Air Date: 13/02/2009
Director: Gwyneth Horder-Payton
Writer: Ryan Mottesheard
Synopsis: Over the course of years, a resurrected Ellen Tigh goes back-and-forth with Cavil on the nature of Cylon existence and resurrection. Sam’s brain injury allows for unexpected insights into the history of the Final Five. Adama tasks Tyrol with investigating Galactica’s structural damage.
You can argue that “No Exit” is the most important episode of BSG thus far, or at least the most important episode of Season Four. This is where the disparate strands of plot that became clear when the Four of Five were revealed in “Crossroads (Part Two)” get tied together, in a fashion, and where the deeper lore of the show gets some serious filling in. Mysteries going all the way back to the Miniseries and beyond are elaborated upon, and much of what is going to come, in what has to now be acknowledged as the show’s endgame, gets set-up. And it is a moment, unfortunately, where the seams of BSG start to show as obviously as the cracks in Galactica.
OK, let’s break it down. The Final Five existed as part of an Earth society that once used resurrection technology but forgo’d it in favour of biological reproduction (why?). Fearing a war between biological and mechanical, the Five worked to bring the tech back into being, and prepared a ship in orbit they would download to when they died. They then set-off at subliminal speed to the Twelve Colonies, stopping at the algae planet on the way (why?), to “warn” the Twelve Colonies about the danger of such a conflict (why?). They came too late, but negotiated an end to the First Cylon War by promising the Cylon side resurrection technology and an improved form of biological Cylon models. The first created, Cavil, later betrayed his creators for a variety of reasons, then resurrected them with false identities and inserted them into Colonial society (why?), before going about his own genocidal plans.
I think it suffices to say that all of this constitutes a cart before the horse situation. Having determined that Tigh, Ellen, Tyrol, Tory and Anders were Cylons, the writers then had to find a way to make this make sense, and their solution is a difficult one to swallow. Rather than a pivotal evolution of lore, it feels like a game of connect the dots where the person doing the connecting has been instructed to come up with a different picture to the one suggested. It’s fundamentally weak as an explanation for, well, everything, as my “why?” notes would indicate.
Just to take one of them, the idea that figures like Tigh and Anders could be inserted into Colonial society, fully grown, and then lead the lives they lead is laughable. Tigh was given an entire military background, experience in the Cylon War, enough that he could then be re-instated into the Colonial military? And rise to the level of being an XO on a battlestar? It’s one thing for Boomer to be a Lt with no past, this is something else. At no point in Tigh’s career did someone say “Wait, I served on that ship and Tigh wasn’t there”?
And then Anders. Anders is a sporting celebrity on the Colonies – both Helo (“Resistance”) and Adama (“Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two”) are aware of who he is before they meet him – yet he has been able to attain that position with no real background? When the question would have been asked “Who trained you in pyramid? or “What youth teams did you play for?” or anything about the upbringing of a celebrity, surely the fiction would have been exposed?
Some will say I’m nitpicking, but I don’t think so. When trying to construct this kind of elaborate plot, it has to be watertight, or else the required suspension of disbelief will not be possible. It’s an albatross around the neck of what remains of BSG, and what I have elaborated upon is just one sub-section of it all. In fairness to the writers they do try gamely on some points, as I will discuss below, but the dread I felt as I watched parts of this episode comes as we face into the BSG finale, which so many have criticised for its patchwork approach to these kinds of elements.
Ever since the conclusion of “Sometimes A Great Notion”, the Ellen episode has been coming. “No Exit” portrays a new version off this character, one whose previous personality as a drama-hungry malcontent is now seemingly tossed aside in favour of something more calm and rational, though the manipulative streak is very much still present. Still, this is Ellen 2.0 (or maybe the first one was that, though lets not get too Pepe Silvia about it), exemplified pretty well as she politely thanks the Centurion who helps her out of the resurrection bath, happy to treat the machine like it is a sentient being worthy of respect.
