Sunday, May 15, 2016

Battlestar Galactica: Maelstrom (S3/E17)

by JASmius

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Written by: Bradley Thompson & David Weddle
Directed By: Michael Nankin

It’s been a REALLY long time since my last Battlestar Galactica review. The reason why is easy to peg – the same reason why I can’t blog anywhere near as much as I’d like to: my [long since former] frakking day job consumes almost all of my conscious time. What free time I do have is consumed with trying to catch up on all the blogging I haven’t been able to do, which itself is invariably belatedly stimulated by the frantic need to do show-prep. And, to be honest, on the rare occasions when I do have extended leisure time, I find that I do not, after all, have the insatiable urge to write that I think I do when I don’t have the time to pursue it. Either that or I’m so wasted from overwork that I just want to veg.

Is that burnout? Well, it would give myself and Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace something in common. On the other hand, I chose to take a week’s vacation last week, whereas a year and change ago, Starbuck committed suicide.

Why would ‘bucko fly her Viper into the crushing depths of a gargantuan cyclone on a gas giant planet? I don’t know. I’ve seen “Maelstrom” twice now and I still don’t know. None of Kara’s friends and colleagues knew. And I don’t think Kara herself knew, either.

How do I evaluate this ep? I guess it’s a function of what the reviewer values in a story like this. Jammer described it as....:

“….an episode with pitch-perfect tone and stellar performances. It observes its characters with a striking attentiveness that's, at times, hypnotic. Meanwhile, its outcome will, frankly, piss some people off. But any problems with this episode have nothing to do with its storytelling and everything to do with the unavoidable external hoopla that surrounds the departure of a major cast member.”

For him, the “pitch-perfect tone and stellar performances” were enough to earn it a perfect score. For me, the “pitch-perfect tone” had no surrounding context, not unlike the old adage about a tree falling in a forest with nobody to hear its landing making no sound. Or a beautiful portrait locked away in a forgotten closet, unable to be appreciated – with nobody to behold it, what is its aesthetic value?

This flaw didn’t piss me off, because frankly, if anybody believes that we’ve seen the last of Kara Thrace, after all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo this series has pumped out already, you just haven’t been paying attention. If I could believe that this episode truly was about the death of Starbuck, it would have indeed been a gripping and hypnotic tragedy, her swashbuckling penchant for riding the ragged edge finally taking its inevitable final payment. As it is, it was a baffling hour-long viewer struggle to discern meaning for something that we instinctively know SHOULD have meaning but which is left frustratingly devoid of it.

With no particular buildup or foreshadowing in this season as prelude (that I can now recall, anyway), the story begins with Kara drowning in a recurring nightmare of being back in her Caprica apartment in her skivvies throwing paint all over the mural of the Eye of Jupiter that she painted on one wall. Then Leobin Conoy shows up, grabs her, pushes her up against the wall, and starts kissing her, and then tearing her clothes off, and they’re both covered with paint, and then they’re on the floor and they’re naked and he’s frakking her boobs off and throughout it all she reacts like Hillary Clinton doubtless does in bed – which is to say, completely unlike Starbuck. Okay, that’s not completely fair – she (Starbuck) looks over Leobin’s straining shoulder to see all the paint she’d thrown on her mural dissolve. Not run down the wall, but evaporate like it had never been there. Or like the mural itself burned it off.

Sick, twisted nightmares about the Cylonoid model that held her captive and psychologically (and sexually) tortured her on New Caprica I can understand. What was done to her there would take a long, long time to get over even if your head was screwed on right in the first place. For Captain “Pants on Fire” it would either be another day at the office, or the thing that could frak her up for good.

The mural is a bit more….shall we say, cryptic. As the ep progresses, we learn that the multi-hued vortex is an image she’s had stuck in her brain her entire life. She doodled it as a child, she painted it on her apartment wall, she saw it in the Eye of Jupiter when that star went nova. And she sees it….a little bit later in the hour.

She also sees an apparition of a little girl that looks like she’s been through a handicap match against Viscera, Mark Henry, and the Great Khali. Turns out that little girl is her childhood self. And that takes us farther back than New Caprica.

They say that “the boy is father to the man.” I suppose that also means that the girl is mother to the woman.” Given who and what Starbuck is, you had to know that the meat of her backstory would not be….uneventful. And indeed it was not.

Heaven only knows who her father was, as this episode doesn’t tell us. But her mother….oh, my, her mother. If Kara is a “world-class frak-up,” she is the Church Lady compared to Socrata Thrace (Dorothy Lyman). I would love to have seen the ep delve into HER backstory to explain why she thought that her perky, precocious daughter had a “special destiny” and was so determined to force her down that path that she became emotionally and physically abusive (busting open her scalp with a baseball bat, slamming her hand in a door and breaking all her fingers). The means seem after a certain point to have become their own end, really. The flashback scene where Kara returns home with her pilot’s wings – which would seem to indicate that she was on the “special path” her mother wanted her to take – quickly devolves into her mother snarling that graduating sixteenth out of a class of one hundred seventeen isn’t good enough, that Kara should have been first, but for her towering mound of demerits. Socrata appears to have grown so accustomed, so used to berating Kara that she no longer knew any other way of interacting with her.

For her part, Kara, like, I suppose, most abused children, had a conflicted view of her mom. On the one hand she hated Socrata for all the abuse, the torture, and her obsession with this mysterious “special destiny.” On the other, this woman was still her mother and deep down, Kara still wanted her approval. Her love.

