It’s been interesting comparing the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Dexter. The first has been an object lesson in how to finish a television show (or novel, or film or anything, really): understand the fundamental dynamic or contradiction that drives the story, home in on it, isolate it, push it to breaking point and see what happens. The second has been a meaningless pile of blah, in which the writers seem to have decided to abandon the central dramatic tension and head off on a pointless and emotionally dishonest tangent.
At one level it’s not fair to compare the two, of course: after all, Breaking Bad is clearly one of the great television shows. But there is something sort of extraordinary about the total mess of Dexter’s final season, not least since it’s always been clear the endpoint of the show has been the moment when Dexter’s secret life can no longer be kept secret, and even an amateur can see what the results of that will be. How can he protect Deb from what she’s done to help him? Is he prepared to kill Vince or Batista to stop the truth about his secret life being uncovered? How can he protect Harrison from the truth? Can he find a way to live a different life?
And instead we got a season that not only didn’t do this story, but made things worse by introducing characters we’ve never seen before and expecting us to care about them, expecting us to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, rewriting the back-story and then, even once they’d made the fundamental mistake of deciding not to do the one story that needed telling, crafting a season so cack-handed and muddled it didn’t even work on its own terms.
Part of the problem, of course, lies in the show itself. Dexter was always a funny mix of elements: the schlocky Ryan Murphy Nip/Tuck aesthetic, the obvious contrivance of so much of the plotting, Michael C. Hall’s carefully controlled movement between opacity and tics of fury (I’ve always thought one of the interesting things about Dexter is that he is, in many ways, the same character as David in Six Feet Under), none of which ever quite meshed. To an extent this was unavoidable, since the show could only work as entertainment if it carefully avoided examining the tension at its centre (if you don’t believe me, try to imagine the show without Dexter’s voiceover, and think about how terrifying it would be watching the creepy serial killer playing with Cody and Astor on the couch. or check out Allan Cubitt’s excellent new drama, The Fall, which chillingly captures the evolution of a serial killer, and the toxic way that infects his family life).
But even within those constraints the final season is inexplicably awful. Why, for instance, were we expected to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, which made no sense the first time around, and less the second? (It’s interesting to contrast the Hannah plot with the season about Julia Stiles’ Lumen, a series I still think is one of the show’s best, largely because the story at the heart of it, about a group of men raping and killing women, felt real in a way little else in Dexter ever has, and Lumen’s combination of anger and pain meshed so well with Dexter’s own). Why introduce the idea of Dexter having a protege (especially since he already has a son in Harrison), and then abandon it so casually? Why give us the romantic triangles of Deb/Quinn/Elway and Quinn/Deb/Jamie and then forget about the first halfway through? Why did they think we’d care about Saxon, or his relationship with Vogel, when they’d given us almost no reason to care about Vogel? And despite the way they kept harping on it, why was Argentina, which was always Hannah’s fantasy, supposed to make any emotional sense for Dexter?
It was a mess that collided with spectacularly awful results in the blahness of the final episode, which failed to even offer some kind of emotional resolution (you can say a lot of things about the end of Lost, but even if they accept the story won’t make sense they do pay out the audience’s emotional investment in the characters). In the interests of avoiding spoilers (although why you’d care I don’t know) I won’t go into detail about what happened, or didn’t, but it was, frankly, one of the worst television finales I’ve ever seen.
Except – and again I’m going to be careful about what I say – there was one image that was very clever and deserves praise, and that was the one that blurred the iconography of the wedding and the funeral, which was clever and powerful and had a fascinating narrative and symbolic logic to it. I won’t say more, but if you’ve seen it you’ll know the one I mean.
Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Adama (Edward Lee Olmos), SCI FI Channel Photo: Carole Segal
There’s a terrific piece by Laura Miller about the Battlestar Galactica finale over at Salon, which pretty much nails a lot of what went wrong in the final ten episodes, and most particularly the mess of the finale. Most tellingly, I think, she points to the contrast between the (admittedly controversial) non-ending of The Sopranos and the desperate and misguided desire to tie up all of Battlestar Galactica’s loose ends which so muddied ‘Daybreak’.
That said, she also argues that:
“Adama was always the series’ most conventional figure, the old-fashioned, admirable leader-hero that American popular culture typically insists upon. This also made him the least interesting character psychologically, but he was essential all the same; the rest of the survivors needed him as a fixed point, a star to steer by.”
