This episode felt as though the storylines involving Joseph Adama and Daniel Graystone were, for the most part, written by different people than those serving the arcs of Amanda, Sister Clarice, Zoe, and Lacey/Keon/Barnabas. Again, this week, I avoided looking at who wrote the episode – but only when watching it live; I was sufficiently disappointed that it didn't matter who wrote it, as I peeked at the identities of Patrick Massett, John Zinman, and Mathew Roberts upon the second viewing on VHS. Obviously, even a director of Michael Nankin's experience couldn't rescue this story from plenty of missteps. I'm quite certain that some of this is Jane Espenson's fault because it FEELS like her rewriting of earlier episodes and she was placed as head writer from the start of the post-pilot season. Not only is her job rewriting others' work and giving feedback, but she chooses which direction to take among all the options offered in the writers' room.
Some of the poor quality may also flow from the limited options available from a largely Battlestar Galactica-free writers' room; the poor guidance provided by executive producers David Eick (who is evidently heavily involved, given his role in editing and supervising, as stated in his podcasts for each episode) and Ronald D. Moore (who seems largely incognito, given the dearth of his communication with the public and fans since handing over the reins); and even the network's participation. I'm not sure. However, I emphasize that I think Ms. Espenson talented and hard-working and not at all akin to the shamelessly commercial writers like J.J. Abrams or Tim Kring. She has heart, but perhaps not the artistic taste or the political activist streak necessary to make the most of this show as head writer. Quite honestly, I didn't think anyone could measure up to Ronald D. Moore's rewriting when I read he was stepping down, and I think I've been proven right.
Nevertheless, the first several minutes of the episode were terrific. Tomas Virgil was magnificently portrayed by John Piper-Ferguson, whose performances have always been memorable – from "The X-Files"' 5th season two-parter (in which he was one of the few things I didn't wish to forget) to the wonderful film, "The House of Sand and Fog." I liked how his character's name was pronounced as though it were Nordic or something, rather than the usual "Thomas."
At the party, Amanda and Daniel Graystone's light exchange was entertaining enough and established that their lives were improving. The disconnected way that Virgil reacted to Daniel's objection that he had crashed the party was satisfyingly disturbing. I didn't mind that Daniel refused to admit to Amanda what had precisely upset him about Virgil's comments. Though he seems to be getting away with a lot of secrets, I liked that Amanda knew he wasn't being completely open with her. I loved the phony way he insisted she go to sleep because he was supposedly worried about her recent sleeplessness, when, in fact, he wanted to get away from her to speak privately to his assistant Cyrus Xander; I do hate that this character took his last name from "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer," though. In any case, the dialogue between Daniel and Cyrus was great, too.
There's a nice bit of relatable texture when we see Joseph Adama struggle to open the plastic packaging of his just-purchased holoband; this happens to me all the time! I also enjoyed the difficulties he faced trying to find Tamra because she was in an illegal area of the virtual world. I particularly loved the tense scene just after this between Daniel and Joseph, as each feels the other has betrayed him and trivializes his concerns.
It was roughly after this point that the episode stopped wowing me, though I continued to find Daniel and Jospeh's remaining scenes with other characters decent. Yet one scene that irritated me with its cliché writing was when Joseph's female fellow lawyer or legal assistant to a judge made an obvious pass by stroking the tattoos on his chest; this was tacky and uninteresting. I love romance, but don't appreciate this kind of predictable storytelling in a series that should be just as good as Battlestar Galactica, but isn't. For the rest of the episode, even Daniel's conversations with Cyrus about what Virgil has planned as well as Daniel's scenes with Virgil just weren't as engaging and tension-filled as one feels they could be if Ron Moore were firmly in charge of rewriting this or even if Mark Verheiden, Michael Angeli, and numerous other Battlestar writers had taken a stab at these scenes.
