Battlestar Galactica (2003), Season 4, Episodes 21-22, “Daybreak”
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Michael Rymer
Aired March 13th and 20th, 2009 on SyFy
Battlestar Galactica’s stirring, epic finale is one of the worst and most hated in recent years, if the internet is to be believed. As with Lost, whose finale aired the year after and received similar blowback (read Randy’s thoughts on it here), fans had spent years trying to puzzle out the mysteries behind BSG’s central mythology and in the finale, they expected closure, which for many meant answers. The show had different plans. There is no right or wrong way to appreciate art, and it’s understandable that fans who watched BSG, or Lost for that matter, purely for its intriguing mythology were left cold by a finale that offered simple answers when it gave any and instead prioritized the characters’ personal journeys. What these disappointed fans are overlooking, however, is just how fitting this sprawling, operatic finale is to the emotional, philosophical series that preceded it.
A word about the ending. There’s a frustratingly prevalent notion among TV fans that the final episodes, or as in this case, final moments, of a television show somehow determine the quality or value of the series as a whole. In this case, Ronald D. Moore chose to end Battlestar Galactica not with any of the characters or even with the titular ship, but instead with a rather didactic flashforward to present-day Earth and finally, a painfully hokey montage of then-current robots set to Jimmy Hendricks’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower”. It’s a misstep, one driven by the urge to give fans an answer they want (why Hera was so important after all) instead of something the show needs. Others dislike the colonists’ decision to abandon what remains of their technology and live simply, off the land, a legitimate complaint. Neither of these controversial decisions, however, negate the two entertaining and emotional hours of finale that lead up to them.
Battlestar Galactica is an intense and thrilling, but highly philosophical show, and the finale stays true to this. The series’ first line of dialogue is, “Are you alive?”, and that curiosity about life and consciousness, the value or definition of a soul, the capability of the human spirit, and the morality of a people in desperate straits continues throughout the series. “Daybreak”, and the climax of the action in the CIC in particular, wonderfully explores several of these themes. The opera house visions guide Laura, Athena, Caprica, Baltar, and perhaps even Hera safely through the battle to the CIC, but Baltar’s speech to Cavil, negotiating a cease fire, comes entirely from him, fate as ever blending with free will. There’s the melding of the personal and political, when the fate of both humanity and the Cylons comes down not to negotiations or treaties, but Galen’s revenge on Tory, and a questioning of the definition of life itself, as Anders spits out lines of meaningless (to us) code, with specific, conversational messages embedded within.
Then there’s the religious component and the ever-present discussion of faith versus science. HeadSix and HeadBaltar are labeled angels by Baltar, as Starbuck was by Leoben in season four’s “The Road Less Traveled”. This is a sticking point for many, but fans who take issue with this are taking too literal an interpretation. Just as HeadBaltar tells us at the end of the episode that the force behind the mystical elements of the show isn’t God and that, “It doesn’t like that name”, “angel” feels like an approximation, and an appropriate one that this critic doesn’t understand the backlash against. In a series with visions that come true, ancient religious texts with roadmaps to lost cities, and regeneration, angels (or superintelligent aliens with technology so advanced it seems like magic) seem right at home.
Even more than its themes, “Daybreak” focuses intently on its characters. The three-part finale spends almost a full hour of its runtime in flashback, giving viewers their first significant look at any of the characters before the instigating events of the introductory miniseries. We see what put each of our leads on their paths to Galactica and how much, or little, each of them has changed over the course of the series. Moore’s willingness to linger with every member of such a large main cast is astonishing. The action comes, and in a big way, but rather than try to end such an epic journey by topping previous battle sequences and packing the finale with big moments, “Daybreak” opts for a string of quieter ones, those small in scope but enormously meaningful.
As we build to the main action setpiece, each flashback consists of no more than three people- Laura and her sisters. Baltar, Six, and his father. Kara, Zak, and Lee. Bill, Saul, and Ellen. Back on Galactica, it’s the same: Adama, Starbuck, and Anders, Laura and Doc Cottle, Athena and Karl. Each of these scenes are highly personal and filled with history. There’s too much going on and too many characters to follow to put any more than that together, and Moore understands this, keeping the focus tight. Each interaction leads directly to a scene later in the finale or in a few cases, functions as a goodbye, letting the characters and the audience begin the process of letting go.
That isn’t to say there aren’t big or expected moments. We get several rallying speeches from Adama, a series of badass action scenes, downright beautiful space battles, and each of our heroes gets a moment to shine, their scenes usually underscored by absolutely gorgeous music. We get payoffs not just for the Opera House visions and Starbuck’s Special Destiny, but several threads many didn’t expect to see resolved, or may have even forgotten about: Athena’s revenge on Boomer, Caprica and Baltar both seeing HeadSix and HeadBaltar, and perhaps most surprisingly and satisfyingly of all, Tyrol’s discovery of Tory’s airlocking of Cally. What makes each of these beats meaningful, however, are the personal stakes driving them. Without the slower, more introspective moments earlier, the bombastic climax would be little more than noise.
After the emotional and physical intensity of the climax, the lengthy denouement we get here is appropriate. This is the end not just to an episode, but a four season epic journey through the stars. It’s fitting that Moore splits his finale fairly evenly into flashback, climax, and coda; this gives us plenty of time to check in once more on our enormous cast and, as the best finales do, allow the audience to say goodbye. As mentioned above, this denouement is what most seems to aggravate viewers. There are a lot of nature shots, but after 74 episodes staring into the blackness of space, or the oppressive greyness of New Caprica, the explosion of color on Earth is beautiful. The colonists’ decision to abandon their ships takes a bit of rationalizing, but with the cycle of violence such an important theme of the series, and the ships so significantly damaged already and fuel nowhere to be found, this decision, and focus on drastically changing their fate, becomes easier to accept. More than anything, though, this final section gives us one lovely, emotional scene after another, providing moments of catharsis. This is a terrific cast, and they make the most of their material.
For some, Battlestar Galactica’s “Daybreak” will always be a disappointment. It’s not the finale they wanted and nothing will change that. For this viewer, it’s a beautiful, moving, exciting, and utterly fitting, if imperfect, ending to a fantastic series. One can only hope that over time, as more viewers discover, evaluate, and reevaluate the series and its conclusion, this tremendous finale will finally get its due.