The resulting depiction is a woman who is halfway between Eve and God in different ways. God in that she is a creator and shaper of life and makes no apologies for the way in which she did it, Eve in how she is still a font of highly sought after, yet dangerous, knowledge that could effect the Cylon future. The alleged source of Cylon resurrection, she holds a lot of potential power in this society, and isn’t afraid to use that leverage to her own advantage either. We saw that most with Boomer more than Cavil, with Ellen seemingly doing an expert job at turning this particular Eight to her side over the course of months. The Boomer/Cavil relationship was always a bit strange, and Ellen seems to know just the right buttons to push on this Eight. Or so it might appear at any rate. She has a hidden goal, and that is escape, but as I recall Boomer has some hidden goals too.
The main event of “No Exit” is Cavil of course. He’s long been the primary antagonist of BSG, but it is in “No Exit” that we get the chance to delve into what has driven him to do the things that he has done, and what it is that he hoping to achieve in the final act of the larger story. In this he fights a philosophical battle with Ellen, his creator, with Boomer serving as a sort of de facto jury on who the winner is going to be. As with so much else in the Cylon psyche, it comes down to a discussion on nature, and whether Cavil would be better off embracing his human aspects or should continue with what we might call his mechanical crusade.
Once we realise that Ellen is the creator, a mother figure even if it is not stated so directly, then Cavil immediately becomes even creepier. After all, he was blackmailing Ellen into sex back in “Occupation”, and here seems to take a detached enjoyment in seeing her naked and at his mercy. It’s not hard to see the Oedipal issues at play, with Cavil demonstrating either a physical attraction to the woman who created him (and in the image of her father, to add another demented layer) or a more mental desire to see her humiliated and cast down at his feet. This kind of hang-up lingers around the fringes of “No Exit”, even as Cavil gets the chance to pontificate on everything else.
In a speech that is one of Dean Stockwell’s shining moments as the character, and calls to mind the same kind of stunning monologue from Agent Smith in The Matrix, the head of the Cylons lets loose on his disgust with the biological body he has been given, something that allows him to experience only a fraction of what the universe has to offer. The limitations of sight, of hearing, even of speech: Cavil is a being at such ill-ease with himself, “trapped” as he puts it, that he seeks to eliminate any form of biological limitation, to the point of turning off his requirement for sleep. The idea that he represents a manner of perfection in the eyes of Ellen only angers him more. Cavil does not consider himself human, or even a human amalgam, he’s a machine that has just been badly made by a creator who should have thought things through a bit better, and this state of affairs isn’t just an inconvenience to him, it’s something that makes him furious. Furious enough to subject Ellen to threats and torture, when she just won’t come around to his way of thinking. We’ve identified Cavil as a pro-machine kind of guy for a while now of course, as far back as his first appearance, but this expression of that feeling is really notable in “No Exit”: it’s not just a self-identification, it’s a dogma to him.
Cavil wants to be something more than he is (which might make us think of Leoben’s thoughts in spirituality in episodes like “Flesh And Bone” and “The Road Less Traveled”) and that means not just an embrace of his mechanical side, but also a rejection of anything that carries with it any stink of humanity. He has always wanted revenge for the slavery of the Centurions, or so he claims, but he also wants something a bit more simple: “life everlasting”. The destruction of the Resurrection Hub in “The Hub” is a mortal threat to what he wants to accomplish, and now, aside from getting Ellen to admit that he is right in everything that he says and claims about the human race, he’s going to cut the knowledge of resurrection out of her head. She offers forgiveness, but Cavil doesn’t feel he has done anything that needs forgiving.
Underneath it all though, there are some very human aspects of Cavil’s character that we get to see here. His destruction of the Number Seven line of Cylons is portrayed as the act of a spiteful, jealous brother who wanted more of his parents attention. He claims he got rid of his sleep because it was inefficient, but it’s hinted it’s more because of serial nightmares he couldn’t shake. And Cavil loves to make a performance, bringing Boomer into the fray just to be an audience, and again as part of this warped scheme to get Ellen to admit she was wrong in the way that she made the Cylons: something that borders on an effort to play God himself, sending his sinning flock into purgatory to cleanse them of their faults. Cavil remains capable, threatening and dangerous, but he has frailty too: Ellen exposes many of them in “No Exit”, not least that this mechanical crusade is based fundamentally on something akin to a child’s tantrum.
