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317[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Guess What's Coming to Dinner?"

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  • Jamahl Epsicokhan
    Jan 8, 2009
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      Note: This review contains significant spoilers.

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      Battlestar Galactica: "Guess What's Coming to Dinner?"

      The rebel Cylons and Demetrius rendezvous with the fleet, where a
      fragile alliance and an audacious plan are arranged. But can this
      alliance survive so much inherent distrust?

      Air date: 5/16/2008 (USA)
      Written by Michael Angeli
      Directed by Wayne Rose

      Rating out of 4: ****

      Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
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      "Guess What's Coming to Dinner?" is an outstanding hour of tone and
      style, of quietly but implacably escalating foreboding, of characters
      having basic assumptions about their lives completely thrown into
      question, and has an ending that does not supply answers but only
      more questions. The plot puts its chips all-in on BSG's mythology
      aspects. If you are not already invested in BSG's mythology, you will
      be lost. If you are not riveted by BSG mythology by the end of this
      episode, then you likely never will be.

      And yet, this episode is less about *what* happens than about *how*
      it happens, and how it *feels* as it happens. There's a confidence in
      purpose here, from one end to the other, that's almost hard to
      qualify. Speaking to my own tastes, this is an episode that
      outdoes "The X-Files" because it knows that plotting is only one
      attribute of an effective mystery, and it outdoes "Mad Men" because
      it knows that characterization can be more emotionally involving when
      it's tied to plot and expressed rather than constantly internalized.
      This is my kind of balancing act. The episode also manages to be
      philosophical without being tedious, complex without being confusing,
      and artful without being pretentious. It fires on all cylinders --
      without careening over the cliff.

      Picking right up from "Faith," the Demetrius and the renegade Cylon
      basestar jump back to the fleet. But even the most routine procedure
      goes awry, and the Demetrius FTL drive has a glitch. So the basestar
      winds up in the fleet by itself, where it's assumed to be hostile,
      and the fleet is ordered into an emergency jump-away while the
      Galactica launches to action stations. This is the only real action
      in the episode, and it's very well staged, with the fleet gradually
      jumping away a ship at a time and Galactica gearing up to fight.
      (From Galactica's point of view, this process is a white-knuckled
      eternity where they could be killed at any moment.) Even though it's
      a foregone conclusion that the crisis will be averted, it manages to
      generate suspense: Will the Galactica open fire or jump away before
      the Demetrius can show up? I very much like that a disaster is
      averted by Tigh's order to hold fire, which is based on an
      inexplicable gut feeling (revisiting the ongoing theme that Fate once
      again intercedes).

      So Renegade Six presents her offer to Adama and Roslin: The Cylons
      want to unbox the D'Annas from cold storage because she knows the
      identities of the Final Five, which supposedly know the way to Earth
      because they have been there. In exchange, Six will reveal the
      location of the Cylon resurrection hub, which, if destroyed, will
      make all Cylons mortal. Turning the Cylons into mortals would have an
      immediately obvious impact on the fundamental nature of the
      human/Cylon conflict.

      So at last there seems to be some light at the end of at least one
      tunnel. But what's most immediately fascinating about this deal is
      that it introduces an urgent wrinkle into the Secret Four's lives: If
      this plan works, they will be exposed -- and then what? Watch how
      Tigh quietly squirms and mentally starts doing the math, and then
      tries to set the plan in a direction that hopefully covers himself,
      but at the same time is completely in the interests of the Colonial
      fleet and the man Tigh always has been.

      The plan itself depends on the ability for the renegade Cylons and
      the Colonials to trust each other, which is no easy task. Renegade
      Six gives up the hub location, but she still controls the Centurions
      on her basestar, which is the key to the entire plan. Only a basestar
      will be able to get anywhere near the hub before being attacked. The
      Colonial leadership discusses the merits of keeping their word on
      this alliance, and decides as a backup position to hold back on
      turning over the Final Five to the rebel Cylons.