At one level she’s right; Adama is one of Battlestar Galactica’s more conventional figures. Certainly without the strength of Edward James Olmos’ performance he would be little more than a cardboard cut-out. But the strength of Olmos’ performance also grounds one of the less conventional aspects of Adama, namely his violence and anger. The role he is playing, that of the leader-hero, is generally constructed in such a way as to allow the character to be an essentially decent, honest man, who only turns to violence when provoked. It is, in many ways, a peculiarly American fantasy of the soldier-farmer, the man of the earth who takes up arms to defend his rights and those of others.
Adama, by contrast, is a much darker creation. More Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven than Gary Cooper, his outward semblance of control is largely a facade, designed to keep a check on the anger and violence that seethe at his core. As we are reminded on a number of occasions, his impulses are authoritarian, even despotic, his first loyalty to his uniform. He is a soldier, and a good one, but soldiering is not, as we are often reminded, a profession which tends to make nice people out of those who excel at it.
This is of course of a piece with Battlestar Galactica’s deeper interest in the brutalizing nature of war, and its ambiguous attitude to the nature and exercise of power in general. Indeed Adama is in large part interesting precisely because his nature belies his conventional facade, so much so that the term of respect the crew bestow upon him, “the Old Man”, can often seem oddly ambivalent, conjuring associations of control, and violence as much as paternal affection.
(For those anxious to fill the hole left by Battlestar Galactica’s passing, SciFi have released seven clips from the upcoming prequel/spinoff, Caprica, all of which are available over at io9).
I watched ‘Daybreak, Part 1’, the first part of Battlestar Galactica’s three hour finale after I got back from China on Thursday night. I’ve seen a lot of carping on the intertubes about how bad it was, but I actually thought it was terrific, particularly after the mess of the episodes immediately preceding it (though I probably could have done without Laura Roslin in the fountain). The pacing was beautiful, there were a lot of lovely details, and there was a wonderful, elegiac sense of ending about it. I’ve always admired ‘All Good Things’, the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which Ronald D. Moore also wrote, and ‘Daybreak, Part 1′, echoed many of the things that made that episode so moving, in particular the movement back in time to the series’ beginning, and the sense of a circle being closed that movement back to the beginning creates.
Perhaps oddly though, it was only while watching the episode that I realized how much I’m going to miss the show. For all the patchiness of this final series, Moore and Eick have created a show which has completely rewritten the rules about what science fiction television can be, both by creating a world which speaks in such complex and unpredictable ways to our own, and by giving breath to a cast of characters which live in a way television characters rarely do. Even in the first part I found myself tearing up more than once, which is testament of a sort to just how much I’ve come to care about these characters and their plight.
So, at the risk of making a fool of myself, I thought I’d make a few predictions about what will happen in tonight’s conclusion. These aren’t spoilers. I know nothing more than anyone, and I’ve actually tried really hard to avoid reading anything about these last two episodes in advance of watching them. But if you want to avoid going into tonight with preconceptions of any kind, you might want to stop reading now, and check back afterwards to see how right (or wrong) I am.
Here are my guesses for tonight:
The singularity will be important, both as a plot device, and in a deeper, narrative sense. If nothing else it will be a glimpse of the Eye of God, and of the desire for perfection and unity Anders described in ‘Daybreak, Part 1’, and which so many of the characters have been seeking since the show began. But I also think it will have a role in collapsing time and space, in making all times one, and thus bearing out the show’s oft-repeated promise, that “all of this has happened before and will happen again”.
Although I’d always assumed they’d kill poor old Starbuck in the final episode, I no longer think they will. Not only has she already died once (thus bearing out her Dionysian aspect by becoming twice-born) but having carefully removed the obstacles posed to her and Lee’s relationship by Dee and Anders, it wouldn’t make sense to go and kill her. More deeply though, she needs to live, and to end up with Lee, because by uniting the Apollonian and Dionysian in a union of opposites, we see a very literal embodiment of the show’s broader concern with the destabilizing of the boundaries between us and them, Human and Other.
That said, a number of other characters will die. Poor old Gaeta is already gone, as is Zarek and the rather dreary Dee, but I think a number more will die tonight. The most obvious is of course the President, though since she’s already dying that won’t be a surprise, but once she’s gone, Adama will die as well, both because he will no longer want to live, and because his death will symbolize the old giving way to the new, in the form of Lee and Starbuck (and indeed the broader Human/Cylon union).
Baltar will die as well, presumably in the final, selfless act we saw so laboriously set up in his conversation with Lee in the first part, thus completing the rather misjudged journey from narcissist to Messiah they’ve had him on since he was acquitted of crimes against humanity and collaboration at the end of Season Three (I’ve always thought the intrusion of the Paradise Lost/Jesus thread was a mistake, but I suppose having begun it they’ll have to play it out).
