NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Flesh And Bone”

I’m looking forward to spending a little bit more time with you, Starbuck. We have a lot to talk about!

Air Date: 13/12/2004

Director: Brad Turner

Writer: Toni Graphia

Synopsis: A Cylon agent discovered hiding in the Fleet claims to have planted a nuclear bomb on a ship, pushing Starbuck to take drastic measures in the interrogation. Boomer pushes Baltar to test his Cylon detector on her first.

Review

Strange as it to say given that the vast majority of this episode’s running time deals with Starbuck and Leoben, it’s actually more of a Laura Roslin affair. “Flesh and Bone” opens and closes with Roslin facing two very different crises, as BSG begins to slip into the territory of premonitions and prophecy. Starting with her dream which contains anti-military themes and concluding with the doubts she now obviously has about Adama, care of Leoben, “Flesh And Bone” sees Roslin take a more centre stage role in the overall plot of BSG for the first time since the Miniseries really, and it is a welcome transition.

Graphia’s script sets up a bit of a swerve here in regards Roslin, who is depicted as acting a tad unhinged in the first three quarters of the episode: physically affected by the drugs she’s taking for her cancer, letting others get a tad too close to the Cylon agent, and then choosing to confront him herself, all because of a dream. But then suddenly BSG snaps back to cold, hard reality with her, with an emphasis on “cold” and “hard”: like she’s suddenly realised that she can’t let drug-induced dreams rule her, she decides she won’t play Leoben’s game, manipulates him into admitting his plot is make-believe, and then decisively orders him to be executed. We’ve seen decisive, ruthless Roslin already of course, but this is an up-close-and-personal example, as she watches Leoben get spaced right in front of her, and never for a moment seems to regret doing so. Is the sudden change an effective one? I think so, it fits a woman undergoing the physical and emotional trial that Roslin is, still very far from being the dying leader of prophecy, but on that path.

But the meat of the episode is, as stated, Starbuck and Leoben. Katee Sackoff and Callum Keith Rennie have a really good back-and-forth throughout, the start of a long-running verbal battle between the two characters, and the dynamic between the two is laid out well here: Leoben as this frequently incomprehensible mad prophet, and Starbuck as a cynical, hair-trigger temper counterpart. Leoben presents a new challenge for Starbuck too, with us having seen her deal with Cylon Raiders, sniping and unresolved historical trauma: now, there is a more directly human adversary for her to face.

Like any good interrogation plot, the object becomes how best Starbuck can beat Leoben, and it is a dangerous game that she is playing, considering that Leoben’s whole mission is seemingly just to sow fear and doubt. It starts with some basic interactions, transitions to violence, onto philosophising and, finally, some prophecy. The whole time there is a tension, not so much with the apparent threat of the nuclear bomb, but in wondering just how Starbuck can break through the defences of a being like Leoben, who is slippery as a snake. Asking him doesn’t do it. Torture doesn’t do it. Letting him ramble doesn’t do it, and in fact plays into his hands.

The interaction allows BSG the chance to touch on a range of subjects, among them whether the Cylon’s can be considered God’s instrument of retribution for his overly-sinful firstborn, something that enrages Starbuck. Her anger at the suggestion calls to the allusions we have seen to her perhaps being more religious than most, reinforced by her last scene. There’s death and the nature of death when you resurrect when you die, and if a created being like Leoben has the ability to enter an afterlife: the only time Starbuck seems to get anywhere when it comes to turning the tables is when she has Leoben worried that there is no beyond for him. There’s the first comments on Thrace’s abusive mother, a plot gun that won’t really fire until much later, but which I suppose constitutes the beginning of the “Starbuck’s destiny” narrative, that was so divisive with fans. And there is the first proper mention of the cycle in the context of the larger show, that “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”.

Leoben’s final manipulation, regards a predicted discovery of Kobol, is another humdinger, as it will call to mind Adama’s promise of Earth and how he seemingly knows where it is. It’s enough, along with the comments on Starbuck’s mother, for Thrace to have some kind of change of heart over Leoben: in reaching out her hand at the moment of his death and in later praying for his soul, if he had one, we can see that. It’s not clear what exactly did it for Starbuck, but Leoben got inside her head: made her believe that he was more than just a machine. In the end, I suppose that is a victory of sorts for Leoben.

We can’t move on from the main plot without talking a bit about the episodes depiction of torture. It’s December 2004 here, so we’re eight months or so after the Abu Gharib scandal: what BSG is showcasing is frighteningly relevant, at least for the United States. Torture is depicted as an act of coercion, as a test of humanoid Cylons’ ability to feel pain, as revenge and as an emotional crutch for those inflicting the pain. It’s also depicted as being ineffective, which marks BSG out from other media at the time, that sometimes seemed at pains to showcase the act as a “greater good” deal. “Flesh And Bone” ties in Starbuck torture of Leoben to her own physical trauma from an apparently violent upbringing, which I thought added some depth to the whole exercise. In the end, Thrace seems shamed by what she has done, which is also to be welcomed.

