NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Three: “Unfinished Business”

Now who’s biting off more than they can chew, Captain?

Air Date: 01/12/2006

Director: Robert M. Young

Writer: Michael Taylor

Synopsis: As the Galactica crew aims to work out their frustrations with a string of boxing matches, memories of New Caprica dominate mindsets: Apollo and Starbuck’s unresolved tension on the planet, Adama’s guilt over what he allowed to happen there and how lax standards created a disaster.

Review

“Unfinished Business” is a boxing episode, or at least that is its framing device. We’ve seen boxing in BSG before, most notably in the entrancing opening sequence of “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part One)”, but here director Robert M. Young allows the sweet science to take over and be the manner in which we explore some of the key character rifts and evolutions of Season Three thus far.

I love what “Unfinished Business” does with boxing. The lights – which serves as such a great contrast with the less harsh natural sun of the New Caprica flashbacks – the movement of the fighters, the baying of the crowd – I mean, even Doc Cottle is there screaming along – “Unfinished Business” is a brilliantly directed episode really, marrying this most intimate of athletic activity with the larger narrative. The music choices reflect an innate understanding of what these kinds of combat sports do to the psyche, but even when the music is stripped away, such as in the finale, the keen eye on display is still able to make something visually quite striking. It’s more Raging Bull than Rocky, but it does the trick. Adama comes up with a explanation for just why they are doing what they are doing, calling back to naval traditions and unorthodox ways of dealing with interpersonal disputes, but that’s not really important: combat sports will always be an attraction, to characters like those depicted on Galactica, and to the audience watching their stories unfold. Moreover, this is an episode all about human characters as for the first time in a while, Cylons get barely a mention.

The theme of “Unfinished Business”, when it isn’t about Starbuck and Apollo anyway, is about slipping. Slipping standards in the military, slipping standards in personal relationships affecting mindsets, slipping attitudes that promote laziness, create poor work ethics and leads to disaster. The flashbacks to New Caprica are a showcase in how things fell apart for the military and for Adama, as the Admiral allowed himself to be convinced that the war was over and that vital personnel could be allowed to do as they wished: from there came the flickering lights we saw onboard Galactica at the end of “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”, from there came his willingness to let even Tigh go, from there came the Fleet’s complete lack of preparedness when the Cylons came back. It reminds me of the old parable about the “want of a nail”, and how a minor setback can cascade into an enormous catastrophe: here, the want of a nail is Adama allowing himself to be convinced that Tyrol and Cally can leave the ship to have their family under a blue sky. From this came further departures, the breakdown of the basics on Galactica, the flight from the Cylons, all the death that occurred in the occupation and the sacrifices needed to get people off that rock.

Adama holds this reality inside him, and like the guilt he exhibited in “Hero” over something different, it’s a burning cancer. I would say that two straight episodes about Adama dealing with his regrets is a bit much, but “Unfinished Business” is good enough that I don’t really mind. Adama see’s the slipping standards right in front of him when Tyrol blows off repairing a Viper so his crew can watch the fighting, and this time he won’t be so easily cowed. The result is Adama trying to literally beat some sense into the Chief, and it’s all too obvious that in many ways Adama is fighting himself as he does so. Contrast this with the shared smiles Tyrol and Adama have on New Caprica: softness and hardness put against each other, as the Admiral tries to fix things.

His closing speech to the crew is a bit blunt in terms of getting across what Adama wants to get across, but then again it is a moment that calls for bluntness. Even in treating Adama the boxer as something not to be taken that seriously, Tyrol showcased a weakness, a rot, that has been evident ever since we saw that flickering light in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”. Adama reminds him, and everyone, that a fight is a fight, and the disrespect Tyrol showed Adama in the ring mirrors the disrespect shown by blowing off the repair of a Viper. Adama goes further, implying that the way that he has treated the crew, as a beloved family, was a mistake too, as it meant he got too close to the people he led, a fairly major statement given this is a key facet of the Adama character: I mean, the man was fundamentally broken at the start of Season Two until he decided to put the Fleet and his family back together in “Home (Part One)”. But that’s not enough anymore. “That can’t happen again”.