Beyond that I’m not really sure who will die. Probably Anders/Galactica, but in a way that lets Anders touch the face of God (perhaps in the singularity?). Definitely Boomer, though only after she changes sides one last time, and rescues Hera from Cavil. And Cavil, obviously. Maybe Tigh and Ellen, and perhaps the Chief. But Helo and Athena and Hera will all live, as indeed will all the characters who symbolize union.
And finally, but most importantly, I think we will hear the words which opened the first episode of the original series, “There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe,” invoked in the final moments of tonight’s episode. Somehow (possibly via the singularity) Lee and Starbuck and the surviving Cylons and Humans will turn out to be our own ancestors. I’m not sure how literal this process will be, but it makes sense for a number of reasons. The first is it allows the larger circle between the original series and the revisioned series to be closed. The second is that it means quite literally that all of this has happened before. And the third is because the show is and always has been fundamentally concerned with destabilizing the boundaries between us and them, Human and Other, and while that boundary between Human and Cylon is now completely blurred, making the characters on the show us, and us them, takes it one step further and makes us the descendants of that union, no longer Human, but a mixture of Human and Cylon.
One of the reasons I’m not sure how literal the process will be is because I’m convinced it has something to do with the singularity, and that we will discover not just that the show is our prehistory, but also our future. That will allow the Earth they discovered in the middle of Season Four to be our Earth as well, and will mean that somehow the distant future gives birth to the distant past, so not only has all of this happened before, and will happen again, but in some deep sense, we are all – Human and Cylon, past, present and future – one, and bound together for all eternity.
Like most devotees of that most improbable of televisual phenomena, Battlestar Galactica, I’ve been blown every which way by the final episodes. With eight of the final ten down, the show has lurched from two of the most powerful and shocking hours of television I’ve ever seen (‘The Oath’ (4.15) and ‘Blood on the Scales’ (4.16)), to dot-point infodumps (‘No Exit’ (4.17)) and weird, slow car-crashes such as ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ (4.19).
At one level the sheer haphazardness of these final episodes shouldn’t be surprising. For all its power as a series, Battlestar Galactica has always been pretty variable episode to episode. In part this is a consequence of the show’s very particular aesthetic, which discards almost all of the connective tissue and explication ordinarily expected in a television show. Combined with the claustrophobic intimacy of the handheld camerawork, this paring-back lends the show its extraordinary, almost hallucinatory intensity, but it can also leave individual episodes feeling surprisingly ragged.
But it’s difficult not to suspect the haphazardness is also at least partly a function of exactly the qualities that have made the show so remarkable. Despite its complex and deeply unsettling political subtext, much of Battlestar Galactica’s fascination has lain in its suggestiveness, and the constant, teasing implication that in the end its many elements will come to form a larger whole (not for nothing do the opening credits inform us that the Cylons “have a plan”).
The problem is of course that it is difficult to picture an explanation capable of drawing the show’s many elements together. Getting echoes of The Aeneid, The Book of Mormon, Paradise Lost, Exodus and other mythic sources, as well as post-9/11 anxieties about terrorism and loss and the War on Terror into the air together is one thing, but once they’re married to the mystery of the Cylons’ origins, the show’s own mythology, questions as to Starbuck’s true nature, the President’s visions, the political subtexts and most particularly the show’s constant, haunting refrain that “All of this has happened before, and will happen again” it’s difficult to see how the show’s creators can keep them all aloft at once.
Certainly the explanations offered thus far have been pretty unsatisfying. Quite aside from the jarring note of the Final Cylon’s identity, the attempt to explain the Cylons’ origins and the nature of the Final Five have managed to be both confusing and unsatisfying, managing to simultaneously reduce the show’s complex political allegory to a squabble between a spoiled son and his parents (as io9.com’s Annalee Newitz has observed) and to make the uncanny and profoundly disturbing Cylons oddly mundane. Then there’s the slightly too literal metaphorical business of Galen repairing Galactica by grafting Cylon biotechnology into her body, and the messy process of reorganizing the Council to reflect the changed composition of Human/Cylon society. And then, for every great moment, such as last week’s funeral for the crew killed trying to repair the damage caused by Boomer’s escape, and its glimpse of three separate belief systems struggling to make sense of the same questions of mortality, and loss, there’s a bum note such as Baltar’s speech at the funeral’s conclusion (though I think this most recent incarnation of Baltar is pretty unconvincing in general).
