Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

"Honor Among Thieves"


Air date: 2/23/1998
Teleplay by Rene Echevarria
Story by Philip Kim
Directed by Allan Eastman

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"Back home, wherever that is, do you have a family?"
"Good. It's the most important thing."

— Bilby and O'Brien

Nutshell: Not the most original of plots, but extremely well acted.

It's easy to take the performances of a guy like Colm Meaney for granted. His character is one of the most skillfully performed "everymen" that I know. Meaney's the type guy where you almost never notice the performances, because they're so natural you just watch him and see "O'Brien." His character is perfectly suited for representing the average Joe in the world. He has his job, his family, his humility, and his convictions, and he doesn't really need or want anything else.

"Honor Among Thieves" is an episode that puts O'Brien through what co-executive producer Ron Moore has jokingly but accurately called the "annual O'Brien torture episode." It's in the spirit of such shows as "Whispers," "Visionary," "Hard Time," and "The Assignment"; O'Brien faces some sort of towering emotional, psychological, or high-pressure challenge that must be overcome.

"Honor Among Thieves" is probably not as extreme as some of the aforementioned examples, but it definitely puts O'Brien's moral sensibilities as a decent, average, down-to-earth guy to very good use. The plot is nothing earth-shaking or terribly original: It sends O'Brien on an undercover mission to a distant planet by order of Starfleet Intelligence. His goal is to infiltrate the nefarious Orion Syndicate, an organization that has been mentioned in dialog several times on DS9 but hasn't actually been an integral part of a storyline. Starfleet has learned they have a hidden Syndicate agent somewhere in their midst, but they need to find out who it is—hence O'Brien's mission.

The man O'Brien must gain the trust of is named Bilby, a mostly insignificant member of the Syndicate who has carved out his place on this cruddy little world with the hopes of someday moving up in the organization. He's perpetually "down on his luck," always on the lookout for an opportunity that will convince him his luck has finally changed and his big break has arrived. He has a few other Syndicate thugs he works with, but in his mind he works alone, carrying out the tasks the Syndicate gives him to the best of his ability (since any less would mean his own death at the hands of the Syndicate, an organization that does not take lightly any action that isn't in its own best interests).

Although Bilby isn't a bad person, he has been hardened by the Syndicate. At one point he briefly tortures and then kills a treacherous merchant who had intentionally sold him defective disrupters—using, ironically, the very disrupters that had been in question. Although Bilby's vindictiveness is frightening, it doesn't seem inherent. He's just a man doing what he has to in order to survive his life in the Syndicate.

Underneath it all he's a family man, using his Syndicate salary to support his distant wife and children. "Family. It's the most important thing," Bilby tells O'Brien on more than one occasion. Bilby takes an instant liking to O'Brien; he finds O'Brien trustworthy and practical, with just the skills he needs. And there's something about O'Brien he feels is just right; Bilby undoubtedly sees a great deal of himself in the man. Bilby invites O'Brien into the Syndicate. From this point the show is about two characters putting trust in systems where fate plays a bigger part than individual actions.

Bilby is played by the wonderfully engaging actor Nick Tate. Observant Trek followers may remember Tate as the hard-headed captain who gave Captain Picard and Wesley Crusher transportation in his junky ship way back in TNG's fourth-season episode, "Final Mission." But his role here is by far more impressive. Indeed, Tate's turn as Bilby gives Meaney a run for his money in the race for most credible everyman.

This seems like two actors' destiny. The two characters are perfect foils for one other, and the acting is wonderful work. Meaney is good as always, as O'Brien finds himself stuck in a place where his gut feelings tell him to judge Bilby based on the man's intentions rather than merely the questionable actions Bibly's career leads him to carry out. Meanwhile, O'Brien tries to keep in touch with the reality of his mission, and is reminded on a few occasions by his Starfleet Intelligence contact Chadwick (Michael Harney) just why he is on this planet: to investigate, not to sympathize.

Tate's down-to-earth portrayal paints Bilby as aspiring to greater things in the Syndicate. He brings a realistic sense of normalcy to his situation, skillfully drawing an engaging personality in a role that requires it if we're to have an emotional stake in O'Brien's problem.