With all of that, there is plenty of importance happening back in the Fleet. When we last saw Anders he had just taken a bullet to the neck, or rather the brain as we see here, and in “No Exit” we commence what has to be considered one of the most radical changes of character that BSG ever pulled. From the moment we first see Anders, babbling about seemingly random things in a very familiar manner, it won’t take a genius to perceive where the show is planning to go with him.
If the destination is a little predictable, at least the initial part of the journey is suitably dramatic and well-executed. “No Exit” manages to fashion an unlikely race against time for Sam, the rest of the Four of Five and Starbuck, as Anders starts having revelations about his past and what the Final Five were all about. In a way I appreciate this series of reveals, brought on as they are by the apparently random happenstance of a bullet to the brain – tying into Cavil’s thoughts on the brain as just a series of electrical signals that needs the right manipulation – more than the Ellen stuff in a strange way, since the scattergun nature of Sam’s exposition is directly tied to a very real threat on his life. We learn a lot about the Final Five in the process – see above and below- but tantalisingly don’t learn as much as we would like. This was a clever choice, and much of the tension of “No Exit” is driven by Tigh, Tyrol and Starbuck pacing back-and-forth as they wait for Sam’s surgery.
In the middle of it all is Thrace, suddenly cast back into Anders’ life as his lawfully wedded wife, and left to make the vital decisions as his next of kin. That Starbuck’s marriage has been functionally dead for a while now appears not to come into it, as she’s left with the decision as to how long they should push things with Anders before the bullet gets removed. It’s interesting to parse out her motivations in this moment: obviously she wants Anders to be well, but there’s also the possibility that he might be able to find out a little bit more about her own fate. In the end Starbuck values the former over the latter, to her credit, and the plot of Starbuck’s Destiny will keep turning over for the time being.
The price for it all is harsh though. Sam is left functionally brain dead at the conclusion, both the person he was and the information he held lost inside his own failing physical form: another score for Cavil from a certain point of view. But of course even without the benefit of hindsight we know that this is not the end. Sam exhibited just a bit too much similarity to the Cylon Hybrid models for us to buy that he will be spending the rest of the trip in a catatonic state, and we’ll get more into his future state very shortly.
A smaller part of “No Exit”, but quite important really, is the brief sub-plot involving Laura Roslin and Lee Adama. The two get to share just one scene really, surveying the wreckage of the Quorum in the aftermath of “Blood On The Scales” and needing to make a number of very hard calls. Roslin now fully understands how the nature of her decision in “Sometimes A Great Notion” to go into a sort of shutdown and ignore her constitutional role created a power vacuum with inevitable results: while she is now willing to take some steps to clean up the mess, she also knows that her role as President is in its waning days. The burden, in a de facto sense, will fall to Apollo, a President in all but name.
Roslin warns that Lee’s idealism will get him into trouble if he is too rigid with it – such a state of affairs will result in too many “right” choices over the “smart” ones – but Apollo has proven himself in the political arena, in “Revelations” and elsewhere. It’s him who proposes a new political structure for the Fleet that does away with the Colonial idea of the remaining citizens being Capricans and Picons or whatever in favour of an identification with the ship they live in, a radical but not unwise change given the circumstances of the Fleet. I don’t recall that we ever get to see much, if any, of this idea in practice, but it’s one that speaks to Apollo’s ingenuity in trying circumstances. As for Roslin, it’s difficult from this position to see what lies ahead for her. It’s something of a blank slate for BSG to work on, and that is no bad thing.
Lastly, there is Galactica herself, as “No Exit” follows up on the foreboding glimpses of structural damage that marked the conclusion of “Blood On The Scales”. Tyrol is tasked with repairing the damage, and discovers that the rot goes much deeper than he realised, with fractures, cracks and failing supports found throughout the ship’s superstructure. “No Exit” goes all in on this idea, with scenes set on the ship now accompanied by an eerie groaning of metal in the background. The impression is undeniable: after plenty of battles – I count six where the ship was struck by missiles – with no opportunity for any kind of proper repair, Galactica is in a position where all Tyrol can do is squeeze a little bit more life out of her. It’s a depressing quandary for Adama to have to deal with, and strikes at the very identity of the military in the Fleet: without Galactica, what are they?
