Air date: 2/13/2009
Written by Ryan Mottesheard
Directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
"No Exit" may contain more information, confirmation, revelations, and answers than any singular episode of Battlestar Galactica ever made. This is a hard-core mythology episode, wall-to-wall with explanations and exposition, some of which is imparted at breakneck speed. I was riveted by nearly every minute of it. This episode may not have the visceral impact of an episode like "The Oath," but it compensates for that with a pure assault of details that will make your brain explode at the possibilities. This is fascinating material that does no less than reveal (or confirm) nearly every remaining secret involving the mysteries of the Tribes of Kobol. (That is, until the rug is ripped out from under us by whatever twist comes next.)
Let it be said, the issues that weren't dealt with regarding the mutiny at the end of "Blood on the Scales" do not get sufficiently addressed here, in my view. And if they don't before it's all over, that will be a mark against the season at large, but mostly against "Blood on the Scales." But I will not hold that against "No Exit," which proceeds full-speed-ahead toward the end of the series, and does so very effectively.
The story information pummels us on two fronts. On one front, we have Anders, who was shot in the head and has a bullet lodged in his brain. While being prepped for brain surgery to remove the bullet, his memory from his long-ago days on Earth comes rushing back. He tells Kara, "I remember everything."
On the other front, we see what happened to Ellen Tigh, the last of the Final Five, after Saul poisoned her in "Exodus, Part 2." She was downloaded and resurrected aboard a Cylon ship, where she had an extended dialog (to the tune of 18 months) with Cavil.
Both storylines are equally fascinating and equally jam-packed with answers, answers, answers. The beauty of all this is how it grows logically from what's already been established. BSG's mythology, I'm finding, is pretty much rock-solid. I think the secret to success is that the mythology basically plays fair with us. Even through all the twists and turns and curveballs the writers have thrown at us, the mythology has not egregiously violated any rule that came before. It has merely added new rules and puzzle pieces on top of what was there. The result is a tapestry that, miraculously, makes perfect sense when you step back and look at the big picture. What we see in "No Exit" doesn't come so much as a shock as the next logical progression and reasonable development of many threads whose groundwork had been clearly established, most recently in "Sometimes a Great Notion."
And yet it's still a thrill to watch it all unfold. This is an hour filled with aha moments. When we learn, for example that the evolution of the Centurions was accelerated during their 40-year absence after leaving the Colonies because they came in contact with the Final Five, it makes sense. It fills in a gap that seemed somewhat inevitable — so much so that I had guessed it in my review of "Notion." It was guessable precisely because it's based on a solid foundation where logic does in fact apply.
Ellen's storyline picks up from her resurrection POV (a process that, visually, owes plenty to the Matrix films), and is brilliantly realized as a concept and as performed by Kate Vernon: She's at first horrified and lets out anguished shrieks, but then gradually becomes calm as she processes the memories now resupplied to her. She suddenly knows who and what she is. It's an intriguing transformation, sold with zero words.
But first, let's put all the cards on the table in a nutshell of the overall mythic chronology: The 13 Tribes left Kobol 3,600 years ago after a war between man and Cylon. The 13th Tribe — all biological humanoid Cylons — went to Earth; the other 12 founded the Colonies. The 13th Tribe, who were capable of biological procreation, built their own mechanized Cylons and were destroyed in a holocaust 2,000 years ago. Just before that holocaust, however, the Final Five were warned and reassembled the ancient technology of resurrection ("organic memory transfer") before the bombs fell. This technology was originally invented long before, on Kobol.
The Final Five were resurrected on a ship orbiting Earth just after the holocaust; they then embarked on a journey to the Colonies to prevent the same fate (an uprising of persecuted Centurions), from befalling the 12 Colonies. Because they didn't have FTL technology and instead employed some other method of near-light-speed travel, the effects of relativity (or whatever; I'm not a physicist) caused time to slow down, and they aged only a short time while 2,000 years passed. By the time the Final Five met the Colonial Centurions, the first Cylon War had already happened and the Centurions had left the Colonies. The Final Five tried to teach the Centurions, who were already experimenting with humanoid Cylons (hence the Hybrids) how to embrace human qualities and agreed to help them construct the humanoid Cylons in exchange for a promise of peace between Cylon and human. But something went horribly wrong.
