Battlestar Galactica & Caprica Reviews

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BSG - Season 3 - Episode 17

BSG - 3x17 - Maelstrom - Originally Aired: 2007-3-4

My Rating - 8

Fan Rating Average - 5.93

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Synopsis
Kara Thrace is unraveling. While asleep, she dreams that she's in her old Caprican apartment with Leoben, struggling to cover up the colorful mandala that she painted long ago. While awake, she hallucinates that a little girl — her younger self — is with her aboard the Galactica.

In desperation, Kara visits a religious oracle, but the woman frightens her by saying that Leoben and even Kara's abusive mother are all part of Kara's great destiny. Indeed, Socrata Thrace, a hard-edged former soldier, had always justified her abuse of her daughter by claiming that she was raising Kara to be a special warrior.

Haunted by these memories, Kara joins Hotdog on patrol. Over a planet swathed in clouds and radiation, she spots a Cylon Heavy Raider. The fleet mobilizes to back her up, but the Raider doesn't appear on dradis and Hotdog never sees it. Undaunted, Kara pursues it toward the planet, straight down into a dangerous swirling storm — which looks exactly like the mandala. Kara gives up the chase and turns back only seconds before her ship breaks up in the dense, turbulent atmosphere.

Later, although some of Kara's fellow pilots doubt that the Cylon ship existed at all, Lee Adama puts his faith in her and refuses to ground her for the incident. Kara struggles to pull herself together, but her hallucinations of her childhood and the mysterious mandala grow worse. Finally, she tells Lee that she doesn't trust herself to fly. Lee insists that she's capable and promises to fly as her backup until she regains her confidence.

On patrol with Lee, Kara again sees the Cylon Raider and again dives toward the mandala-shaped maelstrom. Lee follows, desperate to stop her, but Kara plunges straight into the turbulent heart of the storm.

As the crushing atmospheric pressure begins to rip apart her ship, Kara passes out. She returns as if in a dream to her old apartment, where Leoben greets her and leads her into a vision of her past.

Six years ago, on the day that Kara became a Fleet officer, she learned that her mother had terminal cancer. When Socrata answered her daughter's sympathy with harsh cruelty, Kara fled from her, never to return.

Kara believes that her true reason for running away then was her fear of facing death. Now, with her body trapped in a doomed Viper and her mind lost in visions, she must overcome that fear if she is to be whole. [Blu-ray] [DVD]

Problems
- The oracle knowing so much about Starbuck's past stretches my suspension of disbelief. But who knows, maybe she could have hallucinated all of that too.

Factoids
- This episode was nominated for a VES Award for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Broadcast Series.
- Survivors, according to the main title: 41400. (The count has not changed since the last episode.)
- The ship model Adama destroyed wasn't some cheap prop but in fact a museum quality piece which the props crew rented which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Adama's destroying of it was not in fact scripted, but something the actor did in the heat of the moment, without knowing the origin or true value of the prop, utterly surprising everyone on the set.

Remarkable Scenes
- Kara's visit to the oracle.
- Hot Dog and Kara turning their vipers upside down.
- Starbuck chasing the Cylon heavy raider.
- Starbuck seeing Leoben in the clouds.
- The viper alarm transitioning into Starbuck's alarm clock in her apartment.
- Leoben confronting Starbuck about her death wish.
- Starbuck flashbacking to her last days with her mother.
- Starbuck's death.
- Adama completing his ship model using Starbuck's Aurora figurine as the figurehead, then exploding on the ship model destroying it in anger over her death.

My Review
Maelstrom is a powerful episode veiled in subtext and hidden meanings that challenges the viewer's perceptive abilities. I'm quite fond of this episode's construction and deeper meanings, but I feel that quite a bit of the episode's potential was lost in its execution. The central issue is of course Starbuck's death and how she meets it. While I find this episode to be emotionally charged, I don't feel quite as captivated as I should be by the loss of such an influential character to the story. This lack of emotional impact is due to a number of smaller issues.

First and foremost, I continue to be annoyed with the ongoing vagueness of the overarching thematic mysticism of the show. Every episode dealing with Starbuck's "destiny" up until the Eye of Jupiter has very deliberately shown Starbuck's emotional issues to be all in her head. But in the Eye of Jupiter, Helo notices the mandala in the Temple of Five matches Starbuck's painting in her apartment. The scene is portrayed very dramatically, as if it has a deeper meaning when it in fact does not.