“Flesh And Bone” has time for a few bits elsewhere, the most important being Boomer. It’s a good representation of a woman clutching at straws, deciding that if she can pass Baltar’s Cylon detector Tyrol might be willing to resume their relationship (though he doesn’t actually give assent to this idea). She allows Baltar and Head Six the chance to add their, by now, oddly comfortable interaction into proceedings, and the episode gives us another satisfying look at panicked Baltar when his Cylon detector confirms what we all know. There’s also the distant conflict between Adama and Leoben, a holdover from “Part Two” of the Miniseries, manifesting here in a staring match between the Commander and a Leoben corpse. It seems like they might be setting things up for those two to come back within each others orbit, but that was not to be.

We end with Cylon occupied Caprica, as we always tend to. Just the one scene here, but a very important one for the overall plot, as Sharon decides to take off with Helo for real, after Helo’s death becomes a very likely possibility. The turn happens very quickly here, with only a flashback montage to cover it, which is disappointing. You would hope that future episodes will flesh things out a bit more, as we head firmly into the second half of the first season.

Laura, I have something to tell you.

Notes

-The title presumably has no deeper meaning other than to add to the larger examination of the episode, in asking what makes a human human.

-Given some of the events of this episode related to torture, interesting to note that director Brad Turner was a producer/director for the last four seasons of 24.

-I’ll admit, I got an unintentional laugh off of part of the “Previously on…” where Helo proclaims “You’re the one who needs sleep” followed by Sharon immediately putting her tongue down his throat. Turns out she didn’t.

-Roslin’s dream is a bit Twin Peaks – Brilliant, truly brilliant, I have no idea what’s going on – but set-up the episode nicely enough, especially the larger conflict between the civil and military that is a defining aspect of the first season. But is it a God sent dream? We can only presume.

-Interesting how we go through different descriptors for Leoben early on. Roslin uses “him”, earning a rebuke from Adama, who prefers “it”. Roslin diplomatically moves to “this thing” a few sentences later, but then uses “him” at the end of the conversation. She’s already been introduced to the guy in her dreams, so I guess a bit of confusion fits.

-Boy does Adama have it right when he says that Leoben’s threat isn’t because he lies, it’s because “he mixes lies with truth”. That’s something infinitely more dangerous, and is at the heart of why Leoben is as problematic as he is.

-Boomer is back to being a bit creepy with the Raider, humming some kind of wistful tune and petting it, and it doesn’t work as well here as it did in “Six Degrees Of Separation”. Just a bit too out there. The tune is apparently a Korean children’s song.

-The question about how human Leoben is starts off with a simple note from Starbuck: Leoben is sweating. It’s a very human act after all, tending to happen in moments of high tension, and that is what “Flesh And Bone” is all about.

-Leoben is a dodgy customer, opening his conversation with Starbuck by bargaining almost immediately, trying to get her to volunteer her name. When he “guesses”, it’s a definite point for him.

-As I said, the main tension in the episode is not really the supposed nuclear bomb. If you think about it, such a threat makes no sense anyway, since the Galactica should be able to detect it, they certainly did in “33”. Instead, we should focus on how Leoben is able to create fear of a fictional device.

-Oh, the raised tension when Leoben insists that is he not asking “a trick question”. Everything out of his mouth is a trick, it’s just a matter of figuring that out.

-The coercion really starts when Starbuck eats a meal in front of Leoben, knowing he presumably hasn’t eaten in days. Aside from being a pretty normal interrogation method, it’s clever as another test of humanoid Cylons: do they need to eat? Can they turn hunger on and off? The answers are presumably “Yes” and “No”.

-It’s hard to nail down Leoben’s philosophy, it seems intentionally scatter-brained and obtuse, touching on various themes and sub-genres so quick it’s impossible to get a read. I suppose if pushed I would say it’s a sort of evangelical fatalism mixed with claims to an almost Buddhist-like transcendence. If that makes any sense.

-I have no idea why, but Leoben’s line that “When you’re starving, anything tastes good” has always stuck with me. Maybe it’s because it’s a very human sentiment to express. Or maybe it’s reflective of the nature of the interrogation, where the Fleet is so hungry for info they are willing to swallow the threat of the nuclear device.

-It says something about Starbuck that she decides the best way to test whether Leoben is human or not is through the application of pain. Because that seems to be what she associates primarily with being human. Leoben differs, looking beyond the mortal form: “this is not all that we are”.

-Oh Head Six, always with that sexual edge: “Wonder why they call her Boomer?” Baltar of course can’t let it lie and hilariously tries to get an answer.

