I'm picturing a movie poster right now that has Kara Thrace and Lee Adama, half obscured in a dark shadow, with brooding looks on their faces, their eyes cast somewhat downward as they wear boxing gloves, standing facing in opposite directions so they aren't looking at each other, and the poster tagline above them says "Love Hurts."
That might give you an idea of what the net effect of "Unfinished Business" is. Here's an episode I might be willing to label a "guilty pleasure" given the initial plot outline (crew members settle their personal pent-up frustrations in boxing slugfests while we finally are shown what went down between Kara and Lee to open the gulf between them), but once you see it and then think about it, you realize there's very little pleasure to be found here.
Either this is (a) a brilliant character study about how the damaged psyche cannot possibly be understood — not the least by even oneself, or (b) a cynical exploitation of boiling-over soap opera themes filtered through dark, exaggerated angst. I'm not sure which side of the fence I'm on. Certainly, there's a case to be made for both sides.
The episode's conceit is that all the military personnel aboard the Galactica apparently know how to box, and in keeping with military tradition, they use the boxing ring as a medium for working out their issues in a Fight Club sort of way: One boxes such that one can still feel alive. You leave your rank outside the ring, and then you step inside and settle issues like man was meant to: by beating the living crap out of his fellow man.
The scenes in the boxing ring are edited together along with a series of flashback scenes set on New Caprica eight months before the Cylon occupation. Certain gaps in that missing year that I, for one, have been curious about are answered in these scenes. Obviously not everything, but a few important things.
In many ways, this episode is refreshing. It takes us away from all issues of the Cylons and focuses purely on the characters and their internal workings and assorted dramas. Specifically, this episode leads up to a climactic fight between Kara and Lee that's been about a year in the making. What happened on New Caprica to get these two characters, who once loved each other, to this point? Even more specifically: What made Lee so absolutely bitter toward Kara, and what turned Kara into a bitch and a half?
The episode's most memorable and melancholy point is in how it reveals that the Colonial settlers, had it not been for the occupation, might actually have been able to live out their days happily on New Caprica. While it was previously established that New Caprica was a cold and harsh planet, the scenes in these flashbacks reveal that there must've at least been a comfortable warm season to offer a respite. There's a community celebration that feels as if the clock has been turned back to a simpler time where human beings could simply live in peace as neighbors. It's almost depressing to think that a few months after this celebration, all these characters will be trapped once again inside overcrowded tin cans.
This realization is made all the more poignant by the wonderful performances of Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, who ponder this new, peaceful chapter in humanity in scenes that hint at possible romance without ever confirming it.
As for Kara and Lee, such confirmation will not be left to the imagination. Most series tend to have their own version of the Will They or Won't They, and Battlestar is no exception. Kara/Lee has been an implied (and later explicit) WTOWT situation since basically day one — and season two, with the introduction of Anders, only complicated/accelerated that. In the flashback scenes here, the whole situation plays itself out in painstaking detail, some of it very interesting and agonizing. Lee and Kara had drunken sex on New Caprica, after which Lee put all his cards on the table and proclaimed his love for Kara by shouting it to the sky. Would Kara reciprocate? Well, she shouts to the sky, but when she does it, we don't believe it for a second, and the moment is hit so precisely perfectly on the head — in all its awkwardness — that it's almost painful to watch. It's effective: We see that Kara can simply not return Lee's feelings, for whatever inexplicable reasons.
The next morning before Lee wakes up, Kara marries Anders, for reasons that will elude most of the audience, not to mention probably Kara herself. Certainly those reasons elude Lee, who would not have been unjustified in castigating her on the spot (which he does not). Kara's actions are nasty and inexplicable, but Lee's own previous speechmaking about marriage and the future was part of the catalyst.
Clearly, Kara has issues that go back to childhood, and those issues have impacted the adult that exists now, but to try to explain Kara's thoughts and actions is to try to employ psychology beyond its usefulness. Why would she do what she does to Lee in such a heartless way? The episode's point is that shit happens, and people do lousy things to other people that they don't deserve. Even Kara probably wouldn't try to explain or defend it. Lee's answer is to marry Dualla as a sort of consolation action, which is not a good reason to marry anybody. (I couldn't help but feel sorry for Anders and Dualla, both whom are being married for the wrong reasons. Did they even have a clue what they were getting into?)
Still, I respect the writers' willingness to confront such a mess, especially in the face of consummating the central WTOWT of this series. Messy relationships are a fact of life, and to a degree I'm in sympathy with this material. But I have reservations about taking that friction and turning it into an over-the-top grudge-match in the present, where Kara and Lee pound on each other for so long that neither has the strength to stand. (This follows logically, I suppose, from Kara's downward spiral stemming from her psychological torture on New Caprica. Meanwhile, Lee cannot be faulted for responding to Kara's blatant baiting.) The end of this fight, which for some will seem like the ultimate cop-out and yet makes a certain amount of twisted sense, is like the cleverest reset button ever concocted. Where do the characters go from here? Back to where they were pre-New Caprica? Better yet, where do Anders and Dualla go? They are like the doormat byproducts of the WTOWT.
Despite my misgivings over all this, I'm more put off by the outcome of Adama's bout in the ring with Tyrol. It starts out with Adama's sucker-punch that seems like a cruel taunt and continues with Tyrol punching Adama where he previously had been shot. It ends with Adama going down in the ring in a sequence of painful humiliation: No one in the room wanted to see it, and, frankly, no one in the TV audience wanted to see it either. Adama seems to be making a reckless point here, but it's lost on me, because he's essentially arguing that friendships for him became a weakness rather than a strength because of the impact they had on his military decisions during a time of (deceptively) apparent peace. Given all the facts under consideration, I'm not convinced by this argument. Is Adama supposed to jettison his humanity in order to run a better military machine?
All the messages in "Unfinished Business" are delivered in a sea of intentionally murky contradiction and individual self-destructiveness, as if the whole BSG universe were a cautionary tale. Is that the point? I think it is. Should it be? I'm not sure. My own cynicism believes that when people have been through such harrowing situations, they are likely to become dark and unlikable people like the people shown here, and the writers are brave to depict that so honestly. But I'd also like to think that the message could be more optimistic. I said way back in my review of "Act of Contrition" that "this series contains more humanity than most." That was then, and this is now. Perhaps the New Caprica experience was more damaging to the human psyche than we thought.