Caprica review: ‘Ghosts in the Machine’
Air date: 3/19/2010
Written by Michael Taylor
Directed by Wayne Rose
Note: This review contains significant spoilers.
At last, here’s the story (or its first chapter, at least) that was inevitable from the moment Zoe ended up in the robot by her father’s doing. If “Ghosts in the Machine” proves anything, it’s that Caprica is at its best when it is intimate and personal. The series’ most engrossing moments of drama and suspense to date come not because lives hang in the balance or because of complicated plots, but because the story deals strictly with its characters — and because the stakes are so clear and, potentially, so personally and emotionally devastating.
Daniel is now convinced that Zoe’s consciousness has survived in the U-87, but Zoe has no intention of admitting that to him. When Daniel talks to the U-87 as Zoe, it ignores him. It will only acknowledge him as the U-87. But Daniel so desperately needs proof from the U-87 that Zoe is still in there, so he launches a psychological battle to wear her down. Can he force her to show her hand?
This, more than any Caprica outing to date, builds great scenes out of character psychology and emotional manipulation. For that, you need actors who can deliver. They do. Eric Stoltz portrays a man whom I felt a great deal of empathy for while at the same time being put off by his harsh, strong-armed tactics and determination that at times approaches Zoe’s obstinacy as a challenge. And yet his desperation is palpable. He just wants to talk to his little girl again. And to do that, he will put Zoe through one emotional manipulation after another.
Consider the scene where he has her constantly reloading the machinegun while talking about the fire that burned down the old house when Zoe was five years old. This is a great piece of cinematic storytelling, where all parts — acting, directing, editing, dialogue — come together to create something that’s sort of mesmerizing while also generating unexpected suspense: Will Daniel get the confirmation he seeks? And will Zoe give it to him, willingly or otherwise? The robot hesitates at one moment, and Daniel thinks he sees a very Zoe-specific emotional response — but does he? He can’t be certain. Good stuff.
Alessandra Toressani is very effective in these scenes without saying a single word. She sells Zoe’s emotions every step of the way: terror, anger, frustration, sadness. You watch these scenes, and it becomes unthinkable that this series could’ve been made had it not established the narrative device of switching back and forth between the robot and the girl. Because Toressani’s reaction shots provide for us — but not the other characters — a running monologue for the robot’s feelings, we are constantly reminded of the disconnect between how we perceive the Cylon and how everyone else does. For everyone else, it is a piece of hardware. Maybe not Daniel. Not anymore. He wants to be convinced otherwise.
This sets the stage for some brilliant scenes. Such as: Daniel, RoboZoe, and the Ring of Fire. Great stuff. Daniel lashes out at Zoe for her fear of growing up, so much that she went out and blew up a train. How much do you think Zoe might want to tell him that it wasn’t her who blew up the train? Probably a lot, but she wants to keep her identity secret even more. (*) And then Daniel sets a ring of gasoline around the U-87 ablaze, because he knows Zoe is afraid of fire. The U-87 does not budge. This is a duel of endurance, wonderfully acted.
* As pointed out in the comments, RoboZoe could not have known that Real Life Zoe didn’t blow up the maglev, since RoboZoe’s memories are based on a version of Real Zoe that she uploaded presumably several hours or days before the bombing. Unless, of course, the alleged Apotheosis miracle that allowed Virtual Zoe to become alive inside the Cylon (and hinted at by Virtual Zoe being covered in blood in the pilot) somehow also allowed memory transfer at the time of the explosion. But I doubt that’s what occurred or what the writers intended.
And then, of course, there’s Daniel, RoboZoe, the Gun and the Dog, which takes the standoff to an escalation that seems to approach madness. He offers Zoe the ultimate binary choice: He orders the U-87, on the count of five, to shoot his beloved dog. Only Zoe has the power to intervene and stop it. Will she? Or will the dog be killed? (Surely these writers wouldn’t kill a cute and innocent dog?! It’s television anathema!) It must be said that this is a blatantly manipulative scene, which cuts to the dog as Daniel gets to “four” and as the camera snap-zooms in. It also must be said that this is an absolutely brilliant scene, shot and edited and acted and directed for maximum effect. And the show by this point has earned it as its payoff. The manipulation arises completely from Daniel’s own desperate motivation.
