Battlestar Galactica and Reflecting on Death
What should art effect in us?
Why do we listen and watch and consider even one work of art?
What makes art worthy of our time and concentration?
Should they evince joy or sadness or the full spectrum in between? Yes, hopefully, and I would encourage us all to seek out art that does just that; to partake of art that does not make light of death and suffering (although it might find humor in them) or joy and mirth, but handles them with serious care. Art should make us sad and bring us joy. Art should both offend and comply with our sensibilities.
I have been watching a television show (Battlestar Galactica) that has immersed me in the "full spectrum" of themes and emotions mentioned above. But within the spectrum it has caused me to contemplate my own mortality more than any other TV show I have ever seen. This is due to two factors: 1.) the quality of the show and 2.) the fact that I am finally in a place in my life where I am willing to actually face the abstract concept of death as well as the fact of my own inevitable eventual death. This contemplation was not something I was able to throughout my undergraduate literature degree, where I would squirm whenever forced to read another novel whose main subject or underlying theme was death. What was all these authors' (literal) morbid obsession with this subject? Where was their meditation on and memorial to life? On joy? On celebration?
I still think my instincts on this were primarily good, for as a Christian I am ultimately an "Easter" kind of person, even as I continually tell stories that walk through the darkness of "Good Friday". The stories I tell will nearly always end in resurrection despite the fact that most of the narratives will take place in the realm of suffering and dying. Despite my good instincts as a young twenty-something, I now realize something was lacking in me. All Christians who have been called to walk the way of Christ need to have the gall to first look death in the face and then choose to fully go through death--both spiritual and physical--even as death itself is conquered. For most of my life up to now I was too scared and immature to look.
Now, though, I am looking, even if with lingering apprehension. This has partly to do with life circumstances: namely, I got cancer a few years ago, I have kids now and I am thinking about their future (a future they will eventually have to live without me), my own mother is aging (thus a future where I will have to live without her), my next door neighbor died a few months ago (a man who's rapid deterioration I witnessed myself over the course of two years), and my 90 year old grandmother has been on an amazingly slow but ever-progressive descent to her own death. And right along with these circumstances comes Battlestar Galactica a show that constantly asks the BIG questions to its characters and therefore to its viewing audience. There are so many moral, ethical, political, religious, spiritual, historical, and racial themes this show brings up I could not possibly cover them. But looming in each episode is the danger of death, even the complete annihilation of the human race.
To be sure, the episodes do not merely wax poetical about death or philosophically in the abstract, although there is enough of that too. Instead, we come face to face with the deaths of many of the show's characters--primary, secondary, and tertiary--deaths usually depicted in as harsh a light as TV can render. What makes the show so compelling though is that nearly all the deaths have great weight to them, that is, we feel them as viewers, we know there are consequences on numerous levels for having lost these people.
When we see what Admiral Adama (Edward James Olmos) has to endure every time he loses someone who has served under him, when we look upon the utter despair in Chief Tyrol's (Aaron Douglas) face and body at the loss of his wife, and yes, even when we see the Cylons start to turn against each other (especially when there are no resurrection ships) we begin to understand that death is final and that one day we too will be counted among the dead. But in no character of Battlestar is death's immanence made more manifest than in Mary McDonnell's portrayal of President Laura Roslin. The episode that sticks out to me is from season 4 entitled "Faith". The actual plot details are irrelevant; essentially, she has cancer, is getting treatment for it, knows she is dying, and is stuck in the hospital where she befriends another dying cancer patient. What is important is how she so convincingly embodies the emotions and body language of a dying person; the pallor, the gait, the tone of voice. Like so much in this show, the character of President Roslin is an amazing conglomeration of superior writing, excellent production, and the perfect actor to bring it all to life. I knew McDonnell was doing her job right when my own head began swirling and I started to think about dying. It was a feeling I used to get child and have since "grown out of". A feeling of overwhelming fear, of powerlessness, of dread. Sitting there watching the show I quickly pulled myself out of it saying, "No, not yet. Not yet." The the drama of the show had had its effect.
Numerous times throughout the show's run, especially as we see Admiral Adama and President Roslin start to get closer to each other, we see Adama sitting with Roslin, talking with her, reading to her, and just sitting with her in the silence. He knows she is dying and he also knows to just be present with her. Watching this sequence of scenes it has become clear to me just how little I know about living, how limited my experiences are. I have no idea how to walk beside someone as they are dying, no idea how to let them die, and I know I will not know until I actually go through it. As a man of 31 years I know how much marriage and fatherhood and hard work have changed me in ways the 21 year old literature major me could never have conceived of. What a TV show like BSG does is lay before us how life is constantly changing, continually placing before our path circumstances--for the most part--we never would have chosen ourselves, even if those circumstances are usually the run-of-the-mill tribulations everybody that is human has to face at one time or another. That is, even though our tragedies and triumphs, both earned and un-asked for, are wholly our own, at the same time there is nothing unique about them that has not already been experienced by somebody somewhere else, something the Teacher in Ecclesiastes makes clear ("There is nothing new under the sun"). And as BSG keeps throwing these ever-changing and difficult circumstances towards its characters, we come to realize there are a million little choices to be made within each circumstance; that within everything that we cannot control are many many things that we can control, things that we are responsible for. That even if the world is uncontrollably slipping out of our hands, even if death is immanent, even if the Cylons are going to kill us all(!), we are still left with the challenge of how to behave before it all ends. There is freedom within inevitability.
Why do we watch such TV shows? These media products that force us to think about the complexities and hardships of real life instead of merely letting us escape to a safe fantasy world like most television does? Are we masochists, subjecting ourselves to psychic torture for the sake of an entertainment buzz? Perhaps this is the trick of good art. Perhaps a show like Battlestar Galactica exists to help us escape just long enough from our present hardships in order to gain perspective from which we really can begin to look, to think, and to act. That in turning away from ourselves and becoming immersed in other world we are given the opportunity to start candidly looking at our own lives, even if that means opening ourselves to something as frightening as death.