304[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Maelstrom"
- Mar 13, 2007Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
Battlestar Galactica: "Maelstrom"
Kara's disturbing dreams and hallucinations prompt her to confront her
troubled past and explore the possibilities of a mysterious destiny foretold
to her since childhood.
Air date: 3/4/2007 (USA)
Written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle
Directed by Michael Nankin
Rating out of 4: ****
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
There's a tendency with an episode that has an outcome like "Maelstrom's" to
expect something slam-bang, heroic, and extraordinary. What happens here,
however, is personal, introspective, and often quiet. In short, it's the way
it should be, and not the way we might somehow want it to be.
"Maelstrom" is an episode with pitch-perfect tone and stellar performances.
It observes its characters with a striking attentiveness that's, at times,
hypnotic. Meanwhile, its outcome will, frankly, piss some people off. But
any problems with this episode have nothing to do with its storytelling and
everything to do with the unavoidable external hoopla that surrounds the
departure of a major cast member -- which, if you don't want to be spoiled
about exactly what that means, you should stop reading right now.
This episode is, simply put, the story of the death of Kara "Starbuck"
Thrace. Online speculation runs rampant: Why was Katee Sackhoff written out?
Was the actress unhappy on the show? Is Ron Moore overly obsessed with shock
value? Is Starbuck not "really" dead and coming back next season in some
twist? Is she one of the Final Five Cylons? And so on. I have no idea if
there were external, non-story reasons that led to this decision, or whether
Sackhoff might come back next year, or what it means that the writers have
left some sci-fi wriggle room surrounding her character's death. But I
prefer it that way, because I have "Maelstrom" to examine and I'd like to
look at it for what it is.
And you know what? "Maelstrom" is a terrific, absorbing hour of drama. The
writers have constructed an appropriate exit for Kara Thrace that feels
right given what we know about her and particularly what she's been going
through this season. Is it "satisfying"? Well, maybe not if you were
expecting her to go out with a conventional hero's bang. But, yes, in that
the story the whole time points to where it's headed and arrives at the only
place that it can and should -- and yet arriving there is still shocking on
But, really, the shock value is not even the true point of "Maelstrom." This
story is about reading the telegraphed clues of Kara's behavior, and how the
story's destination will be viewed through two different prisms. One prism
is from within Kara's head. The other is through the people close to Kara,
who are privy to her behavior but not her thoughts. Only the audience has
the whole picture, and that's the beauty of the narrative. We know the
reasons why, even as the characters closest to her do not. The question by
the end is this: Is Kara's death pointless? Meta-question: Who is defining
As we join Kara already in progress, she's having strange nightmares
involving the image of the Eye of Jupiter painted on her apartment walls,
and bizarre sex involving Leoben and lots of paint. This prompts Kara to
visit an oracle in the fleet, who has information she absolutely should not
have about Kara's encounter with Leoben, and what he said (in "Flesh and
Bone") about Kara, her mother, and her destiny. The oracle is disturbingly
omniscient, and it throws Kara for a loop. Is there truth to Leoben's
assertions? Does she have a special destiny that's in the master plan of the
Kara is also hallucinating. She sees images of herself as a child, and the
bad memories come flooding back. In one scene, she shares with Anders a
story about her abusive mother's hateful tendencies, and Kara's method of
revenge by putting fake bugs in her mother's closet. It threw her mother,
Socrata (Dorothy Lyman), into such a rage that she slammed Kara's hand in a
door and broke all her fingers. "It *was* worth it, though," Kara muses.
The hallucinations do not end there. The Galactica is conducting fleet
refueling operations in the low orbit of a planet. While on a Viper patrol
in the turbulent atmosphere, Kara engages a Cylon Heavy Raider, which she
pursues through the clouds and into a violent maelstrom that forms a
circular pattern resembling the Eye of Jupiter (although, admittedly, a lot
of circular objects can resemble the Eye of Jupiter). Kara goes in too deep
and her Viper is nearly crushed by the atmospheric pressure. She pulls out
at the last second. Back aboard the Galactica, analysis of her flight
recorder shows no record of the Cylon ship. Is Kara hallucinating in the
Lee is concerned and conflicted. Should he ground her? He has an insightful
conversation with his father that suggests one of the episode's key points
of view: "Sometimes it's hard to admit that the best of us can burn out,"
Adama says. Kara has been through a lot, and to the other characters she has
become increasingly unstable. She's always had self-destructive tendencies,
but usually they've played themselves out in her personal life, not in the
cockpit. Has it now gotten to the point that she's simply lost it? Is it a
liability that's going to end up getting her or someone else killed?
It's a possibility. Even Kara admits it, telling Lee: "I'm not going back
out there. I don't trust myself." Kara has always been screwed-up
emotionally, and we've seen a lot more evidence of that lately, exemplified
by the total mess that her relationships with Anders and Lee have been.
She's angry and distrustful, and a big part of that distrust is of herself.
