(Warning: geek blog post, for BSG geeks only.)
Okay, this week's episode of Battlestar Galactica rocked! It didn't rock, but it rocked!
I haven't been blogging about BSG because, frankly, it hasn't been all that good this season. The ideas are good, but the realization of the ideas ... not so much. All the hallmarks of the show that have made it such a revelation---the moral ambiguity, the multi-episode conflicts, the refusal to explain or to wrap up everything in a tidy moral or rousing speech, the ability to use the fucking visual medium already and show-not-tell---have been largely missing this season. WTF? Have they forgotten how to do it?
Every episode has been a single arc, pretty much. Every episode introduces a conflict, deals with the conflict, wraps up the conflict. Rousing speech. Basta. Plus, each episode deals with a thinly veiled Metaphor For Something That's Going On Right Now. It's like Star Trek. We're not watching this to get our Star Trek on. That's what the CSI franchise is for.
BSG is about reading a novel; investing in characters and long-term conflicts, not so we can see them neatly resolved, but so we can watch how characters behave under the deforming effects of ongoing conflict. We don't want everyone to have the chance to be a good guy. We want everyone to have the chance to be a bad guy, and then watch, fascinated, what they do with it.
Last season Starbuck had the opp to identify with Admiral Cain and lose a part of her humanity. That opp disappeared without a peep. Last season Apollo had the opp to go to the dark side, lose his courage, become a thug. This season, it's like it never happened. The Chief ended up marrying the woman he beat up in a delirium of self-hatred, and there's not a crack in their baby-makes-three happiness. Sharon had the opp to become of two minds about her betrayal, instead, she marries Helo, reconciles happily with everybody, and even gets a lovely, mythological call sign ("Athena," but damn if I'm gonna call her that). I was hoping that at least Tigh would get all ambiguous and go off and sow discontent in the fleet. But one episode after he quits, fucking Adama Rousing Speeches him and he ends up right back where he was, with flashbacks of his deliciously morally ambiguous wife, but no real edge left. Even Gaeta is forgiven and forgotten. And we've lost Gaius entirely to the cowardly side. Dude, where's my conflict?
This week's episode, despite my encomium above, is more of the same SPOILER ALERT: there's a cheeeeeeeeeeeseball scene where Starbuck and Apollo finally get it on (mercifully edited so we don't get any glowing sex scenes) and then go on to, literally, declare their love for each other to the heavens. Yak. There's a place near the end where Adama wraps up his conflict with Tyrol (and by extension, the whole crew and the whole fleet) with a, you guessed it, Rousing Speech. And the ending is pure whipped cream. Here's a hint: Starbuck and Apollo hug and tell each other how much they missed each other. Huh. I missed them too, but do you see me hugging and saying so?
But in between the cheeseass bullshit was a kickass BSG episode dying to come out. Let me rewrite it---no, let me just edit out the badness and reveal the kickass goodness within:
The crew of BSG are having a "dance," i.e. a rank-free boxing tournament where they can beat old and new grudges out of each other. We begin with Apollo vs. Helo, obviously (without anyone needing to say so, folks!) punching out their lingering resentments over Helo sabotaging the biological anti-cylon weapon against Apollo's orders. During this fight, Apollo keeps flashing back to a day and night on New Caprica where something went down between him and Starbuck. Meanwhile, Starbuck is having breakup sex with Anders in the dorm. He tells her he wants her back. She says no and goes to the dance. Apollo see her, loses his fight.
Starbuck gets called out by Hotdog and wins. A few more random fights follow (with Kat beating another woman, possibly Racetrack). Throughout there are flashbacks by Apollo and Starbuck about that one night, and also by Adama and Roslyn about the same night. The structure and pacing of the episode is beautiful; almost as good as "33," the award-winning premiere episode of the series. (If you haven't seen this one, see it.) A scene between Adama and Roslyn on the fateful night subtly suggests not merely that there's sexual tension between the two of them, but that that tension may have found an outlet on New Caprica. This is fittingly left as is. There are also flashbacks of Tyrol asking for permission to resign and raise his family on New Caprica. Adama calls out Tyrol, who doesn't take the fight seriously, until Adama beats some seriousness into him. Tyrol ultimately wins the fight and Adama (this is my rewrite) gives him a meaningful, triumphant look (end of rewrite) and shuffles out of the ring.
Tigh declares the dance over, but Starbuck can't let it go. Throughout the episode, every time Starbuck or Apollo has been punched in a fight, they've each flashed back to that one night on New Caprica, and it gets more exciting every time. Finally, Starbuck pushes Apollo into punching her and the fight is on. As we knew already, when the two are finally in the ring together, we get to see the substance of that key night. But what's really exciting about this sequence isn't that they get it on on New Caprica, but that they get it on in the ring. Apollo, who's been domesticated in this season and is just this side of boring, shows that menace contained by decency---that dangerousness that he usually masks with paternalistic authority---with bared teeth and an unrelenting scowl. Starbuck laughs and teases and tortures him until he starts hitting her in earnest. I'm glad they didn't even attempt a sex scene, because nothing can compete with this.