That "something" is the crux of the drama here (apart from the reams of information). What went wrong is that after the humanoid Cylons were constructed, Model No. 1 (Cavil), whose given name was John, rebelled and killed the Final Five. When they downloaded, he blocked their real memories, gave them human identities, and put them on the Colonies, where his plan for revenge (the "Cylon Plan"?) subjected them to the fate of humanity. When they survived the holocaust of the 12 Colonies, he put the Final Five through still more games, which neatly explains why so many of these people have suffered such hardships, like Saul being tortured on New Caprica. He did this out of a need to prove a point, so that when the Final Five eventually did return to the Cylons and regained their memories, they would see he was right all along about the distastefulness of humanity.
My, what a neat, tidy package this is. I would call it contrived — but that word has such a negative connotation. Or perhaps we should simply embrace the word. Of course this is contrived. Truthfully, the whole series is a contrivance — but a bold and brilliant one.
Ellen's dialog with Cavil is intriguing. She and the other Final Five created him and the other seven humanoid Cylons (yes, seven; more on that in a moment). Indeed, Ellen thought of John/Cavil as one of her children. But Cavil views his existence only as a bad joke. He is a bitter, self-loathing creature who savagely hates humanity in no small part because he hates the limitations that being created in their image has brought him personally. His identity problems have left him twisted and evil. Some of Cavil's speeches reminded me of Agent Smith in the first Matrix movie, who also hated being cursed to live as a human when he believed himself to be a far superior AI being.
Cavil has great intelligence, but he also reveals a great deal of emotional immaturity. In a sense, he is a petulant child who has greatly abused his power in terrible ways. When you consider that Ellen created Cavil in the image of her father, and thinks of him as a son, and that Cavil knew this (and at the time she didn't) while having sex with her on New Caprica — well, that's just twisted and demented and disgusting and wrong. It constitutes a deviously sick joke of bizarre logic that seems all the more appropriate because Cavil thinks of himself as a machine, and of humanity as beneath him. And Ellen's presence here brings out the worst in him, even as she tries to offer him forgiveness and a road to redemption and assures him that she still loves him. Perhaps she even blames herself for all he's done.
The dialog here is great stuff. It's not simply exposition (although exposition certainly is a big part of it). It's also philosophy and psychology, and provocative science fiction. It's storytelling that examines the concept of an AI that cannot come to grips with the fact that it was designed with limitations, and instead took the worst of its given human emotions and became Wrath unleashed, which had catastrophic consequences for humanity.
Cavil says he wanted "justice" for what the humans did to the Centurions, but I think it goes even deeper than that, into the depths of his own self-loathing. The Final Five intended to stop the Centurions from destroying the 12 Colonies, but instead they may have hastened it. This notion of culpability is echoed elsewhere in the episode when Tigh and Tory argue over who's to blame for the cycle of destruction. Tory wants to blame the humans, because, well, the humans on Kobol made the Cylons, so it always goes back to the humans. You might as well argue about the chicken and the egg. Tigh is quite ready to own up to responsibility and move forward: "Maybe we share the guilt with the humans, but we don't just get to shove it off on them."
We also learn about a mysterious 13th Cylon. Again, the notion of a 13th Cylon seems inevitable in retrospect, if for no other reason than because of a need to balance the narrative scales. Just as the 12 Colonies were missing their 13th sister tribe, the 12 Cylon models are missing their 13th sibling. That Cylon was named Daniel, and was destroyed when Cavil intentionally corrupted the genetic material of all the Daniel copies. I can't shake the feeling that Daniel's destruction has something to do with what Kara is. After all, there's long been speculation she might be a Cylon. Could it be she was the phoenix that rose from Daniel's ashes? This is an intriguing hint, and I'm dying to know where it's going.
If there's a problem with the structure of the Ellen/Cavil dialog (and it's a minor one), it's that it purports to take place over the course of the full 18 months that Ellen has been away from the fleet. For that matter, I'm often left slightly lost about the amount of time that passes in the course of a BSG season. This episode also alleges that four months has already passed since the resurrection hub was destroyed in "The Hub." I don't know how that's possible, unless a lot of time — nearly the entire four months, really — went by off-screen in between "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "A Disquiet Follows My Soul." By my estimation, "Revelations," "Notion," "Disquiet," "Oath," and "Blood on the Scales" collectively only account for a few days, and this episode picks up only minutes or hours after "Blood." (I was similarly confused by Caprica Six's claim that there's been no alcohol around Tigh's quarters for weeks. Has she even been in his quarters for weeks? This again must come down to how long went by off-screen just before "Disquiet.")
