NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Black Market”

There’s lines you can’t cross. And you crossed them.

Air Date: 27/01/2006

Director: James Head

Writers: Mark Verheiden

Synopsis: Apollo is assigned to investigate when Fisk is murdered, with the evidence pointing to the Fleet’s black market profiteers. The inquiry soon draws in some civilians close to Lee, and brings up traumas both recent and distant.

Review

So, is the much maligned “Black Market” the first unadulteratedly bad episode of BSG? It certainly seems like it at first glance. Ronald D. Moore has expressed some significant reservations about how this one turned out, and I don’t recall anyone else in the cast and crew going to bat for it. It certainly had a great deal of potential – a look at life in the Fleet, BSG genre-shifting into noir, a character examination of Apollo – but the final product of “Black Market” can only be described as an ungainly mess.

This is an Apollo episode, the first since the mutiny in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part Two)” really, and the true continuation of the plot points first brought up in “Resurrection Ship (Part Two)”. But things open on a very unlikely scenario, which is what we come to understand is Lee’s regular appointment with a Cloud 9 based prostitute. Now, I’m not one to judge such a thing too harshly, albeit BSG’s depiction of the profession here shows it as something borne from desperate circumstances and so very prone to abuse. Lee seeks a sexual outlet, and pays for it. It’s a little out of character for him in a sense, but that’s not the problem: the issue is that this comes out of nowhere. This has seemingly been a lengthy relationship, but Shevon comes and goes in the space of a single episode. We never really get into why Lee is doing this, how this arrangement came about. It strikes me more as an effort to give us an “in” into a seedy underbelly, with the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype front and centre.

Add in the wildly ill-judged stuff with Apollo’s unnamed girlfriend on the Colonies (“Gianne” in deleted scenes), which really does the central narrative of the episode no favours at all, and you begin to understand why “Black Market” is as reviled as it is. All of this stuff needs time to breath. We needed to know about Gianne way before this, we needed to see Apollo’s rendezvous with Shevon a few episodes ago. BSG needed to construct something solid, but instead what we get is a rushed and unpalatable transference drama, where Lee tries to make up for how things ended with Gianne by treating Shevon and her daughter like they are his family. That’s not a bad idea, but it being crammed into one episode like this just doesn’t work. Take a look at the Baltar/Gina stuff, that has similar warped relationship themes, that is being played out on a longer timeframe: one of those sub-plots is better than the other. Apollo’s realisation of why he is treating Shevon as he does means less than it should, because Gianne is just a nameless, voiceless, face to the audience.

It seems a needless distraction from the real character evolution, which is an examination of Apollo’s PTSD. “Black Market” should have doubled-down on the idea of Lee having a bit of a death wish, which would have made the finale showdown much more tense. We see bits and pieces of that kind of focus, and they are the best parts of the episode: Apollo’s refusal to engage with Dee, his belligerent confrontations with Baltar and Tigh, and taking the shot when Phelan thinks he can’t. The last was a major motivating factor for Moore, who is on record as stating one of the primary ideas for this episode was inverting the usual trope of the hero being unable to kill the taunting villain. The act of shooting Phelan, rather than accepting his own death, would seem to be a symbolic rejection of the suicidal ideation that has haunted Lee since “Resurrection Ship (Part Two)” and as I recall that plotline is largely dropped now. It seems an all-too-easy way of dealing with it, as easy – and, frankly, lazy – as introducing the Shevon and Gianne characters before seeing them vanish forever.

The actual murder mystery is only OK. BSG Noir is as legitimate a thing to work towards as was the political drama of “Colonial Day” or the screwball comedy of “Six Degrees Of Separation” or the hard-boiled interrogation thriller of “Flesh And Bone”, but “Black Market” fails to reach its goal through a clunky structure and an inability to tie the murder mystery to effective characterisation. It just all feels very rote: the murder, the scary mob boss villain, the moll, the unexpected wrinkles, the revelation, the showdown, but then the application of the formula is so uneven in line with the flashbacks to Caprica, Apollo’s PTSD exploration and everything else the episode is trying to do. It ends on a nice set-piece, as Apollo ventures, like a knight errant, into the very belly of the black market monster, and I did like this look at a very different kind of Fleet, with all of its tawdriness and tangible desperation. But it wasn’t enough to save the episode.