-“Why the rush?” Six asks when Boomer wants to be the first Cylon detector test subject. Baltar says the same thing seconds later. To me it felt less like parroting, and more like the two were on the same page completely. And that’s a dangerous thought.

-Interesting comment from the Six on Caprica: “We are as we do”. She’s referring to Sharon acting human, which makes her more human in Six’s eyes: the sentiment could be expanded to simply say that in BSG, characters are defined by their actions, whether it is torturing a prisoner or having the same prisoner thrown out an airlock.

-I’ll admit, Sharon’s turn to genuinely helping Helo is a bit much in its presentation: we get one short montage of their time together over the last few episodes and suddenly she’s happy to throw in her lot with Team Human. I felt like BSG could have built to that better, in previous episodes or in the next few.

-Sharon also “remembers” leaving Helo on Caprica in “Part One” of the Miniseries, only that was Boomer, not her. I can’t remember if this is ever addressed.

-Starbuck’s anger at Leoben claiming that God created the Cylon’s in response to mankind’s evil is interesting: she seems genuinely affronted. Again, this points towards her being more religious than it may initially appear.

-Leoben’s escape is pretty scary, even if he calls his shots. It’s good to be reminded that the Cylon’s, while mimicking humanity, have enhanced abilities.

-Adama’s scene with the corpse of Leoben from Part Two of the Miniseries is interesting, as he silently weighs the panic that the Cylon is causing. His one line – “No” – is a suitable refutation of that panic, and the anger that he is causing in the Commander.

-The water torture scenes do seem like a very direct reference to Iraq, waterboarding and the period of the 00’s when the US was beginning to realise that there were only shades of bad in Iraq and Cuba. Apparently the production crew wanted to go further, but the network balked.

-Starbuck’s use of the term “Does not compute” doesn’t ring great to me, a little too close to the real world.

-“You were born to a woman who though suffering was good for the soul, so you suffered”. Oof, a brutal way to describe an abusive parent. And instantly we learn a lot about Starbuck and where she came from.

-Interesting use of an underwater camera shot to see Leoben being tortured. The way, in one moment, that he seems to calmly accept what is happening to him is very eerie.

-Boomer’s backstory, in that she comes from a small town that was wiped out by a mining explosion, is a nice little touch, establishing that the Cylon’s play it clever with such sleeper agents. It also makes you wonder about other characters on the ship and if they have backgrounds that could be described in a similar fashion.

-Baltar faces a difficult choice when confronted with the evidence that Boomer is a Cylon. I liked how Six’s taunting that Boomer was liable to kill him if he was truthful was actual good advice, leading Baltar to keep the secret.

-“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”. This is the first indication of “the cycle” I think, and it’s suitably vague. Bodes well for the future though. TV Tropes calls this idea “Eternal recurrence”.

-We’ve heard mention of “Kobol” before, briefly, as the Colonials are described as being descended from the “12 tribes of Kobol” in the Miniseries, and the Gods are the “Lords of Kobol”. This is the first time it has been indicated that Kobol is a real place though, and a planet to boot.

-After eight hours of being tortured, Roslin is nice to Leoben and he immediately spills the beans. Of course I’m sure that this is not really meant to be taken as the actual solution, it’s just Leoben manipulating people again. When he’s treated with humanity he responds positively, and that’s for Starbuck’s benefit I’m sure. It’s all a game, it just so happens him telling the truth at that moment helps him to “win”.

-“They teach you to dehumanise people” Leoben tells Roslin about the military. Interesting choice of words, and presumably another effort to cast doubt on civil-military relations.

-“Adama is a Cylon”. With four words, Leoben accomplishes what would appear to be his real mission: to sow doubt, fear and distrust among the Colonials.

-“Put him out the airlock”. And a catchphrase was born. Still, ice cold from the President.

-Roslin has come around completely, as her accurate analysis of the situation shows: Starbuck has lost the run of herself, the Fleet has been left critically weakened and they are all running around like headless chickens on account of Leoben. It’s time to excise the cancer, to use what I suppose is a potent metaphor.

-Starbuck’s idols are a nice touch for the character. Going by Leoben’s words earlier, I assume they must be representations of Aphrodite and Artemis.

-“Something wrong?” Adama asks of Roslin at the end of the episode. If you only knew Commander, If you only knew…

Overall Verdict: “Flesh And Blood” is another very solid episode, with good performances all round and some nice complicating of the larger plot. The only significant flaw is the Sharon turn and how quick it is, but that can be forgiven I feel. The Roslin stuff is engaging, the Leoben/Starbuck interaction is eye-catching and the episode overall is a polished example of the kind of weighty subject matter BSG was capable of undertaking. I’m not so sure about the next episode.

To read more entries in this series, click here to go the index.

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3 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Flesh And Bone”

  1. Pingback: NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season One: “The Hand Of God” | Never Felt Better

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