I'm willing to accept the coincidence and that the desire to assign meaning to the coincidence is what drove Starbuck to her madness, but that's not the theme the episode drives home. Instead, Maelstrom (as the Eye of Jupiter before it) tries to have it both ways. Maelstrom essentially contends with its sufficiently vague plot that either Starbuck was crazy or there really was a deeper meaning; we just don't really know. Furthermore, it attempts to artificially inflate the idea of "Starbuck's destiny" by inserting liberal amounts of material that could be liberally interpreted as foreshadowing for Starbuck's eventual revelation as a Cylon. And if that's not enough for you, there's sufficient evidence in the episode to conclude that the heavy raider really did exist, that Starbuck ejected from her viper, and that it snatched her up shortly after the viper exploded.

At best, this attempt at having it both ways is to satisfy fans who don't really want to believe she's dead. At worst, it's a way to bring the actress back some day at the writers' whims. The point is when you kill a character off you must make a statement about why that character died. By presenting it in such a way that no one really knows why she died it leaves the audience confused and unsatisfied. This process of misdirection keeps the episode from making a dramatic point. So for the purpose of this review, I'm going to make a choice. She's either dead because she's crazy, alive and captured by the Cylons, or she's realized she's a Cylon and sought resurrection. My choice? She's dead because she's crazy. I pick that option solely because it's the better dramatic theme of the three options.

Now before all you Starbuck fans stop reading, hear me out. A recurring theme in Starbuck's character since the very beginning is severe emotional issues. More than any character, Starbuck has been emotionally tortured again and again. It's no surprise that by now she has a death wish, be it conscious or subconscious. Her "destiny" is nothing more than a delusion of grandeur inherited from her mother, whom drilled into her head over and over that she was special and had a destiny. So when the coincidence of the mandala and her paintings presented itself, she retreated into her delusion of grandeur, believing it finally to be true.

This leads us to the subject of her delusion. I think Starbuck believed she was a Cylon and that by overcoming her fear of death, she could finally discover who she really was. Evidence supporting this psychology includes her line "they're waiting for me" and Leoben's line referencing "the space between life and death." The problem with these references, as I stated before, is that they muddle the thematic point of the episode. Assuming the intended conclusion of the audience is to assume she's dead, there should have been at least one scene in the episode offering proof as to why Starbuck cannot be in fact a Cylon, or at least assuring the audience that she truly is crazy. This is preferable because then the audience can emotionally connect with her situation and how she feels as well as how all her friends and loved ones feel as she slowly slips away, instead of simply being confused and wondering if she's been captured or if she's a Cylon.

Aside from these missteps there are other smaller gaffes. I was once again annoyed to find some of Admiral Cain's music from Resurrection Ship, Part 1 recycled to over exaggerate the drama in the gun camera footage scene. How many times has that musical theme been abused now this season? Furthermore, large portions of the fantastically composed original score for this episode were drowned out by background noise, most noticeably during the (exceptionally beautiful) viper flying scenes. That, along with overly loud teeth brushing (a similarly annoying trait of A Day in the Life as well) and panting early in the episode make it seem like the microphones were placed incorrectly and sound editing was done sloppily. In short, the signal to noise ratio was way off. I wanted to hear more of the characters' lines and more of the scoring.

Other deficiencies in the episode's execution include the over abundance of scenes foreshadowing Starbuck's death. They are so numerous, I could actually make a list of them. I found it wholly unnecessary to allow Starbuck's character to come full circle just prior to her death. It in fact reeks of cliche. I'd have found it far more moving to see her die in the midst of all her emotional issues with zero closure having been achieved. It would have made her journey as a character feel more meaningful to me. Instead, they push the reset button on her character development and then kill her. Felt like a cop out. What's ironic is that for all that the lead up to her death was overplayed, the emotional impact of her death was distinctly underplayed. We got to see Apollo's reaction as it happened, then Adama's reaction as it happened and directly after. At the very least, we should have gotten one more scene depicting Apollo placing a photo of Starbuck next to Kat and preferably a scene depicting Anders mourning as well.

But for all that I criticize this episode, it's meant as constructive. This episode has a lot going for it and easily could have been a perfect score if the storytelling had been tweaked and the episodes leading up to it weren't so weak. I absolutely adored the viper visual effects and of what I could hear of the scoring I was incredibly enthralled with. Adama destroying his ship model was one of the most moving things I've seen on the entire show and the writers' willingness to off major characters is something I certainly respect. Maelstrom is ultimately a step in the right direction for BSG, even if it could have been done better. So in the end, it is an episode I have a great deal of respect for.

The following are comments submitted by my readers.

  • From Griffopolis on 2014-02-02 at 4:13pm:
    I really like the level of thinking you give these episodes. I'm using your site as a "second screen" experience while I watch these for the first time thanks to Netflix. I have to agree a lot on your observations and hope you'll keep this writing up. Why are you not writing for IGN or professionally. You've got an eye and knack for this stuff.

    Hope to see more shows covered in the future.

    Cheers!

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