“Exodus, Parts One and Two” (season 3, episodes 3 & 4; aired 10/13/2006 and 10/20/2006)
Farewell, New Caprica; we hardly knew ye. The two part “Exodus” bids farewell to a setting rife with dramatic possibilities (gods, even just having some people up in Galactica and Pegasus with the others down on the planet could’ve been fascinating), and while it’s safe to say we’ll be feeling the effects of New Caprica for many episodes to come, there’s still something abrupt in saying goodbye so quickly. It’s almost too quick, really. Had the occupation been painted less vividly, had the performances been just a little less lived in, this could’ve all been too fast, burning narrative for the sake of tension and not much else.
Thankfully, New Caprica was so well-drawn, and the cast so good at settling into slightly different versions of themselves, that it only looks rushed in retrospect. The first time I watched this season, all I really cared about was what awful thing would happen next, and t“Exodus” does a fine job of making sure that the humans reuniting feels like an earned event, and not just something that had to happen to restore the status quo. As always, the show is excellent at making us feel the cost of every major decision. No victory on Battlestar Galactica is easy, not even the ones that end in cheering.
Part of what makes “Exodus” so compelling is that while it functions as a great battle story—there’s even a last minute cavalry charge—the “us vs. them” concept never entirely hides the fact that neither side is happy with its current situation. The humans are understandably upset under Cylon control, as the machines have no grasp of how to effectively maintain power; their logic and ends-justify-means approach results in a lot of bad feelings, and then a lot of death. Classic bad guy over-reaching.
And yet, while the Cylons are the villains here, they’re something almost—I don’t want to say endearing, but nearly sympathetic in their inability to understand the situation. Typically villains are interested in some form of power, but for the Cylons, the power is a means to an end they’re still searching for. The murder of most of the human race was a clear mission statement, but instead of simply nuking New Caprica on their arrival, they tried to build some kind of a relationship. Driven by Caprica Six and Boomer’s newfound faith, they were striving for a goal that was greater than simple dominance, even if most of them seemed to believe that goal was a lost cause from the start.
While that doesn’t change how the conflict plays out (the humans and the Cylon leadership never see each other at all; Baltar is the closest linking figure between the two groups, even if neither side has much use for him), it’s hugely important to the series’ biggest question: is it possible to stop this seemingly endless war? Can Cylons and humans ever find some basis of understanding that will allow them to trust one another? Roslin spends most of her time in the second half of the two parter trying to ensure the continued safety of Hera, the human-Cylon hybrid. It could be, she says, “the shape of things to come,” and that’s an idea that resonates in part because we’re allowed to see the Cylons struggling within the restrictions of their role in the narrative.
That ability to present ambiguity in the midst of intense conflict is one of the show’s great gifts, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the death of Ellen Tigh. It’s a tragic, heartbreaking end to a character who, for most of her time on the series, had been little more than an irritant. Her time on New Caprica allowed the writers to clarify what made her more than just a twerp: her unshakable devotion to her husband was at once her redemption and her doom. After Tigh learns the truth, that Ellen betrayed them to the Cylons, she tries to explain herself—and what’s so painful to watch is that you can’t really fault her reasoning. She did what she thought was necessary, not for the greater good but to protect this one thing in her life, and for her troubles, people died. Including her.
Worse, Saul has to kill her himself. He uses poison (and does she realize that’s what she’s drinking? It almost seems like she does), and the acting on both sides here is gut-wrenching. It’s hard to watch; it’s also a brilliant move story-wise because you can understand the choices on both sides, and how each person felt forced into doing what they did. Saul’s been a hardliner since his captivity, using people as suicide bombers for the greater good, and as much as he loves Ellen, the situation has reached its climax, and he can’t let her live after her actions nearly destroyed everything. Maybe if things weren’t so heated, maybe if he’d had time to calm down (he doesn’t seem angry so much as damned), he might have found another away. Or maybe not. It’s a believable horror that leaves both victims painfully human.
It’s also probably the only truly agonizing part of either episode. While the rescue mission has a cost, the build up and resolution are more about showing how well these people work together, and how much they’re willing to risk to protect one another, than it is about criticizing them for bad judgements in a crisis. Hell, Lee and Adama even manage to part on good terms, with none of the tension we saw between them from the season premiere. Lee still thinks the mission is an absurd risk, but he recognizes his dad is determined; Adama, for his part, respects his son’s council even if he can’t take it, calling for a salute from the deck when Lee leaves the Galactica.
It’s not exactly a surprise when Lee returns in the heat of battle to save the day, but the lack of surprise doesn’t make the event any less satisfying. It’s gorgeously directed, too—Adama realizes the Galactica can’t hold its own in the battle, he announces “It’s been an honor to serve with you” (which is never something you want to hear mid-fight), and we pull back to see the ship being slowly destroyed by Cylon assault. The shot lingers for what seems like ages, pulling back slowly as though unable to bear the sight, and then the Pegasus fires shots from off-screen. If you’re going to pull a semi-predictable twist, this is how to do it, by making sure the audience understands exactly how close the heroes were to defeat.