As I’ve observed elsewhere, there’s always been something slightly unnerving about the show’s creator, Ronald D. Moore’s openness about the casual manner in which many of the crucial decisions about the show are made. We want, as viewers, for it all to connect in a meaningful way, and more importantly, in a manner which allows the explanation to be more interesting than the process of getting there. But the fact is, with a show like Battlestar Galactica, where the ambiguities its political and mythic allegories suggest are much of the point, that’s unlikely to be a desire that’s compatible with resolution, or at least conventional resolution of the sort series television usually demands.
I want to write at more length about the final season once it’s done and dusted (I’ll probably wait for the Cylon-centric Edward James Olmos-directed telemovie which is apparently going to appear as a weird sort of coda somewhere between Saturday week and the DVD release of the spinoff series, Caprica) but in the meantime, Sophie Cunningham at Meanjin has very kindly given me permission to reproduce a piece I wrote about the show, ‘All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again: Humanity, Inhumanity and Otherness in Battlestar Galactica‘ for the magazine’s December 2008 issue, which I’ve made available via my Writing page. The piece was written in the interregnum between the first half of Season Four and the second, so parts of it have been oveertaken by the developments in recent episodes, but the bulk of it is still current, and may be worth a look if you’re a fan of the show.
Lost returns to Australian television tonight, several weeks after it resumed in the US and in the rather unfriendly timeslot of 10:30pm.
Presumably the tardy return and crappy timeslot are a reflection of the show’s waning ratings, at least here in Australia. While the loss of viewers to downloads has forced Australian networks to release popular shows in a more timely manner than they have traditionally deigned to (SciFi on Foxtel are to be commended for their decision to screen the final season of Battlestar Galactica only hours after it goes to air in the US) old habits die hard, and as soon as a show begins to fail in the ratings it’s a fair bet the commercial networks will be treating viewers with the dizzying disrespect they always have by screening them long after primetime, delaying episodes and altering their schedules without warning (a disaster for anyone trying to record programs).
Jack (Matthew Fox) and Ben (Michael Emerson) find Locke's body
It’s a pity, in many ways, because as anyone who has stuck around through the longueurs of the second and third seasons knows, Lost went from strength to strength across its increasingly wild fourth season, and reviews from overseas suggest the fifth is even better. As Season Three ended, several of the survivors (Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun and Claire’s son, Aaron) are off the island, a turn of events a series of flash-forwards (mirroring the device of the flashbacks in the first few seasons) have revealed to have caused any number of problems of its own. Jack is a drunken wreck, his relationship with Kate has come unravelled, Hurley is in an asylum and talking to dead people, Sayid is an assassin employed by the perfidious Charles Widmore, Sun has taken over her father’s criminal and business empire and Locke, last seen trying to save the island, is in a coffin on the mainland. The fate of many of those back on the island, in particular Jin, is unclear, but the island itself seems to have teleported away not just through space but through time. And Ben has arrived to tell Jack and the other members of the Oceanic Six that if they want to save themselves and the other survivors they have to go back to the island.
It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, of course, and almost as incomprehensible. Like many shows which rely upon the unravelling of intricate plots, it’s almost impossible to keep track of precisely what’s going on, and indeed in many ways, keeping track of what’s going on is almost beside the point. What matters is the almost visceral thrill of the show’s twists and turns, and the sense that some new craziness lies just around the corner.
Last week I published a piece in The Australian Literary Review about the rise of what I called the new television. In it I argued that shows such as The Sopranos represent a mode of television drama unlike any we have seen before, filmic in their exploration of the medium’s visual and aural possibilities and novelistic in their preparedness to reject the generic conventions of series television and embrace the complexity and ambiguity of our inner lives.
One of the more striking aspects of this new television is the way it has been made possible by changes in television’s economic model, and by the rise of cable networks less reliant upon advertising and the growing popularity of alternative distribution models such as DVD and downloads, legal or otherwise. This shift away from reliance upon advertisers has allowed the cable networks to make more courageous choices about content and style, and to rely upon greater loyalty from their audiences over time, allowing longer and more complex storylines to be developed and explored.
Image via Wikipedia
Lost and The Sopranos are quite different phenomena of course. If The Sopranos can be understood as the early 21st century’s answer to Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, Lost’s antecedents are to be found in the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s, and more particularly, the Silver Age comics of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others. Certainly Lost, like other, more obviously derivative shows such as Heroes, owes more than just its subject matter to the pulpy, four-colour world of the comic strip. Its structure, with the movement back and forwards in time from an essentially static present is reminiscent of the comic, as is its dependence upon the show’s complex and intertwined mythology. But in many ways it is its dependence upon the piecing together of the puzzles it presents, rather than the transformation of character through action and circumstance to generate narrative excitement and interest that ties it most closely to the comic. For all the intensity and vividness with which characters like Jack are drawn, it’s not their personal and existential travails we’re interested in, merely the part they play in a much larger picture, just as with Spiderman it’s the thrill of recognition we feel in discovering the Green Goblin is Harry Osborn’s father that keeps us reading.