      Meanwhile, Renegade Six talks with her fellow Cylons about how she
      fully expects to be double-crossed and plans to take hostages as a
      contingency. "We've changed, but the humans haven't," she says. Isn't
      it exactly that kind of thinking that inspires mutual distrust?
      Paradoxically and ironically, her fears are justified; there is
      indeed scheming on both sides. It's circular logic: We can't afford
      to keep our word, because they are not to be trusted, and keeping our
      word thus puts us at a disadvantage. At what point does prudent self-
      preservation become destructive deception? Quite a dilemma for
      everyone. Ultimately, Six sees the error of her ways and tries to
      reverse course on her planned deception, and the Cylons then find
      themselves trying to slither out from under a deceit of their own
      making. Messy.

      So that's the nuts and bolts. Beyond that is an avalanche of series
      mythology, and of characters reacting to what's happening around them.

      Early in the episode, Lee confronts Roslin over Baltar's latest
      broadcast, which alleges that Roslin shares visions with Caprica Six
      and Sharon Agathon. Roslin admits that it's true, but asks Lee what
      good it would do the public to know that their leader is not only
      sharing hallucinations with the enemy, but also experiencing
      something that apparently goes contrary to the entire religious
      establishment. There's more at stake than Roslin's reputation.

      How does Baltar know about this vision, anyway? Roslin sends Tory on
      an assignment to find out. She does this after a downright icy scene
      that pretty much announces the end of their cordial relationship.
      Roslin knows about Tory and Baltar: "You've been spotted down there
      enough times to be a charter member of his nymph squad." The thing
      worth noting about this scene, other than obvious hurt feelings
      between the two characters, is how you find yourself regarding Tory,
      who previously wrote herself a license to kill Cally. Put her on bad
      terms with the president, threaten her job, and what might she be
      capable of next?

      When we follow Tory down to Baltar's lair, there are more layers of
      character to unveil. It turns out Caprica Six told Baltar about
      Roslin's Opera House vision months ago. Why did he wait until now to
      finally publicize it? Because only now was it a card he felt he had
      to play. The important thing about Baltar is that he's not a crazed
      lunatic hurling baseless indictments. He has a point of view that's
      legitimate; he has become increasingly bitter about Roslin's ongoing
      governance in secrecy, something she claims is in the best interests
      of security even as it leaves the public in the dark. This has
      interesting real-world parallels when you consider our own
      government's recent policies. Does security justify a lack of
      transparency as Roslin operates?

      What's notable about this episode is its ability to milk great
      character mileage out of brief moments. For example, there's that bit
      where Lee finds himself, to his own surprise, cut out of the loop
      about the alliance. He thought the unique advantage he could bring to
      the Quorum was knowing how the military machine works, but here he
      finds his insider information has run dry. He's as out of the
      Adama/Roslin loop as everyone else. Later, he has a sobering
      discussion with Roslin about the spirit-crushing hopelessness that
      has taken hold of the fleet. The members of the Quorum feel as
      hopeless as anyone -- maybe even more so, because they once thought
      they mattered.

      More great mileage: How about Gaeta and his leg? Nice details here.
      He wants to be awake while they saw it off, so he won't have to wake
      up to it being gone. Later, he sings to try take his mind off the
      pain. His singing snakes through the episode like a poetic, ominous
      omen. Anders feels guilty about having shot him. Baltar goes to see
      him, but can't bring himself past the door; it's a nice little moment
      that recalls their messy history.

      A key scene in the episode (although one could argue they are all key
      scenes) comes when Roslin takes Lee's advice and addresses the Quorum
      to provide some much-needed solace and get them on board with the
      uneasy Cylon alliance. She brings in Renegade Six, who makes a speech
      and extends an olive branch. This speech not only represents a
      milestone in Cylon/human relations, but reveals some things Six has
      personally learned during the Cylon civil war -- about life, death,
      and her people. "For our existence to hold any value, it must end. To
      live meaningful lives, we must die and not return." On what she has
      realized about humanity: "Mortality is the one thing that makes you
      whole." While the Cylon civil war was kept almost completely off-
      screen, this speech helps us imagine what it might have meant. It's
      not a million miles away from the navel-gazing in Adama's speech
      about responsibility in the miniseries.

