Asta 2

Some (Hopefully Coherent) Thoughts on Tom Zarek

I have a bit of a headache at the moment so I'm hoping my thoughts here make some sense.

Mo Ryan has been doing a series of interviews/reviews on the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica. I generally read her posts, but not the comments. I'm sure people have interesting things to say, but, long ago, I opted to dedicate my time and energy to analyzing the show to death on LJ. ;) 'Blood on the Scales' engendered much discussion and, in particular, a debate as to whether Tom Zarek was the idealist he claims to be or merely a power hungry villain. Richard Hatch apparently is a fan of Mo's work because he joined in the conversation.

Richard, after his initial fears for the reimagining, became a tremendous supporter of the show. I've enjoyed listening to and reading his thoughts on BSG and admire how he, as well as the rest of the cast, put so much time, thought, and effort into their roles. Not one of them just shows up, reads their lines, and walks away from their character at the end of the day. And given my confusion as to how we should read Tom Zarek now, I appreciated Richard sharing his take. However, it struck me that Richard may be a little too passionate in defending Zarek. Whereas I think the other actors are able to look at their characters from our perspective as well as their own and recognize their faults as well as strengths, Richard seems to only see Zarek as Zarek would see himself.

One point I agree with Richard on is that Tom Zarek should not simply be labeled a power hungry villain. Unfortunately, events in 'The Oath' and 'Blood on the Scales' makes you wonder if that really is all he is. But given that BSG has never created black and white characters, but utilized all the shades of gray, I have to believe he is more complex than what was portrayed in his final episode.

Here's a portion of Richard's post and what I thought helped to highlight his singular vision:

Did anyone ever read Zarek's backstory. Doesn't seem so. People only took what Adama said about him as God's truth but if you really study his actions you would see that he never did anything that wasn't for the reason of supporting his idealistic vision of a true democracy where the government is accountable and this government was definitely not accountable.

The government of Adama and Roslin as much as we love these character broke every constitional rule or law to stay in power and to assert their will, regardless of their positive motivations they had destroyed a true democracy on the Galactica and yet Zarek is looked upon as the power hungry bad guy because he was one of the few to stand up and challenge them.

My first thought upon reading this was, 'You're going to make me defend Adama?!' While he does make some good points about democracy existing in name only, Adama and Roslin aren't quite the villains he makes them out to be. They haven't broken every law to stay in power and, in fact, it was Adama who stopped Roslin's election fraud which helped put Zarek in power along with Baltar. And it was Adama and Roslin that put an end to The Circle which Zarek created in order to circumvent the law.

battlestar_blog had an interesting discussion of Richard's thoughts. One comment by polkaboy showed an excellent understanding of Zarek and helped to clear up some of my confusion these past few weeks:

I can believe that Zarek and Adama/Roslin are all well-intentioned people who have compromised their morals in highly questionable ways. The difference I think is that Adama and Roslin were willing to sacrifice their ideals in order to protect people, whereas Zarek was willing to sacrifice people in order to protect his ideals. Ultimately, that's what happens when you give yourself over to an idea to the exclusion of all other principles. Zarek's devotion to democracy was commendable, but somewhere along the line he lost his humanity. Which, ultimately, is what fundamentalism is all about -- raising ideas over human beings.

Zarek is also a perfect example of why the most dangerous people are the ones who feel most victimized. Their persecution (real or imagined), in their minds, gives them moral justification to commit the most heinous acts. And any attempt to crush them only feeds their victimhood and produces even more violence. Something the previous administration unfortunately never figured out.