The basic problem was that Virgil's motivations remained predictably obvious from the opening scene and the revelation, at the episode's end, that he seeks to destroy everything in Daniel's life didn't feel particularly shocking or imaginative. The single-minded vengeance-seeker is quite conventional in fiction, but it requires greater shades of subtlety to be engaging. Otherwise, it's as lame as Venom hating Spiderman or some embarrassing character arc on "Lost." Human nature is often too complex to allow for this kind of focus. Speaking from my own experience with such emotions, however much I've been eaten away, at any given moment, by a desire for revenge, life and practical considerations get in the way; I get hungry or tired or I want to think about something else. Hopefully, Tomas Virgil's arc won't simply be to keep threatening Daniel and his loved ones until he is killed because that would be a shame. This actor deserves a more complex and believable role than the one I worry could easily and formulaically unfold.
Now onto what didn't work well. Amanda's arc in this episode was dull; she was too passive in her relationship with Daniel. Perhaps I'm overreacting, but I don't like Amanda calling Daniel "babe" because it reminds me of how the protagonist married couple refer to each other on "Friday Night Lights" – a program for which these writers have worked – and I always found that relationship annoyingly "down to earth;" it felt phony, as if to emphasize the couple's "common man" qualities with an air of reverse-snobbery – as if that would make them more relatable. I don't want the Graystones to become like that – to be written as though they're the "cool" couple; I want them to be unique and, sometimes, this means appearing uncool.
In any event, Amanda's arc from the start of this series has been too stagnant. Having a mother grieving for this long is perfectly realistic, but it's not dramatically interesting to see over and over again. Perhaps, the mourning needs to be expressed in a different, less conventional way. Her guilt-inspired outburst at the memorial in "Rebirth" and her appearance on "Sarno" in "Gravedancing" were great examples of how to invigorate her character. Yet they stand out precisely because they're rare. In this episode, she continued to commiserate over the loss of her daughter and the Global Defense Department's (GDD) rude investigation of Zoe's life – this time, in the company of the devious Sister Clarice – and it was still boring.
For her part, Clarice also remains a problematic character. Her frustrations with the Soldiers of The One (STO) hierarchy still aren't clear enough to fully understand the stakes of what's happening. Similarly, her conversations with her family are equally disappointing, and her drug binges remain as utterly tedious in this installment as they were in "Rebirth" and any cliché druggie scene from any commercial movie. Watching people on drugs is one of the most overused plot devices and it's always exasperating to watch. The whole point of it here was to illustrate her guilt over her deceit of Amanda Graystone. We watched Clarice persuade Amanda to get drunk and, under the guise of wanting to see Zoe's art work, trick her into letting her into Daniel's lab so she could copy files from his computer that might contain Zoe's avatar. While this was slightly more compelling than the usual tiresome Clarice plot line, it still felt quite predictable.
By far, the worst – to the point of being unforgivable – storylines involved Zoe and Lacey. Daniel Graystone's technician Philomon acted the part well enough; I liked the moment when Daniel confronted him about pretend flirting with the cylon. Still, the very idea of delving into his lack of success at internet dating was poorly executed by having Zoe's avatar try to bring him joy by posing as a young woman interested in meeting him. I was disgusted at the formulaic way the writers decided she should disguise herself as a supposed nerd – all hunched posture, awkward, clumsy dress, and thick-rimmed glasses. It's insulting to viewers to engage in such well-worn and uninspired tropes that defy respect for humanity by substituting the complexity of human behavior with stereotypes. This is the kind of mistaken foray into supposed whimsy into which I feared Jane Espenson would take the show – and my fears have been proven justified. Having Zoe and Philomon dance in "Gravedancing" was bad enough. Yet I did like that Philomon expressed respect for the dead Zoe Graystone's supposed religious principles.
The Lacey plot barely featured her and, when it did, failed miserably. She sought to smuggle a secret package to Gemenon, which the viewers know is to contain the cylon imbued with Zoe's avatar. Even this holdover plot from previous episodes is a horrible, cliché idea and it's obvious that Ronald D. Moore or some of the better writers from Battlestar would have come up with something more innovative. In any case, she was soliciting the leader of an STO cell named Barnabus, who is played by the great James Marsters. His casting was one excellent idea of Espenson, as he's a fine and subtle actor. He did a good job here with very little – particularly when he roared at Lacey to leave, refusing her request.
