You know, when a television series promises an episode so dramatic, “it will change everything”, the typical response is to roll one’s eyes. Most television series don’t want to play with their formula that much. It hurts their syndication potential. It challenges their staff writers. It risks alienating their audience. So, no way is Kirk going to get married, or Picard going to have a baby. Typically, when a television series promises to “change everything”, they’re kidding.
Battlestar Galactica wasn’t kidding.
Please note that heavy spoilers follow.
The dangling plot threads of season two were all brought together in one strong 150-minute, two-part season finale called Lay Down Your Burdens. Straight from the very long teaser, we’re promised action and energy. We see Starbuck briefing her pilots, having finally received clearance to launch a rescue mission to retrieve the survivors on Caprica. We see Gaius in his lab, amongst “GAIUS FOR PRESIDENT” posters, certain of his doom despite Six’s assurances that god will look after him. We see President Roslin preparing for her first debate against challenger Baltar, going through her own superstitions. We see Chief Tyrol, looking worse than he has so far this series, rolling around on the hanger deck in the midst of a bad nightmare. We cut back to Starbuck giving her briefing. Then back to Roslin. Then to Tyrol. The music from the opening of Pegasus plays throughout.
The teaser culminates with Cally making the mistake of waking Tyrol from his nightmare, and him attacking her like a madman before he realizes what he’s done. The breakneck pace and the shocking violence lends the episode’s beginning with a sense that things are moving forward, and that, as Cylon Sharon predicts, big and dark things are about to happen.
Despite this, not much really happens for the first sixty minutes. Most of the plot in part one acts as a set-up for the events of part two. Tyrol turns to Brother Cavil (played by a most welcome Dean Stockwell) for religious counseling in the wake of his attack on Cally, and the priest offers up some tough love. Starbuck and her volunteers take a squadron of raptors through several jumps to get back to Caprica, but one raptor somehow manages to lose its way and discover a habitable planet that may be shielded from Cylon eyes (the enormity of this coincidence has people wondering whether Cylon Sharon, who was assisting in the programming of the jump, did this deliberately). Roslin wipes the floor with Baltar in the first debate, but when the mis-jumped raptor crew returns and news gets out that there is a planet capable of settlement, Baltar and his campaign manager Zarek realize that they have an issue with which to gain ground on Roslin. This is a place where the fleet might be able to stop running, they realize, to lay down their burdens, to quote the title (although that comes from Brother Cavil to Tyrol, interestingly enough).
It’s all set-up, but I frankly didn’t notice, because the acting and the directing are so strong — stronger even than the series typically rolls out each episode. We have wonderful character moments, from Roslin’s debate prep, and the way she dissolves into giggles before every debate to Dean Stockwell’s considerable gravitas. The direction keeps us interested and when things start to move forward in part two, we’re rewarded with great scenes, including a fantastic reveal on the true nature of Dean Stockwell’s character.
And strangely enough, while things do happen in the first hour of the supersized part two, even these events don’t seem to justify the promise laid out in part one’s trailer. We have revelations, but they aren’t the sort of things that change everything. Cylon Brother Cavil may have returned with Starbuck’s expedition to Caprica with an offer of peace, but Admiral Adama and President Roslin treat his olive branch with the contempt it deserves. Roslin may have consented to rigging an election to keep Baltar out of power, but her attempt is caught, and Admiral Adama talks her out of sacrificing her principles, even for the sake of humanity. Cloud Nine and a few other shipsmay have been destroyed by a nuclear bomb, but we’ve seen disasters like this on this series before. Baltar may have been elected President (Lord help us), but any other series would have, at most, evolved the formula to accommodate this development, guiding the viewers carefully and slowly over the next few episodes through the developments that followed. If the series had ended with Admiral Adama saying “let’s have a look at our new home, gods help us,” (which was right at the sixty-minute mark and had Erin convinced that this was the season cliffhanger), Lay Down Your Burdens would have been an intriguing, if low-key season finale.
But the series didn’t stop there.
Instead we leap forward a year, and rediscover all of our characters in entirely new situations and in new relationships. Everything has changed. Baltar is even more of a mess. Roslin has gone back to teaching. The corridors of the Pegasus and the Galactica echo emptily now that half the crew have gone down to the New Caprica settlement. Starback and Anders have married, but there is a medical shortage in the settlement and life is hard. Tyrol (with a wonderfully pregnant Cally in tow) heads a union at loggerheads with Baltar. You get a definite sense that a lot of rot has set in, thanks to Baltar, and the colony is easy pickings when the Cylons finally arrive.
