Thursday, August 8, 2013

"Battlestar Galactica" - "Six Degrees of Separation"

Spoilers for "Six Degrees of Separation" after the jump:

"Litmus" spent so much time and energy on a convoluted and preposterous main storyline, which makes the beautifully nail-biting simplicity of "Six Degrees of Separation's" central narrative all the more enthralling to watch unfold. As I noted two weeks ago, I'm not opposed to the show's attempts to craft resonant moral and political allegories (such attempts often lead to powerful moments and episodes, as we've already seen), but sometimes it can lead to the storytelling feeling a bit labored, rather than light, lean, and exquisitely tense. On many occasions, all we really need is a solidly crafted trap for a character to become ensnared by, then wriggle out of by the skin of her or his teeth. Or perhaps he or she doesn't escape, if it's late in the series or the show is feeling especially courageous.

BSG is not at that point yet, and so Gaius Baltar's coffin is built with an escape hatch, which "Six Degrees of Separation" uses quite effectively towards its end, in a way that preserves a sense of mystery around whether it could be more than mere coincidence keeping Baltar undetected. The arc here is similar to that of "33", which saw Baltar repenting just as the Olympic Carrier was destroyed. Here, meanwhile, he angers the Number Six model in his head with his attitude towards the Cylons' God, and Shelly Godfrey (another Number Six model) promptly appears, claiming to have evidence from the late Dr. Amarak that implicates Baltar in the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. It's an ingenious set-up, particularly as the evidence turns out to be fabricated, leaving Gaius in danger of being framed for a crime he did in fact commit.

And so the smartest person aboard Galactica—or so he's been told by Adama on at least one occasion—eventually finds himself utterly trapped, with no move left to move. He spends most of the episode trying to find a way out: appealing to Roslin, then Gaeta (who's been charged with the task of blowing up a picture that Godfrey claims is Gaius), and finally trying to destroy the fabricated evidence after pulling a fire alarm as a diversion. Bad idea. It lands him in a cell, and Roslin even visits him to tell him that she believes he was involved somehow, in another very clever nod to the fact that he is in fact guilty (just not in the way everyone thinks). The whole scenario is just an elegantly tense one, uncluttered and direct in the way it rapidly makes Gaius's predicament more and more desperate, finally leaving him nowhere else to turn but God.

Just as in "33", after he does so his problems quickly vanish. What I like so much about the way both of these strikingly similar scenarios unfold is how they can be explained as a completely human-driven course of events, be it the decision made by Roslin and Adama to destroy the Olympic Carrier or Gaeta double-checking the evidence. And yet the timing of these events coincides so perfectly with Gaius's cosmic pleas. Once would be a coincidence. Twice . . . maybe not. For his part, Gaius has (despite his questions and doubts) decided to simply go with the flow, at least for the time being. From his perspective, why not? Appealing to God has so far worked wonders for him. He's not only out of the woods as "Six Degrees of Separation" ends; he's more respected than ever. Not bad for a guy who spends most of his time on screen in a state of constant panic.

The taut and lean nature of Gaius's story means there's also ample time for quite a few other really interesting scenes unrelated to the main narrative (another thing "Litmus" was generally lacking). Among them is the crew's attempts to understand the Cylon ship Starbuck brought back in "You Can't Go Home Again", which lead to a couple of moments that rely on previously established relationships and prior events. The show was serialized from the start, but not so heavily that new viewers would be completely lost if they happened to jump in starting with, say, "Act of Contrition" or "Bastille Day" (particularly with the help of the previously ons). These last two episodes, however, really require the audience to have been there from the beginning: not necessarily in terms of understanding plot, but in terms of the smaller nuances of various moments.

That applies to the main narrative, of course (all the subtle echoes of "33" are missed if you haven't watched that episode), but maybe even more to moments such as Boomer demonstrating some sort of connection to the Raider. We can see that this disturbs Tyrol, which makes sense given the events of both "Water" and "Litmus". And on a much less serious note, Tigh's attempt to get Starbuck out of bed—which she immediately sees right through but falls for anyway—would be a lot less fun to watch without the context of prior interactions between this mutually disdainful pair. I would not quite call this the finest installment of BSG so far (the opening trio of episodes is hard to beat, although the show will in due course), but in terms of crafting compelling and powerful developments in the ongoing storylines of many of its characters—such as Roslin's collapse after taking too many pills—it's an awfully impressive achievement.

"Six Degrees of Separation" is also something of a return to form for the Caprica storyline as well. As developments go, Caprica Sharon and Helo having sex is still not nearly as interesting as anything that occurred aboard Galactica (a common problem for this plot, which is much duller and more sluggishly paced than I remember it being on initial viewing), but it's at least a fairly major development that will have consequences in the following episodes, which is of course what good serialized television is all about. I'll take that over the often relatively mediocre TV of their aimless wanderings up to this point, even as any real destination—both in the literal and narrative senses—remains frustratingly vague.

I said early on that season one of BSG is the show at its most unadorned, so tightly focused is it around its gripping core elements. That remains true, but "Six Degrees of Separation" demonstrates how those elements have combined to form a rivetingly layered narrative, filled with complex relationships and ongoing thematic patterns even as it tells a fairly simple tale of Gaius's brush with discovery. The series won't always operate at such a consistently high level, but at the moment it's as good—the previous episode's missteps and occasional frustrations with the Caprica Sharon and Helo story aside—as pretty much any drama the medium has ever produced. Magnificent.

Grade: A

Note: I'm heading back to school next week, which tends to cut into my blogging time and energy somewhat, both due to classes and my writing for Sooner. And much of the energy I do have is going to be spent on the last eight Breaking Bad episodes, which at the moment I fully intend to write about (although whether I'll be able to get to all of them is questionable). That said, I'm not planning to completely abandon BSG until then, as I like writing about it too much. So I've scheduled a tentative date for the next review (of "Flesh and Bone"): Thursday, September 5th.

That's a bit of a gap, I know, but with classes, Breaking Bad, and other stuff I'll be busy with, it seems like the most reasonable date that's not too far in the future. I'll do my very best to have the review up on that date, though as always coursework (and writing for Sooner and This Was Television) comes before everything else.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to talking about the stretch run of one of the greatest shows to ever air, starting with "Blood Money" next week. I hope you'll join me.

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