The third season of Battlestar Galactica started so strongly, uniformly so, that it's easy to forget how shaky the first two seasons could be, how neat-n-tidy its melodrama, how perfunctory its moral crises. The entire four-hour New Caprica arc was the strongest run of episodes Ron Moore and co. had yet put together, bringing out performances from the cast and thematic resonances that easily surpassed the (admittedly addicting, well-done) life-on-a-warship material that is the show's core. The executing-the-collaborators episode kept the drama at an almost unbearable level of intensity and darkness, but it also kicked off a story arc that, in this week's episode, apparently went completely insane: Baltar among the Cylons.
Now James Callis's performance as Baltar has long been one of the show's singular pleasures, but he took everything up a notch this year: humour, pathos, creepiness, and complex sort-of-villainy. In this week's episode he was interrogated, tortured, fucked, and - in a scene that's going to resonate throughout the year (if the spoilers I foolishly read are correct) in narrative-universe-changing ways - quite wildly misunderstood by Lucy Lawless's D'Anna. Here's what worries me: there's a somewhat interesting D'Anna arc coming up this year. And it looks like it's being kicked off by a too-neat-for-words coincidence, with Baltar proclaiming his love to Six in a way that D'Anna just happens to interpret as...what? I won't spoil anything here, but there was a level of contrivance to the scene that both undercut the lovely Baltar/Six interplay and left me scratching my head even at Callis's glorious campy moments: what exactly was the character trying to play in that last interrogation scene? Do we assume D'Anna's misapprehension is coincidence, or manipulation by Baltar? Or by Six?
All of which is beside the other weird aspect of the two-parter, Helo's preventing-genocide-by-endangering-the-entire-human-race act. Adama won't even be investigating this act of flat-out sedition, and we're to accept Helo's 'I don't feel like a traitor' speech as the show's official viewpoint? Shit, it was a lovely scene and I buy his moral logic at a certain level, but on a show that devoted four episodes to suicide bombings and the morality of occupied insurgency (among other parallels, e.g. to WWII-era Occupied France), it's frustrating to see the producers blast through the 'If we could kill them all at a stroke, would we?' question in a single hour. Like Todd at the House Next Door I wanted to see that question play out among the wider population of Galactica; it all felt way too stagey, and ended up kind of shortchanging a huge moral issue. On the other hand, we got more moments between President Roslin and Adama - which are always enough to make an episode worthwhile - including her chilling, matter-of-fact executive order authorizing biological warfare and genocide (and the lovely moment during their tense, exhausted final conversation in which she refuses a drink from him). And the model-turned-actress who plays Six, Tricia Helfer, did her usual compelling work alongside Callis and Lawless (let's all take a moment to very definitely not lament Lawless's shedding of her Xena image, yes?).
But it all tied together in odd ways - the quick tonal shifts, for instance, and the strange abstraction of the Basestar scenes played against the stagey 'Let's talk issues!' dialogue on Galactica. Which were almost frustrating enough to make me forget the two most poignant moments in the hour: Grace Park as Sharon/Athena, the Cylon 'traitor' (now fighting for the humans), for a moment reminding me of a character in a Vietnam film, breaking down crying at the possibility of the (Western) human army destroying her nation and her race. Park's Korean heritage gave the scene, for me, a curious (perhaps accidental) complexity. But that was beans to the other moment of shocking, effective casting-and-character - you know the one. Rick Worthy as the Cylon Simon, infected with a debilitating virus, bargains for his life by giving the human leaders crucial information about Baltar and the Cylons' plans. The real text is goofy as hell, of course. But just look at the screen. What do you see in that scene? A black man tied up by the neck, performing for the largely-white crew an act of obeisance in order to get the medicine to which he would be entitled were he fully human. It was a harrowing moment, and went on a couple of moments longer than perhaps it needed to - surely a deliberate choice to play on audience discomfort (in the absence of intellectual exploration this time out).
Not for nothing was Worthy's Cylon character chosen as the one to be treated like an unruly dog - after all, all he gave them was expository narration. But his physical presence, the awful resonance of the scene, lent the show just a little more of what it's already got in spades: the most political resonance per hour of anything going nowadays. And in this third season, more consciously than ever before, more richly, even more entertainingly. This one you can really think about, and that's no small thing.
On Galactica, even an off week is a good week. Hell of a thing.