I gotta say, the writers on this show have some serious balls. They don't screw around, and they don't hedge. They make decisions and are bold about them.
Barring a reset that I can't even contemplate, the season two finale for Battlestar Galactica represents nothing short of a complete retooling of the series. The writers, let it be said, have taken some serious risks in the closing 30 minutes of "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2." This is a show that attempts so very much that you can sense a tightrope act that's risking a fall from a very high place. It's the type of hour (actually 90 minutes) that will have some viewers announcing, "Brilliant!" while others are claiming, "Jumped the shark."
While you can count me in the "brilliant" camp, this may actually be an episode too ambitious for its own good. Yes, it changes everything. But I'm not convinced (yet) that it changes everything for the better in terms of the series' direction, and I don't think this is as purely satisfying a cliffhanger as either "Kobol's Last Gleaming, Part 2" from last season or "Pegasus" from mid-season. Those shows were more effective. Even though "Burdens 2" takes more risks, it's not a better-told story. Bigger, yes. As riveting, no.
Let's begin on Caprica. We rejoin our heroes amid the Cylon mortar assault that was under way in "Burdens 1," where it's looking now like a particularly bad case of the rescuers needing to be rescued. Then, suddenly, the bombing simply ... stops. The Cylons withdraw, with no explanation. Brother Cavil (Dean Stockwell) appears on the scene and proclaims it's a miracle. But how can he be on Caprica and also on the Galactica? Oh, he's a Cylon. No one in Kara's rescue party recognizes him, which I can buy — but I guess we're also to assume that Cavil was among Anders' resistance group all along, because if he simply and coincidentally strolled up after the bombing stopped, wouldn't everyone be kind of suspicious? This is one slightly confusingly executed conceit the show makes. The reason the bombing so coincidentally stops (which I'll get to momentarily) is even more so.
Kara's rescue party returns to the Galactica with the rescued resistance fighters from Caprica, and they bring Cavil with them. He's recognized instantly by Tyrol, which thankfully eliminates any possibility of faux suspense games involving the uncovering of Cavil's identity, who willingly came back to Galactica to deliver a message. Because Sharon had not said anything and it's assumed that "of course she knew" Cavil was a Cylon, she's thrown back into the brig, in what seems like a never-ending cycle (albeit a justified one) of trust/non-trust on Adama's part. Her nihilistic frame of mind is somewhat understandable; following her baby's death (as most believe it to be) she's lost the will to care about anything, and had decided to simply let whatever Cavil planned to do run its own course.
Cavil is thrown into the brig along with the other copy of Cavil, who protests that he's not a Cylon right up to the point he sees the surrendering copy of himself already in the brig, at which point, he simply resigns: "Oh. Well, okay then." Dean Stockwell is memorable in this scene as two Cylons flawlessly integrated into one scene, explaining the Cylons' new epiphany: That the "war hero" copies of Six and Eight (Sharon) had managed to swing popular Cylon opinion to the conclusion that the occupation of the Colonies and the pursuit of the fleet were errors. (See the setup of such in "Downloaded.") "Cylon and man will now go their separate ways, no harm done," explains Cavil. (Aside from the billions dead, of course.)
This scene is executed so well and with such a sense of newfound curiosity and story development that I'm almost tempted to forgive the last-minute suddenness of how the story goes from Cylons bombing resistance fighters on Caprica to completely withdrawing from the Colonies. The timing — let's face it — comes off as totally contrived. But what's interesting in the dialog here are the suggestions of significant ideological and religious strife within Cylon society. They don't all agree, and that's going to undoubtedly be an interesting aspect to play out in season three.
For now, the main plot in "Burdens 2" is the election, which is going to be decided on the issue of whether to colonize the newly discovered habitable planet, now dubbed New Caprica. Baltar is adamant on using the issue of colonization as his new political platform. There's a scene where Roslin makes a desperate private plea to Baltar to table the issue of colonization until after the election because it's too important to go forward on it without a closer examination of the facts. She even goes so far as to call Baltar on his relationship with Six, which she witnessed right before the attack (but didn't remember until her hallucinatory state in "Epiphanies"). When it's clear that Roslin's election is in doubt, she recruits her campaign manager, Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma), into a plot to do whatever is necessary to make sure Baltar does not win the election. Roslin's wording is careful not to explicitly tell Tory to rig the election, but Roslin and Tory both know what's what.
