“Unfinished Business” was Battlestar Galactica’s most moving episode—and a total mess

“Unfinished Business” was Battlestar Galactica’s most moving episode—and a total mess

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.

Battlestar Galactica, “Unfinished Business” (season three, episode nine; originally aired 12/1/2006)

Zack Handlen: I was going through a rough patch a while back, and a friend of mine offered some advice. She said that while most of us are familiar with the Kübler-Ross model of grief—those five stages of coping with loss that have been referenced and parodied in pop culture for decades now: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—and while those stages provide a pretty good idea of what to expect from a major life change, the assumption that we pass through each stage in turn, like some kind of sorrow-based obstacle course, isn’t entirely accurate. At least in her experience, getting over a loss wasn’t a slow, steady march toward recovery. It was more a spiral that dipped into various stages throughout the process. You may be angry one day, and depressed the next, and then get over it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be angry tomorrow, or depressed next Tuesday. Even acceptance isn’t necessarily the end. The truth about grief, be it over death or the end of a relationship or even just change itself, is that it’s messy. It has recognizable elements, but those elements don’t always arrange themselves neatly for our comfort, no matter how ready you think you are to face them.

Battlestar Galactica was a bunch of different shows—a sci-fi thriller, a space opera, a story of political intrigue, a delivery system for an increasingly awkward mythology involving religious organic robots—but while all these aspects had their moments, for me, it was always a show about grief. And that grief never came in the form you’d expect. BSG was not a neat show, or a polite one, or a reassuring one. It rarely let its audience feel comfortable about which side they were rooting for, and even the noblest characters could behave selfishly or cruelly. At its worst, the messiness fell into chaos. The attempts at a cohesive, series-spanning mythology collapsed into a black hole of random, unnecessary complications by the end of the run, marring the final season with a series of increasingly unnecessary reveals. But I never stopped being invested in the characters and their fates, and a big part of that was how well the show handled sorrow. The premise has a comparatively small group of survivors fleeing the destruction of their race by an invading force (the Cylons, the aforementioned robots, which… well, it’s complicated), and whatever else happens, this loss is a constant presence in the lives of the entire ensemble. There’s no Very Special Episode that lets everyone move on. There’s just the knowledge that millions are dead, and the constant pressure that the entire future of humanity hangs on the choices these people make.

So that’s the context for “Unfinished Business.” That’s not the only context, admittedly. This isn’t the episode I’d pick if I wanted to introduce someone to the series. (Given how serialized BSG is, your best bet is to start from the beginning—fortunately, the show starts strong.) In watching it again for this roundtable, I realized that I have no idea how this plays if you haven’t seen the rest of the show leading into it. Because the conflicts here, while well drawn and clear, depend a fair bit on knowing the context. New Caprica, which plays in flashbacks throughout the hour, was a temporary home for the fleeing colonists, introduced at the end of the second season in one of the ballsiest time jumps I’ve ever seen on television; things went disastrously (things tended to go disastrously a lot on BSG), and the larger picture of the fighting and the angst here is the knowledge that everyone on the ship briefly thought they’d found safety, only to have that safety taken away from them. If you want to put it in symbolic terms, for a few months, everyone had accepted the past and was trying to move on; but then rage and death and despair found them again, taking even more lives as it did, and now it’s time to just keep surviving again, no matter how much it hurts.

Sounds a bit like The Walking Dead, come to think of it, but where that show often struggles to give us reasons to care past the (admittedly high) stakes, BSG had one of the best ensembles on television, with some of the richest characters and performances I’ve seen in a genre show—or any show, really. “Unfinished Business” focuses primarily on William Adama (Edward James Olmos), Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), and Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber), although other important figures flit around the edges (Laura Roslin gets enough screen time to remind me just how amazing Mary McDonnell was on the series; Baltar (James Callis), one of my favorites of the show, barely registers). Story-wise, nothing much happens: Two pairs of people fight to air out their grievances, but not much is resolved. I’ve read that some fans of the show criticize this episode because it seems like a pause or a break in the story, and the important information it does provide—namely, just what the hell happened between Kara and Lee on New Caprica—doesn’t exactly set the world on fire. BSG often danced on the edge of melodrama, and at times here, it basically just closes its eyes and dives right in. If you’re here for the badass space battles and suspense, or if you’re not sure why the fractured love affair of two decent but deeply fucked-up people matters much, this one might not work for you.

