Battlestar Galactica

"Act of Contrition"

4 stars

Air date: 1/28/2005
Written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle
Directed by Rod Hardy

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

I read once, years ago, that there was a standing rule among the writing staff in the Star Trek: TNG offices, which said that a story had to include elements that would only be possible in a sci-fi universe. A straight drama without some sort of sci-fi twist would be considered a violation of this rule, because a Star Trek episode was not supposed to be a show that could be easily ported into a 20th-century TV series.

Nothing wrong with that rule; after all, the writers were trying to generate a wide variety of science-fiction stories.

Now here comes Battlestar Galactica's "Act of Contrition," which is notable in that it could be ported almost directly into a contemporary military drama series without any significant changes. (Instead of Vipers and Raiders you'd have fighter jets, and instead of Cylons you'd have an enemy nation of your choice.) This episode is completely free of gimmicks, and not the least bit dependent on sci-fi for its effect. It is, in short, a story about its characters, through and through, in a military setting. It is also among the best episodes of Battlestar's first season. It is a wrenching, emotional, intimate character drama about people we come to genuine care about and empathize with.

Kara Thrace, a.k.a. Starbuck, has the role of the maverick pilot, with her rough edges and snappy dialog. But never has that general description prohibited her from being a full-fledged human being, and never has that been more apparent than it is in "Act of Contrition," where her vulnerabilities are exposed, and prove to be the catalyst for her errors and her recovery.

Aside from just Starbuck's character, the episode is really about the cold, hard truth about serving in the military — which is, people get killed. The episode begins in high spirits, with bonding on the flight deck as pilots engage in cheerful celebration. Adama, Kara, and Lee walk down the corridor together, and there's almost a sense of family: father, son ... and daughter. This is a long way from the desperation predominant in "33."

But disaster strikes when an accident on the flight deck kills 13 pilots and wounds seven others. The situation keenly demonstrates how life can change in an instant, without the slightest hint or warning. One minute you're celebrating with your shipmates, and the next minute you're preparing for a memorial service for those shipmates. The point is driven home by a scene in the pilots' ready room, as the camera tracks across a lot of suddenly empty chairs.

The story is brutal in the way it makes a mockery of its characters' hope. After the devastation of the Colonies and then going through the hell of the five-day Cylon pursuit, it seemed that camaraderie was the salvation that allowed a hopeful corner to be turned — and now this. When addressing the pilots in the immediate aftermath, Adama is sympathetic but pragmatic in his approach: "I know this has been a hard day. There's been plenty of them lately. I can guarantee there will be more to come. Remember your self-esteem, your self-respect, and your self-worth." His pragmatism is necessary under the circumstances, since the fleet will undoubtedly take its emotional cues from how the military reacts. "People are watching," Adama cautions.

For Kara, this brings back memories of a more personal nature. The storyline delves into her relationship with Adama's youngest son Zak — Kara's fiance — killed in an accident two years ago. This accident was alluded to during the events of the miniseries: Kara confessed to Lee how when she was Zak's flight instructor, she passed him when she should've flunked him, and he ultimately died because he wasn't up to the task. There's a sequence where a funeral in the present is crosscut with Zak's funeral in the past, and the episode brings an emotionally convincing reality to these scenes.

There are some who say this series is too dark and takes itself too seriously. I am not one of them. This series contains more humanity than most. When telling a story about pain, it should be told honestly, and "Act of Contrition" draws us in precisely because it's convincing in the way it explores the suffering of its characters. The funerals look like real military services, and the structure and atmosphere of the flashbacks show how pain is not simply lived, but re-lived.

There's a scene where Kara is playing cards, but her mind isn't on the game; she's thinking back to when she and Zak were lovers, and she misguidedly lied to him because she loved him. There's her simple memory of his finger touching her ear. It's the sort of detail that makes this episode vividly human and empathetic. I personally can only imagine that kind of loss, but the story suggests it through a visualization of memory.

I should hasten to point out that the episode conveys these emotions without resorting to melodrama or maudlin excess. It's simply true to the feelings and true to the characters.

Following the accident and funeral on Galactica, Adama puts Kara in charge of training new recruits to replace the pilots who died. Kara demurs for reasons she and Lee know of but Adama does not, so Adama insists on Kara's tutelage. Upon meeting her new trainees, Kara instantly goes into an overcompensating Acting Out mode, pushes her hard-ass routine, takes them on a training flight, declares it "worse than awful," and unjustifiably flushes them all from the program after a single day.

Lee instantly recognizes Kara's overreaction for what it is, and tells her to get her act together. When she refuses, Lee goes to Adama and asks that he force the issue. A misunderstanding leads Lee to let slip that Kara did something for Zak that she feels guilty about, and this in turn has Adama calling in Kara to get to the bottom of things.