On Election Day, we see the ballots coming in, and I appreciated the level of detail and heft the producers put on the electoral process, right down to the locked metal boxes containing the ballots that are overseen by the civilian auditors. Tory's plot to steal the election involves at the very least Dualla and Tigh (who swap out a crucial box of ballots) and most definitely not Gaeta (who notices and reports that a misprint has inexplicably been corrected on those ballots). There's irony in the fact that at the beginning of the season Tigh was locking Roslin in a jail cell, and now he helps her rig the election. It's a simple matter that everyone (except for the general population, of course) instinctively knows that Baltar as president would be an unmitigated disaster. An even bigger irony is that Baltar assumes upon losing that Roslin couldn't possibly be guilty of the corruption Zarek suspects.
And yet, the question becomes: Can Roslin actually do this? When Adama gets wind of the ballot discrepancies, he confronts her in a sad, quiet scene that somehow sums up everything about their relationship and yet is in no way predictable. They both know Baltar will be a disaster, and yet they work the issue through the larger issue of right and wrong. Is doing the right thing even prudent in the interests of survival? Maybe not, but maybe we have to live or die by what's right and not by what's prudent. They decide to overturn the corrupt results and bury the conspiracy. Baltar is suspicious, but Adama convinces him to let the matter pass. Amazing, how Olmos' tone of voice and a glance can communicate so much implied menace. And the fact he calls Baltar "doctor."
There are also many good character touches to be found here. There's a scene where Cally forgives Tyrol for beating her and breaking her jaw, and it plays as a mirror of the situation earlier in the season where Cally was seeking Tyrol's forgiveness for killing Sharon. And there's Kara and Anders involved in a drunken make-out display that's tacky as all hell because of its utter rudeness; they do it right in front of Lee, and you ask yourself what Kara's thinking. I'm thinking she's drunk. Much later, there's a scene where Adama is not only smoking a cigarette, but snapping off the filter before he lights up.
And there's a brilliantly written piece of psychological warfare where Six tells Baltar that she's not going to go live on New Caprica, and Baltar desperately explains that "every last single one of us" is going to live on New Caprica. We realize that Baltar's whole point for trumpeting the colonization agenda was, in a way, so he could start a new life there with Six. There's something sad and pathetic about that, and poignant and completely in the nature of Baltar's character. And then they have sex in a scene intercut with Baltar being sworn in as president; the sex plays like a long-awaited consummation, and it's haunting.
And yet ... I have some significant problems involving the nuclear bomb and all it represents from a plot accountability level. You recall the nuclear bomb, supplied to Baltar by Adama way back in "Bastille Day," which Baltar then gave to Six in "Epiphanies." Well, Six detonates the bomb here in what you could say is a Cylon suicide attack of the most unanticipated kind. She destroys the Cloud Nine and at least two other ships in the blast, and although the death toll is never mentioned on screen, one would guess it's in the thousands. It's a chilling visual and a powerfully tragic outcome, and yet the lack of fallout eludes me.
Consider: Adama gave Baltar the nuclear warhead, and now this warhead somehow has gotten aboard the Cloud Nine and has been detonated, killing thousands and potentially crippling the fleet, and Adama's reaction is to quietly presume that the Cylons somehow got their hands on it after it was "stolen from Baltar's lab"? Even after Roslin warned Adama that she believed Baltar was working with the Cylons? Somehow, I doubt it. Furthermore, when Adama warns Baltar that there could be more Cylon attacks and Baltar refuses to listen to reason and orders that colonization of New Caprica is to begin immediately, would Adama so passively just sit back and let it happen? Couldn't he assert "military decision" as he did with Roslin?