This dichotomy crystalized when she notices the letter her mother has received informing her that she has terminal cancer. Kara’s instinctive reaction is shock and grief. Tentatively she tries to comfort her mother – a gesture Socrata, naturally, rebuffs with abject contempt. Kara snaps, shouts that she’s walking out that door and never coming back. And then she does. And keeps on going.

Her mother died five weeks later. Alone. And Kara has bitterly regretted it ever since. It’s what inspired the emerge of her swaggering Starbuck persona – psychological self-defense against her upbringing, and the death of the woman who inflicted it on her. The genocide of Humanity, the privations of the ensuing two years, and the unfortunate little interlude on New Caprica have, finally, pushed her over the edge.

We know this. So does Kara. But she says not word one about it to the others. As far as they can know, she’s simply cracking up, or burning out. That’s Admiral Adama’s conclusion, but he leaves the decision of whether or not to ground her to Lee, who counters that the Starbuck persona, and her prowess in the cockpit may be the only things holding her marbles together.

The manifestation of this crackup is a seemingly routine patrol with Hotdog near a gas giant planet whose funky radiation provides interference cover from Cylon sensors. The fleet is using this area to refuel all its ships. In the upper atmosphere of the planet Starbuck suddenly sees a Cylon raider appear, seemingly out of nowhere. She immediately engages and tears off after it. Only problem is Hotdog can neither see it visually or on his scanners, and neither can the Galactica. But Kara is positive it’s there, and pursues it into a huge atmospheric vortex that looks eerily like the same image she’s had stuck in her cerebellum since the womb.

She pulls up in the nick of time before the atmospheric pressure would have crushed her Viper like a grape. But the hotshot that returns to the last battlestar has now lost her last psychological refuge. Whatever else got frakked up in her life – her tempestuous relationships with Zak Adama, Lee, Sam Anders, her professional rivalry with the late Kat , and now her dreams - Kara always had the cockpit to escape to. Now even that’s gone. As she confides to Lee in a quietly powerful scene on the flight deck, "I'm not going back out there. I don't trust myself."

Imagine how difficult it was for her to admit that. Kara Thrace grounded herself. That was as much as leaving a suicide note. The only question was how she’d do it.

As you can no doubt tell, I’ve made a herculean effort to try to walk the extra mile in Starbuck’s boots. To try to get inside her head and relate, empathize with what she was going through. “Stellar performances” make such empathy accessible to the viewer, and “Maelstrom” does not disappoint. I don’t know that I could give it four stars like Jammer did, but the first forty-five minutes are definitely worth the watch.

It’s those last fifteen minutes that take what was to that point an exquisite character piece and….well, splatter several cans of white paint all over it.

After Helo suggests to Kara that she consult a psychiatrist about her recurring nightmares – which, predictably, she blows off with a contempt that mirrors her mother’s – she does a curious thing: visit a pagan oracle instead. The oracle gives her a small idol of the “goddess” Aurora (the goddess of the dawn in Kobolian mythology) and tells her all about her destiny, and her mother, and all manner of information this woman can’t possibly know. But most unnerving of all, she knows about Leobin, and tells Kara that he knows all about her, and will not let her escape her “special destiny”. Suddenly the psychiatric profession didn’t look so bad.

The oracle proved to be correct, of course – elsewise, why would that scene have been tossed in? – but in the same general sense that a horoscope can be “right”.

After Lee tries to buck up ‘bucko by offering to be her wingman, she decides to trust herself after all and fly another CAP to the same gas giant, where she sees the same Cylon raider again materialized out of the ether that neither Apollo nor the Galactica can detect, and tears after it again into the same mammoth vortex, where she blacks out….

….and comes to in her old Caprica apartment with Leobin. Or is he? This time he doesn’t ravish her, but comes across as a sort of spiritual guide like Scrooge’s ghost visitors in A Christmas Carol. He shows her the scene with her mother, then points her to the door to her mother’s bedroom. Kara walks through it to see her mother on her deathbed. Or is it? This Socrata Thrace isn’t anything like the mother Kara knew; she’s calm, loving, accepting, at peace. Everything her daughter always wanted, needed her to be, but never was. Then Socrata dies, just as peacefully. And the agonizing wound in Kara’s heart, the source of a lifetime of emotional hemorrhaging, finally begins to heal. She gains the absolution, the release that she’s sought for all these years. She, too, has now found peace.

Then she comes to again, back in the cockpit of her Viper that is plunging toward the crush point. Lee is frantically bellowing his head off for her to pull up. But the voice that finally answers him is different. No longer angry, no longer distrustful. A calm, accepting voice. A peaceful voice. A voice that says, “I’m not afraid anymore. Let me go.”

A voice that is shortly silenced forever.

So was this the acceptance of the suicider? Did Kara just hallucinate the nightmares, her younger self, and that creepy necromongering scene with an even creepier persona of Leobin as a subconscious rationalization of what her conscious mind could not accept? Was this some sort of Cylon plot, either from psychological or hypnotic conditioning to which Leobin subjected her on New Caprica, to dupe her into “crossing over”? Is Leobin an “angel” like Baltar’s #6 hallucination, of which the actual Cylonoids are demonic copies?

Or [drumroll, please] is Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace….a Cylon!

It’d be so much simpler if she was just dead. That’s cloture that will doubtless become ever more elusive in the episodes to come.

Next: Apollo contemplates a bizarre career change.

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