It works for me, though, and watching it again, I was immediately reminded how much I loved this show— even with all the awkward “Final Five” bits. It’s messy and raw, and nobody comes out of it clean. Adama’s fight with Tyrol, in which he attempts to once again distance himself from those serving under him because he needs that distance to do his job, is the most clear-cut arc of the episode, and even then, it’s hard to know just how right he is and how much his actions are driven by an understandable, if doomed, desire to make sense out of what happened, to take control of it. Adama (and Roslin) were the strongest authority figures on the series, and what made them fascinating was how regularly wrong they were, how many choices they made out of anger, or just the need to make any choice at all. His speech to the men and women serving under him at the end of the fight makes sense, but it’s clear that the person he’s really trying to teach a lesson here is himself. What happened on New Caprica, and every other disaster that preceded it, left a mark, and Adama is trying to make sense of the calamity by taking personal responsibility for it. Those deaths weren’t just bad luck; they were brought on by his own failings, by his weakness, by his desire for peace. If he can only make sure he never lets down his guard again, he can save everyone. (One of the harshest lessons of the show is that you can’t.)

Kara and Lee’s fight is harder to parse, depending as it does on the history of their relationship; the fact that Kara was once with Lee’s brother, who died (and Kara blames herself for the death); and the nature of both characters. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite character on this show full of walking open wounds, but Starbuck is up there, and it’s still a revelation to see Sackhoff in the role. At times her rawness is almost too much to take. But that rawness makes what could be contradictory impulses into something cohesive. Bamber is solid as well, but one of the things I always appreciated about watching the two of them square off is how out-matched he clearly is. Lee’s efforts to find himself throughout the run of the show sprang from a deeply held conviction that he’d never live up to his father’s legacy, that he just wasn’t enough of a hero to live up to the demands of his time, and Bamber makes that insecurity painfully believable. He’s a good-looking, well-meaning dude who is in way over his head. Just like all of them. And God, that final shot of the two of them, all beat to shit and exhausted, holding each other in the ring and knowing that it’s never going to get any better than this moment—that no matter how much they might wish it, they’re never going to have a relationship or even manage a friendship that doesn’t end in misery—just sums up so much of what makes this show work for me.

I haven’t even talked about the episode’s use of flashbacks to tell its story, but I’d like to hear what the rest of you thought. If this was your first BSG viewing experience, did any of this make sense at all? And if this was not, how did you feel about this episode when you saw it in the original run? Has watching it again changed those feelings?

Carrie Raisler: I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Watching this episode, this time and in this context, made me angry. I can’t recall exactly how it made me feel the first time I watched it—I was an ardent fan of BSG when it first aired, but as time has passed, that ardency, and even the very memories of watching the show the first time around, have both faded significantly—but cueing up this episode and being dropped into the middle of a narrative puzzle was disorienting, to say the least. Why are we thrust into the middle of an ugly, brutal boxing ritual? What is the significance of these New Caprica flashbacks? And why does everything feel so nerve jangling, so tonally dissonant? But as I got to the end and saw how the episode resolved, I realized that anger is part of the point.

Zack, you mention Lee and Kara’s story as being a bit harder to parse than a few of the others in the episode, but for me it was the one that actually completely worked, and a lot of that was due to the episode’s undercurrent of anger. Stuck in these dire circumstances, Lee and Kara have become staggeringly angry people, albeit in slightly different ways; Kara wears her anger like a calling card, a giant neon sign flashing “steer clear,” while Lee’s is a more simmering, resentful, reactionary anger, lying dormant as he plays the straight man as best he can. I can’t recall exactly what happened in the season up to this point, but the episode itself makes their dynamic very clear: These two have a giant gulf between them, for whatever reason, and the only way they can figure out how to resolve it is to beat the ever-loving shit out of each other.

