The Problem of Evil in Battlestar Galactica’s Ending

Whether you thought the ending to BSG was good or bad (and I certainly belong in the latter camp), one thing that you cannot deny is how, within a two-hour time period, Ronald Moore radically and irrevocably changed the entire orientation of the show. Instead of a futuristic/sci-fi socio-political allegory about human existence in the aftermath of catastrophe, the show, with the help of the finale, became Touched By An Angel…in space.

I was never really sure how seriously I should take the religious elements of the show, that is, until the finale. All the stuff about ancient prophecies, guardian angels, the One True God, I thought they were just the cosmology of the fictional BSG universe. Instead, I find out that Ronald Moore is a deadly serious religious man who believes that the BSG’s fictional universe has religious, metaphysical foundations.

It seems every major plot arc in the show can be explained thus: It was caused by Angels carrying out God’s will.

WHAT. THE. FUCK.

I seriously hope Lost does not pull this shit on me when it ends.

But putting the artistic merits of using such a heavily religious explanation aside, let’s take the show’s finale on its own terms. Even then, I still have problems with it. To me, the most pressing issue raised by the show’s finale is this: what kind of God would go through the trouble of causing massive genocide through nuclear annihilation, drag the survivors of said genocide through space, make them suffer severe hardship, only to let it happen ALL OVER AGAIN?

I mean, what was the point of Hera if she’s just going to engender a race of people who will create robots, which will then rebel, which will then wage war against their creators…you see where this is going don’t you? What kind of fucking God would allow this to happen? If a God like that would allow something like this to repeat ad nauseum, then what the fuck is the point of the Angels? I thought they are supposed to guide the humans and cylons to their destinies? Which is what, eternal recurrence of genocide and wandering in space?

This is the fundamental problem with theodicy, and it’s kind of ridiculous for BSG to introduce such a weighty topic in the very last fucking episode and just leave it, without even attemping to grapple with it.

Damn you Ronald Moore!

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An Institutionalist View of The Wire

John Atlas and Peter Dreier asks, “Is The Wire Too Cynical?“:

The Wire reinforced white middle-class stereotypes of inner-city life. The show’s writers, producers, and directors portray most of the characters—clergy and cops, teachers and principals, reporters and editors, union members and leaders, politicians and city employees—as corrupt, cynical, and ineffective. Viewers may have thought they were seeing the whole picture, but the show’s unrelentingly bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful in Baltimore and, indeed, in other major American cities. In that way, it did the opposite of what its creator, David Simon, said he wanted the show to do: spur our country to end the plight of the poor and minorities who live in America’s inner-cities.”

The main argument of the article is that The Wire paints a picture of inner-city urban life that does not allow room for any positive change through collective action such as community organization or coalition-building. The writers of the article takes David Simon to ask, by concluding:

“He generally views the poor as helpless victims rather than as people with the capacity to act on their own behalf to bring about change. He may think he’s the crusading journalist exposing injustice, but he’s really a cynic who takes pity on the poor, yet can’t imagine a world where things could be different.”

To support their argument, the writers list several examples in which people living in the kind of condition that The Wire portrays were able to form coalitions and affect positive political/economic change in their communities.

But to me, this argument misses the main, and perhaps the most important point in The Wire: namely, that while successes are possible at an individual level, they are rare if the broader institutional environment is itself corrupt. Thus, the show is really about how institutions affect individual behavior and trap its participants in social pathologies such as poverty, drug-abuse/trafficking, gang violence, lackluster education, etc.

The show itself can be seen as a dramatic illustration of institutionalism at work: in the show, the institutions–the political system, the police department, the public school system, the newspaper, the unions, the drug gangs–are really the main actors. It is really the interaction between these various institutions that produce the social pathologies that the show so accurately portrays. To its credit, the show follows good social science research and portrays each institution, as first and foremost, interested in preserving its own survival and entrenchment.

