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277[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Black Market"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Feb 10, 2006
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      Note: This review contains significant spoilers.

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      Battlestar Galactica: "Black Market"

      When the heads of a black market in the fleet are suspected of killing a
      ranking military officer, Lee is assigned to investigate their operation.

      Air date: 1/27/2006 (USA)
      Written by Mark Verheiden
      Directed by James Head

      Rating out of 4: **1/2

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
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      "Black Market" is one of those mixed bags I respect for its virtues even
      though I can't recommend it because of its missteps. Here's an episode that
      tries to deal with something realistic -- a black market -- that would
      obviously emerge in any society facing shortages like this one, but at the
      same time feels the need to fall back on manipulative emotional-crutch
      devices -- like, say, threatened innocent children and a perceptive,
      well-intended woman forced into prostitution. (Naturally, the prostitute is
      the mother of one of the threatened children, but I'm getting ahead of
      myself.)

      The black market emerging in the fleet is becoming more visible and its
      leaders more brazen. Roslin wants to institute an economic policy that would
      make trading in the black market illegal, and Adama agrees to support it,
      but perhaps no one has stopped to consider the implications in light of the
      fact half the fleet -- military personnel included -- is using the black
      market to get the supplies they need. This brings up the interesting
      question of how exactly the economy in the fleet operates considering there
      are no means of production beyond, presumably, the most rudimentary needed
      for survival. The economic questions Zarek posed in "Colonial Day" could
      still benefit from a concrete answer, assuming one is possible.

      In the opening teaser, Pegasus' Commander Fisk is abruptly garroted. Adama
      puts Lee in charge of finding out who did it and why, and the ensuing
      investigation quickly reveals that Fisk was strong-arming the controllers of
      the black market in order to turn his own profits.

      First of all, I have some major reservations about this surprise "twist."
      While I have no doubt the writers thought killing Fisk in the first five
      minutes would be unexpected, I don't see it as particularly good drama. Fisk
      was a guy who we watched squirm all through the unfolding drama of
      "Resurrection Ship." He seemed like a decent guy who wanted to avoid the
      internal violence that Cain seemed so capable of. After Cain's death he
      became the obvious character link to Pegasus. Now the writers
      unceremoniously kill him off, retroactively painting him corrupt. I don't
      care for it. Who do we have now linking us to Pegasus?

      Lee's investigation starts off police procedural style. The plot is set
      against Lee's personal crisis: Here's a man who's imploding. After the
      emotional trauma of "Resurrection Ship," there's something different about
      Lee; even his father mentions. Jamie Bamber's performance gets the message
      across, creating a man who goes about his duties but seems dead inside. In
      the early scenes we see him with a woman named Shevon (Claudette Mink), who
      has a young daughter. The scene slowly reveals that Shevon is actually a
      prostitute whom Lee has a standing arrangement with. Flashbacks reveal a
      woman with Lee from before the Cylon holocaust, but the context remains
      obscured to us; Lee and the mystery woman were lovers, we assume, and
      something happened between them.

      Now Lee seems adrift. There's an odd but somehow effective scene where
      Dualla confronts Lee, asking if there's something unspoken that's going on
      between the two of them. Lee is evasive. Dualla doesn't push. There's a
      Lee-Dualla-Billy triangle here somewhere, but the writers have teased it and
      been reluctant to play it. This is about as overt as it's been.

      Meanwhile, Lee's investigation, even if he does find the suspects, isn't
      likely to end promisingly. The scene between Lee and Tigh proves that when
      supplies are hard to obtain, that doesn't stop people from obtaining them.
      To outlaw the black market would be like outlawing drugs; it may drive the
      problem underground, but it doesn't make it go away. There's a good scene of
      exposition between Lee and Zarek (who always has clues about the shady
      types) leading to my favorite line of wry observation by Zarek: "Did you
      really expect some utopian fantasy to rise from the ashes?" You hear a line
      like that, and you begin to wonder if Roslin, with her trade policy, is
      naively living in that utopia.

      Speaking of Roslin, I'd better mention the scene on Colonial One where she
      asks Baltar to resign the vice presidency. She does this because of what she
      saw in her memories -- Baltar with a Cylon -- in "Epiphanies." Neither
      Roslin nor Baltar say exactly what the other knows, but this makes for an
      interesting and complex dynamic: Baltar saved Roslin's life, and now Roslin
      hopes to bring him down because of what she knows yet cannot prove. When
      Baltar refuses to resign, you know instantly that these two are going to
      war. And an intriguing war of wits and wills it should be.

      Zarek turns Lee on to the Prometheus, the ship running the black market
      under an ex-mercenary named Phelan (Bill Duke), a guy who has upped his
      brazen activity by killing Fisk and now ordering Lee to convince Adama to
      back off, using Shevon and the daughter, both kidnapped, as leverage. The
      story paints Phelan as a pragmatist who has crossed one line too many. He
      makes a good point when he says, "The fleet needs us. We're the pressure
      valve." Yet at the same time he sells children to people with "specific
      needs." What I like here is that the show recognizes the need for a black
      market in the fleet. Phelan makes some good points, and Bill Duke (he
      directed "Deep Cover"; go rent it) approaches the role with a purely
      intellectual performance rather than a visceral one. What I don't buy is
      Phelan's greedy inflexibility. His pragmatic platitudes don't seem in tune
      with his willingness to extend into the evil of dealing children to
      pedophiles.

      Lee's solution is equally pragmatic: He shoots Phelan, and then tells
      Phelan's associates that what's done is done, so now let's work something
      out. He acknowledges the fleet needs the black market, but there must be
      limits, like no trafficking in children. What blunts the suspense of Lee's
      solution is the unnecessary very first scene of the episode, which shows Lee
      holding a gun on Phelan before jumping back "48 hours earlier." It's a
      framing device that wasn't the least bit necessary and gives more away than
      it should. I also could've used fewer flashbacks of Lee and the mystery
      woman, which become repetitive and pretentious. The emotional payoff, which
      is helpfully explained to us by Shevon's armchair psychology while we watch
      the flashbacks, is disappointing.

      I guess what I'm saying is that the plot involving the black market works
      (there's a scene where Roslin has to unhappily accept the black market as a
      fact of life, and also as a scene showing Zarek involving himself in the
      operation with Phelan now out of the way), but the character aspects are
      less certain. Lee's implosion is believable, but Shevon and the woman from
      Lee's past both strike me as extraneous. And Fisk's death is an example of
      the writers simply throwing a perfectly good supporting player in the trash.

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      Copyright 2006, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.

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      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...