NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Four: “The Road Less Traveled”

I can’t allow you to risk the lives of this ship’s crew.

Air Date: 2/5/2008

Director: Michael Rymer

Writer: Mark Verheiden

Synopsis: Starbuck’s declining mental state causes mutinous sentiment aboard the Demetrius, amplified when a stranded Leoben model is brought aboard with a message of truce. Baltar’s cult grows apace, as he turns his attentions to a grieving Tyrol.

Review

Starbuck is losing it. That’s been a theme of hers throughout Season Four thus far, especially “Six Of One”, and it’s the plot of her part of “The Road Less Traveled” (yeah, one “l”). And I hate it. I know what the writers are going for, I know what Sackoff is trying to do, but it just doesn’t work for me. “The Road Less Traveled” takes a nuanced three-dimensional character that we have seen grow and change for three years, and turns her into something that takes a metaphorical dump on much of what came before.

So yes, she’s going mad, seen in her demented laughter, her obsessiveness, her unwillingness to deal with her crew properly and then her actions with Leoben. As a CO, she’s dropping the ball to a spectacular extent, acting as Roslin does with the Fleet (a potential throughline denied to us by the President’s absence from the episode), leaving the actual commanding to Helo: think back to the discussions on command she had with Adama in “The Hand Of God”, or with Cain in “Resurrection Ship (Part Two)”, or her interactions with Kat in “Scar” and realise it’s all been for naught. And she is proving herself to be so easily manipulated by Leoben that one has to wonder if we shouldn’t just separate her entirely from the person we saw all the way up to “Maelstrom”, and even in terms of that episode Starbuck seems to not know relevant plot points (like her acceptance of death as a means of working out her hang-ups). This is not our Kara Thrace.

How about this Leoben stuff though? I consider it little less than a betrayal of the entire New Caprica arc for Starbuck, and I think Mark Verheiden might have too, given he puts such a sentiment in Helo’s mouth. To do a long-running sub-plot – four episodes worth, from “Occupation” to “Exodus (Part Two)” – about Leoben imprisoning Starbuck, faking a relationship with her, presenting her with a manufactured daughter and, if we’re being honest, forcing himself upon her in at least one way and then to pull what happens in this episode, is inexcusable. Leoben is an abuser, plain and simple, and here the new Kara Thrace lets him on her ship, puts herself alone with him and then starts getting a bit intimate. That’s what you have to describe it as. Her dreams of such things in “Maelstrom” were one thing, and could easily be described as nightmares. This is different. It’s a sub-plot where an abused woman makes good with her abuser, and it has aged about as terribly as you would expect. The excuses are easy to make – that a traumatised Starbuck would act unpredictably in such circumstances is the summation – but they aren’t good enough. “The Road Less Traveled” could still have gotten from A to B with Leoben without this treatment, but instead chooses something that I would describe as borderline-titillation bait.

In a brief moment of sanity Kara turns on Leoben, after Mathias is killed, but it doesn’t last. That scene ends with the two having an honest-to-God heart-to-heart, and what’s worse a heart-to-heart that essentially re-runs some of the main plot beats of “Maelstrom”, an episode that had such finality, physically and emotionally, for Starbuck that doing so just cheapens it. Leoben urges Thrace to come to terms with her past and find meaning in her destiny, Starbuck is reluctant but goes along with. It’s all so irritating.

We should also talk about Leoben a bit here, in terms of his goal and how he goes about achieving it. He’s always been an enigmatic kind of character of course, but you do feel that we have reached an extreme point. He wants to inaugurate an alliance between human and rebel Cylon and help Starbuck find her way to Earth, and his usual methods of mixing lies and truth isn’t going to help with either task. What Leoben offers is his usual thing: creating dissent, and watching on from the sidelines as said dissent plays out. The death of Mathias may not have been intentional, but just muddies the waters even more. I suppose what I am trying to say is that if the rebel Cylons want an alliance with humanity they send a strange ambassador for the task, and if it had to be Leoben you would think he would go about his business with more care. But then again he might just handwave away such criticism with talk of “destiny”.

