Sci-Fi Channel’s "Battlestar Galactica" entered its fourth and final season on Friday, and as happens each half season, the majority of television viewers were left scratching their heads in a posture familiar to those left behind by "The Wire."
Yes, yes, you're saying, “You told us it was good and complicated, but do we really have a chance of understanding what's going on?”
Not really. But the good news is that you'd be no better off if you'd been watching all along. The point of "Battlestar" is political questions asked, not answered.
The emphasis is always on the unanswerable and the uncomfortable, not the answer to the vexing moral question, but the ways in which no solution is correct or even satisfying.
The series began with a barely concealed 9/11 event that sent the human race on a wild chase across the stars to search for a new home. The agitprop speeches, survival rhetoric and homeland security issues were familiar and rousing back in 2003.
But it was quickly revealed that this apocalyptic moment came about because of humanity's own hubris. The Cylons had grown, as in post-Cold War Afghanistan, from slaves and tools into jihadist mercenaries visually indistinguishable from you and me.
Seeing both sides
At the conclusion of the show's second season, the humans located a new home planet and lived there for a year before the Cylons arrived again. The humans, stand-in Americans for the preceding seasons, found themselves caged up on land they'd claimed as their own.
Once the ragtag fleet of humans escaped captivity again, the show settled into a third allegorical structure, and we found ourselves spending equal time in both camps. The Cylons' alien culture began to split and fracture in the wake of political and religious upheaval. Humanity faced labor disputes, vigilantism and the scars of years of captivity.
The show had become an exploration of two violently different cultures at cross-purposes, both searching for Earth.
In the last moments of season three, which led directly to the first moments of Friday's premiere, the show's metaphor leaped forward again. The heads of the resistance back on their temporary home learned that they themselves were Cylon sleeper agents. Humanity saw the face of its new enemy, and it was themselves.
Before this discovery, Colonel Saul Tigh, the head of the suicide bombers, lost an eye, his wife, his position at his admiral's side and eventually his marbles, which inspired a rousing speech and recommitment to his position in the Fleet, Cylon or no.
Chief Galen Tyrol, an engineer and reluctant labor agitator, found himself ensnared in the president's social engineering plans. Now, he's the father of the second hybrid child. Unfortunately, this news looks to be very bad for his avowed Cylon-hating wife, Cally.
Sam Anders — a pyramid player-turned-guerrilla fighter Starbuck rescued from the radioactive remains of her home planet, married and later deserted — was recreating his life from the ground up as a trainee pilot. Now that his wife is back from the dead and he's one of the enemy, their rocky relationship is changing faster than ever.
Before the revelation of her Cylon nature, the president's aide Tory Foster was quite publicly losing it, and privately carrying on a relationship with Anders. She seems as committed to the old order as Tigh, firm in her loyalty to the president. But who knows what Cylon programming might push her, and each of them, to do in the coming weeks?
Two other mysteries seem poised to dominate the season.
Starbuck, whose oft-touted "special destiny" was revealed to be a complicated game of death and rebirth, is back, promising to lead the Fleet to Earth.
For now, she's a pariah, an unknown quantity whose greatest advocates — Commander Adama, his son Apollo, the president — have abandoned her. A prophecy unknown to anyone on the show, revealed in last year's TV movie "Razor," has foretold that she will lead humanity to its end.
It's certainly an exchange of fortunes with former president Gaius Baltar, now poised to move from war criminal and Public Enemy No. 1 to Charles Manson-esque cult leader.
Meanwhile, the president's cancer has returned, and with it her dependence on hallucinogenic herbal remedies. The last time Laura Roslin was on the stuff, she plotted sedition against the military and nearly caused a Fleet-wide civil war. Roslin's story has always been about balancing the political future of humanity with her religious convictions, even against the persecution of her political enemies. This time, she's sharing mystical visions with two of the known Cylons in the Fleet.
The Cylon Athena, who defected to the human military, is the mother of the first hybrid child, Hera. Caprica Six, who was instrumental in the destruction and internment of humanity, has willingly come aboard Galactica as a prisoner of war.
What is the meaning of the dreams these three women share, and what do they portend for baby Hera? All three of them have parented her, and all three are willing to die to protect her. And what about the prophecy that Roslin will die before the Fleet reaches Earth? How will these latest events affect her judgment?
Most important, how will they affect her burgeoning and complex relationship with Adama, who is now an admiral? Apollo concluded last season by resigning permanently from the military and seems to have permanently moved to the government. Will a revived fight over Apollo's fate cause more trouble between the president and the admiral?
The answers may never be known. "Battlestar" has always denied its characters easy answers and resolutions, demanding just as much flexibility from them as its audience. The show's specialty is creating broken people and rebuilding them through tragedy, and in this final stretch, there won't be neat endings for them, either.
As in any exodus, the challenge becomes reaching your destination with as few casualties as possible. We'll just have to hope for the best.
Jacob Clifton is a staff writer for Television Without Pity.