The critique, levelled by the article I linked, that The Wire somehow discounts individual expression, is missing the point: The Wire is full of individual heroes who do act with good intentions and who do try to reform the system. In fact, a couple of them does succeed. But what The Wire shows, correctly I think, is that unless the institutions themselves change, the odds of systemic reform are very low, because institutions, due to their very nature, are self-entrenching and path-dependent. In this way, they tend to outlast and wear down the individual participants acting within them. Thus, even as Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo all quit the drug game, new actors arise within the INSTITUTION of drug trafficking to take over.

The remarkable thing about The Wire is its insight, almost Weberian in nature, that modern institutions, despite their seemingly divergent contexts, all operate under a similar logic: thus, the show draws explicit analogies between the police department, the drug trafficking cartel, and the political machine at city hall. They all deal with problems of insubordination, bureacratic redtape, self-perpetuation, and so forth. This insight is best illustrated by Omar’s best line in the show: the lawyer’s got his briefcase, and I’ve got my shotty.

But is this institutionalist view cynical, as the writers contend? I would say that it is no more cynical than reality itself is. The reason why so much attention has been paid to institutional reform is the fact that institutions shape individual behavior. In fact, twentieth century political philosophy is almost exclusively concerned with institutions, a la A Theory of Justice. Yes, individuals can break out of the institutions, but it is extremely hard, and it is unreasonable, if not impossible, to demand that any particular individual act completely outside of his institutional environment and still be able to achieve systemic reform.

Therefore, it misses the point to criticize The Wire for merely painting a realistic picture of how institutions behave in real life.

Lost: An Exercise in Faith and Scepticism

Lost is undoubtedly a show about the struggle between faith and scepticism. It is to me the central theme that runs beneath the show. Everything turns upon acts of faith: Locke’s pushing the button, Charlie’s self-sacrifice, etc.

Of course the flip side of the coin is the scepticism: that everything on the island makes no sense, that there is no “answer” that will neatly wrap up everything. This scepticism is embodied by Jack, who argues with Locke that pushing the button is useless.

Pushing the button in Lost assumes an almost Sisphusian dimension: Locke must push the button over and over again. But of course the creators throw a wrench into the whole thing by making Locke doubt himself, just like Desmond did. Desmond questioned why he can’t get outside the hatch, and by disobeying, he made the plane crash. The show is not clear on the full implication of Locke’s disobedience.

Now, Locke regains his faith and starts to trust everything that he gets from the island, from Walt, from Jacob.

The faith vs. scepticism dialectic also plays itself out on a meta-level among the show’s viewers. I know so many people who gave up on Lost because they simply got tired of the fact that the show asks more questions than it answers. They think that there is no possible way that the show can end by wrapping up all the loose ends.

Then there are those who has some kind of faith in the show, faith that all the random, inexplicable stuff (like the smoke monster and the polar bears) will all be explained. In a way, they are almost like millenarians, believing that the end is near, that an answer must be given. The fact that the producers have said that the show will definite end in two years have helped them in their faith.

But then there are people like me, who doesn’t believe that a definite end date indicates a definite ending. I would not be the least surprised if the producers simply left stuff hanging, as an act of post-modern concluding the show, even more so than how the Sopranos ended.

Of course this ending will piss off many people, but not me, because if I were the show’s producer, I would probably fuck with people and see how they react.

Harry Potter and The Sopranos

There is almost a striking similarity between the endings of Harry Potter and The Sopranos, although such a claim may look strange on its surface. After all, the Sopranos ended on a note of dread and uncertainty, pulled a stunt on its audiences, and played them for fools. On the other hand, HP7 ends with a sunny disposition and showed that all is right in the world.

Well, the similarity between that both endings told their audiences absolutely nothing about the protagonists. No one knows if Tony is dead and what he does, and no one knows anything about Harry, Hermione, Ron, and their respective families and adult careers.

Except whereas The Sopranos made a conscious decision to make its uncertainly in extremely explicit terms, J.K. Rowlings did the same thing but without the explicitness. In the end, both of their audiences know nothing about the fate of the main characters. They are equally mysterious, but in different ways.

Therefore, it is not surprising that both end with a gathering of their respective families. And in some sense this is fitting, since both celebrate the family, but does so in vastly different ways.