Much better in the episode, the saving grace in many ways, is the arc for Helo. For a character that I find is often derided as a one trick pony, I’m seeing in this re-watch a lot of really great stuff, that follows on from the vastly under-rated “The Woman King” in Season Three. Helo gets his own significant sub-plot in “The Road Less Traveled” and it’s one that sees him lose faith in Starbuck bit-by-bit to the point of mutiny.

Helo is pressed hard in this episode. We have to remember that he and Starbuck have a bit of a connection, after what happened on Caprica. He’s been there for her, such as we saw in “Scar”, more than other people have, to the point where we might even describe Helo as the most positive male relationship in Starbuck’s life. Moreover Helo has something to prove as a subordinate officer coming off of his actions in “A Measure Of Salvation”. For these reasons, the idea that he would be the focal point for opposition to Starbuck in these circumstances is understandably difficult for him to accept.

Hence why he appears to put up with so much: Starbuck’s loosening grip on reality, her treatment of the crew, her willingness to play nice with Leoben and even her plan to jump into a potentially life threatening situation. Throughout all of this Helo backs up Starbuck, even as the crew of the Demetrius turn on her, and get more and more vocal about it. Even when his wife urges him to take action, Helo is hesitant, though we cannot discount the influence that she has on the final outcome of things. The final straw is when Mathias dies and Starbuck still does not deviate from her course – emphasising the respect Helo has for other members of the military, something we have known about him since “Precipice” – but even then we can see the anguish etched all over Helo’s face. His anger with Pike that results in the beatdown is just projection of that frustration.

And that frustration comes from the reality that Helo is the one best placed to do something, as Athena reminds him. Starbuck respects him of course, and even if that didn’t matter in her current state of mind he’s the XO. We’ve seen XO’s take action against their commanders before, most notably in “The Captain’s Hand”. Not only can it be done, but it can be done legally. Helo gives Starbuck every opportunity to act rationally, and when she chooses not to, he acts under that legality. And he is right. Of course with the benefit of hindsight it all works out for Starbuck and her destiny-driven actions, but in the context of the immediate situation and what Helo knows and doesn’t know, it’s hard to fault what he does. Other than to ask why it took him so long. “The Road Less Traveled” does a great job with this whole sub-plot, and even if it doesn’t redeem the Demetrius section of the episode it goes a fair way.

Of course there is also stuff back in the Fleet to talk about. Tyrol is undergoing his own significant change in “The Road Less Traveled”, and I don’t just mean the shaving of his head. He’s desperately looking for something to grasp onto, and he certainly isn’t finding it in his work, and he certainly isn’t finding it in his son. Obsession over how Cally died is something for him to focus on, until Tory expertly manipulates him into dropping that as a life raft, implying that she might have killed herself because of Tyrol’s true nature: a heart-breaking scene, that only underlines Tory’s continued turn to villainy.

Of course Tory has a bigger plan than just shaking Tyrol off her trail, she’s out to grab more followers for Baltar. Her words in the launch tube get the ex-Chief in the door, but Tyrol’s hesitancy is obvious. This is a guy who previously expressed only scorn for religion – well, the Colonial religion – in “The Eye Of Jupiter” so one suspects that Baltar’s mantra of humanity as perfection means very little to this subject, and not just because Tyrol isn’t actually human.

Maybe that’s why Baltar attempts to use Cally as a way to connect with Tyrol, doing so in a manner wherein he suggests she would have wanted Tyrol to forgive him. It’s quite strange really, that someone of Baltar’s intelligence would think this the way to go with Tyrol: we might remember that Baltar’s signature was on the death order that nearly ended Cally’s life in “Exodus (Part One)”, something that does not even get brought up here, at least not directly. Perhaps the idea is that Tory has prompted Baltar to use this approach, but if so we don’t really see it.

Tyrol clearly is looking for some measure of salvation, not unlike Tigh with Caprica Six I suppose, though this plot is far better carried out. His anger at Baltar is a manifestation of his own pain, guilt and rage, which leads to a moment where Tyrol impulsively appears to attempt suicide: a very powerful scene, one whose suddenness underlines the rapid change in Tyrol’s mental state very effectively. No longer human, turning on the other members of the Five, what is it that can save Tyrol?

