Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Dark Side of Hope

BSG Blog Carnival link: "So say we all."

This BSG episode, Sine Qua Non, is the 10th episode in the 4th and last season and I think of all the episodes so far this season this one was the worst, the 10th on the list in more ways than one. And like all the weaker episodes, no Baltar. Now, maybe it wasn't actually that bad an episode, it's just that most of the others have been kick ass. Maybe my hopes and expectations were too high because they were bringing back one of my favorite minor characters; Romo Lampkin.

Problem was, this wasn't the Romo I remembered. I felt like his character got trashed, ruined for the future.

Let's just dig into what I wish I could rewrite (if you need a recap, go here). First, the major storyline, the meat and potatoes, of this episode was the Romo Lampkin and Lee Adama story of how Lee becomes the interim President. It began with a scene in the Quorum room, a meeting is held by the Quorum of Twelve, all the delegates are trying to figure out what the frak happened in the last episode. Vice President Tom Zarek comes in to tell them that the rebel basestar jumped away with President Laura Roslin, Gaius Baltar and a lot of Galactica's pilots. He also tells them that a Cylon was shot by "one of Galactica's Marines" and fuels the assumption that the basestar's jump and abduction is related to Natalie's death.

Someone asks Lee Adama whether "your father will hand over power to this administration," to Zarek, and Lee says; "No." In a later scene in the president's office, Zarek insists that he should be declared interim president and he has a good argument for it. But Lee refuses to argue to his father for Zarek and says he'll find another candidate, and Zarek says; "Well, good luck with that." (Not going to be a famous Galactica quote is it?)

Stop! Freeze that moment in your mind and then rewind it to the point just before Zarek said that "Well, good luck with that" line. Now imagine instead of that line, Zarek instead accuses Lee of positioning himself for the presidency and Lee promising that it won't be him. Now, in order to become president Lee has to betray that promise. That raises the stakes a notch.

Next, when Lee goes to Romo Lampkin to get help finding a candidate, have Romo make the same deduction, "you are positioning yourself for the job but you need me to put you there because if you suggest yourself, then you'll look too ambitious" and then Romo points out why Lee is the best candidate. Romo questions whether Lee can get where he has already gotten without real ambition, without power seeking. Lee has to argue against his own candidacy; lack of government experience, his father is the Admiral and that looks bad, and he has made a promise to Zarek.

Next we have Romo come up with a candidate. We hardly know anything about the Quorum members so the writers could engineer the perfect foil for Lee, Romo would select this foil to express his "the last thing we need is hope and we should just accept that humanity is doomed" view. The candidate would be expressing views about not getting involved in the Cylon civil war, give up the quest for Earth, take things easy and stop to smell the roses before we aren't here to smell them any more.

Here's a nice sample of an anti-hope argument from H.L. Mencken:
"Despite the common delusion to the contrary the philosophy of doubt is far more comforting than that of hope. The doubter escapes the worst penalty of the man of faith and hope; he is never disappointed, and hence never indignant. The inexplicable and irremediable may interest him, but they do not enrage him, or, I, may add, fool him. This immunity is worth all the dubious assurances ever foisted upon man. It is pragmatically impregnable. Moreover, it makes for tolerance and sympathy. The doubter does not hate his opponents; he sympathizes with them. In the end he may even come to sympathize with God. The old idea of fatherhood submerges in a new idea of brotherhood. God, too, is beset by limitations, difficulties, broken hopes. Is it disconcerting to think of Him thus? Well, is it any less disconcerting to think of Him as able to ease and answer, and yet failing?"

Now if Lee had to fight for hope against arguments of that type it would have been more realistic. We need to get reminded that there is a dark side to hope, that hope costs, that it has driven spectacular failures as well as successes. That hope and ambition are linked.

Romo's candidate would so offend Zarek that Zarek himself would nominate Lee but feel manipulated into doing it. It would come up for a Quorum vote with each candidate making a speech. Lee's speech could be close to what he said to Romo, minus the Romo specifics. It was the no hope angle that didn't get a fair shake. It needed a better speech. Hope, real hope, costs. It means sacrifice for a future you're not sure you're going to have. It has real implications for how the colonists will act.

Doing it the way they did it, Romo lost that superhumanly devious quality he had when they first introduced him. Romo, in his previous role defending Baltar, was smart and potentially dangerous because he was always a step a head of everyone and always playing everyone. He played Lee, he played Baltar, he was going to do whatever was necessary to get Baltar, the most hated man on Galactica, off. He had his own unique moral viewpoint, he stole things and studied them to figure people out and frustrate them.

When Romo struggles to find a candidate, while we already knew it's Lee, the writers undermined what made Romo cool. Romo should have been a step ahead of Lee and us. He might have even played Lee, but we don't get to know that. Maybe he choose the "no hope" candidate as a way to guide Lee to realize his own ambition (his hope), and that would've been cool. But to have Romo be several steps behind us, a lot of the viewers, and then be crazy enough to point a gun at Lee... well, it humanizes Romo, but we don't need another humanized, flawed character -- Galactica has plenty. He was interesting because he was different, now he is not. Now he's like everyone else on Galactica; deeply flawed and perhaps on the verge of cracking.

