Battlestar Galactica's Best Episode: The Oath

By Jonathan Elliott 2012-04-16 09:31:17 discussion comments
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Once again, we're tackling another show in TV Blend's weekly series "___'s Best Episode." Each week a different writer will pick out a different episode of a TV show and argue why it is definitively, absolutely the best thing the show ever did. Arguments will be started, tears may be shed, but we're here to start some conversations and make some arguments for really, really good TV. This week Jonathan makes a case for Battlestar Galactica’s “The Oath” Read below, argue with us in the comments.

I already know I might get some flack for this one. I love BSG, as do many of my friends. And when I talk about this writeup, and my choice for its best episode, I get the constant comment: "What about '33'"? Yes, Season 1’s "33" is a fantastic episode, with the beleaguered crew of Galactica newly on the run from the Cylons, having to prep for battle every 33 minutes as the Cylon fleet jumps in to attack. It was our first real look at what this show was capable of: a gritty war drama shot in shaky-cam, cinema verite style, with high stakes and the rawness of human emotion at the forefront.

But see, I didn't choose "33." My choice is Season 4’s "The Oath." And here's why: if you look back to Star Trek in the 1960’s, and look past the pointy rubber ears and green women, you realize that Gene Roddenberry was able to tell these incredibly current, dangerous stories by virtue of including them in a science-fiction show. Everything from interracial romance to nuclear disarmament to civil rights and sexual liberation was fair game, and if it had been handled plainly and directly, it never would have flown past the censors.

Roddenberry began the storied tradition of science fiction as cutting-edge allegory for current events, dressed up as escapism. And BSG carried out that legacy better than any other show of the last three decades. The desperate story of humanity on the run from genocidal machines transformed into a deeply personal and violent examination of war between two peoples that looked alike, with different perspectives but similar wants, and a nigh-religious desire to eradicate one another, amidst in-fighting, scheming, and tremendous stakes. It's uncomfortable and brilliant in its commentary on the way conflict works in this post-9/11 world, and in its final season, all of these well-laid allegories and conflicts exploded into an overt symphony of hard choices and shocking payoffs.

"The Oath" begins the endgame for Tom Zarek and Felix Gaeta, two characters that, at series' start, we'd never imagine being on the same side. Zarek, a former terrorist turned political leader, had spent most of the series plotting and scheming for power and control in the background. And Gaeta, a quietly dutiful military officer, has fought for the human cause consistently. In the wake of Earth being revealed as a destroyed wasteland and the Cylon dissidents being welcomed into the fleet, these two men form an alliance that leads to a civilian mutiny against Admiral Adama and the Galactica crew, as Zarek escapes custody and Gaeta arms the general public for revolution.

John Dahl's exacting direction of this episode sets it up as a "no one gets out alive" thriller, and this late in the series, you don't know who might actually be shot dead in the next scene. The mutiny throws together characters we've been aching to see interact--Anders, Helo, Sharon and Hera are thrown in a cell with Caprica Six, forced to confront each other and their fears about what it means to be a Cylon.  Adama and Tigh are captured together,  and we get to see, for perhaps the very last time in the series, these two old friends kick ass and take names as they escape together. We also get the priceless and awesome moment where Tigh realizes that Adama and Roslin are sleeping together, which is worth the four seasons of buildup, all on its own--the little moment of love and humor in the midst of all this tension is welcome and wonderfully paced. And Kara and Lee rescue Roslin, getting her first to her enemy-turned-ally Baltar and then escaping to the Cylon basestar in the fleet. We get to see what the white-knuckle terror of a mutiny does to both the fleet and these key relationships.

And we're never allowed to forget that these are people pushed to their breaking points by a war that is without end, motivated by race and survival against a backdrop of "destiny" and religion. We end up fearful for the characters we love, but also intensely sympathetic for Gaeta and Zarek because it's hard to argue with their point: the fleet's lost its way, and maybe Adama's not the man to trust with humanity's best interests.

"The Oath" sets up BSG's final act, in which we find Roslin re-ascending to power and the merged human/Cylon fleet heading towards a final battle with the "pure" Cylons and eventually finding a new home. And of course, the mutiny is later defeated, ending in Zarek and Gaeta facing down a firing squad with a smirk and a shrug.

Battlestar Galactica is some of the finest fictional programming about war ever created, and "The Oath" is the apex of BSG's war episodes. It's impossible to watch it and not feel for all perspectives, and wonder, in the same situation, on which side you'd fall.
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