Jammer's Review

Battlestar Galactica

"The Road Less Traveled"

***1/2

Air date: 5/2/2008
Written by Mark Verheiden
Directed by Michael Rymer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"The Road Less Traveled" is both visceral and thoughtful; immediate and reflective. It's a best-of-all-worlds kind of BSG outing that features nuanced characterization, tough choices, rapidly escalating adrenaline, and the vintage type of Battlestar depiction of military protocol that this series was originally built upon. If "Escape Velocity" — while good — left me feeling slightly at arm's length, "The Road Less Traveled" pulled me back in close.

The episode begins on Day 58 of the Demetrius' 60-day mission to find Earth before rejoining the fleet. Tick, tock. Kara remains frequently closed-off and erratic in her behavior during this mission she is supposed to be commanding. The search for Earth has produced nothing, and the crew's patience with Kara's antics has run out. The grumbling was already evident weeks ago during "Six of One"; here it's approaching fever pitch. (My, how cynical Gaeta has become. Once one of the happiest-go-lucky of the crew, New Caprica turned him downright bitter, not that you blame him. Equally bitter is Seelix.)

On this day, however, Kara goes on her first Viper scout flight since the Demetrius left the fleet. It's one of those decisions that has been carefully guided by cosmic fate (or as I have joked about in the past, by the Plot Gods that are the show's writers, led by Plot God-in-Chief Ronald D. Moore), because on this particular day and on this particular flight, the Viper runs across a damaged Heavy Raider. Its sole occupant: Leoben. Specifically, the same Leoben that held Kara captive for months on New Caprica. Also the same Leoben whose ship had been attacked by the Cavils, et al, after the divide in ideology split the Cylon ranks into civil war.

So what was a winding-down mission that was about to end with the Demetrius returning empty-handed instead gets a new spark of inspiration: Leoben must be the key to the mystery, because what are the chances that he just happened to be floating out here for the Demetrius to find? In Leoben, Kara discovers a certain amount of faith — a faith that a coincidence of this sort cannot simply be meaningless. This despite all he did to her on New Caprica, and perhaps because of his role in "Maelstrom."

Leoben fully encourages this train of thought. He wants Kara to realize her destiny. He reveals the civil war that has broken out between the Cylons, and he offers the possibility of a new alliance between the renegade Cylons and the Colonials, invites the Demetrius to rendezvous with the renegade Cylons' damaged basestar where Kara can talk to the Hybrid, who surely can offer cryptic advice that may lead them all to Earth, the promised land.

Sound crazy? Well, maybe not to a person watching a fictional story unfold where there are only a certain number of pieces to the puzzle and this scenario seems to lock them together naturally. But as members of the Demetrius crew whose lives are on the line, watching a Cylon apparently manipulate Kara — who has recently come back from the dead, by the way — into what could very possibly be a deadly trap ... well, can you blame them for thinking Starbuck is off her rocker?

Meanwhile, Anders' role in all this is worth pondering. When you consider that he's one of the Final Five Cylons and no one on the Demetrius but him knows that, what does that mean for where his motives lie in this puzzle? Add to that his loyalty to his wife, despite how screwed-up their relationship is. Talk about complicated. The most crucial key to making these major characters Cylons lies in that they are still individuals motivated by their own sense of identity. And they all respond in individual ways.

That theme allows me to transition to the other storyline in the episode, centering on a quiet war of attrition between Baltar and Tyrol. After the death of his wife and the loss of his job, Tyrol is nothing short of lost. Baltar's radio program argues the non-existence of the Colonials' traditional Gods, in favor of the One True God that Baltar seeks to replace the establishment with. Tyrol listens in his quarters. Shuts it off. His son cries. He turns it back on.

Tyrol tries to make sense of Cally's suicide. Tory provides her perspective, saying that God has a plan for everyone. Tyrol: "You spend way too much time with Baltar." Indeed she does, and Tory and Baltar's pillow talk is revealing. We learn that Baltar's religious movement is still a fringe one. "No one of consequence" will be a part of it. If only they could get someone of consequence to stand up and lend credence to the cause.

Watching how Tigh, Tyrol, and Tory react in such different ways to living with their secret is fascinating and wonderfully attuned to their individual personalities. Tigh simply sucks it up and decides to go on; he is Saul Tigh, and that's all there is to it. Tyrol can't do that, and instead suffers, crashes, and burns. Meanwhile, Tory thinks they can be the salvation of the human race. "All I know," Tyrol says, "is if there is a God, he's laughing his ass off."

Watching this, I realized that this story was really most crucially about Tyrol. Being a Cylon has put him in this awful place mentally, but how he reacts to it is all about who Tyrol is as a man. There are scenes where he goes to Baltar's temple. We're not sure exactly what will happen or what will be said; we're simply invited to watch as Tyrol stands motionless and silent and the camera regards his eyes and we imagine what might be going through his mind. He's in deep, conflicted torment. Aaron Douglas is excellent in scenes where he doesn't say a word. And it makes his outbursts of bottled rage all the more effective. In one scene he very nearly kills himself, before gradually calming himself down. It's potent stuff.

