The opening sequence of "Kobol's Last Gleaming" sets the stage for a two-part season finale in which a multitude of characters will go in many different directions. This opening does not tell you where the story is ultimately going to end up, but it tells you where the story starts, and in some ways that in itself reveals the unexpected.
Cross-edited to a musical piece that has a classical bent unlike most of this series' more avant-garde fare, we see several things happening: Lee and his father are boxing. Kara is having sex with ... somebody. The Galactica version of Sharon puts a gun in her mouth. Helo runs away from the Caprica version of Sharon and eventually is forced to draw his gun on her.
Adama knocks Lee to the ground, telling him that Lee was too much in control of himself. Helo shoots Caprica Sharon in the shoulder and takes her prisoner. Galactica Sharon can't pull the trigger. Kara calls out Lee's name while having sex with ... oh, look, it's Baltar. Whoops. (This is hilarious when you consider whose ego is being taken down several notches.)
What's nice about this sequence is that it's based on character rather than just plot. It's about these people and the messy, complicated relationships they have with other people. In the case of Galactica Sharon, the relationship is with the Cylons, which she suspects but is determined to suppress. There's a sort of epic foreboding in the way characters crash into each other to the tune of classical music, and it makes for a memorable sequence.
From here we have Baltar descending into a drunken funk over, apparently, the realization that Kara does not worship him — indeed, does not much like him beyond the role of a temporary placeholder. Six finds this funk disappointing, and mainly wants to know whether Baltar has fallen for another woman. There's a card game where Baltar gets hostile with Lee for "competing" with him. Lee is nonplussed. When Kara shows up and Baltar grumpily insists she call him "Mr. Vice President," the cards are on the table.
Ah, Baltar. What a great, entertaining character. Where else can you find a guy who is simultaneously so lovable and detestable? We root for the guy even as we laugh at his misfortune. There's a scene where he's talking to Roslin while Six keeps buzzing in his ear, and he loses his patience. "I'm not your plaything!" he shouts. "Plaything?" asks Roslin and Six, in perfectly synched stereo. Funny stuff. And yet this isn't all just zany fun and games. Six warns Baltar that Galactica isn't safe, and that he needs to get off the ship. What's going to happen?
Perhaps it has something to do with Roslin's latest drug-induced, hallucinated premonitions. Roslin's doctor gives her six months to live, and the fact that she's dying only fuels Priest Elosha's belief that Roslin will lead humanity to Kobol. "I know you're the one," Elosha tells her. If Roslin is The One, then I guess that makes Elosha the Oracle. Just remember: There is no spoon.
But I suppose if I were Roslin, I might begin to believe too, especially after Boomer and Crashdown return from a recon mission having found a planet that turns out to be Kobol. When looking at orbital photographs of the ruins, Roslin's hallucinations allow her to instead see buildings and a famous opera house, suggesting that the prophecies are true.
The mythology surrounding Kobol/Earth is intriguing material that expands the canvas of the series. It ties into various aspects of Colonial religion and history. As such, it's not something that everybody agrees on. The seeds of discord between Adama and Roslin are planted when she suggests using the Cylon Raider to jump back to Caprica to retrieve the historic Arrow of Apollo from a museum (this presumes the museum hasn't been nuked, which is a big presumption). The Arrow, legend has it, can be used on Kobol to open the Tomb of Athena, which will reveal the location of Earth. The whole concept of Earth is its own potential trouble point for Adama. He used it in the miniseries, in the form of a lie, to inspire a reason for hope. That lie is now about to come back and bite him.
What's kind of amazing about this episode is how many characters it keeps track of, and how much justice it's able to do their storylines. For instance, we have the Lee/Kara friction over her sleeping with Baltar, including a moment where the two actually come to blows. What could've potentially come off looking petty and obvious instead reveals true pain and regret in the characters. This apparently isn't the first ill-advised affair Kara has had, and Lee holds a certain resentment for it. The irony is that Kara obviously has feelings for Lee that she's suppressing (or more specifically, had channeled through sex with Baltar), and the unfortunate end result is that now Lee is pissed off at her.
There's also a wonderful scene where Baltar visits a visibly suicidal Sharon in her quarters. Six tags along in Baltar's head for good measure. Sharon knows deep down she's a Cylon, but doesn't want to accept it. Six notes that "the model is weak, always has been." That brings up an interesting point: Perhaps the Sharon model is actually strong, in that it has more free will than the other Cylons. I suppose it depends on your point of view.
Baltar, who knows Sharon is a Cylon but lied to her about it ("Flesh and Bone"), shows a sympathy and kindness toward her that transcends his usual selfishness, even as his fear that she'll carry out a Cylon mission led him here for partially self-serving reasons. What he says to her walks a fine line that tells her she's a Cylon without explicitly saying so. "There are worse things than death in this world," he notes ominously. In a very delicate way (and I loved the complexity of this scene), Baltar pushes Sharon over the edge into suicide. Actually, it's more of a suicide gesture; she shoots herself but doesn't die, which leads to a scene where Tyrol visits her in sickbay and Sharon realizes just how alone she is. Poor Sharon, living a cursed existence.
Meanwhile, the tactical situation turns grim when a Raptor survey team jumps right into the middle of a Cylon fleet now orbiting Kobol. One Raptor is destroyed, one crashes on the planet surface, and one returns to warn the Galactica. The crashed Raptor contains key characters, including Tyrol, Crashdown (Sam Witwer), Cally (Nicki Clyne), and Baltar, the latter who volunteered because it got him off the Galactica and he thought he'd be safe. Did Six manipulate him to come to Kobol for a more specific reason?
Starbuck comes up with a plan to use a confiscated Cylon transponder and the Raider to get close enough to the Cylon base star to nuke it. This military plan is interrupted when Roslin thwarts chain of command and calls Kara in to tell her about the Arrow of Apollo on Caprica, its importance to the future (as she believes it to be), and the fact that Adama has lied about knowing the location of Earth. Roslin invokes religious scripture in making her case, and it's notable that Kara is willing to listen in part because she is a believer.
This episode is filled with intersecting and diverging plots and paths. But what makes it truly work is its commitment to characters who have free will and make big decisions — choices that will have severe consequences.
There's a scene right before Roslin calls in Starbuck where Billy questions Roslin's plan and warns that it's likely to bring her and the government down. It's reassuring to see prudent thinking like that. Similarly, there's the scene where Starbuck goes to Adama and asks him about Earth. The answer he gives is ambivalent, but the answer Kara hears is clear in light of her new information. Adama has his own defense for lying about Earth, which comes down to a simple matter of having no regrets. He can live with the consequences; can Kara if she abandons the fleet?
It's this level of detail that keeps "Kobol's Last Gleaming" grounded in choices, and governed by its characters rather than simply a clever writer setting up pieces.