There's a tendency with an episode that has an outcome like "Maelstrom's" to expect something slam-bang, heroic, and extraordinary. What happens here, however, is personal, introspective, and often quiet. In short, it's the way it should be, and not the way we might somehow want it to be.
"Maelstrom" is an episode with pitch-perfect tone and stellar performances. It observes its characters with a striking attentiveness that's, at times, hypnotic. Meanwhile, its outcome will, frankly, piss some people off. But any problems with this episode have nothing to do with its storytelling and everything to do with the unavoidable external hoopla that surrounds the departure of a major cast member — which, if you don't want to be spoiled about exactly what that means, you should stop reading right now.
This episode is, simply put, the story of the death of Kara "Starbuck" Thrace. Online speculation runs rampant: Why was Katee Sackhoff written out? Was the actress unhappy on the show? Is Ron Moore overly obsessed with shock value? Is Starbuck not "really" dead and coming back next season in some twist? Is she one of the Final Five Cylons? And so on. I have no idea if there were external, non-story reasons that led to this decision, or whether Sackhoff might come back next year, or what it means that the writers have left some sci-fi wriggle room surrounding her character's death. But I prefer it that way, because I have "Maelstrom" to examine and I'd like to look at it for what it is.
And you know what? "Maelstrom" is a terrific, absorbing hour of drama. The writers have constructed an appropriate exit for Kara Thrace that feels right given what we know about her and particularly what she's been going through this season. Is it "satisfying"? Well, maybe not if you were expecting her to go out with a conventional hero's bang. But, yes, in that the story the whole time points to where it's headed and arrives at the only place that it can and should — and yet arriving there is still shocking on some level.
But, really, the shock value is not even the true point of "Maelstrom." This story is about reading the telegraphed clues of Kara's behavior, and how the story's destination will be viewed through two different prisms. One prism is from within Kara's head. The other is through the people close to Kara, who are privy to her behavior but not her thoughts. Only the audience has the whole picture, and that's the beauty of the narrative. We know the reasons why, even as the characters closest to her do not. The question by the end is this: Is Kara's death pointless? Meta-question: Who is defining "pointless"?
As we join Kara already in progress, she's having strange nightmares involving the image of the Eye of Jupiter painted on her apartment walls, and bizarre sex involving Leoben and lots of paint. This prompts Kara to visit an oracle in the fleet, who has information she absolutely should not have about Kara's encounter with Leoben, and what he said (in "Flesh and Bone") about Kara, her mother, and her destiny. The oracle is disturbingly omniscient, and it throws Kara for a loop. Is there truth to Leoben's assertions? Does she have a special destiny that's in the master plan of the universe?
Kara is also hallucinating. She sees images of herself as a child, and the bad memories come flooding back. In one scene, she shares with Anders a story about her abusive mother's hateful tendencies, and Kara's method of revenge by putting fake bugs in her mother's closet. It threw her mother, Socrata (Dorothy Lyman), into such a rage that she slammed Kara's hand in a door and broke all her fingers. "It was worth it, though," Kara muses.
The hallucinations do not end there. The Galactica is conducting fleet refueling operations in the low orbit of a planet. While on a Viper patrol in the turbulent atmosphere, Kara engages a Cylon Heavy Raider, which she pursues through the clouds and into a violent maelstrom that forms a circular pattern resembling the Eye of Jupiter (although, admittedly, a lot of circular objects can resemble the Eye of Jupiter). Kara goes in too deep and her Viper is nearly crushed by the atmospheric pressure. She pulls out at the last second. Back aboard the Galactica, analysis of her flight recorder shows no record of the Cylon ship. Is Kara hallucinating in the cockpit?
Lee is concerned and conflicted. Should he ground her? He has an insightful conversation with his father that suggests one of the episode's key points of view: "Sometimes it's hard to admit that the best of us can burn out," Adama says. Kara has been through a lot, and to the other characters she has become increasingly unstable. She's always had self-destructive tendencies, but usually they've played themselves out in her personal life, not in the cockpit. Has it now gotten to the point that she's simply lost it? Is it a liability that's going to end up getting her or someone else killed?
It's a possibility. Even Kara admits it, telling Lee: "I'm not going back out there. I don't trust myself." Kara has always been screwed-up emotionally, and we've seen a lot more evidence of that lately, exemplified by the total mess that her relationships with Anders and Lee have been. She's angry and distrustful, and a big part of that distrust is of herself. Being trapped in that horrifying mind game with Leoben on New Caprica certainly exacerbated the situation, but one could argue that her difficult relationship with her soldier mother helped mold Kara into the troubled person she is today. (It's worth noting, however, that Kara's engagement to Zak would not seem to fit in with this character arc. Or perhaps one could argue that Zak's death merely fueled the anger.)