Most of this storyline revolved around Barnabus and high school student/STO member Keon Gatwick, who was, yet again, acted unconvincingly and without much emotional range. The writing of their interaction was quite awful, not simply due to the uninspiring dialogue, but also the tone of their relationship, which never seemed believable. One had a sense that Barnabas is an imposing leader of this STO subgroup, at one moment. Yet, at another, it looked as though Keon was free to derisively refuse participation in Barnabas' request that he share in a ritual of showing devotion to God by tightly wrapping barbed wire around one's arm; Keon didn't even seem nervous doing so, and spoke to the middle aged mastermind behind recent terrorist bombings as though he were also a peer from the teenager's high school. When Barnabus pointed out to Keon that Lacey would be horrified to find out that Keon had made the bomb that killed Zoe, it sounded more like a row among equals – with Barnabas having to guilt-trip a friend into line – than how one with unimpeachable authority would address a subordinate. Indeed, the storytelling provided no sense of the precise boundaries of their relationship within Barnabas' cell, let alone the STO hierarchy. Furthermore, how likely is it that a teenager is a bomb expert?
As a result, Barnabus' introduction was a letdown. In his first scene, he showily inflicted pain on himself to demonstrate a fanaticism akin to certain monks of the Middle Ages who flagellated themselves to show their humility before God. While it's a nice bit of historical/political parallel to our world, it's also the only instance of its kind in the episode and a meek one at that.
There is no sense that Caprica is delving deeply and realistically into the mindsets of terrorists, based on an examination of history and present day politics from a non-Western perspective; this is what Ronald D. Moore ensured on Battlestar Galactica. Instead, one gets the impression that Jane Espenson is leading her writing staff in coming up with their notions of such people and movements on their own. This tends to lead to mythical notions of how people behave without any psychological grounding. It also leads to morally ambiguous arcs that are less ambitious and are crafted for their own sake, rather than to say something pertinent about our world.
For example, isn't it convenient that the moral ambiguity among the show's characters only extends to limited culpability? They're often suspected of committing horrible acts, but they're shown as either having not committed them or having never meant for them to occur and – therefore – are redeemable, according to conventional state-oriented notions of morality. Daniel never meant to have Virgo Industries' employees killed; I'm sure even Sam will be absolved of complicity in their deaths and Tomas Virgo will be shown to wrongly want Daniel or the Adamas' deaths. Similarly, Zoe is thought by her parents and the GDD to be responsible for the suicide train bombing, but we know she isn't. Yet the guy who is, Ben Stark, still hasn't been explored. In the same vein, Sister Clarice will predictably be found out by Amanda as a member of the STO, and Amanda will think Clarice responsible for the bombing. Yet, it's pretty clear that she's depicted as disagreeing with Barnabas' violent course. In contrast, Ronald D. Moore's pilot had a disturbing but convincing scene in which she lays out a sympathetic understanding of Ben's mindset; a deleted scene even hinted that she was behind his actions. In this episode, we find out that Keon's culpability is also limited because he didn't know Stark would use the bomb in that way. It would have been harder to humanize these characters were they responsible for the horrible things of which they are or will be accused, but it would make for better drama and more insightful probing into the human condition.
In contrast, on Battlestar Galactica, the cylons INTENDED to commit genocide against the humans at the start of the show, just as the fleet MEANT to do the same to the cylons later on. Characters also willfully tortured "the other." The brilliance of that show lay in getting the audience to feel that this cruelty could be rationalized and carried out by the same people who were capable of great kindness as well.
So, instead of the current dramatic course – composed of a series of accidents and misunderstandings – Caprica's storytelling should push the boundaries of moral ambiguity to more extreme, albeit realistic, levels to explore the most horrific acts of humanity. Like Battlestar, it must serve to expose the most pressing issues of our time and ask viewers to question their own narratives and the mainstream North American media's biased depictions of events. Above nearly every other issue, that is my greatest concern with the show's present direction.
7.9 out of 10
(I should emphasize that only the rarest of shows get 10 -- only the absolute best episodes of The X-Files ("Talitha Cumi", "Paper Hearts", "Redux II", etc.), Battlestar Galactica ("Pegasus","Lay Down Your Burdens", "Occupation"/"Precipice") and Deep Space Nine ("In the Pale Moonlight"). I would give the best story of The 4400 to date, "Terrible Swift Sword"/"Fifty Fifty," around 9.0, and I really loved that.)