While neither episode ever tops the sight of Saul executing his wife for sheer horror, this isn’t all straightforward fun and games. Starbuck is still at Leoben’s mercy, and though she ultimately escapes him, their fight is ugly and deeply weird. I’m not even sure if it’s a good weird; seeing Starbuck forced into such a cliched “women in peril” situation while the world is blowing up around her is annoying even if she does manage to save herself in the end, and Leoben’s needy awfulness is as pathetic as it is threatening. He’s not sympathetic, and worse, he’s not even all that interesting—simply being obsessed with Starbuck isn’t enough to give him a character. Starbuck finally tells him what he wants to hear, but only because he forces it out of her, which at least serves as a decent metaphor for the Cylon occupation on New Caprica. And she does manage to stab him one last time. The reveal that Kacey isn’t actually Starbuck’s daughter isn’t a shock, and while Katee Sackhoff plays the hell out of the moment, it’s hard to believe that Starbuck would be that upset over losing a “daughter” she barely knew, especially since we’ve never heard her say she’s wanted children before that I can remember.
Then there’s Baltar, who is as fucked as ever, and locked in misery for much of the two-parter. I realize that he’s a lost cause for many of you, but his despair and self-loathing in his final days as the nominal president cement his value as a character for me; while his bad decisions inadvertently helped bring the Cylons to New Caprica, he’s also one of the few people on the planet who understand the true tragedy of the situation. This was, in theory, a chance for the two races to find some way to co-exist, some way to end the conflict before everyone ends up getting killed. There was a legitimate desire on the Cylon side for some sort of rapprochement, but too many lacked the lacked the faith to believe such a thing was possible. The result: tyranny that pretended to be justice.
The most telling moment of either episode comes when Baltar begs the Cylon council to simply leave the planet in peace. It’s not an unreasonable request. The group is once more bemoaning its inability to control what it doesn’t really understand, and it’s not as though they have anything immediate to gain from sticking around—if they really are interested in ending hostilities, wouldn’t a quick departure be a step towards something positive?
D’Anna then gives a speech about how, if the Cylons did leave the humans in peace, then the humans would spend generations telling their children about the evil Cylon menace; until someday, some of those children would be compelled to act. It’s a cynical speech, but not an entirely unreasonable one, especially if you remember the history between the two races, but there’s something off in her logic that not even Baltar can effectively explain. The killing has to stop at some point, but if both sides can never take the risk of trusting the other, there’s no way to bridge the gap between them. If New Caprica is any indication, the humans can’t live when the Cylons are in power, but it’s doubtful the Cylons would’ve done much better had the positions been reversed. (Actually, given how this whole war started, that’s already been shown to be the case.)
It’s enough to make you give up in despair. But for all its miseries, this is not a despairing show. It may not have the greatest faith in civilization, but it recognizes the human (and Cylon) capacity to grow and learn, and even develop compassion over time. We see this in what is easily the oddest storyline running between the two episode: D’Anna’s search for Hera. As I’ve said before, I’ve never been as comfortable with BSG’s spiritual threads as I am with its more immediate dramatic elements. The ideas behind them (especially the concept of religious machines) are potentially fascinating, but as a narrative device, it seems something that’s far to easy to “cheat” with, so to speak; to just throw out weird shit for the sake of weird shit, and hope for the best.
That would become a problem by the end of this season (I won’t get to write about it—see Stray observations—but the reveal of the Final Five was at once the ballsiest and stupidest thing the show ever did.), but while I’m not huge on the random appearance of Amanda Plummer, Mystic to the Machines, there’s enough going on in D’Anna’s search for Hera to make it more than just an excuse for symbolic dreams. As Roslin said, Hera is as important for what she represents as for what she actually is: a potential way forward, a sign that it’s possible for the humans and the Cylons to be more than just desperate enemies. It’s fitting that D’Anna is the one doing the searching. She’s the one who explain to Baltar why they can’t leave New Caprica alone, she’s the one who nearly sets off a nuke when the Cylons decide to leave. But, unlike Cavil, she’s not entrenched in her beliefs. She’s smart enough to have a capacity for hope, even if its a capacity she seems to resist.
Whatever mystical force is guiding our heroes and villains, it doesn’t want everything to end in death, which is a relief. Despite some casualties along the way, and the misery that comes from a failed experiment, there’s enough hope left by the end of “Exodus” to push the series forward. Once again, our heroes were separated by circumstance, and once again, they manage to find their way to back to each other. It’s enough to make you hope that maybe there’s more waiting for them out there than failure, destruction, and doom.
- Sadly, the same can’t be said for this review series. Due to low readership, this will be the last of the Battlestar Galactica reviews (congrats, commenter who always asks why these write-ups exist—you won!). Thank you very much for reading; I struggled at times to do work that lived up to the high standard of this show, but it was a pleasure to talk about it again after all this time, especially for such a loyal, and appreciative, audience.
- SPOILERS: Yes, I know Ellen isn’t really dead.