After a number of episodes that have featured somewhat pedestrian fare (although "Scar" wasn't pedestrian; I just didn't quite buy the foundation and thus not the show), here at last is "The Captain's Hand," which is like an all-out, fully functioning, multi-tiered reminder of what Battlestar Galactica is really about. It's about (1) how things work on a battlestar, where sometimes a lot of people do not get along, and (2) how government and politics operate in the post-apocalyptic landscape. It's about people, and all their flaws, problems, strengths, grace under pressure, heroism, arrogance, gross incompetence, human compassion, human weakness, and twisted, conniving selfishness. It runs the gamut.
Take Commander Garner (John Heard), for example. In the wake of Cain's and Fisk's deaths, Adama has seen fit to promote him from chief of the Pegasus engine room to commander of the entire battlestar. It's very possible — and will be blatantly clear well before the end of the hour — that he's not up to the task. His command style is from a very different school of thought — a school of no flex. Down in the engine room, they were blue-collar guys who didn't get cut any slack, because if the engines didn't work, the ship wouldn't go. Garner is not planning to cut anybody any slack now that he's in charge, particularly not from a pain-in-the-ass prima donna like Starbuck, who has been assigned to Pegasus to train pilots.
Lee, freshly released from sickbay (seemingly directly into Dualla's bed) after nearly a month since the events of "Sacrifice," is dispatched to the Pegasus with a promotion to major. He's the XO, but is sent partially to ease the tensions between Commander Garner and Captain Thrace. With Garner, it's always Captain Thrace. It's never Starbuck.
Meanwhile, Lee and Kara are on cold terms. Very cold. I don't know what happened in the month between "Sacrifice" and "The Captain's Hand," but there's a black cloud hanging over everything, no doubt stemming from Kara's accidental shooting of Lee. They have not dealt with it. If they have, they've dealt with it badly.
When two Pegasus Raptors and their crews go missing, personal issues must be set aside and a search mission ensues. This is easier said than done. Kara has pissed off Garner one times too many and he's had it with her. She's spent all her credibility and can't earn it back, and when she has a theory into the disappearance of the Raptors (that it's a Cylon trap), he dismisses it out of hand.
John Heard is convincing as a man whose career path did not teach him how to effectively handle interpersonal conflict. Oh, he can certainly stand his ground and be authoritative — no doubt about that — and will gladly have a loud argument in front of the crew where he wins simply because he's in command. But he shows zero flexibility and little competence when it comes to the big picture, which is ultimately his undoing. It leads him to blindly follow his narrow path, even against Admiral Adama's orders. (My one complaint of the episode is that Garner seems too transparent in his obstinacy for Adama not have seen red flags before selecting him.)
This makes for some energized and entertaining scenes where the characters go after each other with verbal back-and-forth. Garner is not above publicly haranguing his officers, and eventually there comes a turning point where it looks like Garner is going to jump the ship right into the middle of a Cylon trap and get everyone killed. Lee steps up to relieve Garner under regulations. He fails. I was intrigued by the notion that he fails partially because he's perceived not as a member of the crew, but an outsider from "the Bucket." (Pegasus is "the Beast.")
Garner jumps the ship, it is a trap, and in an instant the ship is surrounded by base stars, besieged, attacked, and crippled. The swiftness of these events is jarring and effective, a reminder that this series doesn't much screw around. But I also was intrigued by how the story displays heroism even alongside gross error. Garner's command incompetence puts the Pegasus in a terrible spot, but once Garner realizes he's wrong, he cedes command to Lee and goes below decks where he can have a positive influence — in the engine room, where he ultimately sacrifices his life to save the ship. Later, Lee's debriefing to Adama sums up Garner nicely (if charitably): "He was used to dealing with machines. Command is about people." Further proof that the show is not afraid of changing things up: By the end of the episode, Lee is given permanent command of the Pegasus.
There's another storyline here, where a girl stows away in a cargo container and it's learned that she came to Galactica to discreetly seek an abortion from Dr. Cottle. In our current political world, abortion is possibly one of the most controversial and divisive of subjects, and it seems not much different in the Galactica world. What I find fascinating, however, is the way the story uses abortion as an issue not to mirror our own world for allegorical purposes, but as a political story specific to Galactica's world, and thus with different priorities.
Roslin is pro-choice. But given the reality of the human race's situation, she now has to reconsider that position. Adama reminds Roslin of what she herself said in the miniseries: If the human race is going to survive, it's going to have to start having babies. Abortion is quite simply counter to that goal. It's not about belief systems or moral righteousness; it's about simple pragmatic logic, and there's something about the notion of logical truth overriding assumed belief that I find appealing. Roslin doesn't want to ban abortion, but logic suggests that she must. Her struggle gets no easier when she goes to Baltar for reasoned analysis and he tells her that based on current trends the human race will be extinct in 18 years. Yikes. Against all her own previous instincts, Roslin bans abortion, with likely large political repercussions. This is provocative, hot-button material, handled in an original way.
And yet this is still an episode that slows down for the character touches. Perhaps my favorite is where Roslin, sitting in the middle of her chaotic campaign headquarters, stops to look at a picture of her and Billy and — here's the key part — smiles. Her reaction shot is not one of pained grief (which would've also worked but been more obvious) but of fond memories. It's the kind of moment you get when you have actors, directors, and editors with good instincts.
We've also got Baltar being counseled by Zarek, with all it's Machiavellian undercurrents. Zarek has too much baggage to run against Roslin in the presidential election, and suggests Baltar do it instead. The double-reverse Baltar pulls in the final minute of the show — announcing his candidacy because he can't side with Roslin on the abortion issue — is wonderfully sneaky.
And the Kara/Lee interplay is also a pleasure to watch unfold. Although I initially felt a bit lost because so much time is missing between "Sacrifice" and "The Captain's Hand," watching the Kara/Lee coldness is painful to watch, and when they finally make up at the end, it's surprisingly affecting. The cuteness and timing of Lee's line, "You have a brain?" is perfect. They may get pissed off at each other, but you can see these two people really care about each other.
And that's why this episode works. It's about people and decisions and relationships. It's not about "plot" even though it has one, and a good one.