Caprica: “Gravedancing”

Dances with Robots

By Sarah Stegall
Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Stegall Caprica

Syfy Channel, Friday at 9 PM
Teleplay by Jane Espenson, Story by Michael Angelli & Jane Espenson Directed by Michael Watkins

Disclaimer: I have not seen the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, to which this series is a prequel. Therefore my comments pertain only and solely to the events shown in Caprica, with no reference whatsoever to Battlestar Galactica or the events in that series.

You get the best things from your enemies. — Grandma

This episode of Caprica could have been titled “Damage Control”, as Daniel Graystone goes on a national talk show to seek public redemption for his wife’s foot-in-mouth disease. As I had hoped, this was an excellent opportunity to reflect back at the audience a critical, maybe ironic view of how our opinions are shaped not by thought but by emotion, and how easily manipulated television audiences (and by extension, the political body itself) can be. Daniel goes on the Sarno (rhymes with Leno) show, hosted by smarmy talk show host Baxter Sarno (Patton Oswalt, United States of Tara) because the fallout from Amanda’s ill-conceived, impulsive public announcement that Zoe was a terrorist has threatened to collapse his company and destroy everything he has ever worked for. Daniel maintains his calm in the face of this impending disaster, even when his mad wife castigates him for even trying to salvage the family name and reputation. I conclude from this that either Daniel is playing a very deep game, or is very stupid, or is a very noble man. I’m inclined to the latter.

Daniel is a complex character I am beginning to love. Eric Stoltz makes him real and human. There was one particularly good scene I loved, when Daniel is getting ready for the talk show but fighting with Amanda over it. In a classic bit that any long-term couple will

recognize, Daniel asks for and gets wardrobe advice from Amanda even as they bicker. It reinforces the feeling I get from these two, that no matter how much they argue and disagree, their relationship is founded on a deep and unyielding affection that will outlast just about any challenge thrown at it. Nice to see a married couple portrayed so sympathetically on television.

I also loved the behind-the-scenes coaching Daniel was getting (rejecting) from his well-meaning but shallow PR flunkies, and how following their advice backfired on the actual show. Daniel is clearly uncomfortable with the interview, appears stiff and rehearsed (which he is) and then lets his emotions out and goes off-script. As the flunkies watch in horror, Amanda storms onto the set and hijacks the show. Under the stimulus of Sarno’s provocation and his wife’s passionate defense of their child, Daniel’s genius breaks through with a from-the-gut declaration that will have all of Caprica discussing this interview around whatever passes for watercoolers on that planet. It was a great take on our national obsession with celebrity confessionals (Tiger Woods, anyone?) and the sentimental scripts that accompany them.

What was particularly effective in Amanda’s defense of her daughter was her listing of all the typical teen traits Zoe exhibited: anger, slammed doors, defiance, and so forth. As she so fervently puts it, what fifteen year old girl does not exhibit this behavior? To label it as “troubling”, the harbinger of terrorism, is to brand all normal teenagers as alien, other, dangerous. Even better was Daniel’s defense of the freedom of cyberspace, under attack from Sarno just as conservative pundits of our world attack the freedom of something they cannot control. Sarno tries to paint Daniel as a heartless corporate guy out to make a buck off innocent teens in cyberspace, where there are no consequences for immoral or unacceptable behavior. He tries to make a case that cyberspace is by its nature corrupt, which is when Daniel’s brilliant flash comes through, and he vows to make the part of cyberspace his industry controls “profit free”.

The interesting subtext here is the assumption that all that is “wrong” with cyberspace is the profit motive. This one assumption speaks volumes about the blinders Daniel wears, blinders that I suspect are going to lead him down a path of horror. He believes that the problem of amorality in cyberspace comes from the outside–profiteers. He does not see that to an extent, Sarno’s critique of cyberspace as “consequence free” is valid. Where there is no consensus of “appropriate” behavior, chaos will rule. Every culture, every civilization, comes up with some set of rules that govern the definition of appropriate behavior–take away that consensus, and savagery will ensue. I fear that Daniel–and Caprica–are going to learn this to their sorrow.

