Spoilers for "Act of Contrition" after the jump:
"Act of Contrition" finds BSG easing off the accelerator a bit, and prioritizing emotion over incident for the first time. I wouldn't recommend getting used to it. This isn't to say that the series lacks emotional depth, but that its general approach is to attempt (usually quite successfully) to deliver emotion and character richness alongside or in between a narrative packed with developments that almost always threaten the fleet's very survival. Lee's arc from "33" through "Bastille Day", for instance, largely stemmed from the crises he encountered. Starbuck's potential sacrifice—though the "to be continued" at the end of the episode informs us that she'll be surviving at least another week—does not, although it is in part brought about by a freak accident that kills a huge number of Galactica's pilots. No, it stems from her past: the fateful decision she made to pass Zak Adama in spite of his inadequate flying skills. The nature of this story necessitates a somewhat more tranquil and reflective episode.
It does not start out that way, of course. There are probably bleaker moments to be found in BSG's four-season run, but that opening sequence is still just brutal. What begins as a celebration of Flat-Top's 1000th landing suddenly turns into a moment of pure horror when a loose weapon goes off and flies straight into a group of pilots (who are celebrating by pushing Flat-Top around in a cart). He's killed, as are 12 others. The show cuts to credits just as it hits them, mercifully sparing us the sight of both impact and the immediate aftermath. But that's all it spares us, as the grimness of the event is still apparent in the images of all those corpses in bags. None of the pilots are people we as viewers knew very well (Flat-Top's the only one we even knew by name), but it's still as devastating a way to begin an episode as I can think of. One of the things "Act of Contrition" probably could have done a little better is to follow up a little more on that, rather than becoming almost all about Kara Thrace. This is a moment that surely directly affects many people aboard Galactica, but even the funeral scene is mostly used to explore Starbuck's state of mind, rather than the loss that has just been suffered by the crew as a whole.
But it's hard to complain about that decision too much, as Katee Sackhoff brings that state of mind to haunting life. In addition to what transpires in the episode itself, "Act of Contrition" and Sackhoff's performance also add some powerful emotional subtext to her scenes in "Bastille Day": most notably the last one between her and Tigh, in which she tries to connect with the XO over their respective flaws. We see here that she wasn't merely offering Tigh an olive branch, but in fact meant every word. She's been attempting to go about her life as usual (cracking jokes about Flat-Top last week, playing cards, and so on), but she recognizes what it is to screw something up big-time, and the accident causes the guilt that she's been attempting to ignore to rapidly begin eating her alive. The cockiness and talent for quips that we've seen from her in earlier episodes is virtually nonexistent here, and when they do show up—in the scene where she tells the nuggets to address her as "God"—they are there to mask her own demons, which eventually cause her to flunk all her students for fear that one of them might be another Zak. In short, we've never seen Starbuck quite like this: barely able to keep herself together. (It turns out that Tigh, as blind to his own faults as he is, was right. Her demons are preventing her from doing her job properly.)
We've also never seen Adama on the verge of completely losing control until now. In the episode's finest scene, the two characters face each other, and Kara finally confesses to Adama the truth about what happened to his son. This is as well-acted a scene as you'll see anywhere, with raw emotion simply radiating from both actors. Sackhoff is (as she is throughout the episode) simply stunning. Her confession is delivered in almost a monotone, but later in the conversation tears of relief begin to flow freely, as if she is finally cleansing herself of her guilt. All is not well, however, as Adama responds to this admission not with any sort of sympathy, but with barely suppressed fury that is terrifying to witness. When he tells her to "walk out of this cabin while you still can", he does so quietly, but Olmos's eyes leave no doubt that he means every word. Scripted and acted to perfection, this is another example of the powerful simplicity of BSG's first season. Two people in a room talking is—as Breaking Bad has proven time and time again—often the most riveting thing in the world, especially when they have this much history.
Her clear remorse is not enough to earn her even a glimmer of understanding from Adama (not that you can really blame him), which leads of course to those fateful final few minutes from which "Act of Contrition" gets its name. The sequence of events which culminates in Starbuck ejecting from her doomed Viper is essentially a culmination of everything we know about the character to this point, both throughout the series and in this episode in particular. First of all, there's her confidence in her own flying abilities, which might have led her to make this dangerous decision regardless. But even more than that, Adama has just reacted to her confession with a statement that suggests she's dead to him. Being looked at (and spoken to) with such coldness by one of the people you're closest to in the world would have a powerful effect on everyone, and you can see in her eyes during that scene how destroyed by it she is. As a result, she elects to put her life in substantial—and quite possibly unnecessary, as a number of other pilots are on their way—danger. Victory or death, with likely no middle ground in between the two. If you're Kara Thrace at this point in time, that probably doesn't sound like an unappealing scenario.
And yet it's also not a particularly redemptive one, as suicide by Cylon doesn't really atone for anything. What follows is, though, as Hot Dog (one of the nuggets she's been training) disobeys her orders and joins the fight, soon finding himself a bit in over his head. And Starbuck, whose life's greatest regret is her failure to be the instructor she should have been to Zak, manages to talk him through it and ensure his safety. This is her act of contrition. Not the ill-advised decision to fly straight into enemy forces with no backup, but this: the simple action of using her own knowledge and experience to save an inexperienced pilot's life. We also see during this ending that Adama's attitude towards Starbuck is not completely cold, as there is serious (if stoically expressed, as it almost always is) fear on his face as he helplessly watches from the ship. Things seem to be looking up a bit for Starbuck, if she can survive.
Her survival is of course a question that remains up in the air at the end of this episode, as she's last seen falling towards the nearest planet, having had to abandon her Viper after it gets hit by the last remaining Cylon Raider. It's the first real cliffhanger BSG has used, and it's an effective one thanks to how strong an episode "Act of Contrition" is from a character perspective. Starbuck's current predicament isn't merely next week's dilemma. It's going to be a struggle for survival for a character who we now care about deeply. And why? Because she's a deeply flawed, messed-up, but basically decent human being, just like most of us are. And as with the rest of the show's characters, her fallibility is ultimately what makes her worth rooting for. Kara Thrace is the character on this show most likely to do something absolutely awesome in a given episode (ribbing Flat-Top, saving Lee with that awesome aerial maneuver in the miniseries, etc.), but she's also still a human being. A lesser series might let you forget that, but not this one.
- This week on Caprica: Caprica Sharon and Helo find a shelter with food and medical supplies, while still being watched by the Cylons.
- We welcome Dr. Cottle to the show this week, in a scene in which he and Laura Roslin discuss her treatment. He doesn't appear believe in the alternative treatment she wishes to pursue, but (in a haunting line that impresses upon us how dire her situation truly is) does suggest she pray.
- BSG is a consistently great-looking show (one of the very best), but even by the show's own standards that final shot is remarkable. The sight of Starbuck free falling into that beautiful and bright abyss is just a beautiful and chilling way to end the episode.
Next Week: "You Can't Go Home Again"