Adama is left with a stark choice, one that brings up uncomfortable realities: biological Cylon processes could shore up the damage and give Galactica new life, but would necessitate a blending of Colonial and Cylon technology that is difficult to contemplate. Adama is deadset against it, and in so doing displays a rank hypocrisy. He used force to insure that Cylon tech would be added to the Fleet’s ships, one of the final blows to provoking a mutiny that came close to terminating his command. Now, he refuses to allow something very similar happen on his ship. It’s not until he sees damage in his own quarters that Adama finally relents, perhaps realising that it was his dangerous arrogance that facilitated the Gaeta/Zarek mutiny in “The Oath”, and that such arrogance cannot be allowed to continue. This sub-plot is a little ill-fitting to the larger episode, with its implications large enough that it should perhaps have been permitted the chance to be the main plot of a different story, but Olmos and Douglas do good work with it all the same. The hurt of Galactica is reflected in Adama, with Tyrol an unlikely rescuer: the merging of the Cylon with the Colonial adds another layer of complication to things as the show’s endgame progresses.
-The title comes from the Satre play, about three damned souls trapped in a room in hell so they can torment each other. It is the source of the famous “hell is other people” quote. Its use here might be a commentary on the Cylon models feeling trapped in their roles, and loathing the others.
-This is Horder-Payton’s only BSG credit, she later being notable for her work on Sons Of Anarchy. This is also Mottesheard’s sole writing credit, he would later do a lot of work on the Falling Skies franchise.
-The opening crawl changes significantly in “No Exit”, being little less than a brief summation of the show’s entire plot, complete with a look at all eleven “known” Cylons.
-We open properly with a recap of that heart-breaking scene in “Exodus (Part Two)” where Ellen drinks the poison, and I am more convinced than ever that the act was done deliberately.
-Not sure we needed a fairly ridiculous looking Stargate-ish effect of Ellen travelling through some sort of data wormhole as part of her resurrection.
-Kate Vernon plays it very well, the transition between Ellen’s mania when she first downloads to a very eerie calm as the memories come back to her.
-Love that effect of the Centurion hand changing from its razor-sharp appendages to something more friendly, doing so in a manner that suggests it had forgotten it could even do that, and Ellen’s response: “Thank you, you’re very kind”.
-The moment we see Sam the allusions being drawn between his current state and the Cylon Hybrid is obvious in his stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Some of them are actually quotes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
-Is there any significance to Sam’s comments on Ellen: “She loved the water”? It seems like an important thing, but I can’t see what to make of it.
-So Cavil has a first name, and it’s “John”. Should we look anything into the fact that this name is from the Hebrew for “Graced by God”?
-He’s also seemingly designed to look like Ellen’s father, which she describes using the very deliberate wording of “in his image”.
-Cavil puts his views on biological origins pretty plainly when he compliments himself for the fact that his “ancestors didn’t crawl out of the swamp”.
-Cavil is happy to get Ellen some clothes: “After all, I’ve seen it all before”. Shudder.
-Adama can’t freeze Tyrol out anymore: “I need a Chief, all I have is a Galen”. Him being as Cylon doesn’t factor into it.
-Love this look at the wounded of the mutiny piled up in the hallways outside of the medical bay. There was a huge cost to that event.
-“A wonderful thing has happened” says Sam, with this truly demented look on his face. He’s like a different person for a few moments.
-The count is down another 47, bringing the mutiny’s cost to about 87.
-I only noticed here, but “Earth” in the opening crawl has been replaced with just the word “home”.
-Cavil’s nightmares sound grim, featuring “dog-faced boys” chasing him “through yellow mists”. Rather than deal with whatever trauma brought that on, Cavil just turned his sleep off.