This is tremendously dark stuff, even for this show. It’s almost as if the episode realizes just what a landmine it’s stepped in, valiantly attempting to mitigate the fallout by chopping the story of how Lee and Kara finally declared their love, only to have Kara completely betray Lee by marrying Sam, up into dream-like fragments, saving the sucker punch of her ultimate betrayal for the very end. And the fallout is emotionally devastating, as the flashbacks of Kara’s betrayal and Lee’s shock are intercut with this desperately violent present-day fight in the ring, purposely daring the audience to react negatively to the pure emotional hideousness playing out before them on-screen. 

None of this would work, though, without the blatantly manipulative and somewhat schlocky montage of Lee and Kara’s happier moments the episode sneaks in just as the betrayal fully reveals itself. This is when all of the anger I felt watching the episode dissolved away and pure, cathartic sadness took over in the form of (this is a safe space, right?) actual wracking sobs. Because although these are two pathologically angry people, you can’t help but feel a sort of bottomless sadness as the episode cuts between their happier times and what they’ve become, these shells of souls who only know how to reach each other by hurting each other, their inner scars becoming outward, open wounds. Lee and Kara’s story here might not be some great surprise or giant paradigm shift, but it’s character specific and tragic in a way BSG excelled at throughout its run, and the only way to make that fully land here is to go fully schlocky and manipulative.

I realize now that, like Zack, I got lost in the emotion and barely touched on the structure of the episode and how the flashbacks, and even more specifically, the score, inform the story. Genevieve, what is your experience with this episode? Does the structure affect your feelings about the story the episode is attempting to tell?

Genevieve Koski: Maybe it’s because I previously wrote about this episode for an Inventory on bottle episodes—which admittedly utilizes a loose definition of the term in relation to this episode—but I have a hard time not thinking about the structure when watching this episode, because I know it’s essentially a patchwork quilt. Briefly: The New Caprica flashbacks were all previously filmed, and intended to be spread out throughout the third season to fill in some of what happened during that aforementioned time jump. Instead, the showrunners filmed a boxing match and a couple of supplementary scenes on existing sets, and used it as a framing device to get all that flashbackin’ out of their systems at once. It was a smart move, to my mind; as Zack said, this episode really drives home how open everyone’s emotional wounds are at this point in the series, and being able to see those first cuts on New Caprica, interspersed with their (literally) bloody consequences in the ring, is much more effective than doling out bits and pieces over the course of a season would probably be.

However—and here’s where I turn into the party-pooper—I find I have a much harder time connecting to the Starbuck-Lee-Anders relationship this time around, divorced from the rest of the series. Maybe it’s knowing where all those characters are heading after this cathartic boxing match—more anger, more betrayal, more all-consuming guilt—or maybe it’s just the lack of momentum inherent in viewing it out of context, but this time I found Lee and Starbuck’s midnight tryst a little eye-rolling, which somewhat tainted their final embrace for me. Much more effective, to my mind, is the stuff between Admiral Adama and Chief, perhaps because it speaks to larger ideas of duty and family and honor, rather than hinging on one specific relationship that has soured somewhat in hindsight. Adama’s regret and anger about letting his crew get “too close,” about getting lax with them, about letting them chase their dreams of normalcy and happiness on New Caprica, to disastrous consequence—are just so sad, because they speak to the hopelessness now inherent in this mission to… what? Adama and Chief are the personification of a much larger struggle within the series, which makes their bout in the ring seem especially poignant.

It’s interesting that Carrie brings up the score, because I found myself thinking several times during the New Caprica scenes that Bear McCreary must have been listening to Titanic while scoring this episode. That’s due largely to the dreamy flute motif running throughout the New Caprica scenes (and the Irish-ish jig playing during the groundbreaking ceremony, which sounds like it came straight out of Rose and Jack’s steerage date); that flute is so jarring next to the booming orchestral music and vaguely tribal drums that play behind the boxing scenes. And that’s intentional: The pastoral, tranquil music, highlighted by the most delicate of woodwinds, is so unlike the ominous, arrhythmic instrumentation we’re used to in BSG, particularly in battle scenes—and what is this boxing match if not a series of battle scenes, intermingling with visions of what was and what could have been, rendered almost dream-like by their distance from the stark reality these characters now inhabit.

