"Guess What's Coming to Dinner?" is an outstanding hour of tone and style, of quietly but implacably escalating foreboding, of characters having basic assumptions about their lives completely thrown into question, and has an ending that does not supply answers but only more questions. The plot puts its chips all-in on BSG's mythology aspects. If you are not already invested in BSG's mythology, you will be lost. If you are not riveted by BSG mythology by the end of this episode, then you likely never will be.
And yet, this episode is less about what happens than about how it happens, and how it feels as it happens. There's a confidence in purpose here, from one end to the other, that's almost hard to qualify. Speaking to my own tastes, this is an episode that outdoes The X-Files because it knows that plotting is only one attribute of an effective mystery, and it outdoes Mad Men because it knows that characterization can be more emotionally involving when it's tied to plot and expressed rather than constantly internalized. This is my kind of balancing act. The episode also manages to be philosophical without being tedious, complex without being confusing, and artful without being pretentious. It fires on all cylinders — without careening over the cliff.
Picking right up from "Faith," the Demetrius and the renegade Cylon basestar jump back to the fleet. But even the most routine procedure goes awry, and the Demetrius FTL drive has a glitch. So the basestar winds up in the fleet by itself, where it's assumed to be hostile, and the fleet is ordered into an emergency jump-away while the Galactica launches to action stations. This is the only real action in the episode, and it's very well staged, with the fleet gradually jumping away a ship at a time and Galactica gearing up to fight. (From Galactica's point of view, this process is a white-knuckled eternity where they could be killed at any moment.) Even though it's a foregone conclusion that the crisis will be averted, it manages to generate suspense: Will the Galactica open fire or jump away before the Demetrius can show up? I very much like that a disaster is averted by Tigh's order to hold fire, which is based on an inexplicable gut feeling (revisiting the ongoing theme that Fate once again intercedes).
So Renegade Six presents her offer to Adama and Roslin: The Cylons want to unbox the D'Annas from cold storage because she knows the identities of the Final Five, which supposedly know the way to Earth because they have been there. In exchange, Six will reveal the location of the Cylon resurrection hub, which, if destroyed, will make all Cylons mortal. Turning the Cylons into mortals would have an immediately obvious impact on the fundamental nature of the human/Cylon conflict.
So at last there seems to be some light at the end of at least one tunnel. But what's most immediately fascinating about this deal is that it introduces an urgent wrinkle into the Secret Four's lives: If this plan works, they will be exposed — and then what? Watch how Tigh quietly squirms and mentally starts doing the math, and then tries to set the plan in a direction that hopefully covers himself, but at the same time is completely in the interests of the Colonial fleet and the man Tigh always has been.
The plan itself depends on the ability for the renegade Cylons and the Colonials to trust each other, which is no easy task. Renegade Six gives up the hub location, but she still controls the Centurions on her basestar, which is the key to the entire plan. Only a basestar will be able to get anywhere near the hub before being attacked. The Colonial leadership discusses the merits of keeping their word on this alliance, and decides as a backup position to hold back on turning over the Final Five to the rebel Cylons.
Meanwhile, Renegade Six talks with her fellow Cylons about how she fully expects to be double-crossed and plans to take hostages as a contingency. "We've changed, but the humans haven't," she says. Isn't it exactly that kind of thinking that inspires mutual distrust? Paradoxically and ironically, her fears are justified; there is indeed scheming on both sides. It's circular logic: We can't afford to keep our word, because they are not to be trusted, and keeping our word thus puts us at a disadvantage. At what point does prudent self-preservation become destructive deception? Quite a dilemma for everyone. Ultimately, Six sees the error of her ways and tries to reverse course on her planned deception, and the Cylons then find themselves trying to slither out from under a deceit of their own making. Messy.
So that's the nuts and bolts. Beyond that is an avalanche of series mythology, and of characters reacting to what's happening around them.
Early in the episode, Lee confronts Roslin over Baltar's latest broadcast, which alleges that Roslin shares visions with Caprica Six and Sharon Agathon. Roslin admits that it's true, but asks Lee what good it would do the public to know that their leader is not only sharing hallucinations with the enemy, but also experiencing something that apparently goes contrary to the entire religious establishment. There's more at stake than Roslin's reputation.
How does Baltar know about this vision, anyway? Roslin sends Tory on an assignment to find out. She does this after a downright icy scene that pretty much announces the end of their cordial relationship. Roslin knows about Tory and Baltar: "You've been spotted down there enough times to be a charter member of his nymph squad." The thing worth noting about this scene, other than obvious hurt feelings between the two characters, is how you find yourself regarding Tory, who previously wrote herself a license to kill Cally. Put her on bad terms with the president, threaten her job, and what might she be capable of next?
When we follow Tory down to Baltar's lair, there are more layers of character to unveil. It turns out Caprica Six told Baltar about Roslin's Opera House vision months ago. Why did he wait until now to finally publicize it? Because only now was it a card he felt he had to play. The important thing about Baltar is that he's not a crazed lunatic hurling baseless indictments. He has a point of view that's legitimate; he has become increasingly bitter about Roslin's ongoing governance in secrecy, something she claims is in the best interests of security even as it leaves the public in the dark. This has interesting real-world parallels when you consider our own government's recent policies. Does security justify a lack of transparency as Roslin operates?