The way in which Adama instigates this fight, and then accepts a beating to make the point, is about as powerful a way of imparting the message as you can get, and speaks to the martyr complex within the man that was such a huge part of “Hero”. Of course this isn’t the first time that Adama has made a commitment to institute a tougher form of military discipline: we might remember his brief effort to impart Admiral Cain’s orders in “Pegasus”. He couldn’t keep it up there, instigating something close to civil war in the Fleet before the end of the episode. How will he do this time?

But I suppose I should admit that this is really an Apollo/Starbuck episode. Ever since we witnessed the pained phone conversation between the two in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)” we’ve been wondering just what it was that caused the relationship between them to break down, even if an informed guess would easily land on Anders. “Unfinished Business” lays it all out, as we return to the literal unfinished business between the two, last landed upon in earnest with their clumsy sexual interaction in “Scar”. Time and again “Unfinished Business” gives it to us with both barrels when it comes to Apollo and Thrace, in a swirl of memories that diverge sharply between happy and miserable, sexually charged and romantically infused, as Starbuck, always more willing to wear her emotions on her sleeves, taunts Apollo into literally trying to fight it out with her.

I mean, these two have been making moon eyes at each other since the Miniseries, but for a time it seemed as if Thrace had moved on as seen in her relationship with Anders. The fulfillment of that seemed like the kind of healing moment that would make up for the personal disintegration that we saw in “Scar” and to a lesser extent in “Sacrifice” and “The Captain’s Hand”. But almost as soon as they were re-united safely things began to turn again, and now we see the continuation: one where Anders forms a sort of plaything for Starbuck more than someone she truly loves, and just another part of her frakked up psyche, that may really be in love with Apollo but can’t actually bring herself to be with him.

So, despite hooking up, despite professing their love for each other, despite a commitment that they would be together, they aren’t, and it’s a little difficult to figure out why really. Starbuck thought better off it, and perhaps its unfair to look too much into their sexual liaison and professions of love, given the factor of alcohol. But it’s hard to get beyond the idea that Starbuck chooses to settle for Anders, a man who is less challenging for her on an emotional level, and perhaps, whisper it, more attractive to her on a physical level. She doesn’t like showy displays of emotion when sober, at one point during the fights telling Lee he should be more like his father who “knows when to make his move, when to pull back”. Almost to spite Starbuck, Apollo then chooses to settle for Dee, a woman he was all too willing to cast aside a few hours before. Now both marriages are on the rocks: Starbuck isn’t interested in Anders as an actual husband, and Dee recognises that Apollo doesn’t consider her the first woman in her life. In choosing to settle, Apollo and Starbuck make Anders and Dee the real victims of their disastrous back-and-forth, the unwitting collateral damage of two others getting hitched for all the wrong reasons.

Until they jut start throwing punches at each other in the final terrible combat of the episode. There’s a lot of layers to what we see here: the dichotomy between the present violence and the intimacy of the past; the powerful negative emotions being laid out with every haymaker; the nods to sexual impotence in Apollo’s initial failure to perform in the ring put against him having sex with Thrace in the past; and the despair in knowing that Dee and Anders, the other woman and other man, have to stand there and watch it. Things rapidly go from boxing to MMA to reconciliation in the ring, as the crew of Galactica stares slack-jawed at the soap opera in combat sport form playing out in front of them. This is Apollo and Starbuck: two characters capable of great acts and humanity-saving feats of glory when the moment calls for it, but so bottled up emotionally, so hobbled by their neurosis, that the only way they can end a feud that has engulfed them is to punch each other to the point where all they have left is to embrace. That’s about as unhealthy way of achieving a reconciliation as I can think of really, and I don’t know if there is any real future for the two, as lovers or as friends, on the basis of what we see here.

But of course “Unfinished Business” has another romance angle that we need to consider, which is that between Adama and Roslin. Ever since the two shared a dance in “Colonial Day” there has been a spark there that was more than just friendship: it might have been lost during the coup, but it had returned in spades during Roslin’s illness and in the latter half of Season Two. Now, we get to see a comradeship between the two that is really straying between the lines. They drink together, smoke together, they cuddle up next to each other, they ponder on the stars and on the future together. Roslin starts talking about building a cabin, and we can tell the invitation for Bill Adama to join her there isn’t all that far away. In line with the larger theme of slipping, this is Adama slipping away from his professional relationship with Roslin towards something more emotional: in a way this idea is a kind of added temptation to allow those standards to go even further. In the present day the two remain close to a degree that we could describe as alarming: it’s Roslin who coaches Adama in his fight with Tyrol after all. Adama’s words on getting too close to people remain for his crew, not for the President: where this might all lead is anyone’s guess at this point. A relationship between the two isn’t an idea to be considered as coming out of left field though.