It’s a mode of storytelling Lost’s creator, J.J. Abrams has spent much of the last decade perfecting. First in Alias (a show I never warmed to), and more recently in the drearily derivative Fringe, as well as in films like Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield and the upcoming Star Trek reboot, Abrams has demonstrated an remarkable capacity to marry a purely pop, MTV aesthetic to narrative elements which rarely find their way into mainstream television. Sean Williams, for one sees Lost, with its teleportation and time travel plots, as a trojan horse designed to smuggle science fictional tropes into the mainstream, and in many ways the same could be said of all of Abrams’ work to date.
Part of the Abrams mystique is the illusion that everything in shows such as Lost and Fringe is part of some intricate plan worked out in advance. Like many other television shows, Lost assumes many of its viewers will watch (and indeed rewatch) episodes on Tivo and DVD, allowing them to pause and rewind, and as a result every second frame has some secret unlikely to reveal itself on a casual viewing hidden in it. If a television is on during a flashback in Lost you can assume whatever’s on will pertain to the plot, if a document is glimpsed on a table it will matter, if a logo appears on a coffee cup it will be part of the larger picture.
Obviously this increasingly complex web of associations in Lost and other shows like it depends upon exactly the same transformation in delivery technologies that underpins the rise of the new television more generally. Yet they are supplemented, in Lost’s case, by the very intelligent and deliberate use of the internet. Google Lost, and you will find endless discussions and spoilers, attempts to unravel the show’s mysteries and general speculation about what every detail might mean. And it’s not idle chatter either: I suspect for many viewers this second life (if you’ll pardon the pun) is as much a part of their enjoyment of the show as its more immediate pleasures.
Evangeline Lilly as Kate
The illusion it’s all planned is, of course, just that. One only has to look at the description of the original pilot (which was meant to star Michael Keaton as Jack, and have him die at the end of the first episode) to be reminded of the organic manner in which any television show, even one as intricate as Lost, evolves. Perhaps to his credit Abrams seems happy to give away the sort of fascistic control over every aspect of his shows’ creation that David Chase clearly exerted over The Sopranos or Matthew Weiner now exerts over Mad Men (there’s a fascinating if appalling depiction of Weiner at work in this excellent New York Times feature about life on the Mad Men set)
It’s also interesting to contrast Abrams’ manipulation of the illusion of control with the cheerful and slightly dismaying preparedness of Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Battlestar Galactica, another show whose success depends at least in part on the complexity of its overarching narrative, to admit how many of the crucial decisions about Battlestar Galactica are made in the most casual fashion (“Who shall we make the last of the Final Five? Adama? The President? Ellen?????”).
Jack and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) on the island
Given this careful calibrated interplay between the collaborative technologies of the internet (an interplay shows like Battlestar Galactica also build on through the release of mini webisodes between seasons) it would be tempting to see Lost and shows like it as the first wave of a new, viewer-driven mode of television, a wikivision if you like, but they’re not, or not really. The shows are still driven from the top down, even if they aren’t mapped out by their creators in quite the detail they pretend they are. And it is worth asking whether viewer-driven television would be attractive anyway. In the days of yore, when Xena was one of the hottest shows on tv, its writers checked out the newsgroups, and discovered, somewhat to their dismay, that its fans were enraged by many aspects of the current season. Pleased to have an insight into what viewers did and didn’t like, they began to change storylines and finesse characters to meet the wishes of their fans. The strategy worked. Within a few episodes the chat on the newsgroups grew far more positive. But simultaneously, ratings began to slide. Pleasing the diehard fans, it turned out, was not the same as pleasing viewers more generally.
Yet there’s little doubt Lost and its relatives are part of a broader transformation of television drama, a transformation driven by related, forces to those which have allowed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Big Love to flourish. And, like those shows, they represent a flowering of televison drama which speaks to its vitality as a form. Whether this renaissance can survive the next wave of changes to the media landscape is an interesting question, but for now, I’m just happy to have Lost back.
I’ve got a piece about the new television in today’s issue of the Australian Literary Review. The full text of the article is available online, as is Michael Wood’s excellent piece about Roberto Bolano’s 2666, but print copies are available free with today’s Australian, and are well worth picking up, not least because only a small portion of the issue is reproduced online.