[BSG] Jammer's Review: "Act of Contrition"
- Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
Battlestar Galactica: "Act of Contrition"
After a tragic accident on the Galactica kills more than a dozen pilots,
Kara is assigned as the flight instructor for new recruits, which opens old
wounds from a tragedy in the past.
Air date: 1/28/2005 (USA)
Written by Bradley Thompson & David Weddle
Directed by Rod Hardy
Rating out of 4: ****
Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan
I read once, years ago, that there was a standing rule among the writing
staff in the "Star Trek: TNG" offices, which said that a story had to
include elements that would only be possible in a sci-fi universe. A
straight drama without some sort of sci-fi twist would be considered a
violation of this rule, because a "Star Trek" episode was not supposed to be
a show that could be easily ported into a 20th-century TV series.
Nothing wrong with that rule; after all, the writers were trying to generate
a wide variety of science-fiction stories.
Now here comes "Battlestar Galactica's" "Act of Contrition," which is
notable in that it could be ported almost directly into a contemporary
military drama series without any significant changes. (Instead of Vipers
and Raiders you'd have fighter jets, and instead of Cylons you'd have an
enemy nation of your choice.) This episode is completely free of gimmicks,
and not the least bit dependent on sci-fi for its effect. It is, in short, a
story about its characters, through and through, in a military setting. It
is also among the best episodes of "Battlestar's" first season. It is a
wrenching, emotional, intimate character drama about people we come to
genuine care about and empathize with.
Kara Thrace, a.k.a. Starbuck, has the role of the maverick pilot, with her
rough edges and snappy dialog. But never has that general description
prohibited her from being a full-fledged human being, and never has that
been more apparent than it is in "Act of Contrition," where her
vulnerabilities are exposed, and prove to be the catalyst for her errors and
Aside from just Starbuck's character, the episode is really about the cold,
hard truth about serving in the military -- which is, people get killed. The
episode begins in high spirits, with bonding on the flight deck as pilots
engage in cheerful celebration. Adama, Kara, and Lee walk down the corridor
together, and there's almost a sense of family: father, son ... and
daughter. This is a long way from the desperation predominant in "33."
But disaster strikes when an accident on the flight deck kills 13 pilots and
wounds seven others. The situation keenly demonstrates how life can change
in an instant, without the slightest hint or warning. One minute you're
celebrating with your shipmates, and the next minute you're preparing for a
memorial service for those shipmates. The point is driven home by a scene in
the pilots' ready room, as the camera tracks across a lot of suddenly empty
The story is brutal in the way it makes a mockery of its characters' hope.
After the devastation of the Colonies and then going through the hell of the
five-day Cylon pursuit, it seemed that camaraderie was the salvation that
allowed a hopeful corner to be turned -- and now *this*. When addressing the
pilots in the immediate aftermath, Adama is sympathetic but pragmatic in his
approach: "I know this has been a hard day. There's been plenty of them
lately. I can guarantee there will be more to come. Remember your
self-esteem, your self-respect, and your self-worth." His pragmatism is
necessary under the circumstances, since the fleet will undoubtedly take its
emotional cues from how the military reacts. "People are watching," Adama
For Kara, this brings back memories of a more personal nature. The storyline
delves into her relationship with Adama's youngest son Zak -- Kara's
fiance -- killed in an accident two years ago. This accident was alluded to
during the events of the miniseries: Kara confessed to Lee how when she was
Zak's flight instructor, she passed him when she should've flunked him, and
he ultimately died because he wasn't up to the task. There's a sequence
where a funeral in the present is crosscut with Zak's funeral in the past,
and the episode brings an emotionally convincing reality to these scenes.
There are some who say this series is too dark and takes itself too
seriously. I am not one of them. This series contains more humanity than
most. When telling a story about pain, it should be told honestly, and "Act
of Contrition" draws us in precisely because it's convincing in the way it
explores the suffering of its characters. The funerals look like real
military services, and the structure and atmosphere of the flashbacks show
how pain is not simply lived, but re-lived.
There's a scene where Kara is playing cards, but her mind isn't on the game;
she's thinking back to when she and Zak were lovers, and she misguidedly
lied to him because she loved him. There's her simple memory of his finger
touching her ear. It's the sort of detail that makes this episode vividly
human and empathetic. I personally can only imagine that kind of loss, but
the story suggests it through a visualization of memory.
I should hasten to point out that the episode conveys these emotions without
resorting to melodrama or maudlin excess. It's simply true to the feelings
and true to the characters.
Following the accident and funeral on Galactica, Adama puts Kara in charge
of training new recruits to replace the pilots who died. Kara demurs for
reasons she and Lee know of but Adama does not, so Adama insists on Kara's
tutelage. Upon meeting her new trainees, Kara instantly goes into an
overcompensating Acting Out mode, pushes her hard-ass routine, takes them on
a training flight, declares it "worse than awful," and unjustifiably flushes
them all from the program after a single day.
Lee instantly recognizes Kara's overreaction for what it is, and tells her
to get her act together. When she refuses, Lee goes to Adama and asks that
he force the issue. A misunderstanding leads Lee to let slip that Kara did
something for Zak that she feels guilty about, and this in turn has Adama
calling in Kara to get to the bottom of things.
This results in what I contend is the best scene of the season. Adama asks
Kara point-blank what she did for Zak, and Kara, after some half-hearted
evasions, is forced to come clean. The scene is acted with great emotional
precision by Edward James Olmos and Katee Sackhoff, and proves to be tough,
powerful, and heartbreaking. We come to learn here how Adama loves Kara
"like a daughter," and it's through the nature of that relationship that
this scene transcends the typical scenario where a commanding officer chews
out a subordinate.
When Adama presses Kara for the truth, you can see the apprehension in his
eyes; he's afraid of what she's going to tell him. And Kara -- often the
overconfident Starbuck -- crumbles under her very human vulnerabilities: the
guilt, the regret, the sadness -- and, beyond that, the realization that she
has personally failed Adama. Sackhoff plays Kara in this scene like a
daughter who has deeply disappointed her father, and that's precisely the
right note. We understand the feelings behind Kara's poor judgment in
passing Zak; she "didn't want to be the one that crushed him." Adama's
response is a powerful but dialed-down combination of professionalism,
anger, sadness, and disappointment. ("Do your job," he says. "And walk out
of this cabin while you still can.") Olmos conveys all these feelings
simultaneously and superbly. This is just a wonderfully done, emotional
And yet, Kara's confession is a catharsis of sorts, and allows everyone to
get back to work. She reinstates the trainees and -- well, she does her job.
That's about when we are confronted with the cliffhanger. A wing of Cylon
Raiders shows up, there's a dogfight, and Kara's Viper ends up going down
over a nearby planet.
It almost feels unnecessary (but I'll do it anyway) to mention Helo and
Boomer finding a fallout shelter on Caprica. Also, there's the crusty doc
(Donnely Rhodes) who chastises Roslin while holding an X-ray film in his
hand and a cigarette in his mouth. He says to her, regarding her cancer:
"I'd strongly recommend prayer."
The script for "Act of Contrition" is by Bradley Thompson and David Weddle,
latecomers to "Deep Space Nine," and whose best scripts on that series were
"Inquisition" and "Treachery, Faith, and the Great River." Here they have
transcended those efforts with a no-frills drama about loss and real
feelings, which sheds light onto who these characters are. This is a superb
hour of television.
Copyright 2005, Jamahl Epsicokhan. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this article is prohibited.
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Jamahl Epsicokhan - jammer@...