I've long felt Tom Zarek's downfall was inevitable and polkaboy's remark about Zarek's feelings of persecution leading to heinous acts made me recount his history. Zarek was right in one belief - Adama and Roslin would never let him have real power. But did Adama and Roslin create the Tom Zarek we know or did he set himself on this path? Even if they marginalized him at every opportunity, labeling him as nothing more than a terrorist who would grab power the first chance he got, did it make it acceptable for him to turn to violence and murder? If they hadn't boxed him in, would they have faced a mutiny and fleet torn apart? Or would Zarek never have been satisfied unless he went all the way and had absolute power? He seemed just as unwilling to see their position as they were his. You can fight for the rights of the people, but what if there are no people left to fight for? It still amuses me that in 'Colonial Day' he wanted to debate jobs and currency issues while still under frequent attack from the Cylons.

Zarek had someone to listen to him, someone who shared his views, Lee, and he tried to kill him on two occasions. If change and restoring democracy were his primary concerns, his passion, then he should have been working hard to have Lee on his side. Lee gave his concerns credence, yet Zarek viewed Lee as a threat. And it wasn't just Lee's loyalty to his father and Roslin Zarek worried about; Lee was the well respected former CAG and commander of the Pegasus. Lee would more likely be the one looked to for leadership and ideals over a convicted terrorist.

And Lee wasn't his only target. Zarek had bloodied his hands in the past and made the point to Gaeta that it would be a necessity again. Did the Quorum have to die? Was it simply a shortcut in storytelling to make his execution more palatable? Possibly. But the signs were always there. As a terrorist, he blew up a building. In 'Colonial Day', it's possible he killed Valance. He was rumored to be working with the black market. And, as I mentioned before, he sanctioned The Circle. Violence was as easy for him as was the loss of human life for his cause. The number on the white board means everything to Laura and nothing to Zarek.

Richard states Zarek spoke for the good of the people, but it was his version of good. If the Cylons had never attacked, he'd have valid points. While it is important to cling to your ideals and fight for your beliefs when you have nothing left, when humanity has nearly been annihilated and you're on the run for your lives, do you sacrifice some of those ideals in order to just survive? It was never an easy choice for Laura Roslin to sacrifice her ideals, but she had to in order to keep people alive. For Zarek, human life has seemingly become meaningless in the face of his ideals.

It's important to remember Laura Roslin never wanted power, the presidency was thrust upon her, under the most dire of circumstances, and she had to learn on the job. I think back to Lee's words in 'The Ties That Bind' about how sometimes you need a benevolent dictator. Lee, the idealist, can see that. Maybe he wouldn't have three years ago, but he does now. What Zarek failed to see is that in his quest for truth, justice, and freedom for the people he was well on his way to becoming a malevolent dictator. He'd force his idealism on the fleet even if it killed them all.

Another interesting bit of news in Mo's post is that Michael Angeli has said we'll probably see extended cuts for many of the Season 4.5 episodes when the season comes out on DVD. Woo!
  • Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful
You know, I really don't understand where all this, "they're paying lip service to democracy," stuff comes from. It's like...if I shouldn't buy Adama's version of Tom Zarek without questioning it, I won't do the reverse either. Laura Roslin's second election to the Presidency after New Caprica was probably technically legal, but morally extremely dodgy, but that was Zarek's idea. And since then, okay I've seen Adama behave in a dangerous and dictatorial fashion a few times (like leaving the Fleet in Sine Qua Non) but also he is the legal, well, dictator of the military. And Roslin...I don't see where she's totally destroyed democracy.

Yes she's becoming a nastier piece of work. Yes she's trying to do things like stifle Baltar's freedom of speech because she hates Baltar, but really, the two shining examples of Roslin's desire to trash democracy and install her own vision of things in terms of the show's plot (trying Baltar for genocide and shutting down the right to assemble) were both things she failed at doing because of democracy. Actually because of Lee standing up for democracy but Laura yielded to it when hit over the head with the democracy stick. She won't actually break the law. She'll spit and sulk and threaten the quorum with what's gonna happen to them if they do this, but she doesn't remove their right to overrule her.

While Zarek shoots them.

I want to believe that Zarek was just a misled idealist who put his ideals above the people. But by the end of The Oath I was struggling even with that.

