"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.
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