The fight scene is interspersed with flashbacks of Starbuck taking Apollo to the site where she plans on building a house, and telling him she doesn't plan to marry Anders. (In my rewrite, the love declaration scene is excised.) She wakes up the next morning naked with him on the ground. He wakes up the next morning naked and alone. He half-dresses and goes back to town where Adama tells him that Starbuck and Anders just got married. Apollo gives a beautiful, choked, devastated take. Just then, the newlyweds re-enter the scene and Apollo goes to meet them. Anders, unlike Adama, notes that something's wrong between them. Starbuck gives a beautiful, unreadable, half-smiling, half-crying look.
This is why these two were cast. They have that one-in-a-million chemistry that you can't fake. When they're in a scene together, Starbuck just looks beautiful, and Apollo just looks dangerously happy and baffled. This is what we go to the movies for. You could write a scene where Apollo and Starbuck sit side-by-side watching a tennis tournament---or a scene where they stuff envelopes in silence, where they do dishes---and once the actors were done with it, your panties would be wet. She is what they call in clichéland "a force of nature," a fucked up, amazing woman with a brightness she throws everywhere, an inability to reflect, and an absolute presence in the moment. He's a typical decent guy who doesn't like to reflect, either, but does like to order things according to his sense of morality. Without any Starbucks in the world, he'd be a better man, but less vivid. In her presence he lives in duality, constantly tempted to be less good, but more alive, than he usually is. And he doesn't ever understand why she does what she does. He's the one person she can push so far that she loses control of his response.
They beat each other and beat each other until they're tired (in my rewrite, we excise the flashbacks to the rest of their relationship), then they just stand there, leaning on each other for a long, long time, while the excited audience gets bored and wanders away. (My rewrite) nothing is said. No one is hugged (end of my rewrite).
Now, isn't that an episode you want to see?
Okay, after sleeping on it, I'm realizing the function of the declaration of love scene. We do need a scene where Apollo and Starbuck drop their defenses totally and are totally intimate. Starbuck's way of seduction is always contention, competition: she seduces Gaius through a poker game (whatever happened to that amazing thread, anyway? He just forgets about her), she seduces Anders through a pyramid game. But sex for her isn't necessarily about intimacy. She was perfectly happy last season to attempt to seduce Apollo as a way of keeping her distance from him. It's Apollo who invests sex with too much weight---more than it deserves, actually.
For her betrayal of Apollo on New Caprica to have real weight, they have to give in totally to one another. I get that. But to have Starbuck having sex with Apollo as a way of warming her up to intimacy, and then shouting her love for him to the heavens is just ... out of character. This is a cookie-cutter love scene straight out of romantic drama one-oh-one. Starbuck is work. You don't just fuck her and then get her to behave like a romantic lead. She has to be coaxed and won, over and over again.
So this scene needs to not be about sex, or about post-coital vowiness. The writers needed to find some way of showing them being intimate in an in-character way, showing them being playful with each other, possibly playing a silly word game or something, but in a way that allows them, slowly, over the course of the scene, to release the contentiousness of their play and turn it into something they do together, turn it into something tender and intimate. This would be especially effective in contrast to the intimacy of them beating the shit out of each other in the ring.
Over and over again, with Starbuck, the writers/producers are kickass with showing her usual MO: how she turns other people's tenderness into weapons, how she fights and lures people, and turns around on a dime. She's an amazing character. Yet, over and over again the writers/producers flub the scenes where she allows herself to be vulnerable. They almost got it right with the Casey scenes when she was in detention. But they can't seem to figure out how Starbuck herself would let her guard down. She's not a romantic lead, folks! She's deformed by pressure and heat. She can't take the straightest line, and she's far too intuitive to follow societal behavioral cues. She never does what's expected of people.
And Apollo's more than a straight man. He understands what she means very well, he just doesn't understand why. And he can't predict when she's going to turn (although all of us can by now), so he's constantly betrayed by it. So when she lets it all go, Apollo will know immediately. He should be there, with her. He should even take advantage a little bit, in his sort of bludgeoning, I-don't-get-it way. There can't ever be a perfect moment with them, because there's always a level of power struggle between them, and for either one to be intimate with the other, they have to win or lose. And neither can stand losing.
Anyway, that's how deeply I sink into this narrative. I haven't talked this much about characters since I was reading Dostoievski and George Eliot way back when. That's why I love this show so much. Real characters.
Annalee Newitz hated the boxing episode, but don't worry, I gave her an earful on the way to the bar.
Today's totally lame and pathetic wordcount: 952
Total wordcount: 29,385