Step forward Baltar a second time I suppose. He’s fully taking on the role of a prophet in “The Road Less Traveled”, and I don’t just mean with the outfit (although that is an amazing touch). It’s in his sermons to the masses, in his confidence over the wireless and in the way he seeks to constantly met and evolve the expectations of his flock. It’s the marriage of his old persona – the narcissist who desires to be adored as a figure of power, political and sexual – with this new figure, who actually seems to believe what he is saying and thinks it is his literal God-driven duty to get everyone else to accept the same thing.

This combination results in a man who both seems like a devout evangelical, but also someone who can engage in some rather cynical long term planning. Baltar makes sure that people who come to hear him talk get fed, he makes sure that the performance of his sermons is memorable, he makes sure that he maintains a secret link to the President’s office through Tory (though the manipulation is very much going both ways there) and he makes sure to create the right “media moments”. His actions at the conclusion of “Escape Velocity” put him on a major pedestal, and now Baltar seeks out more of the same.

The seduction of Tyrol – and again I don’t discount the very real possibility that it is a seduction based in genuine faith – is very interesting. At first Baltar seems to err by using Cally as a crutch. It’s hard to tell if this is just a major misjudgement or part of a more complicated plan to poke the bear for maximum effect: certainly Tyrol’s attack on Baltar only seems to swell the adoration of the crowd.

But Baltar isn’t done, leading to the remarkable second scene in Tyrol’s quarters. Having mollified the needs for his followers, Baltar approaches Tyrol one-on-one, to offer apologies and a justification. He explains that he’s been given one last chance for redemption, and he’s going to do what he can to grasp it, reflecting on the evolution he has gone through since the events of the Miniseries. It’s this, plus some rather bland compliments paid towards Cally, that goes through to Tyrol for some reason. Three of the four revealed members of the Five are at sea right now: Sam with Starbuck, Tigh with Caprica Six, Tyrol with what we have seen. They’re looking for something, anything, that will give them stability. Tory found it with Baltar. Now it seems like Tyrol has too, albeit in a different way: in a realisation that he should spend less time fighting against what he is in a grand cosmic game where God is “laughing his ass off” and perhaps do some embracing of his own. If the first step is to follow Cally in the forgiveness she offered Baltar, then so be it. As inherently insidious as Baltar’s cult is, and how could it not be with Tory at the heart of it, this is a much more positive place to leave Tyrol than we have at the end of other episodes recently, not least “The Ties That Bind”. The shades of grey are building and building.

A remaining thing I want to call attention to, in the good column for “The Road Less Traveled”, is the use of minor characters. This is accomplished because there are a few of the big players missing from the stage, namely Adama and Roslin, so others get the chance to make good with surprisingly little screentime. We’ve mentioned Athena a few times, and I do find her kinda fascinating in this episode, where she has characteristics that sort of match those we saw in “The Woman King”, not afraid to point the finger at others and not afraid to tell her husband what he should and shouldn’t’ be doing. But there are others too: Tory, who only appears twice but manages to give us a showcase of being the power behind the throne when it comes to Baltar and a burgeoning puppetmaster when it comes to Tyrol; Mathias, who joins the crew of the Demetrius in their unhappiness and later provides a potent focal point for their anger; Tigh, who appears only once as an angel on Tyrol’s shoulder but still advances his own sub-plot; and Gaeta, who offers Starbuck a olive branch, the rejection of which feeds into his own willingness to commit mutiny. There are all good examples of doing more with less: if only the production team had been able to follow through with the same level of ability for the main plot of the episode.

There are some sins that even your imaginary God can never forgive.

Notes

-The title comes from the Robert Frost Poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Making an unpopular choice would appear to be a reference to Starbuck.

-This is the only episode of the entire series where Adama doesn’t appear, and one of a tiny number where Roslin also no-shows.

-The Demetrius mission has gone on for 58 days, which seems like an alarmingly long time for the crew stuck on that ship and the Fleet left waiting for them.

