In the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, we had subplots that took place on "Cylon-occupied Caprica." But it wasn't much of an occupation, because most of those who would've been occupied had already been exterminated. So far as I could tell, the occupation was a few isolated pockets of resistance, mainly Anders and his crew of freedom fighters. If there were other survivors on the Colonies — and I would assume that there were — they were not depicted on screen. We didn't see much of what actually went on.
Now we have "Occupation" and "Precipice," a two-hour premiere to the third season of BSG that should've been given one title for the sake of simplicity (why not simply "Occupation" parts 1 and 2?) — and because that's what this show is really about: a harsh Cylon occupation and its grim results.
"Occupation/Precipice" is a powerful and absorbing two hours of television. If I had my doubts about the way "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2" left massive gaps in the narrative with its one-year leap forward, those doubts have been assuaged here. "Occupation/Precipice" works even better than it otherwise might've because the situation feels new and unfamiliar; any security blanket we had with any formula that BSG was settling into during the latter half of the second season has been yanked away. Part of the fascination is in seeing where all the characters are now. Let's put it this way: They are not in a good place.
This premiere is dark, violent, and wonderfully complex. It asks hard questions that different people in the audience are going to respond to in different ways. When you can play devil's advocate and both justify and condemn the motivations behind so many of the characters' actions, you know the story is working on an intellectual level. When you find yourself riveted to the screen and leaning forward at what you see, you know the story is working on a visceral level. This episode clearly works on both.
Let's start with Colonel Tigh. The episode begins in his holding cell following endless weeks of imprisonment, questioning, and torture. (They even ripped out his eye and showed it to him: "Looked like a hard-boiled egg," he later muses.) Cylon Cavil taunts him over the hash marks he scratches onto the wall to count the days. Tigh is one of the key leaders of the resistance to the human occupation, which the Cylons are attempting to put down with intelligence gathered from prisoner abuse.
Tigh is released early in the episode as part of a deal that involves his wife Ellen (unbeknownst to Tigh) having sex with a copy of Cavil. Although it's no secret that Ellen has slept around in the past, her actions here are a case of mercenary prostitution with noble intentions: she's trying to protect her husband. But the question becomes: At what point are you a collaborator? Let's face it: Ellen's behavior would be construed by most patriots as sickening, and yet it's one of the episode's perfect examples of someone taking desperate action because they are backed into a corner.
Hers isn't the only such situation. Once Tigh is released and rejoins the insurgency (Tyrol and Anders are the other key resistance leaders), we realize just how bad things have gotten under Cylon occupation. It's been four months since the events of "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2," and Cylon occupation is going over about as well as the German occupation of much of Europe in World War II. For that matter, there are certain superficial parallels one could draw with the U.S. occupation of Iraq — although it should be said that Ron Moore's script never attempts to turn this into some sort of politicized statement. This is an episode about occupations in general, and a heartless Cylon occupation in particular.
One of the key aspects of the story surrounds the New Caprica police force that the Cylons have put together out of human beings who are generally regarded by the other humans to be traitors to their race. Our entry point into this aspect of the story is through Jammer (the character, not yours truly), who signed up because he hoped he could do the Cylons' dirty work in a way that would be less dirty. His recruitment into the police force happened in "The Resistance," the online episodes that were released prior to this episode's airing. I must admit: Despite my qualms with the narrative choppiness of those mini-installments, they shed some light onto Jammer's plight here.
They also shed more light onto the actions of Duck, who has also joined the police force, but for very different reasons: He's an infiltrator working for the resistance. In a powerful and disquieting sequence, Duck straps explosives to his body and blows himself up along with a room full of humans and Cylons at a graduation ceremony for new police officers. Dozens are killed. (I was uncertain how Jammer survived unscratched, since he appeared to be just feet away from the explosion.) Later, a woman blows herself up to take out as many Cylons as possible.
These suicide-bombing scenes have a swift and brutal ferocity that is disturbingly real. They demonstrate the kinds of atrocities that become possible in war. Some scenes in "Occupation/Precipice" are impossible to watch without thinking of current-day conflicts. Yet the episode has no political agenda whatsoever, unless there's an agenda in pointing out that atrocities happen during wartime, and that those atrocities might be, you know, wrong.