Being trapped in that horrifying mind game with Leoben on New Caprica
certainly exacerbated the situation, but one could argue that her difficult
relationship with her soldier mother helped mold Kara into the troubled
person she is today. (It's worth noting, however, that Kara's engagement to
Zak would not seem to fit in with this character arc. Or perhaps one could
argue that Zak's death merely fueled the anger.)
Obviously, as audience members, we have enough information where we can see
the situation as more complicated than a case of Kara's psychological
breakdown. With all the coincidences and foretelling of destiny, could it be
there's something real going on that doesn't exist only in Kara's head? When
candle wax drips on the floor and creates a pattern that looks like the Eye
of Jupiter, is that a sign, or merely a coincidence? It doesn't much matter,
because in Kara's mental state, it becomes a sign.
I always find Kara most interesting when the story reveals the vulnerability
behind the tough exterior. "Act of Contrition," still the series' best
Starbuck episode, knew this best of all. Kara's status as the resident
hotshot is merely an attribute, not her definition. One of the best scenes
in "Maelstrom" is a quiet one where Lee and Kara take a seat on the flight
deck. When Kara asks, Lee says that his relationship with Dualla has
improved. You can see that he's found something to hold onto in his personal
life while Kara might never be able to. And you sense a resolution between
these two characters and their relationship, once again defined by their
professionalism and friendship. For Kara, there's a definite note of
melancholy. She's stranded in a personal limbo. More than anything, this
scene and the actors understand the effectiveness of restraint and subtext:
Because we know the history, the scene knows it doesn't have to underline
its own significance.
When Kara goes back on patrol, this time with Lee as her wingman, she sees
the Heavy Raider again, and chases it into the maelstrom. She's pulled into
an unconscious vision where she must relive a pivotal encounter with her
mother -- the day she learned her mother was dying. While flashbacks have
sometimes been a problem this season (like in "Hero" or "A Day in the
Life"), they work here because they tell us something about the character's
past that informs the present.
It all comes down to Kara's final argument with a mother who was an
impossible woman. Socrata took "tough love" to an extreme, and valued
success above all else, constantly telling Kara she was "special" while
berating her efforts as inadequate. Kara used a heated last-straw argument
as an excuse to walk out and never return, but the real reason she never
came back was she couldn't face her mother's impending death. Her mother
died alone. It has been a regret that has haunted Kara ever since, and it
planted a seed of fear that has given her pause about her own possible
Now, through a journey that can equally validly be labeled as spiritual or
purely psychological, she's able to revisit that choice and envision a
different decision. She finally makes peace with her mother's death and in
the process conquers her own fears. Kara has flirted with death her entire
life (hence her career), but she has always stepped away from the precipice
after briefly staring over it.
The revelation of "Maelstrom" is that she is now able to throw herself over
the precipice because she has finally resolved that fear. The image of the
Heavy Raider might simply be death calling her in the way she finds most
comfortable. And she decides *wants* to cross over to "the other side,"
wherever that may lead. Her "special destiny," it would seem, is to die
(although there are suggestions that it's more than that). She seems
comfortable, even welcoming, and tells Lee, "Let me go." The fact that she
dies in a vortex that looks like the Eye of Jupiter cannot be a coincidence,
but then it's not completely clear if the vortex is real or imagined.
Leoben's role in all this is also of peculiar interest: He *looks* like
Leoben but it's doubtful he's Leoben the Cylon. He's something else: a
construct of Kara's subconscious, a spiritual guide, or perhaps a father
figure. You decide.
So is this a tragic dramatization of a character in a psychological meltdown
-- who commits suicide because she no longer wants to live? Or is it indeed
a story of a destiny fulfilled, where crossing over into death means
something else and might even have sci-fi possibilities that ripple through
the BSG mythology? Either reading is valid, and either way Kara's backstory
sheds light on the matter. And either way, this is a satisfying and powerful
tale about the cycle of life and death. This is an episode that engages the
viewer's imagination and encourages fan debate.
A review of "Maelstrom" would not be complete without mention of the
visuals. This may be an intimate character drama, but the show doesn't
scrimp on its special effects, which make for intense, pulse-pounding scenes
of aviation that rank among the best flight sequences on the series.
It all makes for an episode of compelling images, illuminating backstory,
poetic (if cryptic) puzzle-piece arrangement, promises for future mythology
development, and fine performances (particularly Sackhoff's). Not to mention
the immediate fallout of having a major character snatched away. Whether
Kara's exit pays off for the story in the long run remains to be seen, but
it pays off here.
The final scene sums up the episode's emotions perfectly. Adama grieves
privately in his quarters. He sits alone in anguish, putting some finishing
touches on his model ship. And then in a stunningly effective moment, he
smashes the model to pieces in a fury. A loved one has died, leaving the
survivors with no answers and no resolution. And now what?
Copyright 2007, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
Jammer's Reviews - http://www.jammersreviews.com
Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...