What's notable about this episode is its ability to milk great character mileage out of brief moments. For example, there's that bit where Lee finds himself, to his own surprise, cut out of the loop about the alliance. He thought the unique advantage he could bring to the Quorum was knowing how the military machine works, but here he finds his insider information has run dry. He's as out of the Adama/Roslin loop as everyone else. Later, he has a sobering discussion with Roslin about the spirit-crushing hopelessness that has taken hold of the fleet. The members of the Quorum feel as hopeless as anyone — maybe even more so, because they once thought they mattered.
More great mileage: How about Gaeta and his leg? Nice details here. He wants to be awake while they saw it off, so he won't have to wake up to it being gone. Later, he sings to try take his mind off the pain. His singing snakes through the episode like a poetic, ominous omen. Anders feels guilty about having shot him. Baltar goes to see him, but can't bring himself past the door; it's a nice little moment that recalls their messy history.
A key scene in the episode (although one could argue they are all key scenes) comes when Roslin takes Lee's advice and addresses the Quorum to provide some much-needed solace and get them on board with the uneasy Cylon alliance. She brings in Renegade Six, who makes a speech and extends an olive branch. This speech not only represents a milestone in Cylon/human relations, but reveals some things Six has personally learned during the Cylon civil war — about life, death, and her people. "For our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return." On what she has realized about humanity: "Mortality is the one thing that makes you whole." While the Cylon civil war was kept almost completely off-screen, this speech helps us imagine what it might have meant. It's not a million miles away from the navel-gazing in Adama's speech about responsibility in the miniseries.
Six also says, "I believe it was no accident that we were found by Kara Thrace. It was destiny." Just like that the episode turns from hopeful to foreboding — because the Hybrid has assured Kara she is the harbinger of death.
So what about all this mythology? The episode brings it all together in the last two acts. Roslin, Caprica Six, and Sharon all have another shared vision where they chase Hera through the Opera House. The images are exactly as before. When Sharon wakes up to see Hera standing by her bed, Hera says, "Bye-bye." Shiver.
Sharon already has plenty of doubts about the Cylons in general, and about their interest in her daughter in particular. At the beginning of the episode Six had said to her about Hera, "We all know her name. You were blessed." Now she gets visions where Six takes Hera away from her. And then there's Sharon's horror upon seeing little Hera's coloring book, filled cover-to-cover with "6" and drawings of yellow-haired women — it makes for the trippiest shock I've seen on this series since "Crossroads, Part 2." It's unexpected and brilliant. What does it mean? Can't be good. Are the Cylons wired at birth to be drawn to each other? Pre-programmed with some sort of knowledge or directives? Seconds later, Hera wanders off into the corridors. More on this in a minute.
First let's revisit Roslin and Kara. Kara knows about Roslin's vision, because she has heard about it on Baltar's broadcasts. And she knows it's true because the Hybrid confirmed it. This comes as a revelation to Roslin that there is, absolutely must be, something going on here beyond the typical, physical, worldly realm. The sense of ominous mystery is palpable. It's downright spooky, especially because Mary McDonnell plays Roslin as so honestly disturbed by it. Everything she once assumed she knew about life has been turned upside down.
Roslin asks Kara for her help. Remember, this is the same Roslin that fired a gun at Kara in "He That Believeth in Me." Imagine the distance traveled from there to here. Bygones are not simply bygones, but beyond the pale of a second's thought. These are relationships renewed by the needs of the here and now. And the actors sell the hell out of it. They need answers, and they are going to try to get them from the Hybrid.
The final act of this episode is a visual storytelling tour de force, as Sharon frantically goes searching for Hera in the corridors while Roslin, Kara, et al (who have recruited Baltar into this because he's in the vision) go to the basestar to plug in the Hybrid and get answers. The former plays as imminent dread, the latter as intriguing mystery. The two sequences are intercut — and cut into the Sharon scenes are flashes from the vision, which in a way mirrors what happens in the action of Sharon's search through the corridors ... which is all on a collision course with Renegade Six.
To describe more details is pointless. Suffice it to say that a sequence this complex must have been awesomely difficult to script, direct, perform, shoot, and edit — let alone to do all of the above so masterfully in a way that makes sense. The sequence doesn't seem to have a literal meeting so much as a character-driven emotional meaning. Handled with less care, I can imagine this sequence easily falling apart. But not here. The end result is thrilling and brilliant.
Sharon, afraid Renegade Six is after her daughter for some unknown reason, guns Six down. When the Hybrid is plugged back into the basestar, it jumps away without warning to who-knows-where. All plans now lie in shambles.
This ending isn't a "cliffhanger." It's a giant question mark. What's the difference? This story knows the difference. It's all in the tone, style, and emotional arc. The final shot is of Gaeta singing.