Last week's episode of Caprica, "The Imperfections of Memory," confirmed my sense that this show isn't about powerful Graystones vs. immigrant Adamas. Instead it's about a futuristic cyborg, Zoe, vs. a crazy housewife, Amanda. This is both awesome and frustrating.
First, the awesome. Every episode, I wait anxiously to see the next chapter in Zoe's struggle to figure out who she is, when her consciousness exists only within technological bodies.
Zoe is the computer genius daughter of Daniel Graystone, who created the holoband, got rich, and is now trying to shift his company's business model to cylon warriors. Before she was killed in the terrorist maglev bombing, Zoe created a virtual, sentient version of herself who lives in v-world, which is essentially the web for holobands. We never know exactly what Zoe had planned for her duplicate, but it had something to do with her monotheistic religious beliefs and her desire to reform the hedonistic, violent culture of v-world. Now all that's left of Zoe is her sentient avatar, who was force into the body of a cylon by her father. She controls the cylon body, and can beam herself wirelessly into v-world whenever she wants.
Last week, we saw a new side of Zoe: She's starting to have feelings for her father's assistant, a roboticist named Philomon who has always treated her cylon body with respect - and who manages to figure out that she's a "she" not an "it." Pretending to be a geek named Rachel, Zoe makes a date with Philo in v-world. She's hoping to manipulate him into taking her cylon body outside, so she can escape her father's lab. But she's also clearly warming to Philo, especially in the scene above where they talk about generative algorithms and then make out. (Best geek snogging scene ever, by the way.)
Zoe has essentially become superpowered, but she's also under her father's control more than ever. What's brilliant about the way Caprica writers have handled her character is that we get these seamlessly blended stories of a young woman trying to declare independence from her father, and a cylon trying to escape from her creator. As a woman and a robot, Zoe opposes her father's plans for artificial life: He wants to create slaves, and she wants to create a new society of moral creatures.
Ultimately, Zoe's story arc is also associated with the most exciting, fresh elements of Caprica. Her mad engineering discoveries about how to create an avatar are also responsible for the birth of Tamara, the avatar version of Joseph Adama's dead daughter. Tamara's journey to the top of the trashheap in New Cap City is my current favorite subplot. While avatar Tamara is transformed into a badass by the violent videogame culture Zoe wanted to eradicate, Zoe's best friend Lacy is going badass in the real world. In order to rescue Zoe's cylon body and deliver it to Gemenon, she's going to become an STO terrorist - and I think she's headed for a showdown with freaky, self-flagellating STO leader Barnabus.
What I'm saying is that every character touched by Zoe's genius becomes more badass. Even Philo is about to grow some awesomeness, now that he's falling in love with a cylon. Zoe's character allows us as viewers to think about how human identity could change - and not change - as we merge more and more with our intelligent machines. She's a science fiction character par excellence, with relatable human failings and bizarre futuristic problems that expand our minds.
But here is where my frustration comes in. While Zoe takes Caprica's narrative in an original, exciting direction, her mother Amanda's character arc drags it back down into soap opera cliche. Even though she's supposed to be a high-powered doctor, the first thing she does after Zoe dies is blurt out that her daughter was the terrorist who blew up the maglev train. Which of course ruins her family's business, causes her to lose said high-powered job, and (worst of all) makes her seem unhinged in a predictable, boring way. In a world where women become cyborgs and videogame queens, I'm not that interested in watching a weepy, crazy lady deal with how hard it is to be a rich housewife who has lost her job due to her own stupidity.
In last week's episode, she started having visions of her dead brother and doing drugs with STO fanatic Clarice, who just wants to use Amanda to find Zoe's avatar. There was a long scene of Amanda shaking and weeping and smoking up and admitting to Clarice that she had gone completely crazy after her brother died. She was in a mental institution for several years, and now she seems headed back there. Meanwhile, Clarice is the perfect poison friend who seems to think Amanda's crazy is actually a vision from God.
Amanda's character becomes more pathetic and uninteresting as the show progresses. Perhaps she's supposed to provide a counterpoint to the high-tech v-world hallucinations with her homegrown hallucinations? Maybe her struggle to find a God she can trust is supposed to give a human face to the calculated political mania of the STO? The problem is that we've seen the weepy, rich housewife character too many times before, in too many melodramas. It's hard to do something original with a character like that.
Possibly the only part of Amanda's character which I find intriguing is the way she constantly remarks on how ugly and horrible the Zoe cylon is, without realizing that she's insulting her daughter. There's a kind of spitefulness to her character that rings true, and I'd prefer to see the show following up on that part of her identity rather than sending her down the easy-out rabbit hole of insanity/visionary whatever.
So how could Caprica alleviate my frustration, and that of many viewers who have said that the Clarice/Amanda subplot is their least favorite? One way would be to have Amanda's breakdown happen largely offscreen. There's an obvious justification for her breakdown, and we don't need to see it unfurling in detail to believe it. Another way to go would be to give her ulterior motives that are less-than-pure. Have her use her brief media celebrity after the maglev incident to get her own Sarno-like show which is modeled on the early Oprah show. In other words, let Amanda become as calculating as her husband Daniel is. Sure she's sad about Zoe dying, but it turns out to be the best thing that's ever happened to her as a public figure.
Ultimately what I'm saying is that Caprica seems divided between offering us awesome characters in novel situations, and frustrating characters in cliched situations. The awesomeness outweighs the frustration by far, but still I hold out the hope that the show's writers will steer us away from the rich housewife weepery and back into the tale where women control the future with brains and high-tech superpowers.