The details of the plot are not all that important, and if there's a drawback to "Honor Among Thieves," it's that the plot tries a little too hard to be "relevant" to the current DS9 storylines. It turns out the Orion Syndicate is in bed with the Dominion, which supposedly "explains a great deal of things," as Chadwick notes. The Vorta named Gelnon (Leland Crooke) who showed up in last week's "One Little Ship" makes another appearance here to order Bilby and his minions to assassinate a Klingon ambassador. (The assassination is intended to look like an inside job, thereby causing dissension among the Klingons that could help the Dominion's side of the war effort.) I find it a little implausible that the Dominion would recruit such a lowly member of the Syndicate to carry out such an important mission (whether he's expendable or not). I also thought Gelnon's long exposition on his Master Plan was a little too rigged for the audience's benefit. And especially considering O'Brien apparently wasn't going to be part of the plan anyway, it seems downright stupid for Gelnon to reveal something of such importance so openly.

But like I said, the plot is not that crucial, and for much of the way the episode is aware of that fact and keeps the dramatic emphasis on Bilby and O'Brien. Throughout the episode runs a sense of subtle, ongoing suspense, because every time Bilby asks O'Brien a question, we have to see how O'Brien will respond, and whether Bilby will be able to catch him in a lie. The pressure of the situation keeps the encounters interesting. But I was more impressed with the growing chemistry between the two characters and how Bilby's need to have a friend who could identify with his plight caused his own clouded judgment and eventual downfall. The idea of Bilby "witnessing" for O'Brien is of particular interest. It's obvious that "witnessing" for another isn't something Bilby takes lightly (indeed, none of the Orions do; if O'Brien screws up, Bilby is just as accountable). But the truth is that Bilby respects O'Brien, and O'Brien's dilemma is that he begins respecting Bilby—who is really just a family man like himself.

The way the plot plays out is out of O'Brien's hands, as Chadwick and the larger powers control the game from above. Starfleet warns the Klingons of the attack, which guarantees the assassins will be slaughtered. Infuriated by Starfleet's lies (they told him they would build a case against Bilby and arrest him) O'Brien finally decides to tell Bilby the whole story of what has been happening, who he really is, and what the Klingons know. Bilby is understandably stunned and saddened ("You were too good to be true," he says solemnly), but the new information doesn't change anything because it's already too late. He can't turn himself in because the Syndicate would make an example of his failure by killing him and then going after his family. Instead, Bilby chooses to save his family by going through with the mission, aware that he will be killed.

The ending is an understated tragedy that proves very effective. Just about everything in "Honor Among Thieves" is accomplished with dialog and acting, and the final scene between Bilby and O'Brien is an example of how we don't need to see a character's eventual death to understand the tragedy of it. I was moved by Bilby's final question—asking if O'Brien has a family back where he really comes from. When O'Brien answers yes, Bilby chuckles with a sense of reassurance that's almost heartbreaking. Here are two people who valued many of the same things in life, especially that "most important thing"—yet at the end it comes down to the sad truth that Bilby exits his world early simply because his way of life had paved out his destiny. It makes one wonder who Bilby could've been if he had enlisted in Starfleet rather than the Orion Syndicate.

Ultimately, what "Honor Among Thieves" turns out to be is an intriguing character study packaged in a small, mostly inconsequential episode. The material alone isn't standout, but the presentation most definitely is, so I don't think this show should be overlooked. The plot does a reasonably good job of staying out of the way, skillfully getting its characters from A to B, and along the way we get some wonderful characterizations.

If you were hoping to learn anything about the Orion Syndicate, you're not going to find it here. But that's not really the point. "Honor Among Thieves" intends to be drama in the most general of senses. And it's good drama. We'll call it three stars—but a high three stars.

Next week: A secret mission, Jem'Hadar, and likely death. Dax and Worf's honeymoon at last?

Previous episode: One Little Ship
Next episode: Change of Heart

Season Index

33 comments on this review

wanker - Sat, Apr 4, 2009 - 11:45pm (USA Central)
I couldn't get past the ridiculous idea that starfleet intelligence needed to take the engineer of the most important space station in the federation and have him become a spy for what was to be a rather inconsequential mission (before the vorta got involved).