And the question has to be asked just why Apollo is the man in the spotlight. Adama appears to pick him as the person to investigate the murder on little more than a whim, and I do think it’s the kind of role that could have been more useful to another character, perhaps Helo or even Tigh (Michael Hogan certainly would fill the shoes of a gumshoe a bit better than Jamie Bamber I think). What I mean by that is just that everything feels a bit forced, with the Apollo character a square peg in a round hole. You don’t buy this sudden turn as an interrogator, as a guy sniffing out clues. Maybe it’s because this sub-genre traditionally comes with some manner of internal narration that “Black Market” lacks. You know the type: “I’m a private eye, it says so on the door” or “She had a shock of hair, red, like the fires of hell and legs for days” or “This murder had bad news written on it like the Friday the 13th.” I’m not saying “Black Market should of done that, but it’s typically how the protagonists of this kind of story get across their motivation and character. What they do with Apollo is much more muddled.

I know I have said it a few times, but it bears repeating: there is some wasted potential in the various elements of “Black Market” and the best example is Phelan. Ably played by Bill Duke, the idea of a Fleet Kingpin is really enticing, and is the exact kind of character that should be a recurring role. Think of how effective he could have been if he had been an unseen whisper in episodes leading up to this, a Shadow Broker-esque presence, whose eventual appearance could have been an event, instead of this throwaway distraction. And there’s so much else around him: the idea of a criminal army that the military has to confront; an “off-the-grid” freighter where all manner of dodgy things can take place; the politicking of Tom Zarek and his faction with the same, seen briefly here but then largely discarded in the future; and just getting to see the reality of what life in the Fleet is. Wouldn’t it be cool to make this a recurring element of the show going forward? How would such an enterprise adapt to New Caprica, to the return to the Fleet, to the coup, etc, etc.

Instead we get this one-shot villain, where any pretense of him being this shade-of-grey proponent gets completely lost when part of his closing monologue involves the justification of child prostitution and human trafficking. A Phelan who would be willing to play ball with Apollo, just purely from a business perspective, would have been far more interesting than this one, who decides pedophilia is the hill he wants to die on. The mob boss needs to be a compelling character: if not sympathetic, then the kind of person we would like to see more of. Phelan is just some generic head honcho, more Giovanni than Tony Soprano.

In among all of this is some juicy stuff with Baltar, who gets caught up in the murder of Fisk briefly. But he’s separated from that plot pretty quickly, and in a way that is to the detriment of the episode, with his subsequent scenes feeling very off when put against the noir happening elsewhere. Still, it’s good to get a grounding for what the character is going to be doing for the rest of the second season, motivated by the repeated blows to the ego that he suffers here. It’s the #1 way to rouse one Gaius Baltar, and the final straw is Roslin’s misjudged effort to get him to resign from the Vice-Presidency. She goes about it all wrong, by basically saying Baltar doesn’t seem up to the job: such an insult, as Baltar can only see it, produces the petulant response that Baltar suddenly wants the job more than anything. Some might say such characterisation is shallow, but I sort of like that Baltar is so childish: it makes the battle to manipulate him, be it with Head Six, Gina or Roslin, all the more interesting. Baltar scorned is a dangerous animal, and Roslin has given him all of the motivation in the world to become her enemy flat-out.

The last thing is just to talk about the structural problems of the episode, that I have alluded to already. The Baltar stuff, the flashbacks – both to Caprica, and to only a few weeks before, and both using the same filter – they butt into the narrative here, in a way they just didn’t in “Epiphanies” and even beyond that it feels like a very uneven structure, like a hack job was done in editing. It’s no surprise then that “Black Market” has a huge number of deleted scenes, which include further interactions between Apollo and Dee, a more fleshed out look at Lee’s relationship with Gianne and a violent encounter between Apollo and Pegasus’ new XO (who is never seen again). “Black Market” appears to have been an episode that, brimming with big ideas, was somewhat tinkered to death: it’s undoubtedly the lowest episode of the shows entire run thus far.