The payoff comes late in the episode when Baltar reaches out to Tyrol. It's a scene that has so many intriguing layers to it, and I would argue that it is this episode, much more so than "Escape Velocity," where Baltar's sense of purpose and the attractiveness of his movement really shine through. I wasn't persuaded by Baltar's murky "You are all perfect" speech in "Escape Velocity" (partially because we had little stake in the faceless extras he was supposedly winning over there, and perhaps also because there was too much of Head Six pulling the strings).

But here I see a Baltar who (1) can offer something to a man who has lost everything, and (2) seems absolutely genuine in his attempt to reach out to someone in pain. It may not be selfless (this is Baltar, after all), but it's an attempt at something at least mutually beneficial. Genuineness is not something that usually comes across in Baltar, but here the writers and James Callis nail it. In retrospect, you realize the whole story was setting us up on the question of whether Tyrol would lend Baltar the legitimacy he wanted. But it ends up being more than just a harbinger; there seems to be some legitimacy behind what Baltar is preaching. That's the beauty of framing the whole situation through Tyrol's lost soul. Can Baltar seriously replace the religious establishment with something new? And can he do it without destroying the fleet in the process? Interesting questions.

Back on the Demetrius, we have another crisis of faith: the loss of faith in Kara Thrace to command the ship. Even the command staff shows fractures. The wheels really start to come off after a crew member is killed in an accident trying to investigate the damage to Leoben's ship. Kara flies into a rage and brutally beats Leoben for what she initially suspects was his own sabotage of his ship. Bursts of violence like this have an immediate visceral impact, but what's interesting is how the story takes something viscerally satisfying like Kara beating on Leoben and turns it on its ear: Kara realizes, to her horror, that she has lost her taste for the things that used to get her juices flowing (the rush of a fight, meaningless sex, etc.). She isn't the same person she was before "Maelstrom" and Leoben drives the point home by knowing Kara better than she knows herself. And the only way she can find answers about herself is to put her faith in Leoben and accept his offer to see the Hybrid on his basestar.

But that just ain't gonna fly. The crew is on the edge of revolt. There are murmurs of mutiny, which Helo tries to quell. But Kara's plan is too big a risk, and if they miss the rendezvous with the fleet, they're all as good as dead. It's here where classic BSG military protocol becomes an asset to the story. Kara is clearly not being impartial. And yet she's also trying to carry out the mission at hand: Find Earth.

Helo, as the XO, finds himself in the hot seat, in a scenario that plays out with a surprising amount of suspense. It's nice to see the writers spread the wealth and put him so crucially in the middle of this mess. Helo has always been loyal to Kara, but he has also always been about doing the right thing, and those two priorities come into conflict here. (I also liked the dynamic of how Sharon thinks Kara has gone off the deep end and thus puts her two cents into her husband's ear.) It's fun seeing characters in jams like this one, where no matter what call they make will mean hell to pay. What does Helo do? He announces that he is relieving Kara of command. It's sort of an obvious cliffhanger, but it's well executed. The prospect of dismantling the chain of command is not taken lightly, and the show earns its payoff by depicting its military procedures seriously. Even with all the mythology themes being mined here (and this season in general), BSG still finds time to skillfully revisit its roots.

Previous episode: Escape Velocity
Next episode: Faith

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11 comments on this review

Brendan - Thu, Jan 1, 2009 - 11:53am (USA Central)
Interesting. For me, Escape Velocity and this episode were both slow and introverted episodes, and yet Escape Velocity was the one I found enthralled by while I just found myself bored with this one.

Sure there were a lot of good scenes, its BSG, but the overall plot I found predictable and stale. The mutiny was played for suspense but to me it was a forgone conclusion.

And I didn't really understand how Tyrol would embrace Baltar at the end there, despite Baltar being genuine and humble for once, I don't think that would be enough to make Tyrol just forget it all.

To me this episode was less than the sum of its parts and fell victim to the fact that it was one link in a tight chain of a season that can't really stand on it's own.
Occuprice - Thu, Jan 1, 2009 - 1:12pm (USA Central)
I agree. When I watched this, I thought for sure it'd get a 2.5 star rating. Now, I'll rewatch it with this review in mind... but I don't think it'll get any higher than a 3. So I guess I'll just give the extra half star here to Escape Velocity, and we'll call it even. : )
Caradog - Thu, Jan 1, 2009 - 2:37pm (USA Central)
This episode was quite enjoyable on a rewatch, knowing I had its companion Faith to watch immediately after. On the first run through I found it tedious and repetitive. It had really felt like the material for one episode had been stretched over two and that for the last few episodes, for all the interesting discussion of issues facing the characters, no actual plot progress was being made. Much like my feelings towards the slow so-so mid point of the the third season, a DVD rewatch let me enjoy this episode. I agree with Jammer's ponts, although I would still hesitate to give it more than 3 stars.
Greg - Thu, Jan 1, 2009 - 5:35pm (USA Central)
I enjoyed reading this review and I agree with a lot of points. However I'm a bit surprised at the rating, which I assume means that Jammer thinks it to be one of the better episodes of the series.

