Sunday, March 25, 2007

Season Finales: Rome, Battlestar Galactica

Big spoilers ahead.

Two tremendous series finales on TV tonight: the season, and series, ender for HBO's epic Rome, and the last of Battlestar Galactica until 2008.

Rome first, which I think was the more successful of the two overall. (Side note: what is the deal with the IMDb page, which has "Female Frontal Nudity" listed as a plot keyword? That's just wrong. I mean, it's correct, technically, for many episodes... but it's still just wrong.) Rome had to wrap up an awful lot of stories in not a lot of time -- though it was ten or fifteen minutes longer than usual. And most of those stories were wrapped up very well indeed. The centerpiece of the episode, the inevitable demises of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, was powerful; I actually felt sorry for that wretched, debauched bastard Antony. His anguish at the (false) news of his beloved Cleopatra's suicide, and his death in the arms of the loyal Lucius Vorenus, were surprisingly moving.

Polly Walker, as Atia, was brilliant as usual. She went from venomous rage and desire for her betrayer Antony's death, to inconsolable grief when that wish was granted. But of course, no setback, no tragedy could ever sidetrack her for long: her putting Octavian's wife in her place was delicious. My favorite Atia moment, though, had to be her musing to herself as to where her son might have gotten his mean streak from. Atia is one of the most wickedly enjoyable villains ever to be seen on TV, and if there is any justice, Polly Walker should win an Emmy for this performance.

As for Atia's children, it was chilling to see Octavian evolve into a monster. He always had the capacity for cold-bloodedness, but his tight-smiling, dead-eyed parley with Cleopatra, pretending to negotiate while transparently arranging for her abduction and the murder of her son, was devastating, making Cleopatra's suicide-by-asp seem like an understandable choice. And Octavia: in the final scenes, we see she's pregnant. Did I miss a reference to this, or are we just to assume she married Agrippa? Or that she was merely continuing her affair with him and having his baby?

Finally, there were our heroes, Vorenus and his comrade, Titus Pullo. If there was any character who deserved a better ending, it was Vorenus. How do you let Vorenus's death occur off-stage? That baffled and disappointed me. You can say that with the reconciliation between him and his children, his story was finished, but I say we deserved to see his final moment. The fact that he received his (eventual) fatal wound defending his best friend's only son -- that, at least, was a good death. And Pullo -- good old Pullo, good old soft-hearted, inhuman killing machine Pullo. In the last episode, he discovered that his current lover had murdered his former wife and unborn child; he strangled her to death and dumped her corpse in the river. And all he had to say to Vorenus on the matter: "That ended badly." I'm glad he survived; he was the most entertaining character in a series packed with nothing but colorful characters. And even if Caesarion's fate was somewhat different from that written in the history books, it was worth it for the final line: "About your father...." A great end to a magnificent series.

Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, didn't do much for me for the majority of the episode. The trial of Baltar was ridiculous. Getting Lee up on the stand, and having him give a five minute soapbox speech, presenting the defense's closing arguments as testimony, while the judges allow it to happen, was pure lunacy. The judges going along with this was like something from The Simpsons: "Even though reopening a trial at this point is illegal and grossly unconstitutional, I just can't say no to kids." I mean, I see that, for the sake of the show, Baltar has to go free, and short of the Cylons rescuing him, it was going to have to be some over-the-top courtroom antics that did it. But this was just amateurish garbage, and it soured the whole episode for me. (Although I did enjoy Gaeta's steely-eyed, poker-faced perjury.)

Up until the very end, that is. We got not one, not two, not three, but four cliffhanger bombshells to stew over until next year. First: the Cylon fleet appears. But that's a pretty standard cliffhanger for this show, so we'll gloss over it. Second: Sharon, Laura Roslin, and the captive Six are all sharing the same dream: all of them, it seems, are being called to protect Hera from what appear to be the menacing figures of the final five. Why is Hera so important? And why, and how, are these three -- along with Baltar, apparently -- being called together to (presumably) save her from the five? Meanwhile, number three: four of the final five are onboard Galactica! Perhaps there's some other explanation, but it didn't seem like there was much ambiguity: Tigh, Tyrol, Sam and Tory are Cylons, who have now been activated by the mysterious music only they can hear. If it's true, that turns the whole show upside-down. That is one hell of a bold move on the part of the writers. Let's hope they can follow through on it.

And fourth, and most pleasingly: the return of Kara. At first, I suspected that we were only seeing four of the final five on Galactica because the fifth would have to be Starbuck (you knew she wasn't gone for good, even if the showrunners were sneaky enough to take her name out of the opening credits). But no -- instead she comes buzzing up to Lee, her fighter plane still intact, claiming not only that it was really her (and not a Cylon), despite Lee witnessing her explosive death, but also that she had found Earth. And in a dizzying, dramatic sweep through space, we find that she ain't lying -- Earth, the real Earth, our Earth, with the recognizable American continents, is just a hop, skip, and a jump away.

But what era of Earth? The music the potential final four were all hearing suggests a clue: Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." (Or a non-Hendrix cover of it, anyway.) It's not prehistoric Earth, it's not an alternate timeline Earth -- if that song exists, then it's our modern Earth. (Well, it could be a distant future Earth, where that particular song has been inexplicably preserved, and is either being broadcast into space by Earth, or has been co-opted by Cylons -- or both, I guess -- but that's taking this line of speculation way farther than is reasonable at this point.)

The first time Tigh muttered to himself, "There must be some kind of way out of here," I jumped in to finish the line on my own: "Said the joker to the thief." I thought it was just a quirky line of dialogue, signifying nothing; I was amused and skeptical, but increasingly captivated, finally becoming completely blown away, as I realized the writers actually had the balls to incorporate the iconic song into the show. Such a gamble could've played out as a totally cheesy misfire, and it seemed at first like that's what was going to happen. But the way they presented it, with the four possible Cylons reeling, gripped by a seeming madness, as the music soared and shrieked relentlessly -- it worked for me, it sold me. It took a while, but it sold me, and at the end of it all, as the music climaxed with the reveal of Earth, I had to rewind and watch the last ten minutes all over again. It was a masterful cap to an otherwise wobbly episode, and it had me thrilled with anticipation for next season -- which was not the case for the fifty minutes preceding it. Or about three or four episodes before that. Way to pull your fat out of the fire, BSG. See you in 2008.

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