Okay at this point, they’re just showing off. “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2” ended with one of the best time jumps in television history; the first episode of season three starts with a second time jump, this one nearly as big as the first, but throws it out casually in the subtitles like it ain’t no big thing. We left New Caprica just as the Cylons were arriving, and “Occupation” picks up one hundred and seventy-four days into their, well, occupation. We had just a few minutes to get used to the last shocking status quo, here’s a new one to wrap our heads around. Tyrol and Anders are setting bombs! Tigh lost an eye! Starbuck is a prisoner! Roslin’s journaling! It’s a lot to take in.
But while the episode’s cold open is disorienting, this seems to be by design; lots of brief shots of people doing things with haunting Middle Eastern music underscoring it all, and at first, it’s hard to even recognize faces. The effect is like wandering into someone else’s nightmare, and that might be one of the strongest impressions this story arc manages to create—it’s as though one of the show’s protagonists inadvertently wandered into one of those “evil” dimensions where everything is horrible, only this isn’t an alternate reality. This is all happening, and things have gotten very bad indeed.
So bad, in fact, that the episode climaxes with a suicide bomber taking out a group of humans and Cylons—a bomber who was recruited by Tigh and the others in a doomed attempt to kill President Baltar. Our heroes are running suicide bombers, and while both of this week’s episodes try and soften that a bit by making both Tyrol and Roslin really uncomfortable with idea, it’s still a nasty shock. What makes it even nastier is that Tigh’s defense of the decision is hard to dispute. We hear arguments on both sides, but the bombings themselves don’t stop.
Great storytelling is, in part, about engendering empathy. We read stories to see ourselves in them, but the trick is how narrative can helps us to see just how wide that idea of “ourselves” can be, encouraging us to understand other perspectives in a nominally safe space. Here, we have a direct analog to events of the Iraq War—the American occupation, the efforts to train Iraqis to take over for our troops, the insurgency—only the “Americans” in this case are the Cylons, and the “terrorists” are people we’ve spent two seasons rooting for. It’s not a perfect analog, but it doesn’t need to be. The point is to just throw a rhetorical grenade into our assumptions of whether or not some choices are ever justifiable.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because a large part of “Occupation” is really about setting up the various narrative pressures that will drive the the first part of the season. And I’ll be honest: while I’m impressed at the chutzpah of Ron Moore and his team in their willingness to play around with some really dangerous symbolism, as a viewer, I’m far more engaged by how immediate and gripping this storytelling is. New Caprica offers a chance to revitalize the human/Cylon dynamic, and also reconfigures the cast in ways that create new relationships. The allegorical element is powerful, but it’s also fundamentally shallow, as allegories so often are. The narratives underlying that allegory are what keeps things moving, and they represent the show at its best.
Also its creepiest: Leoben holding Starbuck in captivity is such an out of left field concept that all “Occupation” really does with the idea is give us the basics. We don’t know how he grabbed her, but that doesn’t really matter; there’s a reminder in the “previously on” of how they met (interrogation) and his unsettling interest in her, and then we see them at dinner, where Starbuck manages to stab him in the throat. He downloads into another body and comes home a few hours later. It’s a fascinating, fucked-up set-up which is only made even remotely watchable by the fact that Starbuck is still, well, Starbuck. If you put Cally in there, the whole thing would be almost unbearably depressing. As is, it’s creepy, and Starbuck is clearly unnerved, but she’s still resisting.
Also resisting: Tyrol, Anders, and Tigh. Tigh is pushing back especially hard, and considering that he lost an eye between seasons, it’s hard to blame him. But then Tigh has always been the least romantic of the group, a pessimist whose only comfort is punishing himself with the hardest choices possible. It’s what makes him a good X.O. He seems almost liberated by his experiences on New Caprica, as though the Cylon occupation, in confirming his darkest presumptions, has lifted the self-loathing that usually kept him in check. Or maybe it’s just that we’re seeing him once again without Adama around to serve as his conscience.