The episode's central argument revolves around Colonel Tigh. He has no problem with suicide bombings if it means distracting the Cylons long enough for Adama to plan a rescue op. Tyrol has his reservations: "There are some thing you just don't do, Colonel. Not even in war." There's a scene where Roslin tells Tigh that the suicide bombings must be stopped at once. His dismissive and yet well-thought-out response to Roslin is some sort of grizzled veteran's prose masterpiece. Here's a guy who has been tortured and damaged, and when he talks he seems to make perfect sense and to have gone off the deep end at the same time. There's also a telling scene where Baltar demands Roslin to look him in the eye and say that she can defend the suicide bombings as justifiable. She can't.
What this episode is about is finding moral ground upon which its human characters can stand. Can they do that and still fight for survival? That's been a question on this series for a long time, but it becomes even more urgent here, where the Cylons have the entire population contained under the constant threat of force.
Aside from this question, "Occupation/Precipice" does a hell of a job reestablishing all the characters and picking up their storylines, reboot style. Kara has been held by Leoben for four months, where they have been in a long series of battles in a stalemated war of patience. Her jail cell has the disguise of an apartment unit of routine domesticity, and Leoben is waiting for Kara to cave in and realize that she can love him. The tone is set when she stabs him in the neck and then calmly goes back to eating her steak. This is someone's twisted version of hell, and somehow a macabre humor finds its way to the surface.
Leoben finally plays his trump card by bringing in a small girl named Kacey, whom he claims is Kara's daughter (see "The Farm" for the sordid details). The implications of this scene are intriguing, but also must be treated with a high dose of skepticism, since the Cylons are known masters of manipulation.
Meanwhile, Baltar's presidency has become a puppet administration of the Cylons. Gaeta serves as chief of staff, but not happily, and he's the secret source feeding information to the resistance. To say Baltar is in way over his head would be an understatement. Make no mistake: He's as miserable as everyone else on this rock, if for different reasons (mostly because he has to live with himself). I fully expect him to be shot on sight by the resistance. (Indeed, one of Tigh's plans had Baltar as the target of a suicide bombing.) Colonial One is not a happy place. It's filled with Cylons who force Baltar into impossible corners. At one point, they demand he sign an order of execution for suspected insurgents, who are to be rounded up and shot. Watching Baltar is like watching a train wreck: It's so damned fascinating, and horrifying.
Somehow, despite everything, I feel sorry for Baltar. His failures stem from weakness and selfishness, not maliciousness. I've said it before: You'd feel really sorry for this guy if his actions didn't land everyone else in just as much or more trouble than himself. The Cylons aren't happy about the whole occupation situation, either. They're at odds with how to deal with humanity. There's a dramatically intense moment where Doral holds a gun to Baltar's head and screams at him to sign the death warrants. When Six tries to defuse the situation, Doral shoots her in the head. What can Baltar do? He signs the warrant. After all, he's not going to take a bullet. That would be beyond his abilities.
Meanwhile, Cavil orders Ellen to betray the resistance or lose her husband, which leads to an agonizing scene where trusts are violated while stakes are unbearably high: She steals a map outlining the rendezvous point of the resistance with the Galactica's scouts; she doesn't even realize the true scope of her betrayal.
Back aboard the Galactica, the plans have been developing for the past four months. Adama conducts training drills for a return to New Caprica to rescue the survivors. One point of unexpected humor is the notion that Lee has really let himself go since the settlement on New Caprica. He's packed on the pounds, and both Adama and Dualla (confirmed here as Lee's wife) accuse him of having lost his edge. Adama calls Lee on the carpet for the ineffectiveness of the Pegasus crew, and demands that he whip them into shape. The capper is: "I want you to turn around and get your fat ass out of here." The scene is both funny and startling. Funny to see Lee turned soft, but startling to see Adama so angry that he raises his voice.
Lee thinks Adama's plan to rescue the survivors is borderline suicide, and he might be right. There's a nice philosophical argument where Lee says to his father that he owes it to humanity not to make such a high-risk gamble, because the consequences of losing are too high to contemplate. Adama's response is one of simplicity, and it doesn't even try to argue using logic. He simply can't leave all those people behind to the Cylons because "I can't live with it."
The way Adama's plan brings Sharon into the picture is also of much interest. He restores her flight status and gives her the mission to infiltrate the Cylon base on New Caprica and obtain the launch codes to unlock the ships on the surface so they can escape. Adama's basically taking a leap of faith based on trust. It's not an unreasonable one under the circumstances (they've developed an understanding over the past 16 months), and yet I can't shake the feeling that with Sharon there's always another shoe waiting to drop — perhaps another program lying dormant to supply her with another directive.
Frankly, "Occupation/Precipice" sets up so many pieces that it seems like half the season could be turned into a New Caprica occupation arc. Could such a storyline maintain the momentum that this episode seems to promise?