Todd, how does “Unfinished Business” strike you from the remove of a few years and roughly 5 million subsequent plot developments? Do the character relationships still ring true in light of what happened to the denizens of the Battlestar Galactica after this public airing of grievances?

Todd VanDerWerff: I was so glad to see Zack select this episode, because it was on my long list when we were submitting our choices for favorite episodes, and it was one of the last cuts I made to get down to five picks. I haven’t seen this episode since I bought the complete series Blu-ray shortly after the series ended in 2009, when I watched the episode’s director’s cut and found it wanting. (It’s good; it’s not this, which is gut-wrenching.) I haven’t watched a lot of Battlestar—one of my all-time favorite series, honestly, and one that I like pretty much stem to stern, even if the mythological revelations in the last season came up short—since it left the air, so I was amazed at how rapidly I fell back into “Unfinished Business.” Which is to say that, sorry, Genevieve, but I was completely in on this, even knowing what was going to happen. In fact, I found Kara and Lee’s one-night stand even more moving in light of what was to come. The first image I think of when I think of this show is Kara’s face, joyful, as Lee swings her around on the dance floor, and I suspect that’s what divides me from a lot of the show’s fans, many of whom can’t stand this episode. I’d rather think of it as a journey of a bunch of people through their own survivors’ guilt that just incidentally happens to have a lot of mythological elements and take place on a spaceship. For many people, it makes more sense to flip that description.

What’s interesting to me about “Unfinished Business” is how many of the so-called “rules” of good TV that have come up in the last 10 years or so that this episode breaks. Apparently, the crew of the Galactica has this long-standing tradition of beating the shit out of each other when tensions run high, one that we’ve never heard of before. Also, apparently, Roslin is a cut-man from way back, and the memories of what happened on New Caprica had been put on the backburner for a couple of weeks at this point in the show’s run. It feels a little awkward and ungainly, like a standalone that’s randomly been stitched together with a bunch of serialized elements. (As Genevieve points out, that’s exactly what happened.) In fact, it reminded me of showrunner Ron Moore’s Star Trek history. If we were randomly told that the crew of the Enterprise or Deep Space Nine had rankless boxing grudge matches every so often, no one would bat an eye. It feels different here, because everything is supposed to matter. I was reviewing the show at the time for The House Next Door, and when I look back on my review of the episode from then, I got really hung up on those elements.

Yet that’s exactly why the episode works, I think. Director Robert Young (who worked with Edward James Olmos on many projects) and episode writer Michael Taylor turn this one-episode conceit into something that allows the past to bleed into the present, with McCreary’s score providing the uniting element that ties everything together. (The main theme from the episode, which comes up only at its beginning and end, is one of the best pieces of music McCreary, a terrific composer, wrote for the show.) The past becomes the present becomes the past, and the episode is as good as any in TV history at emulating the way memory works, the way little things become big when placed in the proper context. In particular, the episode’s editor, Michael O’Halloran, deserves credit for how he makes this collage of feeling work. It’s not really a story so much as it is an experience, an endlessly recurring series of motifs that these people will see for the rest of their lives, everywhere they look. Because that, ultimately, is one of the ways grief works, too, a kind of monster in the corner that only gains more definition the longer you look at it.

Anyway, I said all of that and didn’t even talk about Roslin and Adama getting high together. Zack, what did you think of that?