And, for that matter, wouldn't someone (the press comes to mind) be asking questions about why a nuclear bomb has just gone off in the fleet? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the people who have the answers — Baltar and, to a lesser degree, Adama — are also the ones in power, but the episode doesn't even consider the question. I guess what I'm saying is that the issue of the nuclear bomb as a plot piece has never seemed convincing to me, and seems just as unconvincing here, if not more so. When a nuclear bomb explodes, there should be hell to pay in the aftermath (political fallout, scapegoating, etc.), and there's zero indication of that here. Perhaps everyone is simply too tired of running. Perhaps the population doesn't even know the explosion was one of Galactica's own warheads because the fact was covered up. The episode doesn't tell us. Maybe we'll find out next season. For now, it's a frustration.
Then comes the episode's twist, in which we jump ahead to "one year later," where a colony has been established on New Caprica under Baltar's apparently seedy presidency (as hookers lie about his cabin on Colonial One, now docked on the planet surface). The last 20 minutes of the show play like an extended teaser for next season, offering character tidbits and plot pieces that will undoubtedly become new launching pads. There are a ton of pieces the episode throws at us, such as:
- New Caprica City has a population of nearly 40,000; a tent city in a frigid climate.
- Half the crews of the Galactica and Pegasus (in a very lax orbital defense mode) have moved to the planet. Adama urges Tigh to move down there: "Only one man per lighthouse," he notes. Would the fleet really get this lax?
- Roslin has gone back to teaching school. She stays close to Maya and the Cylon hybrid child.
- Tyrol stands next to a pregnant Cally in a crowded tent; he's a rabble-rousing union leader preaching about the evils of Baltar's administration.
- Kara and Lee are on cold, virtually non-speaking terms for reasons we can only guess.
- Lee and Dualla are married aboard the Pegasus.
- Kara and Anders are married on the planet surface. Kara has given up the life of a fighter pilot. Anders has potentially fatal pneumonia.
- Kara and Tigh are friends now, even hugging when they greet each other.
And then, out of nowhere, a Cylon fleet shows up. The Galactica, Pegasus, and rest of the fleet in orbit have to make an emergency jump away, leaving the planet defenseless. The Cylons — including a Six and an Eight (are they the "war heroes"?) — meet with Baltar, who offers an immediate surrender when they promise that no one will be harmed if there's no resistance. Centurions march into the streets, marking the first clear stage of an occupation. The Cylons explain that they found New Caprica because they detected the radiation from a nuclear explosion. The irony is so thick you could choke on it.
Poor Baltar. If he weren't the cause of all this misery for so many other people, you might almost feel sorry for the guy. Not only did he unwittingly help the Cylons in the first attack on the Colonies, his actions led directly to the destruction of the Cloud Nine and thus the Cylons finding New Caprica. He is truly his own (and everyone else's) curse. There's a true fascination to his character's arc. Here's a man driven to madness over the obsession with a woman, and just as he thinks he's re-attained her, she commits suicide, killing thousands and permitting the Cylons to find the fleet again. Maybe that's what Six had in mind. Maybe not. It certainly isn't what Baltar had in mind. He's like a sleepwalking, cascading, compounding, self-fulfilling tragedy.
There's a ton of material in "Lay Down Your Burdens," and tons of teaser pieces, including the mysterious return of Leoben, who's looking for Kara Thrace, for reasons loyal viewers will understand even though they'll have no idea what it means for the future. Clearly this is a compelling and ambitious episode, crammed with elements you could discuss ad nauseam.
And yet, there's this mild dissatisfaction here. The one-year gap leaves too much out and perhaps reinvents the series before we were ready to see the existing material jettisoned. Story threads that have been in development for two seasons are rendered irrelevant (or at the very least on hold) — and in some cases have been resolved off-screen. The one-year gap means more time has passed off-screen than in the entire first two seasons of the series, and that's an odd feeling. All existing momentum has been halted, and the train has been restarted with completely new cargo. We have no clue of the status of some characters. It's all a bit jarring.
But I'll be damned if it's not interesting — and awfully brave.