This results in what I contend is the best scene of the season. Adama asks Kara point-blank what she did for Zak, and Kara, after some half-hearted evasions, is forced to come clean. The scene is acted with great emotional precision by Edward James Olmos and Katee Sackhoff, and proves to be tough, powerful, and heartbreaking. We come to learn here how Adama loves Kara "like a daughter," and it's through the nature of that relationship that this scene transcends the typical scenario where a commanding officer chews out a subordinate.

When Adama presses Kara for the truth, you can see the apprehension in his eyes; he's afraid of what she's going to tell him. And Kara — often the overconfident Starbuck — crumbles under her very human vulnerabilities: the guilt, the regret, the sadness — and, beyond that, the realization that she has personally failed Adama. Sackhoff plays Kara in this scene like a daughter who has deeply disappointed her father, and that's precisely the right note. We understand the feelings behind Kara's poor judgment in passing Zak; she "didn't want to be the one that crushed him." Adama's response is a powerful but dialed-down combination of professionalism, anger, sadness, and disappointment. ("Do your job," he says. "And walk out of this cabin while you still can.") Olmos conveys all these feelings simultaneously and superbly. This is just a wonderfully done, emotional scene.

And yet, Kara's confession is a catharsis of sorts, and allows everyone to get back to work. She reinstates the trainees and — well, she does her job. That's about when we are confronted with the cliffhanger. A wing of Cylon Raiders shows up, there's a dogfight, and Kara's Viper ends up going down over a nearby planet.

It almost feels unnecessary (but I'll do it anyway) to mention Helo and Boomer finding a fallout shelter on Caprica. Also, there's the crusty doc (Donnely Rhodes) who chastises Roslin while holding an X-ray film in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth. He says to her, regarding her cancer: "I'd strongly recommend prayer."

The script for "Act of Contrition" is by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, latecomers to Deep Space Nine, and whose best scripts on that series were "Inquisition" and "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River." Here they have transcended those efforts with a no-frills drama about loss and real feelings, which sheds light onto who these characters are. This is a superb hour of television.

Previous episode: Bastille Day
Next episode: You Can't Go Home Again

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24 comments on this post

Mon, Sep 24, 2007, 11:36am (UTC -5)
I've just been watching this episode again on DVD and I agree completely with your comments on it. I think it is one of the best episodes of the show and an example of how tv should be made.

Since being introduced to BSG I have recommended the show to many people and this is often the episode that convinces sceptical people to continue following the series.
Mon, Jul 14, 2008, 10:57am (UTC -5)
Well this is a well-written review, and does the epi justice.

One notable thing about this episode are the strange foreshadowing sequences of Kara's viper going down while she free-falls through atmosphere. The scenes are presented piecemeal, before the event actually happens, when we see it in full. An interesting and unusual directorial risk. Though interestingly paced, I'm not sure how it could have been foreshadowed; unless the entire episode was actually in flashback?
Alexey Bogatiryov
Wed, Mar 18, 2009, 6:45pm (UTC -5)
In my humble opinion - best episode of the BSG series as it dealt with characters, emotions, and no wacky plot turns. I must say that as a Sci-fi fan, I found it ironic that a non-sci-fi episode ended up being my favorite. None of the plot twists in the subsequent seasons could ever compensate for the raw emotion of this episode. Similar to the DS9 episode where Dax trained a Trill candidate for joining.
Mon, Nov 2, 2009, 11:53am (UTC -5)
Warning: Spoilers of season 4.0 finale, "Revelations," in this post. Spoiler warning added by Jammer.

I just got the complete series for my birthday. (I saw through finding Earth in a nuclear winter while in Iraq - set the DVR while home on leave to record the last 10 episodes and a family member erased the first three of the final 10, so I am rewatching from the begining because I forgot so much.) IMO the scene where Adama tells Starbuck to leave while she still can should have won Olmos an Emmy right there. Brilliant. I am having so much fin rediscovering the series.
Sat, Feb 6, 2010, 1:43pm (UTC -5)
Nick, WTF did you put that blatant spoiler in there for?!
Mon, Oct 4, 2010, 8:44am (UTC -5)
I've seen this episode twice now and although I thought it was extremely moving, I'm still bothered by the "foreshadowing" sequences. I find that they tend to takae your attention away from the emotional core of the story, making you wonder what is going on instead of concentrating on the characters. It almost felt like they were afraid action-craving viewers would tune out if those scenes weren't there.
Tue, Jun 21, 2011, 9:40am (UTC -5)
Just watched this last night. I agree 100% with the review. I had to force myself NOT to watch the next episode (it was late already!), but it truly was an outstanding episode. Starbuck's face when Adama told her to get out.. wow. These are real people, not just characters on a screen.
Sat, Jul 2, 2011, 8:15pm (UTC -5)
I just saw this episode just now July 2 2011... My goodness... that scene between Olmos and Sackhoff was beyond gripping. When he said to her... "I love you like a daughter... I deserve better than..."