ZH: Well, you all know my firm anti-drug stance, so—nah, it was great. And hilarious, and sort of heartbreaking, like so much of the show. In general, I just love the clear, painful contrast between everyone’s lives back on New Caprica and their awkward, claustrophobic existence on the ship. (We don’t get to see much of the Galactica in the episode, but we saw enough to remind me of how the place was so clearly not designed for what it eventually became: a sort of militarized ark, ferrying personnel and civilians to an unknown destination. It’s a ship made for war, not any kind of sustained living, which is about as good a visual representation of our heroes’ condition as I can think of.) Roslin and Adama smoking up together, and Roslin sharing her plans for the house she wants to build up in the mountains, isn’t presented as a scene that should be intensely dramatic or important in and of itself. It’s just people relaxing after a long, and incredibly difficult, journey. But in retrospect, the event becomes something almost miraculous, as though peace and ease is something that only really ever happens in memory.

It’s funny you should mention how this breaks the rules of good TV, Todd, because I don’t know as I’d ever really thought about how unrealistic it would be for this boxing match to happen now, this far into the run of the show, without ever having been mentioned before. I took it in stride when I watched the series the first time, and I took it in stride now, partly because it just fits so perfectly into everything we already know about these characters, and partly because I just sort of expect that to happen on TV shows every now and again. Serialization has its place in television, and it can be an incredibly useful tool, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong about introducing certain concepts later into the run on the understanding that, hey, we just haven’t told this particular story before.

Really, I think that’s why I’m more forgiving with the loopy mythology and shenanigans of the final season than I might otherwise have been; there’s a vitality that runs through so much of this show even at its most grim, and that vitality is powered by a sense of “making it up as they go” that a more planned backstory might not have had. BSG was a raw nerve of a series from beginning to end, for better and for worse, and “Unfinished Business” has so much of what I love about that rawness, that emotional directness. (All it’s missing are kickass space battles.) So I’m with you on the crying, Carrie. But doesn’t that New Caprica fair look like fun?

CR: The New Caprica fair does look like fun, if you can forget the horror that New Caprica eventually became. Who doesn’t love dancing and drinking until you make questionable choices? But as I’m watching the crew dance and make plans and, above all, smile—Kara smiling so easily and genuinely is almost startling in its oddity—all I can do is wait for the other shoe to drop, because in the episode timeline of the series, it’s already happened. Genevieve revealing that these flashbacks were filmed in advance and planned to be spread out over the entirety of the season is fascinating, mostly because of what an absolutely horrible idea that would have been. While the Kara and Lee story is tremendously powerful packed into this puzzle of an episode, spread throughout the season it could have been disastrous. At this point in the season, the quadrangle of Kara, Lee, Sam, and Dualla was already stretched almost past the point of tolerance. Packing all of the melodrama into one cathartic memory dump was a tremendously smart decision by the writers, especially because they got such an emotional hour out of it in the process.

Zack, I also love your point about serialization being overrated sometimes. Some of the best, most inventive episodes of television come from ignoring serialization and previously established show structure completely. Episodes like Mad Men’s “Far Away Places” come to mind, which is an episode that does have serialized elements but structures them in a way as to disorient the viewer and make the serialization almost irrelevant. It’s so easy to get lost in plot and minute details when watching and analyzing television on a weekly basis, so it’s nice to be reminded that sometimes those things just don’t matter if the character moments are there. And “Unfinished Business” has character moments to spare. Then again, it helps that we’re viewing this basically in its own bubble, without really having to worry about what happened last episode, next episode, or 10 episodes in the future, so all there is to focus on is the character of it all.

Yet, despite most of the character moments working on their own, the biggest thing that sticks out in the episode to me as not successful in a standalone way is the little runner between Colonel Tigh and his wife, Ellen. They get very few moments, but they’re obviously there for a reason, and that reason is embedded in the serialization of the story, which feels a bit awkward when contrasted with the nicely contained arc Adama gets with Tyrol or Kara gets with Lee. This might only bother me, though, because I can’t remember a good portion of where their story is during this season. Genevieve, do the moments with Tigh and Ellen stick out to you as out of place? Or do they nicely fit in with the season story as a whole?