Said conscience is light years away on board the Galactica, chumming with Sharon and beating himself up over leaving people behind. We also get another chance to see Lee’s weight gain up close, and while the facial make-up isn’t great, it’s ultimately the concept that fails here more than the execution. The whole thing feels like a mean-spirited joke, a way to use fat as a commentary on a character’s personal failings; it’s too flatly direct an image, and while various characters reassure Lee (and us) that his weight isn’t the reason they’re frustrated with him, it still doesn’t read well.
Last season ended with the Cylons discovering New Caprica; led by Caprica Six and Boomer, they were ostensibly there to find some new way to co-exist with the humans. It’s fascinating to see how thoroughly that has failed, despite Caprica Six and Boomer’s best intentions. President Baltar has become a figurehead, and the Cylons, frustrated by the resistance, keep tightening their grip to no avail. It’s almost as though forcing yourselves upon an indigenous population and expecting them to accept your presence with open arms is a painfully naive approach to peace. But hey, we wouldn’t know anything about that.
- At the start of the episode, Ellen is fucking one of the Cavils (both of this week’s episodes make great use of multiple Cavils) to try and win Tigh back his freedom. This is easily the most sympathetic she’s ever been, and it makes Cavil an even nastier threat to boot.
- Seriously, Dean Stockwell is such a terrific change of pace for the Cylons. There’s just something fundamentally off about him; the others seem a bit like underwear models trying to develop empathy, while Cavil just does not give a fuck.
- Adama is all friendly with Sharon now, which is a smart development, but he still hasn’t told her her baby’s alive; she’s good enough to chat with, but not quite good enough to be honest with.
Baltar is screwed. That’s been more or less a constant through the whole run of the series. While he managed to rise in power, he’s still the man whose arrogance and foolishness allowed the Cylons to kill most of humanity; he was not involved in the attack, he’s not a killer or an intentional species traitor, but if the truth ever came out, it’s doubtful people would be willing to parse the difference. He lies readily enough, and those lies kept him alive—yet those lies also rendered him essentially alone, doomed to endless conversations with the sexy voice inside his head. The other good guys never much liked him. Even without proof (or knowledge) of his sins, there’s something about him that Roslin and Adama never entirely trusted.
And now he’s probably the most hated human alive, a puppet for the machines who don’t understand why their methods aren’t working. The bombing in “Occupation” is planned as a direct attempt on Baltar’s life, and it’s a painfully short-sighted goal; Baltar dodges the explosion, but even if he had been killed, it certainly wouldn’t have changed things much. Tigh wants to create chaos to keep the Cylons distracted for Adama’s inevitable arrival (just as before when Adama was lying in a coma, all of Tigh’s faith is centered on the old man’s capacity for return), but Baltar is the most meaningless casualty imaginable. Everyone loathes him, the majority of the Cylons hold him in contempt, and any effort he makes at resistance is doomed.
It’s fascinating to watch, and James Callis does some of his best work yet in this hour, going from coolly reasonable in the opening scene to absolute despair when he later discovers how the Cylons plan to execute 200 people. (Including Roslin, Zarek, and Cally, although I doubt Baltar knows much about her.) He could, in theory, have refused the order and let himself get shot. Head Six tells him to sign, even as Caprica Six takes a bullet to show him the others mean business, but Baltar could still have said no. He could’ve done the “right” thing. And the result would’ve been another corpse, no change in Cylon policy, and he would’ve changed no one’s mind about him in the slightest. So he signs the document, and the result is more death, and more people hating him. It’s fantastic.
The season is moving fast. Two episodes in and there’s already a tentative plan to get the band back together, with Adama sending a newly sworn-in Sharon with a small group to liaison with the New Caprica ground fighters. (Still no mention of the baby who, as we saw in “Occupation,” is living with her adoptive mom and the other survivors on NC. I’m sure that won’t come back to bite you in the ass, Adama.) It’s thrilling to see things unfold this quickly, and the episode’s cliffhanger ending (along with the not-so-subtle title of the upcoming two-parter) makes no secret of the fact that events have reached an early climax. It’s possible that all this chaos could resolve itself with our heroes still separated, but unlikely. (Spoiler: very unlikely.)
I’m not sure what to make of that, especially considering how little I remember of the rest of the season. New Caprica is such a vital setting, and the changes there are so momentous, that there’s something disappointing in the idea that the show is going to return to its original model—bunch of ships flying through space looking for Earth—so quickly. There will be flashbacks to come, of course, but the immediacey of the danger is lost, and so is the chance to get a better understanding of why the Cylons are so terrible at whatever it is they’re trying to accomplish.