There are others to mention of course, like brief nods to Tigh and Ellen in somewhat happier times, and Tyrol and Cally as they prepare for what seems like a happy new life together. “Unfinished Business” is that kind of bittersweet episode: every flashback is imbued with equal parts happiness and misery, as we contemplate the potential that all these characters had with each other on a bright, shiny New Caprica, put against what was lost in the moment and what was denied to them when the Cylons showed up. The real unfinished business of the title is the futures that were lost to everyone the moment the Cylon fleet jumped into orbit – Adama with Roslin (maybe), Tigh with Ellen, the Tyrol family – that they all need to make some kind of peace with. Until, at least, another planet becomes available.

And you just had to take off your shoes and play in the alluvial deposits. How romantic.

Notes

-Another blunt title, but a decent one. As much as we might like to move on from New Caprica, there’s too much to talk about.

-Young back for the first time since “Final Cut” and he’s three for three in terms of quality. This is Michael Taylor’s first sole BSG writing credit, he’s perhaps best known for his script for DS9‘s “The Visitor” and his teleplay of “In The Pale Moonlight”.

-A Gaeta/Athena fight was mooted at one point, a way for Gaeta to work out his guilt as a collaborator whereby he goads Sharon into a match, but this was instead altered into a similar idea for Tyrol and Adama. I prefer what they went with.

-In the “Previously on” section, Adama says that “More than half the crews down there already” in reference to New Caprica, but this is an added line that was not spoken in “Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”.

-I love the introduction to the episode proper, with those glaring bright lights right in your face. Right from the off it’s indicated we are getting something harsh.

-Helo remarks that Apollo is fighting him “like he’s got it in for me”. While it may be that Lee is substituting Helo for Starbuck, there might also be some lingering resentment for Helo’s actions in “A Measure Of Salvation”.

-This sequence starts Bear McCreary’s “Violence And Variations”, which is a sort of more up tempo melding of prophetically inclined “The Shape Of Things To Come” with the more presently emotional “Passacaglia”: like the episode, it’s a mix of the present day with the intangible in our minds.

-Boxing has often been compared to dancing and “Unfinished Business” draws the comparison directly by cutting between Apollo/Helo in the ring and Apollo dancing with Kara on New Caprica.

-A bit strange I thought, to see Anders covered in sweat from his conjugal sojourn with Starbuck, but her not so much.

-Oh, the bitterness that Trucco is able to put into his “Glad to be of service” as Starbuck treats him like a penis with a husband attached.

-Athena’s reaction to Starbuck when Thrace turns up at the fight is a little annoyed sounding, as if Kara was meant to be there earlier. Is there some tension there that BSG has never fully outlined?

-I love Tigh as the ref, because of course he is. Whose going to go against him? Well, apart from Starbuck.

-As Lee and Helo spar, I’m reminded of Adama’s comment to his son in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming (Part One)” about the importance of allowing yourself to “lose control” and trust your instincts. In this case Apollo seems to lose control, but in a manner borne from distraction and not focus.

-Apollo blows off Starbuck’s offer of a fight. “I’m done Kara”. Her response as she dangles her dog-tags is “I’m not”. Instantly we can see this isn’t just about a fight. Lee wants to be done with whatever he has or had with Thrace, but neither can really let it go.

-Of course the way the two are positioned here, almost nose to nose, sweating and staring intently at the other can only make two words come to mind: “Now kiss”.

-This one has one of the longest intros of the series, coming in at just shy of ten minutes. And it could have been longer, as we’ll see in the next entry.

-The count is up one from “Hero”, which must be a birth in the Fleet.

-The New Caprica of “Unfinished Business” is a bright, shiny place, very different to the miserable overcast slum we saw previously. I guess every planet needs a summer.

-Dee informs Apollo that her transfer to Pegasus has been approved, which we can also take as a sign of Adama’s slipping standards: he’s allowing the Commander of Pegasus to install his wife, only newly minted as an officer remember, as his XO.

-We haven’t had much cause to talk about Kandyse McClure much this season really, but I love her performance as she silently glares at Starbuck here. She really does not like this woman.