The final scene is heart-rending, and makes us feel sorry for Baltar. I mean, being responsible for destroying humanity once might be discounted as a nasty twist of fate, but twice… The man was crying. And we are screaming. We have to wait until October to find out what the Cylons are doing there, and how father and son Adama intend to rescue the colonists, and how the series’ direction can be restored, if it can be restored? Nothing will be the same again, and it will be a long summer before we can see how the human survivors will adjust.
And yet… as Centurions stomp into the settlement of New Caprica, we see Roslin in the background looking furious. Her passion for humanity has not changed. Tyrol, Cally and other former members of Galactica gather around Starbuck and say, “what now, Captain?” Kara’s response is a nice reach-back to one her lines earlier in part two: “we’ll fight them until we can’t.” With the Cylon’s once again a threat, some people are slipping back into their characters as easily as one slips on a uniform.
A few of us have noted that, while Battlestar Galactica was still its strong, solid self through the second season, it was starting to tread water. And the rag-tag remains of humanity continue to flee the Cylons and deal with the after-effects of disaster. We get a story about the black market which runs like a typical gangster flick. We get a story about an inexperienced captain of the Pegasus that runs like a typical military movie. Everything that makes the series so good is there, except for the sense that we’re moving forward. Ever since we left Kobol with that map to Earth, the situation has been relatively static. This may be realistic. Space is, after all, very, very big, but the nature of drama demands that characters change, and Battlestar Galactica is a science-fiction drama, and not a formulaic science fiction show like Star Trek: Voyager. We needed a shake-up, and we got it.
Lay Down Your Burdens requires several changes in approach for season three, even if the humans throw off their occupiers and resume their journey towards Earth. Baltar’s betrayal of the human race will have been made explicit in the eyes of many people and there’s no way he’s going back to his lab on Galactica. Humanity has lost several ships and thousands of lives, bringing them even closer to extinction. How will they recover from to two world-changing disasters in the space of two years? How much disaster can these beleaguered people take without completely dissolving into hysteria? What essential element of humanity can these humans grab on to in order to retain any hope for the future? These will be interesting threads for the producers to take up in season three. As long as the series doesn’t waste too much time on flashback episodes focusing on the missing year, we are in new territory.
I don’t know if Ron Moore and his production team are to be praised for jumping the narrative forward a year and introducing these huge changes. This may have been the only possible move they could have taken to maintain Battlestar Galactica as a drama rather than a formula… Actually, scratch that: of course they’ve got to be praised. Few other series have promised so much in their years of production, and fewer still have delivered. Ron Moore and his production team have the courage to not take the easy way out, and in television, that’s as rare as platinum.
- It was wonderful seeing Callum Keith Rennie make an appearance in the final moments of Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2, even if it was only for a few seconds. I still wonder why he couldn’t have done a cameo in Downloaded, but I think now the fact that he didn’t appear in Downloaded makes his brief appearance in the finale that much stronger. I mean, why was he only around for a few seconds? Why did he not stand beside the Cylon triad before Baltar? And why was he looking for Kara Thrace? Methinks I smell a plot thread and the Cylons aren’t so united as they like to think.
- When Baltar’s head-six appears in his seat to say “judgement day”, do you get the impression that it’s been, oh, about a year since she last appeared to him?
- One year later, what do the humans do with the Sharon Valeri and the two Cavils in Galactica’s brig? I’m sure that will be taken up in season three.
- Okay, so why do the Cylons take over New Caprica a year after Brother Cavil promised peace? Here’s my totally off-the-top-of-my-head speculation: in Downloaded, Six and Sharon realized that their destruction of humanity was morally wrong, and they used their influence to convince the Cylons of this. However, some Cylons (like Cavil, who intriguingly does not appear to believe in the Cylon god, or any god) interpreted this as that they had become human — in all the negative connotations that implies. So they adjusted their purpose to become beautiful machines again. Well, what purpose does a machine have to exist, but serve? Perhaps its possible that the Cylons found the remaining humans and took over so that the Cylons could serve humanity, whether humanity liked it or not.