Worth noting is that not everything was orchestrated by the Final Five and/or by Cavil. The role of D'Anna seeing the faces of the Five, as well as the "All Along the Watchtower" song, were not planted in anyone's programming. Ellen argues they must've been orchestrated by the One True God, which, as it happens, was a concept that the Final Five learned from the Colonial Centurions; Ellen believed that it was through God that peace could be attained and the cycle of destruction broken, so she passed it on to the humanoid Cylons.
After months of fencing, the turn in the Cavil/Ellen story comes when the hub is destroyed and Cavil wants Ellen to help build a new one. She says she needs all of the Final Five in order to do it. He threatens to probe her brain for answers. Cavil has by this point shown a capability to rise to any level of demonstrative villainy. It's finally at this point that Boomer, Cavil's own student, helps Ellen escape. (If you watch closely, the seed for this was planted at the outset, when Ellen asked Boomer to watch closely and make up her own mind.)
The Ellen/Tigh dialog runs parallel with the equally compelling adventure in breathless revelations from Anders. There's so much information racing through Anders, and he tries to impart it to Kara and the other Final Four as fast as he can. It's exciting and at the same time excruciating, because it's clear just how much medical danger Anders is in.
Again, the vast amount of exposition is wisely anchored to an emotional dilemma, namely Kara's tough spot where she wants answers as much as anyone (particularly the answer of whether she's the 13th Cylon), but has to play the role of the sensible wife and protect Sam's medical interests. Katee Sackhoff grounds these scenes in humanity, showing the emotional toll this takes.
At a key moment, when time has run out, Anders urgently tells Tigh: "Stay with the fleet!" Could Tigh's Cylon baby be the salvation that breaks the cycle? And after Anders' surgery is successful, but his brain activity stops, what does that mean? It's as if his consciousness has tried to download out of his head, and has inexplicably gone missing.
The third tier to the plot is about Galactica itself. Turns out that crack Tyrol found in the FTL room was merely the tip of the iceberg. Below decks there are cracks everywhere, and deep structural problems with the ship's main support beams. The ship is a ticking time bomb that could "fold like a book" at any moment. The metal of the ship is disintegrating everywhere because of old age, wear and tear. Adama, ever the pragmatist, restores Tyrol as chief and charges him with fixing the problem. But the only workable solution Tyrol comes up with is a Cylon technology: an organic resin that can grow into the metal and strengthen it.
I gotta tell you: This gave me a bad feeling in my gut. Very bad. We're this close to the end of the series, and Galactica is on the verge of structural collapse, and the only cure may be worse than the disease. Adama has a bad feeling about it too. He balks initially and strenuously. But like everything else around him, options have dwindled. Doing nothing isn't an option. Meanwhile, Adama's drinking and pill-popping only seem to be getting more dire. When Adama is drinking more than Tigh, that can't be good. This plot, more than anything, filled me with intense unease.
"No Exit" seems to describe the dilemma of all these people. Either doomed by their natures into repeating their mistakes, or doomed by fate while trying not to.
Some bulleted footnotes:
- Roslin grieves for the Quorum on Colonial One, which is about the only fallout shown regarding the mutiny storyline. I could've gone for more navel-gazing and at least a hint at what happened to Racetrack, Seelix, et al, but we don't get it here. We also don't get Roslin resuming her role as president. She says she will keep the title, but wants Lee to remain as de facto president. Will there even be a government from here on out?
- I dug the new "Cylons were created by man" opening. Nicely done, and much better than the similar previous openings. When it says, "One was sacrificed," the suggestion is that it was Ellen, but as it turns out, I think the one they were actually referring to was Daniel.
- When Boomer is brought in by Cavil to be an audience to his and Ellen's war of wills, and it's clear Cavil is sleeping with Boomer, Ellen says: "What about the swirl? Has he taught you that yet?"
- Daily Show Resident Expert John Hodgeman is the fleet's resident brain surgeon. Worth a grin.
- For the record, the 13 Cylon models: (1) Cavil, (2) Leoben, (3) D'Anna, (4) Simon, (5) Doral, (6) Six, (7) Daniel, (8) Sharon, and the Final Five, who are not numbered. When they labeled Sharon as No. 8, I wonder if the writers had any clue where this would end up. My guess is no. Very clever how they have filled in the blanks.