Fair enough. I thought it was good, particularly the Tyrol/Baltar plot, but like Brendan I thought the Demetrius scenes to be rather by the book. Granted, it's a GOOD book and the conflict within the crew is compelling, but it still felt like a foregone conclusion. This show has done this kind of tension much, much better, in my opinion.

Solid entry, but not quite outstanding. But like every episode in 4.0, it is a necessary piece in this season's storylines and benefits more from what goes on around it rather than from its own merits.

*** would be my rating.
Matrix - Wed, Jan 14, 2009 - 6:02pm (USA Central)
The thing I liked most about this ep was helo and the bind he was in, which is fascinating to think about when you hear from RDM that originally he wasn't even in this storyline.
Brendan - Fri, Aug 6, 2010 - 3:41pm (USA Central)
There's an interesting deleted scene that I guess was cut because they changed their mind about it. In it, Head Six sends off Baltar before one of his sermons and tells him that he's now done what she's been leading him to all these years and that she is leaving, but that other angels will continue to guide him. She then literally fades from view as Baltar walks out to the people, with a bitter-sweet look on her face.

I guess this was part of the aborted plan to have more Head Baltar talking to Baltar. It was really interesting and kind of sad, almost like a death scene for Head Six.
Rafael - Sun, Apr 24, 2011 - 9:15am (USA Central)
I really enjoyed this episode. Maybe it could be even rated as a 4 stars one. I agree with other comments saying it has a slow pacing, but I really like the pacing and the focus on the characters.

Aaron Douglas showed us an incredible work here. The plot involving Kara's mission may seem too simple when described, but the characters and the way actors show us them really make this plot work and be entertaining. Gaeta is a wonderful surprise since miniseries, when I thought he would be just a very intelligent guy in CIC.

I really missed 2 cut scenes from this episode: the one Brendan mentioned, and one showing us Athena talking to Helo about how the mission was different for her, first time no one would be suspicious on her.
Michael - Mon, Nov 28, 2011 - 12:55pm (USA Central)
This was atrocious. Boring beyond verbalization. "Character development"? WHAT "character development"?! About half the character depicted spent their time talking utter meshugas. Kara, Baltar, the newly-captured cylon, Tory, and now Tyrol, are all majorly knocked in the head.

The mutiny is the only part more-or-less worth watching. It beggars belief how someone is Kara's state got to command a vessel, let alone had her orders obeyed for as long as she did.

Whither the world...

My darkest fears seem to be getting realized: Season 4 does heavily feature religious and mythical mumbo jumbo. What a far cry from the dynamite Seasons 1 and 2... :(((((((((

Not sure I'm looking forward to the continuation at all.
Ryan - Sat, Mar 17, 2012 - 8:29am (USA Central)
Allow me to pose an obvious question: Who gives a fuck about finding Earth? Why is the fleet so intent on finding Earth seemingly for its own sake? Especially now that its come to light that the Cylons are also trying to find Earth. What makes anyone think it'd be safe even if they could find it? I simply refuse to believe that, with the technology at their disposal, the fleet couldn't simply make jump after jump after jump and find a hiding place in distant, distant space.

And why would the crew on board the Demetrius even consider for one second taking Leoben up on his offer? The reason for trying find Earth is, supposedly, to have a safe home for humanity again. So, let the Cylons blow themselves to shit and then take your sweet time finding a suitable planet, ANY suitable planet, now that the Cylon threat is gone.

Also, I curse whoever thought it was a good idea to bring Starbuck back. At one point she says that "Mathias is dead because of me and I have to live that." Wrong, bitch. The crew are the ones who have to live with the fact that you could get them all killed at any moment because you've gone off the deep end. But, no, you had a "feeling" and an "intuition" about where to find Earth. Plot Gods, indeed, and all hail Ronald D. Moore, Chief God of the Asspull.
Justin - Tue, Jul 17, 2012 - 2:57pm (USA Central)
Gaius Baltar = Saul of Tarsus
chris - Sun, Oct 21, 2012 - 3:46pm (USA Central)
One word: boredom!

While season 1 and 2 were great and fast pace, after mid season 3 we got a lot of filler, slow episodes.

I just keep watching the episode because I am curious to see how it ends. But I can't say I am huge BSG fan anymore. It's a nice series, but compared to series like TNG and VOY.. nope, they are less interesting anymore.

I miss all the excitement I felt from episodes like Pegasus, Resurrection Ship, Exodus etc. Now all we got is Kara goes lunatic, Baltar giving meaningless religious speeches, Tyrol lurking around like zombie for 3 episodes in a row... zZzZzZ

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