-Helo’s concern about Starbuck is obvious from the off, just going by the look on his face, but also notable is his decorum towards a superior officer. He’s at pains to maintain that formality and respect, even as the situation devolves.

-Starbuck seems fundamentally off from the moment we first see her, and not in a well-constructed way. The way she puts on a leering grin for “Third time’s the charm” is like Sackoff was told to imitate the Joker.

-Baltar’s robes are something else. He’s not setting himself up as a prophet, he’s setting himself up as royalty.

-The woman speaking to Baltar expresses anger at “the politicians who provoked this war”. It’s an echo of the Cylon peace movement from “Epiphanies”, and one wonders how widespread the sentiment is in the Fleet.

-Important to note, I think, that Baltar doesn’t actually give this a woman an answer to her grief, he just goes off into his own tirade. He’s still a politician.

-Tyrol has shaved his head, and looks more than a little like Gomer Pyle. The cutting of hair has meaning on Galactica, and the ex-Chief is transformed somewhat here.

-Tyrol turns off Baltar’s speech. Nicky cries. Tyrol turns it back on. What are we to read into that?

-I like the set-up of having Vipers on Demetrius, accessible via EVA. Must be awkward though.

-“Kara…” How did Leoben find the Demetrius? I don’t think that is ever answered.

-Just as in “The Ties That Bind”, you can see the constellation Orion in this scene, but rather than pointing to proximity to Earth production crew have admitted it was an error.

-“I’m here for you, to offer a truce between Cylon and human. And a chance for you to complete your journey.” From the way it is filmed I suspect this line was ADR’d later.

-The count has increased by one, which must be a birth.

-Somewhat telling here, that Gaeta and Mathias are reporting to Helo, not Starbuck.

-Leoben starts his pitch to humanity by literally whispering in the ear of Starbuck, which seems unwise. Especially given his whispering is about how the Demetrius crew does not trust Starbuck.

-The way Tory walks into the launch tube, and how the camera follows her, in her first scene of the episode, I feel has to be a nod to the way Six is usually seen walking. She’s changing in many different ways.

-Tory’s pitch to Tyrol on monotheism includes the startling double-bluff of asking if Cally perhaps knew about his Cylon nature, and if this drove her “suicide”. It’s a hell of an emotional dagger.

-“Yeah, why don’t you do that” says Gaeta to Sam at the suggestion of interrupting Starbuck and Leoben. It’s an interesting way of putting it.

-The extremely intimate manner that Starbuck and Leoben are acting in the scene in her quarters is just revolting. She’s cosying up to her would-be rapist.

-They act as if this is the first time Sam and a Leoben model have met in this scene, but Sam hinted he had met one before, quoting him all the way back in “Resistance”.

-I’ll admit I did like Leoben’s recitation of his “This is not all that we are” as it related to a wide-eyed Sam. Does Leoben know what he is? That seems to be the implication.

-Leoben’s description of the Cylon Civil War fits his own poetic self, he calling it a conflict “between those who embrace their nature and those who fear it”. Ironically I think Cavil would say the same, but claim a different part.

-“Are you talking mutiny?” It’s under-noticed I think, how powerful Helo’s defence of Starbuck is, because he is saying this to his wife of all people.

-A belated, and too late, effort to lead appears here from Starbuck as she confidently orders the ship locked down in preparation for a jump. No one is buying it anymore though, not even Helo.

-While we only get the aftermath here, the sex between Baltar and Tory appears to have gotten more passionate and less weepy. I’m not sure how else to put it, other than that Tory just seems to be getting more satisfaction out of the act than she did before.

-Tory’s manipulations are something to see here, as she outlines how she has been encouraging the President to take a hardline against the cult in the hope it will increase its appeal. Who is this woman, and more importantly what is her end goal?

-Head Six doesn’t get much of a look in during this episode, and there was apparently an abandoned sub-plot that would have involved her saying goodbye to Baltar from this point because he no longer needed her. No thanks to that idea.

-The key thing, as always, with Baltar’s preaching is the message of positivity amid dire circumstances: being “in awe of what we might do” instead of focusing on the past.

-Tyrol isn’t messing around with Tigh, curtly dismissing the Colonel’s approach: “I don’t have anything to say to you”. There’s a keen sign of how far things have gone.