-Not sure what to make of Adama playing with sand, or rather the alluvial deposits. Is it a visual metaphor for the Admiral’s listlessness, happy to be sitting down in the dirt while in uniform?

-Almost from the off, Adama is being a bit more forward with Roslin than we have experienced before: “Nice colour on you”.

-What’s Hot Dog’s problem with Starbuck, seemingly big enough to provoke him into having a boxing match with her?

-The music for the boxing sections is “Fight Night”, a nice mix of the typical BSG military style percussion with a jaunty wind section.

-Baltar is seemingly breaking ground on…an apartment complex? Man, did that not go anywhere.

-Contrary to what Roslin said of Helo in “A Measure Of Salvation”, he can be seen on New Caprica in these scenes.

-The music and visuals for this celebration reminded me a lot of the dancing sequences in the Firefly episode “Bushwhacked”, to the point where I wonder if it was a full-on inspiration.

-Gaeta, playing politics, rushes off to speak to the “Minister of Finance”. It isn’t really made clear how a cabinet works in these circumstances, but I guess there must be one. Also I thought the Colonials has Secretaries, not Ministers?

-I love inebriated Roslin. I don’t really have much else to add to that.

-Oh, and that is meant to be some manner of psychoactive drug they are smoking even if, at the insistence of the network, it is not identified as such.

-A nice exchange between Adama and Roslin, on what they are smoking, the surroundings and maybe a bit more: It’s good”. “It is good”.

-I love the moment when Adama spots whats wrong, and the look on his face when Tyrol tries to beg off repair work. It’s like a startling revelation has just hit him.

-Adama has enough solidity in him at this point to give Tyrol a very quick “no” when the Chief asks to leave the military, but the lackadaisical manner in which he does so is also a sign of bad standards. He doesn’t treat Tyrol seriously enough.

-I do love Tyrol insisting “It’s not serious anyways” before he gets rocked with an enormous right hand. Boom.

-Love that moonlight lighting for this Adama/Roslin scene. It’s very, very pretty.

-Adama taunts Tyrol wonderfully here, asking him if this “is how you fight for your life?”. It’s all goading and it gets the required response, eventually.

-Roslin is the one who coaches Adama at this moment, which is a nice way to showcase a different kind of intimacy between them.

-As Roslin tries to advise Adama on how to win, Adama is blunt in response: “I’m not going to win”. This is his plan, and taking the knocks are just part of it.

-Though McDonnell actually messes up a line here, I assume, telling Cottle that Adama needs “coagulant for the swelling, ice for the bleeding”.

-The music here is a variation of the “Adama and Roslin” theme called “Adama Falls”. Whether he is falling in not looking after his crew or falling for Roslin isn’t clear.

-With Apollo walking away, Starbuck goes for the jugular in her taunts: “I wonder if Dee knew what she was getting. Think she would have settled for sloppy seconds?”. Lee’s punch shows us how hurtful that is.

-“Looks like they’re trying to kill each other” says Anders on the spectacle before him. Dee is more philosophical: “That’s one perspective”. She knows what this is really about.

-The screaming scene, where Apollo and Starbuck are literally shouting their love for each other, is really cringe-worthy in retrospect. Just makes the hairs stand-up in embarrassment.

-I absolutely love Jamie Bamber’s face when Adama says “Kara got married”. It’s the perfect expression of shock, anger and heartbreak.

-The irony of Adama telling Apollo “It’ll be up to us to make sure there’s no mass exodus”. The horse has bolted there Admiral.

-Apollo delivers his own brand of subtle invective in the flashbacks, as he tells Sam “Good luck, you’re gonna need it”. That’s the break-up sorted then.

-As we get this last confluence of memories, there plays a section of the track “Scar” from the episode of the same name, which is apropos given its connection to another instance of Starbuck being trapped by events in the past.

-At least the episode has an emotionally satisfying conclusion in the way that Apollo and Starbuck come together again: “I missed you…I missed you”.

Overall Verdict: The TV cut of “Unfinished Business” is a fine episode, one that is able to successfully marry an exploration of the past with the rather decent all on its own stuff in the present. A lot of great relationship drama is explored in detail here, and the whole thing both looks and sounds great to boot. I would go so far as to say that “Unfinished Business” is the best episode since we left New Caprica, and it isn’t even what the creators of the show really intended with the piece: but we’ll get a bit more into that with the next entry.

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