Really, that might be the most compelling part of this storyline for me. We don’t spend a lot of time in Cylon headspace (the longest we get from their perspective is Boomer trying to reach out to Cally, with predictably disastrous results), but we do see them in committee, deciding how to handle humanity’s more unruly elements. And their strongest response is to tighten the screws. This doesn’t make them more villainous than before (before, they murdered millions), but it does make their evil more recognizable. Something in their design makes them struggle with compassion, pointing to humanity’s sin as justification for violence without understanding the concept and value of individual human life. Maybe it’s something to do with the limited number of models. How can you consider any one person precious when you exist in a culture where identity is largely irrelevant?
Still, though they struggle with empathy, Cylons remain fantastic manipulators on a smaller scale. In a subplot that’s completely disconnected from the main storyline, Leoben introduces Starbuck to her “daughter,” a young girl named Kacey. Leoben claims Kacey comes from one of the ovaries the Cylons took from Starbuck while she was imprisoned on the Farm (Leoben is the father, according to him); Starbuck resists bonding with the child; the kid takes a tumble; and Starbuck seems to change her ways, guilt-ridden over the injury. What’s sad here is that Leoben’s ruse is needlessly complex. Even if he knows the child will get past Starbuck’s defences, the “this is your kid!” concept is arguably unnecessary. Kara responds because she’s a good person, not because of some sort of biological imperative. (Well, not a personal biological imperative, at least.) It’s another sign of the Cylon’s shortcomings—they don’t understand humans as well as they think they do, even when they succeed.
This bothers some less than others. I doubt Cavil gives a damn about Ellen’s emotional life when he forces her to give him information about the resistance. But then, he’s not trying to seduce her, as much as he likes “the twist.” (God, just the look on Ellen’s face in that scene is almost enough to make me feel bad for how much she annoyed me in previous seasons.) He’s using her for a greater purpose, even as he finds time to satisfy his own selfish curiosity. For all her failings, Ellen has been characterized well enough that her decision to go along with Cavil’s wishes and betray Tigh in order to save him, whatever the larger cost, makes sense—more, it leaves her just as sympathetic as before, because she’s just as trapped as Baltar.
Roslin’s trapped too, although at least she still has something close to the moral high ground. There’s something awful in seeing her this ineffectual; she stands up to Baltar, but her efforts to convince Tigh to stop the suicide bombing fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard to know for sure if she’s trying to change his mind, or her own. Roslin is, after all, just as pragmatic as Tigh is. She has her principles, and hearing her condemn the suicide bombing even more strong than Tyrol (whose another moral center for the show, albeit a weaker one) is the closest the season comes to stating a clear position on the issue. Yet her argument really only amounts to “We can’t do this;” Tigh points out he sends men and women to their deaths in battle all the time. And he gets the last word, and the suicide bombs continue. Roslin is left to her own devices until the Cylons round her up for execution.
We won’t know if she survives until next episode (okay, I mean, we do actually know, but let’s pretend); the Cylons weren’t kidding about that “murder 200 people” thing. And yet even with that, it’s impressive how much time this hour spends finding sympathy for the humans trying to work alongside the murder machines. Ellen and Baltar, and even Jammer, a random local, friend of Tyrol’s, and unfortunate member of the secret police, get their moments to—well, not shine, but at least glimmer dimly. The only ones who think the conflict is simple are the leaders of both sides who make the decisions that get other people killed.
- Meanwhile, in outer space, Adama commits to a rescue mission even as Lee cautions against it. Lee makes some valid points, though, and Adama decides to send the Pegasus and the rest of the civilian fleet off to find Earth.
- Tyrol is really, really angry at Gaeta after Cally gets picked up. I can’t tell if he knows Gaeta is their secret source inside Baltar’s administration or not; his reaction works either way.
- “Been a long time.” “Funny, seems like I see you every day.” I love how the show acknowledges the similarity of the models without dwelling on it for too long.
- “Nobody’s been tortured!” Oh Baltar. He even sounds like he believes it.