Durandal_1707 - Thu, Nov 19, 2009 - 4:04am (USA Central)
Not only the engineer of the most important space station in the quadrant, but apparently an engineer without whom nothing on the station is able to work right.

This would have been a great time for the Dominion to invade. The station’s shields would have suddenly gone down, and the phasers would have fizzled out.
Nic - Sun, Jun 27, 2010 - 12:09pm (USA Central)
When they mentioned the "operative on Risa who deactivated the weather control system" I was afraid this would turn out to be a sequel to 'Let He Who Is Without Sin...'
Marco P. - Mon, Aug 16, 2010 - 12:13am (USA Central)
Sorry, but I can't help but to think of "Honor Among Thieves" as a bad version of "Donnie Brasco". And with that comparison in mind, the mediocrity of this episode transpires: Colm Meaney is no Johnny Depp and Nick Tate is no Al Pacino. I can't but disagree with Jammer on the acting part.

Granted, the script and the limitations of episode length don't give the two actors much to work with, but I feel a better effort in dialogue and acting could have produced something more worthwhile for the viewer.

My biggest criticism is how relationship/bond between the two characters of Bilby & O'Brien is portrayed: I just didn't buy it! In large because of the short period of time over which it develops: it just seems too easy for Bilby to "witness" for O'Brien after knowing him for such a short period of time (despite his usefulness to the syndicate). And with that bond so weak in my mind, I found ever harder to buy Bilby reacting to selflessly in the final scene, choosing to walk into certain death rather than than a) kill O'Brien for having lied to him b) face the music with his superior.
Fortyseven - Mon, Sep 26, 2011 - 6:49pm (USA Central)
@Marco: I always assume more time has gone by than we witness on the screen, in cases like that. Miles may have been there for several months, for example. :)
Jay - Wed, Dec 28, 2011 - 2:25pm (USA Central)
Compare the stardate of the last episode before this one with Mile sin it to the stardate of the first episode after this one with Miles in it...there's your maximum window of "how long" this episode played out over.

It's probably way less than even a month.
Nebula Nox - Sat, Mar 31, 2012 - 11:31pm (USA Central)
Sorry, but I never cared for this episode. It seems too unlikely that Star Fleet would turn to OBrien, who as a reasonably well known engineer could have been recognized by someone there!

The only thing that worked for me is its exploration of loyalty, which is a big theme in all of DS9. And it is hard to let someone, even a criminal, die, once you have befriended that person. This is why you send Garak and not OBrien into these situations. It is mad to send in OBrien - he does not have the character for it.
Justin - Fri, Apr 20, 2012 - 11:46pm (USA Central)
OK, someone in the comments section has to go on record as liking this episode, and I guess that would be me. Is it derivative of Donne Brasco? Yeah, a bit. Is it implausible that O'Brien would be tapped for this mission. Yeah, probably. Does any of that really matter? No, not much, because as the review says, the performances of Meaney and Tate and the portrayal of the characters of O'Brien and Bilby were excellent. All in all it was a solid hour of television.
Vylora - Thu, May 10, 2012 - 1:32am (USA Central)
I 2nd Justin on this one. Episode had me questioning a couple of details but overall the idea behind it - what it had to say mostly made up for it. High end of three stars sounds about right.
Snitch - Fri, May 11, 2012 - 9:36pm (USA Central)
I loved this episode, two strong leads and a nice dominion plot. The negative is that it is unlikely that starfleet intelligence would recruit the DS-9 main engineer.

But overall it was great entertainment.

3 1/2 Stars from me.
Connor - Mon, May 14, 2012 - 8:24pm (USA Central)
I Really enjoyed this episode as well. O'Brien looking after Bilby's cat was a nice little tribute to him.
Laroquod - Thu, Jun 21, 2012 - 12:12pm (USA Central)
It was a solid hour of television that had nothing whatsoever to do with science fiction, so that makes it a mediocre hour of science fiction television.
Ian - Fri, Jul 13, 2012 - 12:17am (USA Central)
This was an interesting idea but the premise was annoying. The idea that O'brien would get so attached to Bilby, who is after all a criminal and a murderer, that he would actually betray Starfleet, which is actually what he does. This is similar to the whole Section 31 storyline of other episodes. The idea that these are self-righteous starfleet officers how presume to know better than anyone else the finer points of morality.