-It’s hard to really credit Cavil’s claimed motivation of seeking justice for his Centurion brethren regards his resolute persecution of humanity. It’s not a very machine-like idea, and flies in the face of his advocacy for reducing their intelligence in “Six Of One”.
-Gotta love Stockwell’s delivery of the bitchy descriptor: “Fabulous Final Five”.
-Ellen namedrops the infamous “swirl”, just in case the audience forgot that Cavil arranged to have sex with her multiple times on New Caprica. Creepy much?
-Cavil seemingly suffers from high blood pressure, which does seem an odd thing to include in a Cylon. I’m with him that far. I’m reminded of that time in “Final Cut” when Cottle complained that whomever created the humanoid Cylons didn’t improve “the plumbing”.
-OK, I’m not sure we really needed the sight of Ellen offering a literal apple to Boomer.
-Rejecting my own interpretation of what Anders’ song meant in “Sometimes A Great Notion”, Sam reveals here that it was Galen and Tory who were lovers back on Earth. Tyrol responds to this with a wistful smile, and we might recall their growing closeness prior to Cally’s death in “The Ties That Bind”.
-Tyrol was also apparently the “genius” who was more responsible than the others for the re-creation of resurrection technology. Tyrol has always been smart and capable in his own way, but we’ve had little inkling that he is this smart. Was dumbing him down also part of Cavil’s demented puppet show?
-It’s only an aside, but Sam also notes that the Five were visited by people only they could see warning them of the coming apocalypse on Earth. Presumably this was Head Six and Head Baltar, in whatever forms they had at the time.
-Apollo has a line from behind in the Quorum room, “Oh Gods, so much killing”, that is clearly an ADR insert.
-Roslin indicates her belief that, for all of its flaws, the Quorum represented civilisation in the Fleet. I suppose she’s not wrong, but if the Quorum was civilisation, it was a flawed, frequently blinded, form of such a thing. Appropriate I suppose.
-Lee’s words on how people identify themselves in the Fleet – as being “from Galactica” or “from Colonial One” instead of a planet – rings true. I don’t think such planetary designations have been a major factor in the show since “Dirty Hands”.
-Roslin gives Apollo the largest endorsement she can give: “You are the right one Lee, you were always the right one”.
-Love Adama’s description of what will happen to the bulkheads if their supports go: “They’ll slam shut like a book”. I’m not sure why they would, from where is the pressure coming from? Or is that pressure a consequence of a FTL jump?
-Anders brings up the Demetrius as a reason why Starbuck should trust him on his strange mental journey, and it’s hard not to feel like he has a point. Thrace is bad at quid pro quo.
-Like that effect of Anders suddenly seeing everyone glowing, combined with the return of the Music. I think such things have been reported with brain injuries before, but then again so have countless symptoms related to warped perception.
-“The Temple of the Five” discovered in “The Eye Of Jupiter” was apparently “The Temple Of Hopes” converted by the Five on their journey to the Colonies. This would seem to indicate at least something of a God complex.
-“Nice touch, the exploding star”. Is Cavil implying that the Five are responsible for the supernova we saw in “Rapture”? How?
-Ellen indicates that it is the divine, the “One True God”, responsible for everything, but apparently the Five did not hold this belief themselves at the time.
-I love Cavil’s speech, it’s just such a brilliantly put together takedown of everything he hates about himself, from his “ridiculous gelatinous orbs” to his “prehensile paws”.
-The anger at the denouement of the speech is great too, how Cavil just gets more and more furious as he goes, ending with the last swipe at his creators who have made him weak because “they thought God wanted it that way”.
-In the end, Cavil is able to give just about the best base statement for his entire philosophy: “I’m a machine, and I could know so much more.”
-Ellen counters, with Boomer, that the divine is in their creation through the possibility of free will, which is a controversial idea in the circumstances: the Five did make these models with a lot of self-destructive flaws, and you can’t see much free will in that.
-Boomer asks “Who would I want to love?”, followed by an immediate cut to Tyrol. Not exactly very subtle.
-Tigh continues to hold a great deal of guilt for being a Cylon, choosing to take on so much of the blame for everything that has happened. That isn’t really logical, and reflects some of his own hang-ups. Something has gone wrong, so it must be his fault.
