Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Battlestar Galactica" - "Litmus"

Spoilers for "Litmus" after the jump:


Why, Adama? That's one of the questions I keep asking about "Litmus". I'm speaking of the moment in which he agrees to give Sergeant Hadrian, the master at arms, the authority to lead an independent inquiry into the Cylon attack that has left three people dead, over a dozen more injured, and nearly killed him. And no matter how I turn it over in my mind, I just don't buy the decision: particularly not the fact that he then doesn't monitor it closely enough to realize much earlier that Hadrian's inquiries are getting out of control. That makes it even more frustrating when he later shuts down the tribunal after declaring it a "witch hunt" (which it is, even if Hadrian was actually on the right track in regards to Boomer and Tyrol). It makes the entire installment feel like basically a waste of time. The episode jumps through several hard-to-swallow narrative hoops—Adama's initial decision is only the first—only to leave us without having accomplished much of anything, other than ending Boomer and Tyrol's relationship and sending a peripheral character (Socinus) to the brig for perjury.

I should clarify a bit: by not accomplishing anything, I'm referring primarily to the aimless tribunal plot. "Litmus" actually does accomplish one very important thing: revealing to the rest of the fleet that Cylons look like human beings. That's huge, although the amount of time spent at the tribunal means we don't get too much of a glimpse at the consequences of it this week, outside of a brief and not exactly subtle conversation between Tyrol's crew members about their views on the matter. (There are two major schools of thought put forth: either resisting the temptation to give in to the paranoia or trusting no one and looking out solely for one's self.)

Unfortunately, that revelation is one of the few dramatically compelling things that happen in "Litmus", which is just an enormous drop in quality from the previous five episodes. It opens extremely effectively; the aforementioned attack (carried out by a Doral model) is another stunner of a cold open, as chilling and dread-filled as any the show has done to this point. And the tribunal initially seems to be a potentially fascinating and disturbing result of it: one that's strikingly similar to our post-September 11th world of paranoia and suspicion, which I imagine was the intention. The possibility of Cylon agents causing problems for the fleet has been with BSG from the start (and was of course the main focus of "Water"), but a suicide bombing is another matter. This series is not shy about drawing comparisons between its world and the one we've lived in over the past 12 years, and here is one of the earliest examples, with the tribunal's witch hunt atmosphere able to be read as an indictment of the paranoia that has allowed our leaders to justify locking people up without a trial.

In its haste to make this point, however, BSG seems to have forgotten that it's also telling a story. And the narrative tissue connecting the events that take place in "Litmus" is for the most part pretty weak. Part of what hurts the episode is how much of the story rests on the actions of Socinus and Hadrian, two characters we just don't know very well, and whose actions just aren't very well-motivated. We see glimpses, for instance, of why a member of Tyrol's crew might be so loyal as to take the fall for him, but they're not really enough to justify Socinus's actions here: not without further background knowledge of the character. And the fact that he's such a minor character adds to the feeling that he's here mostly to serve the plot. His imprisonment provides an illusion of major consequences, while leaving characters we're more invested in free from harm for the time being. Most shows do this in the early going, of course, but the best ones—including BSG itself, generally—are usually more elegant about it.

"Litmus", on the other hand, is just clumsy in almost everything it does. For instance, what on Earth possesses Hadrian to bring Adama before the tribunal and then ruthlessly question him? Though he ostensibly has no authority to shut the tribunal down, this is not a typical situation, and Adama is unafraid to behave as a dictator when he makes up his mind about something (something those people under his command are no doubt aware of). Antagonizing him is just a bad idea, and since Hadrian is certainly not stupid (she figured out that the Chief was involved in this somehow very quickly), I can only conclude it was done to provide a flimsy excuse for this plot to be wrapped up by the end of the episode, as well as to raise interesting questions about Adama's own behavior. A witch hunt the tribunal may have been, but one person being able to stop it just like that sets an equally dangerous precedent.

That's fascinating to consider, and on that level I suppose "Litmus" works reasonably well. But the execution just doesn't match the ideas. The episode's overall clunkiness extends to the scenes on Caprica as well, where—after picking up a little steam in "Act of Contrition" and "You Can't Go Home Again"—things are pretty dull this week. Sure, Sharon and Helo are reunited by the end of the episode, but the knowledge that it's all a ruse makes the whole thing seem like pretty much a delaying tactic. We learn nothing important here that we didn't already know. The notion that the Cylons have some sort of a plan for Helo was intriguing at the start, but there are only so many episodes in a row before intrigue starts to become frustration, and at this point BSG has pretty much crossed that line in regards to the mysterious motives of Sharon (and of the two Cylons watching her and Helo).

One could say the same about "Litmus" as a whole. It's not uninteresting in the moment, particularly to anyone who is watching for the first time and doesn't know where it's heading. And the concluding scene between Boomer and Tyrol is extraordinarily effective, showing him starting to really consider the possibility that something is wrong here, even if he still doesn't suspect she's a Cylon. (Why would he? She doesn't know either, and Cylons as sleeper agents is a possibility that no one seems to have considered.) But once it's over, there's a sense that the show was basically killing time for the majority of the episode, and doing so in a manner largely free from character development, well-constructed tension, or any of the hallmarks of BSG up to this point. This is one of the great debut seasons in TV history, but it's not free from a couple of weaker spots. Here's one of them.

Grade: B-

Next Week: "Six Degrees of Separation"

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