P.S. Nick Tate is also best remembered as Eagle pilot Alan Carter from Space: 1999. They should have held this episode back until next year and named the cat Maya...
Blake - Sat, Sep 8, 2012 - 8:54pm (USA Central)
I can't believe ppl don't understand why O'Brien went undercover: Starfleet Intelligence was compromised, so they had to go somewhere else, and they were going to choose an engineer becuz the syndicate always wants ppl with those skills. Stuff on ds9 didn't work right becuz they wanted to get the main cast credited with a little bit of humor.

This episode is not a bad version of Donnie Brasco, it's psychologically realistic, and it realistically portrays the life of a gang member. Bilby became close to O'Brien when O'Brien passed his "honesty test" and O'Brien became close to Bilby when he realized he was a nice guy who happened to have a job as a gangster. When Bilby killed that one guy, he was able to give sufficient justification and Miles probably figured he was a gunrunner who deserved to die, so none of Bilby's actions would have prevented them from being close. Everyone is born good, to be in a gang and killing ppl is a gradual process, and it starts with tolerating / being ok with certain things. Miles was going through that process, and it began when he realized Bilby was an honest, fair, good person. The same way Bilby justified killing the arms dealer is similar to how Miles justified killing the ppl he's killed.

God, this episode was so realistic in so many ways, but so many ppl are too dumb to recognize it. Like someone wrote a comment about Bilby allowing himself to be killed, and that guy was obviously dumb and paid no attention to the show.

To the reviewer: the Vorta told Miles about the plan becuz in a gang you're either accepted or you're waiting to go though a rite of passage to be accepted, like Bilby witnessing for Miles (being blessed in) or proving yourself (being jumped in). Once you're in, you're family and you can be trusted with everything (something the vorta expressed concern over). And also, the vorta didn't arrange anything with Bilby, he met with top members of the syndicate and they chose to give the job to Bilby. There was nothing wrong with the plot. In fact, they used the seemingly predictable Star Trek "ok, i guess this'll be about how O'Brien finds the informer" to enhance the plot.

I always thought this episode was incredibly well written and did a superb job at showing ppl what it's like to be in a gang; it really sucks that so many weren't able to fully understand it, becuz it's right up there with In the Pale Moonlight.
John (the younger) - Thu, Oct 4, 2012 - 6:45am (USA Central)
Nah, this one was too stilted and cliched to really mean anything for me.

But it's obvious why they chose O'Brien for the part. I thought that worked fine on both dramatic and logical fronts.

Some of the other choices, however, didn't work. Why is the weedy guy not a 'witnessed' man and O'Brien is? Why does the Vorta reveal himself at all? And why does O'Brien confront Bilby with the truth?

In these cases the answer is forced drama with logic taking a back seat.

Overall this episode feels like nerds writing about crime figures. Which is what it is. Could be worse. Could be nerds writing about relationships.
Moegreen - Thu, Oct 4, 2012 - 7:49am (USA Central)
This was awful. The characters around O'Brien were lifeless. The sets were nondescript. The plot was tiresome. Don't understand the 3 stars, I'd have given it a zero.
William - Tue, Jan 1, 2013 - 1:50am (USA Central)
I'm pretty much right in line with Jammer again on this one.
Herman - Wed, Feb 6, 2013 - 1:44pm (USA Central)
O'Brien sure can act and keep his cool well for an engineer... All in all this episode seemed a little pointless to me, unless the writers followed up on the Dominion/Syndicate thing (I hope so).
Erik - Fri, Mar 29, 2013 - 10:25pm (USA Central)
I agree with Jammmer here. A cliched plot full of holes, with great acting and some thought provoking ideas about loyalty and morality.