I know who you are. I know whose son you are. And I don’t care.

Notes

-Another in what is rapidly becoming a long list of uninspired episode titles.

-Head is a moderately well-known TV director, and this is his only BSG credit. Verheidan back as sole writer for the first time since the much better “Final Cut”.

-Again with the “48 hours earlier” opening, very tired. You can imagine the “This is not his day” note on the script as Lee points the gun at Phelan.

-I like that the episode doesn’t immediately out Shevon as a prostitute, and lets us briefly imagine she is a civilian Apollo has just hooked up with. Makes the payment negotiation seem more brutal.

-I love the disgusted looks Baltar gives Fisk in the briefing scene. Just pure, silent annoyance.

-I’d love to read some of Roslin’s economic plans for the Fleet, which seem fantastical in the circumstances: how does money have any value at all? And if it doesn’t have any, how do you regulate the barter system?

-Fisk openly brings up a case of cigars he delivered to Baltar, which was a bit on the nose in terms of making it clear he was up to his neck in the black market.

-I do wish we could have seen a bit more of Fisk and Baltar, in terms of Fisk trying to butter up the VP, and the powerplays that could have resulted. Fisk’s sudden death is another aspect of “Black Market” that rankles, a major plot point that seems more like contrivance. The major players introduced in “Pegasus” are gone.

-Like in “Epiphanies”, the flashbacks scenes are over-exposed to mark them out, but the way they litter the narrative in little bursts makes that visual choice more distracting than it was in the last episode.

-Paya’s appearance after Apollo is finished with her mother plays into a trope of the prostitutes emotionally shattered child, that you see from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to Watchmen.

-How does Phelan get on the Pegasus? And into Fisk’s quarters? And away with no-one noticing? He has a degree of power, but that seems a real reach to me.

-And does he wait around after the deed is done to finish the cigar he lit?

-The count is down just one, which doesn’t track with Fisk’s murder and the bodies we saw flushed into space in “Epiphanies”. Some births in the Fleet perhaps?

-Amazing deadpan line from Cottle after observing Fisk’s body for a millisecond: “From the looks of him I’d say he was garroted”.

-He’s at it again a second later, upon retrieving a coin from Fisk’s throat: “A few more murders like this and I may retire early”.

-We’re back to Apollo seemingly mis-trusting Adama again, and that’s a sudden and unwelcome devolution from their previous reconciliation. What’s happened?

-I do love Baltar’s wounded pride when Apollo tells the guards at Fisk’s quarters to let the VP in when his haranguing wasn’t doing the job. “They were going to let me in”. I’m sure.

-The music here is “Black Market”, and it’s, in the words of Forgetting Sarah Marshall “just dark ominous tones”.

-I like Six’s new manipulative avenue of attack: asking Baltar what Gina would think of his behavior, or how he is being treated. Way to turn a negative into a positive.

-Some better lantern hanging from Shevon, when she says that “When your baby’s crying because it’s hungry, you’ll do anything to make it stop”.

-I think the production team could have come up with a slightly better visual metaphor for the Tigh’s working the black market than literal forbidden fruit.

-Apollo’s line to Tigh, “Doesn’t make us right Colonel, just a whole lot of people wrong”, on the black market, is so painful to listen to. Lee has no justification for that high horse.

-I like Dee cutting straight to the matter, and being unwilling to let Apollo dodge her blunt question on the nature of their relationship: “Please don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about”.

-Some good choreography for the attack in Sheron’s quarters, the first fist-fight we’ve seen on the show since, I guess, the opening of “Flight Of The Phoenix”?

-The garroting of Apollo is pretty brutal, and kudos to Bamber for the way he sells it. It really does look like he’s about to be choked to death.