      Six also says, "I believe it was no accident that we were found by
      Kara Thrace. It was destiny." Just like that the episode turns from
      hopeful to foreboding -- because the Hybrid has assured Kara she is
      the harbinger of death.

      So what about all this mythology? The episode brings it all together
      in the last two acts. Roslin, Caprica Six, and Sharon all have
      another shared vision where they chase Hera through the Opera House.
      The images are exactly as before. When Sharon wakes up to see Hera
      standing by her bed, Hera says, "Bye-bye." *Shiver*.

      Sharon already has plenty of doubts about the Cylons in general, and
      about their interest in her daughter in particular. At the beginning
      of the episode Six had said to her about Hera, "We all know her name.
      You were blessed." Now she gets visions where Six takes Hera away
      from her. And then there's Sharon's horror upon seeing little Hera's
      coloring book, filled cover-to-cover with "6" and drawings of yellow-
      haired women -- it makes for the trippiest shock I've seen on this
      series since "Crossroads, Part 2." It's unexpected and brilliant.
      *What does it mean?* Can't be good. Are the Cylons wired at birth to
      be drawn to each other? Pre-programmed with some sort of knowledge or
      directives? Seconds later, Hera wanders off into the corridors. More
      on this in a minute.

      First let's revisit Roslin and Kara. Kara knows about Roslin's
      vision, because she has heard about it on Baltar's broadcasts. And
      she knows it's true because the Hybrid confirmed it. This comes as a
      revelation to Roslin that there is, absolutely *must be*, something
      going on here beyond the typical, physical, worldly realm. The sense
      of ominous mystery is palpable. It's downright spooky, especially
      because Mary McDonnell plays Roslin as so honestly disturbed by it.
      Everything she once assumed she knew about life has been turned
      upside down.

      Roslin asks Kara for her help. Remember, this is the same Roslin that
      fired a gun at Kara in "He That Believeth in Me." Imagine the
      distance traveled from there to here. Bygones are not simply bygones,
      but beyond the pale of a second's thought. These are relationships
      renewed by the needs of the here and now. And the actors sell the
      hell out of it. They need answers, and they are going to try to get
      them from the Hybrid.

      The final act of this episode is a visual storytelling tour de force,
      as Sharon frantically goes searching for Hera in the corridors while
      Roslin, Kara, et al (who have recruited Baltar into this because he's
      in the vision) go to the basestar to plug in the Hybrid and get
      answers. The former plays as imminent dread, the latter as intriguing
      mystery. The two sequences are intercut -- and cut into the Sharon
      scenes are flashes from the vision, which in a way mirrors what
      happens in the action of Sharon's search through the corridors ...
      which is all on a collision course with Renegade Six.

      To describe more details is pointless. Suffice it to say that a
      sequence this complex must have been awesomely difficult to script,
      direct, perform, shoot, and edit -- let alone to do all of the above
      so masterfully in a way that makes sense. The sequence doesn't seem
      to have a literal meaning so much as a character-driven emotional
      meaning. Handled with less care, I can imagine this sequence easily
      falling apart. But not here. The end result is thrilling and
      brilliant.

      Sharon, afraid Renegade Six is after her daughter for some unknown
      reason, guns Six down. When the Hybrid is plugged back into the
      basestar, it jumps away without warning to who-knows-where. All plans
      now lie in shambles.

      This ending isn't a "cliffhanger." It's a giant question mark. What's
      the difference? This story knows the difference. It's all in the
      tone, style, and emotional arc. The final shot is of Gaeta singing.

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      Copyright 2009, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
      Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is
      prohibited.

      Jammer's Reviews - http://www.jammersreviews.com
      Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...