Before, I always kind of loved his bizarre way of completely ignoring the Cylon threat and instead only seeing it as a chance to install a new order of things. It always sat wrong with me when suddenly, in the Circle, and now, the Cylon became some moral issue to him.

I've started wondering if what he really wants is an excuse to feel righteous rage against Adama and Roslin (or whoever is in power except him). What he hates and wants to tear down is this system because he doesn't think the system works in any way, so even when the democratic system they do have is working, he can't see that. And he'll hang onto anything that justifies his rage.

He's convinced that Adama is a bad leader and needs to be removed, and OH LOOK here's the Cylon Alliance as a convenient way to prove that. It could have been anything. But perhaps the scary thing is, I think he jumps on that latest justification so hard that even he believes it's true.

I don't know. The guy is still really confusing to me. :(
but also he is the legal, well, dictator of the military.

You really can't argue how it's wrong that the admiral controls the military. Zarek could argue that knowing he'd get no support from Adama who controls the military, he had no choice but to turn the presidency over to Roslin. On the other hand, it's doubtful he would have had the support of the Quorum who ended up choosing Lee over him in a crisis and who didn't acknowledge him as president when Laura refused to fulfill her duties.

but really, the two shining examples of Roslin's desire to trash democracy and install her own vision of things in terms of the show's plot (trying Baltar for genocide and shutting down the right to assemble) were both things she failed at doing because of democracy.

Excellent point! Not only does the Quorum and and the judicial system still have authority, they've used it without her doing anything to override their decision making. We've seen her anger and disappointment at losing, but has she asked Adama to use the military to enforce her will? There were plenty of people who wanted Baltar to pay for what he did (or didn't do) on New Caprica, yet she didn't form a secret committee to deal with him after he was exonerated in court. Laura might feel she needs to bend the rule of law because of the challenges they are currently facing, but she doesn't have the lack of respect for it that Zarek has.

the Cylon became some moral issue to him.

I don't think it became a moral issue, but a campaign issue accept he wasn't about to wait for the next round of elections or even Laura's death. It was something he thought he could use to gain support in the military and in the civilian fleet, but I think the majority of the people are more fearful of what might happen with untested leadership given their history with Baltar than sticking with questionable leadership.

What he hates and wants to tear down is this system because he doesn't think the system works in any way, so even when the democratic system they do have is working, he can't see that. And he'll hang onto anything that justifies his rage.

Maybe we need to believe Tom Zarek was once an idealist who tried to fight within the system and failed. Then he then turned to terrorism and ended up spending the next two decades of his life in prison. Worse than that, he was all but forgotten. His writing was band and he was looked at as no better than the rapists, thieves, and murderers he was locked up with. All of that could make a man bitter and angry. And after the world he loathed ends, the remnants of humanity are led by a forced into retirement commander, a former schoolteacher, and a fly boy. To his mind, he should have been the one to rebuild society from it's ashes. He'd never be able to see others successes because they weren't his successes. Even if Adama and Roslin had made a dozen different choices, it still wouldn't have been good enough. The rage had too long to take hold and I don't think Zarek would have been satisfied until he saw humanity cease to exist because, according to him, they were all doomed anyway.
I really love that comment about the difference between sacrificing ideals for the sake of people vs. sacrificing people for the sake of ideals. That does seem to hit the nail on the head for me in terms of Zarek--and I think it's a path Laura (and I) at times feared Lee might go down, though I think by this time Lee has demonstrated rather decisively that he will not.

One of the things I love best about this show is the way that it takes these idealistic, progressive people--Laura, for instance, championed striking teachers, fought for a woman's right to choose, etc. before the end of the world--and puts them into this situation where, to quote her, "doing the right thing is a luxury." What happens to all your lofty ideals in these untenable situations? Is there still a line that shouldn't be crossed, and if so, where is it? Who determines where the line is?