-Speaking of, Tigh’s private sojourns with Caprica Six are apparently becoming the subject of crew gossip. Another reason why they are a staggeringly bad idea.

-The EVA CGI could be better, but I recall they have a few big set-pieces coming up, so it is understandable.

-Good reaction performances from the crew to Mathias’ death, the right mix of shock, horror and anger. It’s needed to justify the turn that comes later. Mathias wasn’t a nobody.

-Baltar is ever the showman, and opens his sermon with a joke to his followers. You’re reminded of a similar good-natured flippancy in similar circumstances in “Colonial Day”.

-What is Baltar expecting when he uses Cally’s name to get to Tyrol? Does he think that she was one of his followers or something like that, and he can use a connection to convert the Chief?

-Tyrol tells Baltar that Cally forgave the former President for New Caprica, but “Some sins cannot be forgiven”. What’s he referring to there? His Cylon nature? Or the part he thinks he played in Cally’s death?

-The violence Tyrol uses towards Baltar is sudden and dramatic, and more than a little robotic: the last bit especially intentional I think.

-Tyrol with the gun to his head, trying to psyche himself up for the act of suicide, is a very powerful image.

-The music throughout the Demetrius plot is interesting, carrying a very Eastern flavour: it reminded me a bit of the Avatar: The Last Airbender soundtrack in some respects. It’s old themes being played with new instruments.

-Leoben describes Starbuck as “an angel blazing with the light of God” and now that they have gone right out and used the “a” word, I’m hoping we’ll get some more progression on this.

-Kara’s speech about Mathias’ death is just awful, claiming the Sgt died for “no reason” and she’s “just gone”. It’s not exactly what her comrades in arms would want to hear.

-It’s important that it is Gaeta who offers Starbuck the olive branch of jumping back to the Fleet. After the way he treated her in “He That Believeth In Me”, this signifies an important effort to reach a reconciliation, and it is one that Thrace totally rejects. Now Gaeta has one more reason for dissent.

-Helo’s anger, taken out on Pike, is brutal and a little unlike him. Yes, Pike is out of line and in a dangerous mood, but to be knocked down like this is something else.

-Baltar’s disguise for his visit to Tyrol’s quarters isn’t exactly very good. Come to think of it, shouldn’t Galactica’s hallways be teeming with people?

-His words to Tyrol when it comes to why he is doing what he does round down to an acceptance of fate, not a conflict with it. I wonder if we can take this as some form of belief in pre-destination as part of his religion?

-Is it all real though, Baltar’s conversion? His appeal to Tyrol here seems very sincere, but there is a performative aspect to it at the same time. What’s the ratio, maybe 60:40?

-“I don’t have any choice” says Helo, lamely. “…Yes, you do” says Athena. She, of everyone, knows how far Helo will go to protect people he cares about. And he cares about this crew.

-Helo is beyond reasonable at the conclusion, suggesting a return to the Fleet and reconnaissance in force to check out Leoben’s coordinates, but Starbuck just isn’t biting.

-Very easy to make comparisons to Razor for this moment. Starbuck was a pupil of Cain’s for a time, and we can well imagine a situation, in her mental state, where she pulls a gun on a dissenting subordinate.

-Does this work as a cliffhanger? Maybe it would have a bit more if it didn’t seem so clear that all of the crew were aligned against Starbuck, or so it seems. Even Anders isn’t gung-ho in her defence.

Overall Verdict: “The Road Less Traveled” is an episode that I wish I could like a little bit more than I do. The Helo stuff is quite good and while it is a little intangible to a certain extent, so is the Baltar/Tyrol sub-plot. But the Starbuck angle, the dominant part of the episode, is just dreadful. The direction the character has taken was already a bit of annoyance, but in buddying her up with Leoben the writers have made a decision that flies in the face of what has come before for Thrace and which in 2022 seems positively insulting to the idea of abuse survivors. This is nominally the first half of a two-part story, so we’ll see if it can be rescued.

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9 Responses to NFB Re-Watches Battlestar Galactica Season Four: “The Road Less Traveled”

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