on Kobol, albeit on a much smaller scale. Having lost two men under his command, Crashdown becomes desperate, deciding it’s necessary to use his remaining forces (two engineers, a medic, and a cringing, half-mad scientist) to assault a Cylon missile launcher. The theory is sound enough: the launcher is designed to fire on any ship from Galactica that tries to rescue the survivors, so it needs to be stopped. But Crashdown’s approach is all wrong. He ignores advice from Tyrol, he delivers a mission briefing like he copied it from a template, and, when the chips are down, he nearly shoots Cally when she refuses to pick up a gun and go toaster hunting.

It’s tense stand-off, with a lot of screaming all around, but Baltar forces the issue by shooting Crashdown before he can shoot anyone else. I’d thought about spending more of this review talking about the good doctor, because his arc here—cowardice and desperation and ranting followed by an act which, while self-serving, borders on heroism—is what appeals to me about the character in a nutshell, but Roslin deserved a look first. We’ll get to him eventually, I’m sure. What’s important to note is how expertly the episode pushes Baltar, who typically avoids decisive action like the plague, into having to be bold.


Tyrol also has some interesting moments in “Fragged,” first questioning Crashdown’s orders in private, and then laying into Baltar for daring to question them in public. I’m not a military man, but I feel like this makes the most sense when viewed in that light—not in the concept of some specific hierarchy, but in the idea that if you have a small group in the middle of desperate, life-or-death situation, you stick to the chain of command because that structure will keep people alive. Baltar’s rant is cathartic, and he’s not entirely wrong (Baltar is rarely entirely wrong), but his method is wrong, and Tyrol telling him to sit his ass down is probably the only thing that keeps the group from falling apart completely.

In the end, Crashdown dies but the others live, and Baltar even manages to give the dead man a fitting cover story. (Albeit one which protects his own ass.) The fight with the Cylons that Tyrol and Baltar both wanted to avoid happens anyway, and it’s terrifying, and the rescue team arrives just in time. So I guess that’s another small victory bought in blood, and everything’s almost but not quite falling apart. Just another day in Hell, really.


Stray observations

  • The space battles on this show are violent, but in a beautiful, almost elegant way; all the carnage is rendered through flashes of light and zone. Ground combat is far more brutal. The fight with the Cylons a constant barrage of bullets and feels as terrifying and chaotic as you’d expect.
  • According to Six, anyone who dies on Kobol won’t go to Heaven or Hell. Boy, religion is fun.
  • When Billy ask Tigh for help with Roslin, his first response is to ask why Billy isn’t in the brig too. Tigh is not in a helping mood.

“Resistance” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 8/5/2005)

The Cylon detector is an inevitable idea. Cylons being able to pass as humans gives them a huge tactical advantage, and once the humans realized this was possible, it became necessary to try and find some way to neutralize the advantage. If Adama and Roslin had met a human-looking robot, shrugged, and moved on, it wouldn’t have made any sense character-wise. Besides the audience is desperately curious about what these Cylons are actually made of. They don’t necessarily need to get an answer, but the question should be addressed somehow.


The flipside of this is that if humans develop a functioning system of identifying who’s a Cylon and who isn’t, a lot of the mystery on the show is lost. The air of paranoia that’s plagued our heroes since the truth came out is invaluable as a tool to drive them to rash behavior, as they slowly turn on one another in their desperation to protect themselves. To get rid of this, to turn a seemingly insoluble problem into a simple matter of a blood test, would be to sacrifice a large part of the Cylon’s mystique, making them less effective as villains. That mystique is going to rub off sooner or later no matter what happens, but it’s still worth holding onto for now.

How do you solve the conflict between these two ideas? You bring Gaius Baltar into the mix, maybe the only human being alive with a vested interest in keeping an already dicey situation as confusing as possible. It’s the only way he can stay on top—so long as everyone is too nervous to ask too many questions, and he can somehow please the ghost in his head without completely betraying his own people (again), he can stay alive.


Baltar is the one in charge of the Cylon detector, and he’s already lied at least once about the results. (Gaeta was working on it with him, but Gaeta seems busy with his real job lately.) He’s not a reliable source of information to the characters on the show or those of us at home, which gives the writers a decent, if slightly implausible, way to keep secrets from being revealed too quickly. In “Resistance,” he’s tasked with finding out if Tyrol is a Cylon or not, but instead of using the device, he injects the Chief with poison and forces Sharon to reveal the number of Cylons left hiding in the fleet. Having the power to decide who’s a Cylon and who isn’t is more important to Baltar at this point than actually running the test. If he did the latter, it might interfere with the Cylons’ plans, and Baltar can’t risk completely alienating either side.

While “Fragged” and “Resistance” aren’t a direct two-parter, the storylines on Galactica in the latter build naturally off of what happened in the former. Most inevitably, Tigh’s efforts to bring peace to the fleet no matter what anyone else says is falling apart, as other ships refuse to resupply the battlestar unless Roslin is released and placed back in command. Tigh’s plotline falls into a plausible, if distressingly predictable, pattern; he’ll try and come up with a reasonable response to a crisis, and then Ellen will push him (and drink with him) until he comes up with an unreasonable one. Civilians are killed while marines are following one of Tigh’s worst orders, and anyone who guessed his decision to declare martial law to go horribly wrong guessed right. But what makes it fascinating, and painful, to watch is seeing his weaknesses let him down at every turn. And Ellen. Always Ellen.