The show walks a tenuous line itself with characters like Cain and Zarek, who are just that much further past the old line than Adama and Roslin, and pay for it: the contrast could cast an approving light on Adama and Roslin's actions, but I don't think that's what it's designed to do. It's a slippery slope, and rather than saying "there but by the grace of God go I [or go the characters I love]," I think we're supposed to look at how far the other characters have gone, and what that means in the long run.
Ah Richard. You know how some fans talk how other fans aren't watching the same show as the rest of them as they feel their opinions are so off the wall?

Poor Richard was apparently ACTING on a different show then the rest of the cast.

I like Richard. I've met him several times. I always found Zarek fascinating. From Dragon Con and the auction last month I knew he wasn't happy with how things ended.

The problem is he has sketched out this whole extensive background and ideology for Zarek but we NEVER saw it. Back in season 1 had passing references to him being a revolutionary, blowing up a government building, being in jail for 20 years and writing a banned book. That's it. He was well known and obviously not popular with many people even those from his own oppressed colony, (Dee hated him.)

Tossing that all aside since we don't have a full history on him I look at his actions over the series. In the Home 2 parter Remar wants to take Lee out. Zarek is hesitant here. Is it because he likes him? In the end Remar gets a bullet in the brain because you do not try and mess with Athena. :)

Zarek is great at manipulation, especially with Lee. We see him in Black Market messing with Lee a bit over the situation with the hooker. Zarek nay have taken over the black market at the end although I think that scene was cut and I think the writers generally like to pretend that episode didn't happen.

He manipulates Baltar into running for president. In season 3 we really see so little of him. There is the tribunal in Collaborators which he signed off on. That gives a good picture of how far he feels it is acceptable to take things. Whether those "trials" should have happened is a topic for discussion on another day.

After that, Zarek is Veep and I'm trying to recall what else he does all season. At the beginning of season 4 I still see Zarek as someone who believes himself to be an idealist. I don't find him a hero but not a villain either. Lee joins the Quorum and we see Zarek play him like a fiddle. Again.

I can see the logic and reasoning over the coup. We know Zarek has experience in this and is a pragmatist. Poor Felix was so clueless.

I hated him killing Laird but it made sense to me for his character at that point. It's revolution and those are never bloodless.

I am afraid the execution of the Quorum just proved how far down Zarek had gone and I couldn't follow. After that I assumed he would be taking out Gaeta when the time was right.

Zarek feels the end can justify the means, no matter how he gets there. The idealistic world in his head never existed and any chance of it disappeared when the Cylons attacked.
One thing that annoyed me in Richard's comments is his seemingly being upset that no one bothered to read up on Zarek's backstory. I know the actors have been privy to the show bible, and the audience has podcasts, interviews and comics (approved to an extent by Ron), but what percentage of the audience actually follows all that? We have to just go by what we see on screen and, as you point out, other than 'Bastille Day' we don't have any information about his past. I can accept that he was once the idealist he claims to be, but to say he's still that given his actions over the past four years is implausible.
I've been trying to figure out my feelings for Zarek all week. Your points are excellent - in essence, who is more qualified to lead, the total idealogue (Zarek), or the idealistic pragmatist (Roslyn, or Lee).
In fairness to Richard, I think he's speaking from Tom's point of view. You're right that Laura never sought power, that her main concern and Bill's was the survival of the human race---and they're right that Tom, an idealogue, would jeopardize that.

But that is not how Tom Zarek sees it.
I can understand Richard's passion. BSG in one form or another has been a part of his life for thirty years. He was fighting for the show when no one else was and he's probably disappointed he wasn't able to be there at the end. Just as Kandyse and Nicky are disappointed. And I'm sure he was looking at Zarek from Zarek's POV, but I think his argument would have been stronger had he also looked at Zarek from the POV of the other characters as well as the audience. I love Lee Adama, but if I never acknowledged his faults some might think I was crazy. ;)