-Sam’s brain surgeon is played by John Hodgman, an actor and comedian who has been all over, from, The Daily Show to voice roles in just about everything.
-Aphasia is a very real ailment, usually caused by damage to the left side of the brain. It’s a common enough symptom of strokes.
-Cavil finally offers Ellen a drink, so you know some bad news is coming.
-I haven’t really thought of it that way, but the destruction of the Resurrection Hub really is going to cause a Cylon extinction crisis. How long do they have without a means of reproduction? How long do individual models last?
-The Five seemingly did their work at a place called “the Colony”, which is first mentioned here. Interesting wording, what with the original destination of the Five being the Twelve Colonies.
-Cavil doesn’t mince words regards his plan: “The brain is a marvellous thing. It’s a big electrical grid. Just lay it open, stimulate it in the right places, and I can trigger your deepest memory. Your deepest fears. Your deepest guilt. And even the recipe for life everlasting.”
-The “single loving god…changed everything”. How did the Centurions come to have this belief? And was it really so vital to altering the Cycle?
-One of Sam’s final pleas is for the Five to “stay with the Fleet”, indicating a degree of pre-cognition within him now: the Five staying or going will be a key part of the next episode.
-I really could do without Tigh and Caprica Six playing house. As I remember this sub-plot is coming to a rapid conclusion soon enough, and I’m not sorry.
-Ellen’s drawing of Tigh is decent, but not an exact likeness. I’ve never quite understood why she was drawn to make it. It does remind me of D’Anna’s drawing of the Five from “The Passage”.
-Ellen lists Cavil’s plot beats, and it is a laundry list of psychological sadism: saving Ellen from the holocaust so he could mess with her some more (“Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down”); being Tyrol’s priest (“Lay Down Your Burdens (Part One)”), becoming part of Sam’s resistance movement (Lay Down Your Burdens (Part Two)”) and torturing Tigh (“Occupation”). The only one he hasn’t gone for is Tory. I wonder why?
-In the end, there are only two motivators for Cavil that we should focus on, according to Ellen, that make him truly human: “Jealousy and rage”.
-What me might call the Daniel genocide is a fascinating bit of Cylon lore we won’t ever really go into again, a model we will never see. In destroying this figure, Cavil adds a certain Cain-like persona to himself, along with everything else.
-Cavil retains the snark all the way to his last interaction with Ellen: “I can’t wait to see what perfection looks like on the inside”.
-Tyrol doesn’t mince words when it comes to the state of Galactica: “Her bones are rotten”.
-The question is asked: “What’s her life worth to you?” Adama considers, but only has one answer, for now: “No”.
-At some point we have to talk about Adama in terms of possibly being an alcoholic (and a pill popper). The way he swigs whiskey straight from the bottle as he enters his quarters is eye-raising to say the least.
-The gash in the walls of Adama’s bathroom, it looks like something cut into it. This can’t be the same kind of damage as Tyrol is repairing, surely?
-Ellen says Boomer should have brought a “tumbril” to carry her to the surgery, which I think is a reference to the horse-and-carts that carried condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
-I’m not sure why Cottle is presenting the bullet they have taken out of Anders to Starbuck, like it is some kind of trophy. It’s a little ghoulish, even for him.
-Ishay is remarkably cold when she tells Starbuck “Don’t bother” as she tries to communicate to Sam. It’s another sign, after “A Disquiet Follows My Soul”, that she has a growing antipathy towards Cylons.
-Adama, drunk and maudlin, finally gives in: “Do whatever you have to do to save our girl”.
Overall Verdict: There is plenty in “No Exit” to enjoy, with the Cavil material some of the best character study the show has ever done. The stuff with Sam is interesting, and in terms of setting-up the final act of BSG it’s not too bad. But it’s hard not to look critically on “No Exit” when it contains these badly strung together efforts to square a multitude of circles in the show’s backstory, and make up for hastily made decisions in the writers room that were not accomplished with enough forethought. It’s a good episode, but that part of it does not bode well.
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