That pulls at your heart! You felt the pain... like the reviewer felt he feared the truth...

I put this scene in the same category as the Last Scene of the Dark Knight... Simply put gripping!!!!!!

I am happy to find like minded people... Thanks...
Fri, Nov 11, 2011, 5:42am (UTC -5)
A FANTASTIC show; can't wait to see the second part!!!
Nick P.
Sun, Nov 13, 2011, 2:58pm (UTC -5)
Hey Nic,

I completely agreed with you on the teaser at the beginning of every episode. Since I am watching these on Netflix in 2011, I can tellyou I intentionally do something else for the 30 seconds or so of the action teaser. I refuse to let that distract me from the show.
Mon, Jun 25, 2012, 8:42am (UTC -5)
Great episode, but I'd dock it 1/2 star and here's why:

Starbuck's extreme measure of washing the whole class out was more than just a little implausible. There's 13 crack pilots dead. The show goes out of the way to put huge emphasis on this by showing their empty chairs and reminding us that these fewer than 50,000 people are all that's left of humanity. So...they need pilots - even sub-par ones.

Also, the Caprica scenes are becoming distracting. I'm sure it was necessary to the larger story arc, but it still detracts from what would otherwise be a stand-alone hour of television. Yes, I prefer serialized shows, but the best episodes are still usually the ones that can stand alone with little to no knowledge of prior events. "33" is a perfect example of this. Also "The Constant" from LOST, "College" from The Sopranos, and "In The Pale Moonlight" from DS9.
Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 10:39pm (UTC -5)
GREAT episode. Call it a tie with "33" as my favorite one so far.

I do have one complaint though: those flash-forward scenes of Kara's Viper falling cut up the momentum of the episode and were an unnecessary distraction. They could have been cut entirely. I'm surprised that wasn't mentioned in this review.

As Jammer says, the scene where Adama Sr. confronts Kara is the best one of the episode (can't say "season" yet, because I haven't seen all of the season). Olmos is the master of conveying emotions through facial expressions. When Adama Sr. tells Kara he "loves her like a daughter", his face is almost pleading, sympathetic in a way, but at the same time extremely worried, as if he knows what she's going to say. As Kara confesses, his face gets harder and sterner. I haven't seen such brilliant acting like that from a lead since Bill Shatner in Wrath of Khan.

4 stars, easily,
Sat, Sep 8, 2012, 10:42pm (UTC -5)
@Nick P. I am with you on those "action teasers"; I just shut my eyes until the crazy drumming is over.
Tue, Nov 13, 2012, 1:16pm (UTC -5)
Great episode but unfortunately the... "style" of the show is beginning to tell on me. The drumming music whenever something of import is said (even if it's said in a dull everyday monotone), the in-your-face let's talk about issues attitude that almost everyone seems to have that just is not existant in my reality. I dunno. Jammer mentioned counterfeit drama in referring to the typical Hardheaded Alien of Week on Star Trek but I find all the drama to be counterfeit on this show. The music/camera etc are all designed to make me feel whatever the scene calls for - even if the scene itself is not doing it. This should be intense *drums* but what I'm watching is Gaius flubbering in front of Adama. It's not intense. It's agonizingly sad and painful to watch. But! *drums* something tells me I should remember this conversation *drums* because something important must be being said. *drums*

I just get the general feeling that the director/writer thinks that I, the viewer, am not smart enough to follow is "vision" without visual and audio clues as opposed to just letting the actors act and the story tell itself. Just feel like I'm being condescended too.

I do enjoy the show, so I'm still watching but the style of it is beginning to grate on my nerves.
Sun, Dec 16, 2012, 3:36am (UTC -5)
Rewatching series.


Still one of if not absolute favorite shows.
Nebula Nox
Mon, Jan 21, 2013, 8:03am (UTC -5)
I enjoy the show - I think it's fairly realistic - but Starbuck's lack of judgment is something that bothers me. I don't think she's as admirable as many - at least on BSG - seem to think.
Wed, Nov 12, 2014, 12:28am (UTC -5)
@Nebula Nox
I'm not a big Starbuck fan. She's really good at what she does, but I don't really like the person -- she's way too arrogant for the number of flaws she has.

The Adama/Kara scene is priceless. Though its not the last time he has a scene like that....