GK: I think they absolutely fit, at least at this point in the series’ chronology: Remember, “Unfinished Business” is only five episodes removed from “Exodus (Part 2),” wherein Tigh poisons and kills Ellen as punishment for collaborating with the Cylons on New Caprica, an absolutely heartbreaking scene that’s perhaps been overshadowed in our memories by where Ellen’s story eventually went. Without getting overly spoilery for people who may not have finished the series, this isn’t the last we see of Ellen on BSG, but at this point in the series it certainly seemed like she was gone for good. So Tigh’s brief flashback to those brief, happy moments with Ellen on New Caprica—a drama-free moment rare for them even in pre-New Caprica days—is especially poignant, and Michael Hogan does a wonderful job selling his character’s pain in the few brief flashes we get of him refereeing in the present-day scenes (and with only one sorrow-filled eye, no less!). This episode is all about the could-have-beens of the early days of New Caprica, the false sense of hope and security this discovery gave a population that was running low on hope and security at the time—and that has even less of it in the post-New Caprica era.

Speaking of Tigh, the extended version of this episode has a few more small scenes with him and Ellen to drive that point home, but it also has a nice moment between him and Starbuck I’m sad didn’t make it into the official version. After Kara’s night with Lee, she comes back to the camp and encounters Tigh, and the two share a drink while Kara confesses what she just did. They laugh, then they stop laughing, and a silent mutual understanding is reached. It’s a great moment for these two characters, who went from enemies to uncertain allies over the course of the series, a transition this moment helps set up. It’s worth seeking out if you haven’t seen the extended cut, which has a lot more of those smaller, more human character interactions we seem to all be gravitating toward in our discussion of this episode. I like what Zack and Carrie have to say about considering this episode outside of BSG’s serialization, and it makes me a little more appreciative of this episode than I may have been at first. As Carrie points out, the Kara-Lee-Sam-Dualla quadrangle was already stretched to the point of tolerance at this point in the series; I think maybe my tolerance for it snapped shortly after this episode—or maybe even before—which makes it hard not to come to those scenes with a certain sense of “Ugh, these guys again,” even all these years later. (Dualla, in particular, ended up being my least-favorite character of the entire series.) But even with that baggage, I can’t deny that series of quick flashbacks before Lee and Kara’s final embrace packs a punch.

But still, my favorite moment of this episode is, was, and always will be Adama and Roslin sparkin’ one up. It’s one of those scenes that I can picture in my mind, even if I can’t always remember what episode it’s from. (Turns out it’s this one!) The Adama-Roslin relationship was always one of my favorites on BSG, one that never wore out its welcome the way the aforementioned quadrangle did. Todd, is there any character relationship in “Unfinished Business” that sticks out to you more than the others—or perhaps one you’d have liked to see more of, like me with Tigh and Starbuck?

TV: You know what? I’m going to stick up for Cally, who was always one of my favorite characters on the show, even when the writers were taking the unforgivable step of throwing her into shrewish harpy territory. I always loved Nicki Clyne’s performance, and I liked how she was this basically normal person—she only joined the military to pay for dental school!—who was tossed into the middle of the apocalypse through sheer, dumb luck. She didn’t even want to be there. Yeah, she would whine, but that’s because most of us would if everything we ever knew had disappeared. I once had this friend who thought he knew everything about stories, and he said that we only want to hear about extraordinary characters or extraordinary situations (or both); we don’t do well with ordinary characters in ordinary situations. Cally’s in an extraordinary situation, but I love that she’s also this very ordinary, wounded person in the midst of that, even if fans hated her for that. I loved her relationship with Tyrol, too, how it grew and shifted and changed, and then how so much of the series’ endgame was predicated on those changes. There’s some beautiful stuff there, and so much of that has to do with the performance, rather than some of the writing.

But Cally is a great microcosm of the series in general and this episode in particular: Sometimes, we’re so surrounded by grief that all we can do is scratch out a little place for ourselves in the midst of it, a place where our lives make a little more sense amid the devastation. Battlestar Galactica is quite literally a series about people rebuilding their lives in the ruins. What I always appreciated—and what I appreciate even more now, in the wake of dozens of post-apocalyptic series that didn’t work nearly as well—was that the camera always kept its eye firmly turned toward the people, not the ruins.

Next week: Phil Dyess-Nugent and his group take a look back at House’s “Three Stories.”

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