Thursday, July 11, 2013

"Battlestar Galactica" - "You Can't Go Home Again"

Spoilers for "You Can't Go Home Again" after the jump:

BSG follows up last week's relatively subdued installment with an episode that ranks as one of its most purely action-driven. Certainly none of the previous four have been light on this commodity, but they've also been defined as much by theme as by incident, be it exhaustion ("33"), confusion and terror ("Water"), introspection and politics ("Bastille Day"), or guilt ("Act of Contrition"). That's not really the case in "You Can't Go Home Again", a very straightforward—and effectively so—episode that spends most of its time on the efforts of both Starbuck and the fleet to save her life after last week's cliffhanger. As a result, there's probably more to say about the look of the episode than the narrative, as its best moments are more a triumph of atmosphere than story or character.

So let's talk about that first. To begin with, there's the moon Starbuck on which is trapped. As I remarked last week, it's a beautiful sight: an arid, desolate, and dusty landscape of orange and yellow. It's also a terrifying one, and "You Can't Go Home Again" is full of shots that emphasize these two complementary qualities. Early on, the moon's wind catches hold of her parachute and nearly pulls her off a nearby cliff. Escaping hat brush with death buys her some time, but the moon lacks oxygen, so immediately there's a ticking clock. On the other side of the rescue equation, the low visibility from the air causes all sorts of problems for Lee and the rescue party, and they too narrowly skirt death when the terrain's height suddenly changes. Stunning this location might be if you're looking at it from a safe distance, but it's another story if you're trying to survive on it or search it from the air.

Then of course there's the interior of the Cylon Raider, a location that ends up being Kara's salvation but could just as easily have been her tomb. It certainly feels like the latter, illuminated dimly by the beam of her flashlight and filled with the creature's tissue (Raiders are apparently biological at least in part), which she will use to breathe and (a bit later) to fly. Like the moon, it's a sight of both wonder and terror, with the initial scenes making you feel like you're as walled-in on all sides as Starbuck, who struggles to find a source of oxygen to replace her rapidly depleting supply. Once she does, the oppressive tension lessens somewhat, replaced by that trademark Kara Thrace determination. From the start here's never really any doubt she'll survive this (she's a major character, and it's only the fifth episode of the series), but 99% certainty becomes 100 once she goes to work trying to figure out how to fly this thing.

On the Galactica end of this story, it's all about the Adamas and their determination to bring Starbuck back alive this week: or to some, their obsession. It all depends on your point of view. Kara means so much to both of them (and not because of her link to Zak, as Roslin and Tigh both claim), but to those not particularly close to her, their decision to weaken the fleet's defenses in order to search for a lone missing pilot is both foolish and dangerous. Although it all eventually works out, the result is the first real conflict between our two leaders since the miniseries. Merely calling out Lee and Bill Adama for their tunnel vision may have worked this time—right before Starbuck reappears, they were ready to call it quits—but what if it hadn't? What happens then? A question worth keeping in mind, perhaps, particularly as Adama seems to interpret "military decision" as "him doing whatever the heck he wants without listening to anyone else". (Person after person tries to get him to see reason, but for much of the episode he simply uses his position of power to shut them all down. Again, it works out, but we're meant to see it as the foolishness that it is.)

Elsewhere, the events on Caprica merit this storyline being included in the main review (I'm not even doing an "other thoughts" this week, in fact) for the first time since "33". Because (drum roll please) stuff finally happened this week, after three straight episodes in which momentum crawled along at a snail's pace. When last we saw Caprica Sharon and Helo, they had found an abandoned shelter stocked with food and medical supplies. In "You Can't Go Home Again" they're preparing to head out on the road again, but get interrupted as they're having breakfast by some Cylons (of the non-human variety). In an incredibly tense scene, Helo attempts to avoid drawing the their attention, but is betrayed by the toaster going off. (One wonders if writer Carla Robinson is a Pulp Fiction fan, as it certainly recalls a certain scene in Tarantino's film). He wakes up later to discover Sharon is gone. All in all, a most promising turn of events in terms of adding additional intrigue to a storyline that had started to stall.

But while there are loads of good things here, "You Can't Go Home Again" does contain probably Battlestar Galactica's biggest missteps so far. I'm referring first of all to the episode's decision to have Starbuck frequently talk to herself, which it seems to be attempting to pass off as the character willing herself to remain calm by stating her thoughts out loud. I suppose it's possible (and it does result in a couple of quotable and laugh out loud funny lines), but it mostly reads to me as a transparent attempt by the series to communicate what's going on to viewers, rather simply trusting us to understand without the play-by-play narration. This series has proven itself to be better than that (particularly in "33"), so watching it underestimate our intelligence is a bit frustrating.

Frustrating also is the emotional payoff for Starbuck and Adama, which consists of that one incredibly brief scene of reconciliation. Although it's solidly played by the two actors involved (no surprises there, given what we saw last week), "You Can't Go Home Again" ultimately elects to sweep this rift aside, without really earning that return back to something approaching normalcy. I suppose one could argue that his single-minded obsession with finding her supports his rapid change of heart, but his complete 180 from their previous scene together still seems like a pretty huge stretch to me: a resolution that feels manufactured to bring this two-part arc to a conclusion. That plus the lack of developments in any of the other storylines lead to this feeling like the most self-contained episode in BSG's history so far, despite it being a continuation of a cliffhanger. There's some open-ended character and thematic work here and there (see the Roslin/Adama comments above), but overall it's fairly neat and tidy as far as this series goes.

That's okay. Neat and tidy is fine when you're got those great locations, moments like Starbuck piloting the Raider so it hovers directly on top of Lee (allowing him to read the message she's written on the underside), and of course those riveting, suspense-filled happenings on Caprica. But "You Can't Go Home Again" possibly tilts the show's superb early narrative tightrope—in which self-contained storylines contribute to (and result from) the long-term story—a bit too far in the direction of the former. Make no mistake: this is still riveting television. It's just the least riveting installment so far of what has been a near-perfect season up to this point.

Grade: A-

Note: I'm taking the next week off, but will be back in two weeks to talk "Litmus".

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