Yes, it's a very dark series. Given the premise, how could it be anything but dark? (The original series was fairly upbeat). 99.999% of humanity is dead, and the survivors are on the run from a relentless machine. Of course it's dark.
Thu, Sep 8, 2016, 2:03pm (UTC -5)
Heya Heya

Loved, loved the acting in this one. I saw Sackhoff in a couple of shows, as a guest star, a few years later. She just didn't seem to match what she'd done on BSG. In my humble opinion, she was the perfect actress for Starbuck. She just did fantastic emotional scenes that really sold the emotion to me, and was also able to let her inner crazy out to play to sell the nutjob scenes. I can see other characters in well-known shows being played by other actors (Commander Riker and Commander Ivanova come to mind for me), but so far no one stands out as wooden or phony in BSG. And I cannot imagine anyone else playing this version of Starbuck. 😊

Bye for now... RT
Sat, Sep 23, 2017, 9:12pm (UTC -5)
As an avid trek fan, what sets BSG apart for me, in addition to the things mentioned in Jammer's review and the comments above, are the superb sets, filming, lighting, framing, editing, and special effects in this series. The scenes are visually compelling, riveting, and believable - all bringing the great writing and acting to fruition.
Wed, Nov 21, 2018, 3:27am (UTC -5)
Did anyone else not find it a blatent problem with the plot that in any reasonable society Star Buck would not have been the person to judge her own boyfriend in his flight test? It didn’t seem to be a secret relationship. Either way even if nobody pointed out the conflict of interest if she had any degree of wisdom or professionalism she would recused herself from being in the position of judging her lover. Sorry to rain on an otherwise good episode but I couldn’t get this past me... didn’t mean to sound like a lawyer criticizing the episode (even if I am a law student).
Wed, Nov 21, 2018, 8:04am (UTC -5)
Fair point.
Thu, Dec 31, 2020, 10:02pm (UTC -5)
Fantastic episode. I have seen some of Olmos’ roles, but this is the best I’ve ever seen him. Just masterful. All the crew is portrayed very well, and these last 2 episodes showed that powerful drama can happen without inserting the Cylons into the mix. They only show up very late here to accelerate the acceptance and repentance the story needed to get to. Very nicely done. I really wish Discovery would have fleshed out its characters like BSG. I’m only 5 episodes in and feel more of a connection with about 6 characters than any single character in Discovery through 3 seasons.

Also I know this is really late, but the scenes on Caprica that are kind of “throwaway” scenes. Moore stated that he wanted a story on Caprica, but actually had no idea where it was gonna go! So he just inserted these quick Helo scenes as a reminder to the audience that Caprica and Helo were still there, until he could flesh out what kind of story was going to unfold. Pretty bold move, I think Lost did that with considerably less success.
Neil Mc
Sat, Nov 19, 2022, 3:51am (UTC -5)
First time watcher of the show after reading good reviews of it. Loved the mini series and 33. Found this one a little off, I'd rate it 3 stars. I found the accident laughable; it could have been shot/handled better.

Excellent dialogue as others have already mentioned. I just found the overall episode lacking it something I can't put my finger on. Maybe it's how seriously the show takes itself or me coming off the back of re-watching The Wire!
Tue, Dec 27, 2022, 8:02pm (UTC -5)
Back to the death of William Adama's son Zak, at the center of the triangle between him, Lee Adama and Starbuck -- it was going to resurface at some point and it makes for a powerful story here with all 3 actors delivering the goods.

The senior Adama's change in tone was a sight to behold - toward Starbuck when she admits she passed Zak b/c they were engaged even though she shouldn't have. This was good to see - Starbuck on her heels for a change. Much better to see her change and start being professional and helpful to the nuggets once she reinstates their fighter training.

Starbuck basically had W. Adama in her pocket - he loved her like a daughter, but then she had to finally admit everything. W. Adama's getting right to the point was powerful. I do wonder if Lee Adama deliberately went down the road of "exposing" Starbuck to his father and then saying something like 'I said more than I should have.' Lee just had a pissing match with Starbuck after all...

It's all fiction and so I did find some of the Starbuck / Zak backstory (flashbacks) to be a bit cliche but still well portrayed, as it is what Starbuck was going through at the service for the 13 dead due to the drone in the hangar deck and during the card game.

The part of Starbuck and Hot Dog basically fighting off 8 Cylon raiders was just plain hard to believe, while the other nuggets returned to base. The show keeps reiterating what a great fighter pilot Starbuck is, but even Hot Dog managed to destroy one raider. Those Cylon raiders need to improve their programming.

3 stars for "Act of Contrition" -- BSG continues to deliver with another excellent episode - a very impressive start to the series. Still not a fan of Starbuck, but I'm liking the 2 Adamas more and more. Personally I find episodes with some character dealing with demons/guilt less fulfilling than others, but this one was well done and I liked how it was basically just 1 plot with a couple of very minor updates re. Caprica and Roslin's diagnosis.

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