Obviously, as audience members, we have enough information where we can see the situation as more complicated than a case of Kara's psychological breakdown. With all the coincidences and foretelling of destiny, could it be there's something real going on that doesn't exist only in Kara's head? When candle wax drips on the floor and creates a pattern that looks like the Eye of Jupiter, is that a sign, or merely a coincidence? It doesn't much matter, because in Kara's mental state, it becomes a sign.
I always find Kara most interesting when the story reveals the vulnerability behind the tough exterior. "Act of Contrition," still the series' best Starbuck episode, knew this best of all. Kara's status as the resident hotshot is merely an attribute, not her definition. One of the best scenes in "Maelstrom" is a quiet one where Lee and Kara take a seat on the flight deck. When Kara asks, Lee says that his relationship with Dualla has improved. You can see that he's found something to hold onto in his personal life while Kara might never be able to. And you sense a resolution between these two characters and their relationship, once again defined by their professionalism and friendship. For Kara, there's a definite note of melancholy. She's stranded in a personal limbo. More than anything, this scene and the actors understand the effectiveness of restraint and subtext: Because we know the history, the scene knows it doesn't have to underline its own significance.
When Kara goes back on patrol, this time with Lee as her wingman, she sees the Heavy Raider again, and chases it into the maelstrom. She's pulled into an unconscious vision where she must relive a pivotal encounter with her mother — the day she learned her mother was dying. While flashbacks have sometimes been a problem this season (like in "Hero" or "A Day in the Life"), they work here because they tell us something about the character's past that informs the present.
It all comes down to Kara's final argument with a mother who was an impossible woman. Socrata took "tough love" to an extreme, and valued success above all else, constantly telling Kara she was "special" while berating her efforts as inadequate. Kara used a heated last-straw argument as an excuse to walk out and never return, but the real reason she never came back was she couldn't face her mother's impending death. Her mother died alone. It has been a regret that has haunted Kara ever since, and it planted a seed of fear that has given her pause about her own possible death.
Now, through a journey that can equally validly be labeled as spiritual or purely psychological, she's able to revisit that choice and envision a different decision. She finally makes peace with her mother's death and in the process conquers her own fears. Kara has flirted with death her entire life (hence her career), but she has always stepped away from the precipice after briefly staring over it.
The revelation of "Maelstrom" is that she is now able to throw herself over the precipice because she has finally resolved that fear. The image of the Heavy Raider might simply be death calling her in the way she finds most comfortable. And she decides wants to cross over to "the other side," wherever that may lead. Her "special destiny," it would seem, is to die (although there are suggestions that it's more than that). She seems comfortable, even welcoming, and tells Lee, "Let me go." The fact that she dies in a vortex that looks like the Eye of Jupiter cannot be a coincidence, but then it's not completely clear if the vortex is real or imagined. Leoben's role in all this is also of peculiar interest: He looks like Leoben but it's doubtful he's Leoben the Cylon. He's something else: a construct of Kara's subconscious, a spiritual guide, or perhaps a father figure. You decide.
So is this a tragic dramatization of a character in a psychological meltdown — who commits suicide because she no longer wants to live? Or is it indeed a story of a destiny fulfilled, where crossing over into death means something else and might even have sci-fi possibilities that ripple through the BSG mythology? Either reading is valid, and either way Kara's backstory sheds light on the matter. And either way, this is a satisfying and powerful tale about the cycle of life and death. This is an episode that engages the viewer's imagination and encourages fan debate.
A review of "Maelstrom" would not be complete without mention of the visuals. This may be an intimate character drama, but the show doesn't scrimp on its special effects, which make for intense, pulse-pounding scenes of aviation that rank among the best flight sequences on the series.
It all makes for an episode of compelling images, illuminating backstory, poetic (if cryptic) puzzle-piece arrangement, promises for future mythology development, and fine performances (particularly Sackhoff's). Not to mention the immediate fallout of having a major character snatched away. Whether Kara's exit pays off for the story in the long run remains to be seen, but it pays off here.
The final scene sums up the episode's emotions perfectly. Adama grieves privately in his quarters. He sits alone in anguish, putting some finishing touches on his model ship. And then in a stunningly effective moment, he smashes the model to pieces in a fury. A loved one has died, leaving the survivors with no answers and no resolution. And now what?