“I don’t forget my friends, ‘cause friends, they’re like family. Nothing’s more important. Nothing.”
— Liam Bilby
You’ve seen this episode before. In every cop show, in many science fiction shows, and more than one movie. A member of the main cast goes undercover and finds that the enemy is a pretty decent person under it all. Sure, they do some bad things, but at the end of the day, they have their reasons. Our hero ends up sympathizing with the target, and in the eleventh hour, goes against their mission and attempts to save their new friend.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this plot. Sure, it’s a little shopworn, but that’s just because it works. It’s a compelling story, partly because we, as the audience, know the shorthand. We know the beats so intimately that while any surprise has long since bled away, the tension has ratcheted up to unbearable letters as we anticipate events that must unfold. We know the hero is going to face a brutal choice in the end, because that’s how these stories go. Suspense exists precisely because the formula is encoded in our very DNA.
That’s not to say I’m a big fan of this week’s episode, “Honor Among Thieves.” Though I appreciate the plot and I am always a big fan of Colm Meaney’s, this hour never quite gels for me. The creators agree to a certain extent, as they intended to cast one actor as Bilby (a.k.a. the target who turns into the hero’s friend) who suddenly died right before filming. Due to age and a certain resemblance, this actor could have given a father/son vibe to the Bilby/O’Brien relationship. That might have solved things, as the faults I see in the writing just maybe could have been saved by the right performance and better casting. That’s not to say the actor playing Bilby is bad, merely that his puppy-like eagerness to trust Chief O’Brien makes him come off less like a hardened capo and more like an old man desperately looking for a canasta partner.
Chief O’Brien has gone undercover in a grimy cityscape in order to bring down the Orion Syndicate. Now, you may be asking yourself: why use the engineer of a space station when Starfleet has an entire intelligence arm to do it? The episode has a good answer. The Syndicate has a mole in Starfleet Intelligence who keeps getting their agents whacked. The only way to ferret out the mole (not to add another animal metaphor) is to use someone from outside the organization. Why they use O’Brien and not, say, their very own Changeling who also happens to be a seasoned investigator is more confusing. Maybe it’s my love of spy fiction talking, but there’s a huge difference between spies and soldiers, and O’Brien is undoubtedly the latter. Really, it’s just an excuse to get one of our heroes involved in the plot, so I shouldn’t be nitpicking. Star Trek kind of collapses a little when you start wondering why there only ever seems to be seven people on the ship.
On a side note, how amazing would a show about Starfleet Intelligence be? In a few episodes, we’re even going to be introduced to what’s arguably Starfleet’s Hydra in Section 31. Using them as villains/uneasy allies for our group of well-meaning spies would be an incredible show. Chalk that up to something I’ll do if I ever have unlimited wealth.
Anyway, O’Brien insinuates himself into Bilby’s crew using the time-honored spy tactic of creating a problem and then instantly solving it, in this case by hitting the Orion hacker with a bolt of nasty feedback. In a nice bit of continuity, the hacker is using a similar neck implant as Odo’s brief love interest in season five’s “A Simple Investigation.” After O’Brien repairs the expensive implant free of charge, he’s in. That’s it. He’s just in.
And that’s my fundamental problem with the episode. Bilby is pathologically ready to invite O’Brien into his inner circle on the strength of fixing an implant. Oh sure, Bilby checks into O’Brien’s background and finds the fake information Starfleet Intelligence shared. The two men bond over clothes, a trip to the races, and a successful robbery of the Bank of Bolia. (Don’t get too excited — the robbery is from the terminal in the one bar set they spend nearly the entire episode in, and is mostly just the characters yelling about computer security.) Something in Bilby’s past needed to be there for him to want O’Brien as a friend that badly. It’s nowhere in the writing, and though the creators were convinced a different actor could have saved it, he’s not making a scene spring from the ether.
O’Brien discovers the Syndicate’s mole after Bilby gives him one too many distinguishing features. Starfleet Intelligence keeps O’Brien undercover, because, in the tradition of all good noir, O’Brien has stumbled onto a much larger and more dangerous plot. The Orion Syndicate is plotting with the Dominion to assassinate the Klingon ambassador and frame Chancellor Gowron for it. They believe this will cause a rift in the Empire, forcing the Klingons to go on defense, and thereby leaving the Federation swinging in the wind. It’s an interesting look into the chessboard politics of DS9 and one of the more interesting notions in the episode. In addition, the Vorta involved is the same one we saw in “One Little Ship,” or quite possibly, a clone.
The Orion Syndicate seems to have only one rule when it comes to recruitment: someone vouches for you, and if you screw up, you both die. On the surface, this seems like it would work very well. It gives heft to O’Brien’s betrayal of Bilby, making the Chief desperately try to bring his friend out of it. It also underscores just how foolish Bilby’s trust was in the first place. He knew the Syndicate plays for keeps and yet he jumped into the arms of the first guy who can fix an implant.
Regardless of the episode’s other shortcomings, the final scene, in which O’Brien comes clean to Bilby while the latter is about to walk into a trap, is excellent. O’Brien promises Bilby that if he walks away, he can be safe in a Federation prison. Bilby knows that if he does this, the Syndicate will come after his family. The only way to prevent that is to walk into the trap and be killed. (Protective custody apparently isn’t a thing in the 24th century.) The actors sell both the pain of the betrayal as well as the inevitability of the outcome. They chose this life, and they will see it through. Bilby’s only request is that O’Brien look after his cat, and then the criminal goes off to be cut down in a Klingon ambush.
Ironically enough, O’Brien was already the central character in an episode about betraying a friend in season 4’s gut-wrenching “Hard Time.” Though Ee’char wasn’t real, he has more life and internal consistency than Bilby. It’s a different story to be sure; that was about the psychological toll of incarceration, while this is about the price of loyalty. Still, the similarity can’t entirely be ignored. What we’re left with is an hour of DS9 that doesn’t scale the lofty heights to which we’ve become accustomed. Still, it’s not a bad hour of TV.
Next up: Worf faces a difficult choice.