-It’s perhaps a little trite, but I did like that Roslin has an actual prop when she wants to play nice, in the form of a tea set.

-Baltar makes a very proud sounding declaration that he has never wanted anything more than his current political position, but the immaturity behind the grandiose words are very evident. Even here he’s basically saying that Roslin twisted his arm into the job that he didn’t want, so she has to to deal with the consequences.

-Zarek appears! I get the feeling him suddenly turning up on Cloud 9 like this is meant to be a shocking twist, but it makes sense he would be up to his neck in the black market.

-I’m not sure how a ship in the Fleet can operate “off the grid” as Zarek describes. It still needs to be supplied presumably, and get FTL jump co-ordinates from the Galactica.

-“Phelan” is an Irish surname, and it’s mispronounced in BSG. It’s “Fee-lin” not “Fey-lan”. Not as bad as “Sam Hane” in Supernatural mind.

-I like the look of the Prometheus interiors, that have a sort of Marrakeshian bazaar feel to them, just a chaos of illicit trading.

-Phelan’s bar on the other hand is more like the Mos Eisley cantina I think, or maybe Jabba’s Palace is more appropriate.

-Moore has described the use of child prostitution here as “a cheap dodge” to get across that the black market is a bad thing, and I tend to agree. The episode proves incapable of presenting the nuance of the dilemma any other way.

-Phelan launches into a bit of a monologue here, as “Black Market” goes all in on what I can only describe as a parlour room scene.

-Where would a noir story be without a treacherous woman, as Shevon turns out to be, sort of.

-Phelan’s defining line that “It’s hard to find the moral high ground when we’re all standing in the mud” would be much cooler if he wasn’t literally prostituting children. We needed a Don Corleone type for this role.

-The monologue, the fact that none of Phelan’s henchmen appear to be armed, Apollo’s seeming death wish, it all adds up to make the finale a little hard to stomach.

-Of course Apollo’s shooting of Phelan will bring up “Han shot first” sentiments, and I think that is the idea: to make clear that Lee can be, when the need calls for, ruthlessly decisive.

-Lee as a compromiser is back here after “Bastille Day”, finding the middle ground with the black market and getting Roslin to begrudgingly acquiesce. Again, it felt like a too neat-and-tidy resolution of the problem: are Phelan’s dying thoughts something along the lines of “Man, all I had to do was ditch the child prostitution? I’m not even really opposed to that!”

-The last interaction between Apollo and Shevon is very awkwardly framed, Lee trying to have an conversation with her in a normal tone right after he shot a person, with the guards just standing around.

-The “She wanted to give you a child” is a really odd way of saying that Gianne was pregnant: it could easily been misinterpreted as meaning that she wanted to have kids with Lee, but was rebuffed, as opposed to what the writers intended.

-Adama declares that Apollo has “full authority” on the matter of the investigation, which apparently also includes the status of the entire black market. Roslin goes along with this. Why? The black market surely isn’t a military matter.

-“Thank you gentlemen, I’m busy”. Oof, a pissed-off Roslin is very able to channel that angry mom energy.

-The glimpse of Zarek on Prometheus at the end is, I think, meant to give the impression that he has taken over Phelan’s position, making his direction to Apollo earlier a little self-serving, But as I recall nothing is really made of it later. Another bit of misused potential

-Dee and Billy have a cute moment at the conclusion, even while Dee and Apollo share a look. Given his lack of screentime Billy’s unknowing part in this triangle is a bit of an afterthought, but the heartbreak is coming.

-Very odd ending to the episode, with Adama chastising Apollo for not telling him about Shevon, before a sudden cut to credits. Even here it feels like things are a bit all over the place.

Overall Verdict: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “Black Market” is a disaster, but it’s a real low point for the series, and looks even worse when put next to some of the other episodes from Season Two. Nothing about its narrative really works, and the way that it presents and then expends a succession of potentially fascinating plot hooks is really regrettable. But, at least, the only way is up.

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4 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Black Market”

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  3. Pingback: NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Two: “Sacrifice” | Never Felt Better

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