This discussion of cyberspace freedoms and responsibilities rarely happens on television, and certainly not on network television. Any discussion of cyberspace is usually controlled by the media, which was at first fearful of, and is now eager to exploit, the free and open speech of millions. It’s nice to have one voice from Hollywood giving at least lip service to the idea that the Internet, and cyberspace, should be a place of free, not profitable, speech. Yet again we see Caprica acting in an old and familiar role of science fiction: social critic.

While Daniel and Amanda are rescuing themselves from public disapprobrium, Sam Adama is stalking Amanda. Under orders from his brother to “balance” the deaths of Tamara and his wife, Sam stalks Amanda Graystone, fending off Yusef’s constant nagging to “get it done”. Sam’s laid-back acceptance of both the cruelty and the (cultural) necessity of his planned assassination invests his character with a level of honesty unmatched by the highly conflicted Yusef. Actor Sasha Roiz (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) plays Sam with a delicate and subdued machismo: he’s a man comfortable with the inconsistencies inherent in his “other” status in this culture, comfortable with the imperatives of a culture at odds with the surrounding zeitgeist, and not worried about proving anything to anybody. Not to be outdone, Esai Morales plays Yusef as the classic straddler, with a foot in each world, who is struggling to reconcile the values of his upbringing (revenge) with the values he serves now (justice, which is not the same thing). Their interaction becomes a dance of values, of understated challenge and response, showing us two brothers pulling apart yet held by unshakeable affection and loyalty. I get the feeling Sam is more lethal than he allows himself to appear, and that Yusef is more sensitive than he wants to admit. Both actors carry off this tricky relationship well.

But I must admit that the breakout character in this episode was Grandma Ruth (Karen Elizabeth Austin,Living with the Dead), the matriarch of the Adama clan. From her wistful reminiscences about playing jacks on Tauron with the finger bones of children who lost the game, to her dismemberment of a chicken and simultaneous deconstruction of Will’s indoctrination in Caprican values, she shows us a hardcore grandma right out of the Corleone or Soprano family. There’s nothing wishy-washy about this grandma–she may make fabulous chicken soup but she could also kill Amanda with her bare hands and sleep well. Her casual tossing off of proverbs such as the one at the head of this review reveal an cast iron soul under that demure kitchen apron. This is a granny who bakes with cyanide, who has more than one use for a cleaver. She’s a grandmother in the mode of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus: scheming, violent, a real power behind a throne. I love her.

The assassination subplot is proving to be a wonderful vehicle for character exposition. Yusef’s growing panic, his mother-in-law’s scorn for his vacillating, and finally his incandescent anger at his brother for supposedly carrying through his mission all fueled a taut family drama that echoed and enhanced the Graystone saga. It’s this level of writing and acting that raise the show from soap opera to real drama status, the difference between Days of Our Lives and King Lear. By the way, for viewers interested in the story behind Sam’s tattoos, the story he didn’t tell Amanda Graystone, writer Jane Espenson explained it all here ( blogs/show-patrol/2010/02/exclusive-caprica-producer-jane-espenson-explains-sam-adamas-tattoos.html).

We’re nicely set up for some interesting plot developments now. With Daniel’s holoband business about to become profit-free, he will have to turn to new sources of innovation and invention–surely that will be the robot in his basement. I am anxious to see how the progress on Zoe’s prototype will result in the Cylons who will eventually destroy this civilization. I continue to be interested in the fascinating glimpses of Tauron (and how I loved the bobblehead bull on Sam’s dashboard). I like the way the series is mirroring/reflecting our own society back at us–as long as this does not spill over into outright preaching. For now, scenes like Sister Clarices’ marriage bed for four make it certain that this episode will spark some lively debate on current issues in our own world; no need for heavy-handed propaganda here. Nicely written, nicely directed.

A few memorable scenes: Zoe the Robot dancing with a technician, the lab tech’s music playlist which includes the theme to the original Battlestar Galactica, the hapless detectives with old-style video cameras and computers (police budgets are always tight, no matter what world you’re on). The series is really starting to mature, as a character-driven rather than plot-driven vehicle, which is rare in SF. Scuttlebutt says the ratings for this series are abysmal, despite the fact that nobody seems to actually want to post them. I don’t care; quality is never determined by popular vote, and in my book, this show is evolving towards top notch quality.