Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Battlestar Galactica" - "Water"

Spoilers for "Water" after the jump:

"Water" may not be quite as wall to wall tense as "33", but the early portions of the episode may be among the most dread-filled minutes in BSG's history. What's terrific about the show's approach to suspense is that it sometimes stems just as much from the characters' internal reactions to the given situation as it does from the situation itself. Both are critical, of course, and the moments leading up to the explosion of a number of Galactica's water tanks are certainly agonizingly tense, as are the crew's subsequent attempts to replace what they've lost. But what stands out most throughout this installment are not the more conventionally suspenseful "ticking bomb" moments (effective though they are), but rather the scenes in which a terrified Boomer tries to figure out what to do after she wakes up soaking wet and with a detonator in her bag, having just planted the explosives that will lead to the loss of all that water.

We know, of course, that Boomer is a Cylon sleeper agent. But she doesn't, and has no memory of what she's done. "Water's" bravura opening sequence is, as a result, flat-out scary. Opening with a shot of water dripping, it cuts to a shot of its source: someone's utterly still hands. Another cut, and the camera tilts upward to reveal a nearly catatonic Boomer. Already the situation is uneasy. It quickly switches to truly frightening when the character snaps out of her trance, and with a jolt (for both her and us) discovers the detonator. Most of this is filmed via close framings, allowing us to register all the more viscerally Boomer's complete bewilderment and fear, which of course become even greater when she goes to Galactica's small arms locker and discovers that multiple detonators are missing. Only then does the show remind us of the threat this poses to others, by showing the remaining detonators, placed somewhere aboard the ship. The rest of the sequence is simply Grace Park's mesmerizing acting and the intimate camerawork that captures her terrified reactions: a combination that works wonders.

And those are just the opening minutes. They set in motion another terrific episode, and one that brilliantly demonstrates BSG's general approach to its storytelling in the early going. As in "33", there's a crisis—the water situation—that is largely resolved by the end of the installment, while the ongoing story proceeds amidst all of this. It's a strategy plenty of serialized dramas use during their early episodes, but to me this series does it better than any of them (although the recent first season of The Americans comes close). Why? Well, mainly because it never feels like the a strategy, thanks to the crisis of the week emerging out of an ongoing story arc: Boomer's status as a sleeper. There will be times in the future when the show doesn't manage to do this (season three's abysmal "The Woman King", for example), but the great majority of season one episodes—maybe even all of them, although we'll have to wait and see about that—feel like they're all part of one continuous unit in spite of their often self-contained main storylines. "Water" has a crisis, and it's resolved within the week, but it can't fairly be called a "crisis of the week" the way, say, Jack McCoy prosecuting someone on Law and Order is known as a weekly case . It's just a logical follow-up to the events of the miniseries and "33". No more, no less.

Adding to this feeling are the amount of developments in the ongoing narrative that occur as a result of the main dilemma. The water crisis brings a number of the main characters together in one room, where they discuss (in addition to the problem at hand, of course) the knowledge that Cylons now look like people: knowledge that civilians are starting to become aware of, although at this point it's all just speculation. Talk also turns to Baltar's Cylon detection method, which is of course something he made up. Not much happens with either of these threads at the moment (other than Gaeta being assigned as Baltar's assistant), but they're a stellar example of the episode integrating a number of important ongoing plots into its main storyline. Again, everything is of a piece.

"Water" also directly follows up on "33" with Lee's story, as the CAG is still dealing with the emotional aftereffects of destroying the Olympic Carrier. On the surface, this storyline repeats some of the same emotional and thematic beats we saw last week, but that doesn't make it dull or thematically uninteresting. On the contrary, it feels wholly natural that, a mere three days after carrying out the order (as Adama helpfully informs us when talking to his son), Lee would still be tormenting himself over this. It leads to a great scene between him and Roslin, in which the president rejects Adama's words about moving on regardless of whether you're "right or wrong" for the false and hollow rationalization that they are, instead telling him a story about a deadly mistake the previous president made and discussing the necessity of learning from bad decisions. She doesn't go so far as to call the Olympic Carrier's destruction one of them, but admits that she too is unsure of whether it was the right thing to do. As great a leader as Adama is, his stubborn belief in his own rightness (and at times, the tunnel vision that results from this) is a major character flaw. While he understands his father well enough to agree to be Roslin's military advisor, Lee Adama is vastly different from him in many ways, and his willingness to question himself (and others) is perhaps one of the biggest.

In addition, we witness a bit more of the developing dynamic between Roslin and Adama, which in "Water" evolves into something approaching friendship. A benefit of the slightly less frantic pace of the action here is the ability to include a quieter moment between these two characters, as they bond briefly over their shared love of mystery novels. It would have felt completely out of place in "33", but with immediate death not on the agenda for once, BSG is free to continue to add layers to two of its best characters. One would not peg William Adama as a mystery lover, but there's far more to the man than the calm, steadfast, and slightly weary persona that he projects while on duty. And as usual, Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos act the heck out of every scene they're in.

In the end, though, the most memorable scenes in "Water" belong to Grace Park as Sharon, as well as to Tyrol, who she enlists in helping her cover her tracks. Every scene involving these characters is nail-biting on two levels: the immediate fear at hand and our own knowledge of Sharon's sleeper status. The episode rivets due to the possible consequences of the cover-up for both of them, but it also does so due to the fact that we're never sure what Sharon will do next. In one of the most suspenseful scenes here, she's forced to fight her own programming when she's the one to discover a new source of water. She wins this time, getting the message out and defusing the last explosive, but the sheer struggle required indicates she may be fighting a losing battle. The immediate issue at hand—for both Sharon and the fleet—has perhaps been solved, but she remains a danger to herself and others: something "Water" deftly reminds us of by closing on an image of her walking, having not yet reached her destination. Hauntingly appropriate given what transpired here, don't you think?

Other Thoughts

- Back on Caprica, Sharon II and Helo discover that someone else is sending a military signal. Not much else of note there this week.

- Loved Billy's awkward attempt to talk to Dualla.

- We get another glimpse into Saul's battle with alcoholism, as he measures the number of drinks left in a bottle. A very brief scene, but an effective continuation of that storyline.

Grade: A

Next Week: The show introduces one of the great recurring characters in TV history in "Bastille Day".

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