bsg: religion and paying attention

All over discussions of the finale I’m hearing the same parrot squawk:

“The show’s ending isn’t deus ex machina because it’s been about God from the BEGINNING! Weren’t you paying ATTENTION?”

Yes, I was, frak you very much. We all were. But introducing religion doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want in your story and just point to God as your explanation.

The problem isn’t that there’s divine intervention in the story. I don’t accept that as an explanation for anything in real life, but I’m okay with it in fiction if it’s earned. That is, it’s written well, it’s used sparingly, it’s connected to story values (courage vs. cowardice, compassion vs. hatred, etc.), and it doesn’t substitute for the active choices characters make to participate in their own lives.

I can accept the angels as messengers of a higher power. A big reason for that is that they represent a different point of view for Baltar and Caprica Six — they serve as conscience, as perspective, as champions of faith (not necessarily religious faith so much as faith in one’s own strength and intuition). Think about all the “miracles” head!Six kept perpetrating through Baltar. If we take these at face value — miracles for the sake of miracles, or of encouraging belief in higher powers — they fall horribly flat, unless you are already convinced that belief in a higher power is an end in itself. The angels fortunately permit different readings that all have some resonance within the story.

I find Starbuck harder to accept because she has been set up as a mystery since “Maelstrom,” flying into the abyss a clear suicide, repeatedly telling us “I don’t know what I am” — and in the end we are simply told we must take her at face value. She flew into the maelstrom for no reason, emerging simply as God’s compass, a solid ghost — and what this means is that her story ended in that episode. She is NOT Adama’s “daughter.” The Starbuck we’ve seen ever since then is an unperson — and yet we’ve been asked for an entire season to feel along with Starbuck’s ghost her confusion and struggle, something we thought she was flying into the maelstrom to end. What does her decision to trust her father’s apparition — an angel in the head of an angel! — actually mean to her character, if her character has been transformed into God’s Starbuck Action Figure? Her nature from “Maelstrom” onward is arbitrary. So the story values she embodies — intuition? perseverance? — mean nothing to Starbuck the human being. That individual is a rotted corpse. What’s left is the shadow of that person, or at best a ghost that can’t rest until it’s been able to do its duty.

In other words, there’s no real subtext because we finally learn that she is wholly and only what she appears to be: the solid ghost of herself, a star to follow to Earth. The only way for this to pay off in terms of values is for her to have a profound influence on the other characters in the show in a way she could not have done as a Real Live Girl. I would argue that generally she did not. We have every reason to view her as an actual person who is determined to lead her people to the Promised Land, and every reason not to care once it turns out she’s just a pawn. Granted, pawns only move one square at a time, but that’s because chess has rules. God can reach down and move the pieces however It wants to. That’s what “God” means.

My girlfriend’s prediction, based on Starbuck’s return and Roslin’s dreams about death as a river, was that Earth would be a sort of afterlife or underworld, a place people must die to reach. This would have explained why Starbuck’s Viper had to explode to get her to Earth. It would have been her voyage to and from the underworld, like that of Odysseus or Aeneas or Orpheus (who perhaps liked to sing “All Along the Watchtower” in a voice 180 degrees from Dylan’s?). She would have had to come to terms with the fact that she’d actually died, to accept it, and to convince everyone else to leave off their attachments — to survival at any cost, to resurrection, to the endless cycle of reincarnation — and make peace with death, which would in turn allow them into the underworld, which turns out to be Arcadia, Valhalla, Nirvana. They would have escaped the wheel of repetition and found ultimate peace.

It would have been a bit of a downer from one point of view, but really fucking cool. And still very spiritual and nonscientific (unless maybe death is “through the black hole and into a parallel universe where Earth isn’t a Cylon world,” which would have worked too), mixing elements of Greek mythology and Buddhist philosophy. Her choice of death and her return would have meant something other than a rather clumsy, elaborate “miracle.” She would have remained, in some sense, an actual human being capable of continuing to learn. And the characters would still have been making choices, rather than being led down a preprogrammed path.

What I’m trying to say is that, like many fans, I’ve known and accepted that there would be a spiritual element to the show all along. But it’s not a Get Out of Jail Free card, a way of dismissing all the mysteries that kept us riveted, expecting answers that, even if they defied rational explanation, at least resonated in terms of the overall story. Playing that card isn’t a slap in the face of ontological materialism — well, it is, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a slap in the face of good storytelling, and from what I’m reading, the critics who have been following this show as attentively as anyone else, not to mention RDM himself, are fully aware of this shortcoming.

They’re satisfied anyway. Maybe, with enough time, I will be too.