I'm sure someone will argue that Romo's crazy behavior towards Lee is still manipulative; he forced Adama to defend a willingness to make tough decisions, tested all those qualities he liked. He almost admits it towards the end by saying; "Is that your last word?....Then swear it." And then Lee is being sworn in as president. The problem with that interpretation is that Lee never fought against his own candidacy as the possible president. You're not being manipulative until you're changing minds and we didn't really see Lee change his mind.

Also, it would have been interesting to see some people laying their cards on the table in the "hope or no hope" debate. Where would Tory fall? Her going for a no hope vote for humanity would be a different thing since she's not human.

Yeah, I'd scrap the whole dead head-cat (How long was the cat dead? Lee said weeks? Wouldn't it start to stink? Was the bag airtight?) And scrap the gun scene, that was too crazy and desperate for Romo. I'd have rather seen the kleptomania resurface; Romo stealing something from Lee and Zarek and his no hope candidate that proves Lee has ambitions, Zarek would still resort to terrorism to get what he wants and his no hope candidate had given up on some "Sine Qua Non" important personal hope.

Alas, what we got instead was a very different story. A story where Romo only says; " doesn't generally get the chance to wield political power without the ambition to actively seek it. That same ambition often compromises the unselfish motives that began the quest. In other words, in a battle of id versus ego, that ego rarely wins." And "...One could argue that Laura Roslin is a study in repressed ambition, just like you, Mr. Adama. Never seeking out a job until it's handed to you. Flight leader, battlestar commander, Quorum delegate. Man doesn't carve out a path like that through life without..." And after that story do you know that Romo is right? That Lee has repressed ambition?

Now, other elements in this episode were much better. The scenes between Saul Tigh and Admiral Adama were effective. And what wasn't good was at least completely necessary; like how Lt. Sharon "Athena" Agathon had to go to the brig for shooting Natalie (and she should be there longer) and Adama had to chew her out. They had to give Natalie at least the minimal death scene she got - But I, personally, wanted to hear her say "I don't want to die" after that speech about death she gave last episode. Were not even going to get an ironic admission that speech was bullshit. At most she merely seemed surprised, maybe mumbled a prayer but I'm not sure, and then she had some dreamy vision of the forest she likes. And even on that score we don't hear the doctor saying, "she's not fighting for her life." Just that reaching out of her hand.


M said...

Bravo on the rewrite. I like it better too.

James Newberry said...

Hmm... maybe it's just me, but I saw a lot of what you wanted to add in the episode that aired. It was obvious from the very beginning that Romo knew Lee was the right choice. I half expected that to be his "fee" in fact, but I think Romo realized it was going to take some doing to get Lee to admit to himself that he was the man for the job. Your rewrite feels a lot more heavy-handed. Look at the episode again and see if you can't find the old Lampkin underneath the newer emotional troubles. He's there, and just as manipulative as ever.

Great post, as always.

normdoering said...

James Newberry wrote:
"It was obvious from the very beginning that Romo knew Lee was the right choice."

It was suggested, yes, but it wasn't obvious. Even after Romo gave his little speech about most people "not wielding political power without the ambition to actively seek it" he wasn't quite getting to the point. He certainly wasn't directly confronting Lee with the possibility that Lee was the candidate and that rang false for me on two counts, first, Lee being clueless as to his own candidacy for President and second, Romo not directly confronting him with the possibility but only dancing around it by telling Lee that, like Laura Roslin, Lee was a study in repressed ambition, never seeking out a job until it's handed to him. "Flight leader, battlestar commander, Quorum delegate. Man doesn't carve out a path like that through life without..."

I'm sure a lot of viewers got the point, Romo was saying Lee wanted the job. After that, everything else was mostly pointless.

And Romo isn't necessarily ruined forever. They can repair his character.

James Newberry wrote:
"Your rewrite feels a lot more heavy-handed."

It would depend on how it was actually written. It was just an outline.

It was the actual episode that was both heavy handed and obfuscated in my view. Everything was abstract; hope, ambition... without any real implications for what those things actually meant for the fleet in actual actions taken.

Romo talked like ambition alone is a bad thing. Why is that? Is Lee supposed to be one of the most selfless people in the fleet? Romo seems to mean "personal ambition,"
which is common in our politics. But again, the assumption that this must always be the most crass kind of selfish, egotistical lust for absolute power instead of concern for people is more stereotype than reality.

And why is Lee such a beacon of hope when he can't even grasp Romo's hints?

James Newberry said...

I'm not sure, though, that Lee doesn't grasp Romo's hints... It seemed like Lee knew very well that he wanted the job, and that he felt he was the only person right for it, but coming up with the balls to say it out loud required some pushing from Lampkin. Lee's character is very much a "do the right thing" kind of guy, and someone like that has to be forced to take matters into his own hands, as if acknowledging his own ambitions would sully his pride.

It's a unique take on the character, deft and subtle.

But you're right, the signs could've been clearer; and as much as I loved the cat thing, it really muddled the waters.


normdoering said...

James Newberry wrote:
"I'm not sure, though, that Lee doesn't grasp Romo's hints... It seemed like Lee knew very well that he wanted the job, and that he felt he was the only person right for it, but coming up with the balls to say it out loud required some pushing from Lampkin."

Interesting idea. I missed that interpretation. But doesn't that make Romo even more right; that Lee actually does have the ambition to actively seek the office even though he can't admit it, maybe even to himself?

That could be a serious flaw in his character. In order to tame one's personal ambition the first thing you'd have to do is admit you have such ambition.