Meanwhile Roslin, realizing things are come to a head, plots an escape with Lee’s help. Last episode, she was able to save herself with some luck and her ability to deliver just the right speech at just the right moment. Those gifts come up again here (at one point, she talks her way past a terrified guard), but most of her efforts involve putting her faith in others to get her out of the brig and off the ship. It’s a well-orchestra plan, and a relief to see her finally out her cell, but the episode still finds time to throw her decision into doubt. When she and Lee leave the Galactica, Billy stays behind; he helps her escape, but he also thinks her decision to flee and foment rebellion against the military will only serve to divide the colonies even further apart. From a narrative standpoint, Roslin (and Lee) need to be on the move, but it’s hard to dismiss Billy’s point entirely. Someone needs to stop Tigh, but is this the best way to do it? Especially if it means getting into bed (figuratively) with Tom Zarek. The show lets its protagonists win on occasion, but those victories are rarely unambiguous, and almost always create further complications.

Back on Caprica, Helo and Starbuck have a long, pointless (though understandable) fight with a group of local sports heroes turned resistance fighters. We’re only four episodes into the season, and already the Caprica segments are becoming a problem. They aren’t terrible, but nothing happening on the former homeworld has the same vitality as events back in space, especially now that the Kobol survivors have been rescued. Watching Starbuck square off against a bunch of jocks is decent fun, and the group gives our heroes at least a fighting chance of stealing a ship and getting back to the real party, but it’s hard not to wish we were back with the stories that really matter


Matter may be the wrong word here; Starbuck is a lead, and she does have the key to finding Earth, and that’s definitely going to be important later. Plus, these new characters may stick around for a bit (Hello Anders, so glad we have another square-jawed handsome white guy), and Helo still has to work through his complicated feelings for a pregnant Cylon woman. But there’s an impression of backtracking every time the show cuts to Caprica, a sense of pause which is turning more and more into a distraction. It’s probably necessary to keep Starbuck off on the sidelines with Tigh running the show considering how well they get along, but it’s still a storyline that needs to figure out a reason for existing more interesting than “Bitch stole my ride.”

“Resistance” marks the end of one version of that “bitch,” at least for now. (That is a horrible, horrible segue. I’m really sorry.) Cally, furious and terrified over Tyrol’s arrest, decides (after some prompting) to take her rage out on Sharon, shooting her as she’s being taken to a new holding cell. This is after Cally blackmailed Baltar into exonerating the Chief by threatening to tell everyone he shot Crashdown—which he did to save her life. Cally is a certain kind of person you don’t often see on shows; she’s likeable and sweet, but she’s also not secretly brilliant or hiding deep reservoirs of courage. Her value as a person is more about who she is than what she can do, and there’s nothing charming or cool about her behavior under pressure. I don’t mean that as a slight; she just reacts the way most of us would in a crisis, screaming and crying and terrified all at once.


What really hurts here is watching Sharon die, because there’s no redemption in it, not really. Sure, the Chief holds her as she goes, and she tells him she loves him, but their relationship is far from repaired; Baltar gives Tyrol some surprisingly good advice about valuing love where you find it, but it’s too late for that to really matter. Sharon dies confused and essentially alone. Maybe later we’ll see her born into some new body in the usual Cylon fashion, but for right now, it’s just this miserable, useless, pointless loss. It even manages to slightly undercut the episode’s happiest moment—Adama back on his feet again. His assassin couldn’t do the job, and now she’s dead. Score one for the team, I guess.

Stray observations

  • I suppose by dying Sharon at least escaped whatever “tests” Baltar was planning for her.
  • So, eight Cylon agents. We don’t know if Sharon actually knew this, or if it was just a random number she pulled out her head, but given that she’s a sleeper agent, “a random number” might not be all that random.
  • So, Adama survived, and hopefully now that he’s back in charge (or will be soon), he’ll be able to fix the mess Tigh has them in. Or not; it was, after all, his decision to arrest Roslin that set off a lot of this mess. Adama also works hard to reassure Tigh that X.O. still has his support. Friendships between strong and weak men tend to be dramatically fascinating because they force you to try and understand what each one sees in the other. To Tigh, Adama is gravity, the thing that keeps him from floating out into space; but harder to see what Adama gets out of the relationship. Maybe Tigh represents a sort of simplicity Adama wishes he could have in more of his relationships; there’s never any question of who’s in charge. (But there’s this sympathy between them that’s fascinating. Adama loves Tigh the way you love an old dog that sometimes bites people.)
  • “Aren’t you getting tired of the continued humiliation?” -Six, to Baltar
  • Pyramid looks like a dumb game.
  • The episode opens with a drop of Tyrol’s blood hitting the floor, and ends with a drop of Sharon’s doing the same. It’s impossible to tell the difference between the two. Someone may be trying to tell us something.

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