And I also liked how the binary choice ultimately became more complex, involving the blanks in the gun, and what Zoe knew and when she knew it. But clearly Zoe is reaching a point where she may not be able to sit idly much longer. “Get me out of here before I do something I regret,” she tells Lacy, somewhat chillingly. A somewhat unspoken theme is the question of just how much Zoe is in control of the U-87, and how much of it controls her. The “trinity” concept floated earlier in the season is worth revisiting, because as much as it seems Zoe controls the Cylon, it’s also clear that it has its own influence on her.
This theme runs parallel with Joseph’s story, where he continues his search for his daughter. He finds that the longer he stays in the game, the more profound its impact may be on him. Emmanuelle warns him that people lose themselves and change because of the game, and I believe that. The affect something has on your life is in large part controlled by your own personal investment in it. If you convince yourself something matters, then it can matter, even if it’s not real. I think that’s where both Joseph and Daniel are in trying to find their virtual daughters. Because, let’s face it, their daughters are dead, and they both know it.
Initially Joseph can’t bring himself to kill anyone, even in VR (which strikes me as a bit of a stretch). He asks Sam at one point how one brings oneself to commit murder. Sam tells him to think of it as not real — as a game — which is perhaps a little too self-awarely ironic under the circumstances, but fair enough. New Cap City felt much more alive and urgent this week, and I continue to enjoy the club atmosphere, the period detail, and the look and design of the city itself, which as a whole evokes Dark City.
Joseph finds himself lowering himself to the standards of the game in his investigation of people who have seen Tamara. He takes virtual drugs that allow him to play harder and faster (and that have real-life addictive risks). At one point he wipes out half a room full of people because he Means Business.
I wonder how long it will be before Joseph finds Tamara, and if he will even recognize her by then — or if she will become a lost spirit doomed to forever haunt V-World. The last shot of New Cap City is a foreboding one; it takes the sweet image of Tamara’s T-flower drawing and repeats it, larger and larger, turning it into something menacing and alien. I suspect Tamara herself will be similarly menacing and alien by the time we catch up with her.
It’s probably no coincidence that the best episodes of Caprica seem to happen when the show subtracts elements rather than adding them. I don’t need four plotlines every week. The A/B structure here (with a few other brief scenes thrown in) allows us to focus, rather than having our attention splintered between an A/B/C/D structure. Less is more. Truth is, I probably could’ve watched an entire episode that was just Daniel and Zoe facing off in various scenarios of escalating psychological warfare. But what we had was plenty enough, and quite excellent.
Now to fire off some bullets (but none at dogs):
• The episode shoehorns in a scene where Vergis shows up and tells Amanda that Daniel had the MCP stolen and killed his friends. This scene works (despite being divorced from the rest of the story) because it shows the calculated, long-term strategy of destruction by Vergis, and because the performances are so good. Look at how much sincerity and emotion there is in Vergis’ eyes when he tells Amanda this news.
• The drag-queen’s riddle certainly had some cerebral, captial-s thematic Significance to it, no?
• You may perhaps never look at a BSG Cylon Centurion quite the same way after Caprica.
• Doesn’t Joseph have a job he has to either go to or get fired from? Is he on vacation or something? Maybe it’s the weekend.
• What is Emmanuelle’s incentive for helping Joseph? She keeps insisting she’s going to be paid, but there’s clearly someone else pulling strings here.
• Amanda still sees her dead brother in hallucinations. She goes to the site of the car accident and talks on the phone with Clarice. This didn’t take up much time, and the scenes were fine, but honestly, I just don’t care.