Everyone seems to agree that O'brian was chosen as the 'everyman' but remember that he's also the soldier; and I don't mean just in the sense of being in Starlfeet. He fought in the Cardassian war and he did things he later felt were wrong because he was in a fight for his life. I think that's why he can sympathize with Bilby. He's also killed people, so he can't hold it against Bilby to do whatever it takes to survive.

"There, but for the grace of god, go I." seems like a nice summation. Change the circumstances of their lives but a little, and O'brian could be Bilby, or Bilby could be O'brian; and they both know it. I believe that's why O'brian knew that Bilby wouldn't kill him.
Take it easy - Thu, Aug 22, 2013 - 4:09am (USA Central)
Bilby is going on a mission to assassinate a Klingon ambassador (and Jammer is saying he is a good guy!!). This can potentially cause Klingon to move away from the alliance, and Dominion can defeat the Federation. OBrien is now concerned about the criminal than billions of lives at stake. I can't believe this big a hole in the plot.

OBrien assumes that Bilby will not harm him? Or is he risking his life and don't concern about his wife and kids for a criminal (who is going to assassinate)? Bilby says that he doesn't like to be betrayed. Didn't OBrien just do that?

I liked the episode right until the moment OBrien objected to inform Klingons about the assassination plan. What was his suggestion, I didn't know.
Kotas - Thu, Oct 31, 2013 - 9:33pm (USA Central)

On the one hand it is kind of a fun O'Brien ep, but on the other hand, the premise is absurd.

eastwest101 - Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - 7:35am (USA Central)
Sure the plot was a little derivative in the core of the "everyday man" gangster but it allows the 2 actors to put on a good performance and address some themes around honour and loyalty, although it looks a little dated now I still give credit to the sets/design and costume/lighting guys for taking us away to another world. Nods and some winks to Donnie Brasco as well but better than average, could have easily been expanded and rewritten for a really good 2 parter in hindsight.
skadoo - Sun, Mar 30, 2014 - 10:47am (USA Central)
I won't rehash what has been said but did anyone wonder how the guy who was controlling the weather on Risa know so much about Starfleet Intelligence? Or is the guy some kind of uber hacker?
Bravestarr - Tue, Apr 1, 2014 - 1:12pm (USA Central)
Amazing episode. Loved almost every second of it, yeah it was weird that O'brien was selected but the guy has to do something besides arguing with his wife and fixing stuff. This is good sci-fi drama, and emotional dilemma and one that has a bittersweet ending.

O'brien does his duty and lives to see another day, but Bilby knowingly walks to his own death. Gripping stuff
Paul - Tue, Apr 1, 2014 - 3:16pm (USA Central)
@Bravestarr: What?

"Yeah it was weird that O'brien was selected but the guy has to do something besides arguing with his wife and fixing stuff."

After the first season or two, O'Brien is ALWAYS doing other stuff. Whether it's being wrongly accused by the Cardassians to being in a time loop to being captured by the Jem Hadar with Bashir to having 20 years worth of prison memories embedded to being trapped on a DS9 lookalike with a crazy Garak ...

I could go on. Your criticism here doesn't make a ton of sense.
Bravestarr - Mon, Apr 7, 2014 - 4:48pm (USA Central)
Paul, I was talking about the comments section (wanker) and how people are asking why O'brien is the one who has to do the undercover mission. He does the mission because, quite simply, he needs something to do! He's the average joe of the series and whenever an episode doesn't feature him as the main focus he's usually playing darts, fixing things, or fighting with his wife (I'm sure I'm not the only person who notices that they argue everytime we seem them.

Personally I love O'Brien episodes, although they do usually involve something bad happening to him.
Yanks - Tue, Aug 19, 2014 - 8:06am (USA Central)
Amazing how some good acting can hold a shakey story up isn't it?

I usually skip this one, because it really means nothing in the big picture and once you've seen it once it takes the bite out of what impact the episode did have.

I can't go above average for this one. 2.5 stars.

Quarky - Sat, Aug 23, 2014 - 2:24am (USA Central)
I'm just annoyed with how the show in the sixth season still wants us to believe that only obrien knows how to keep the station running. O'brien is not Scotty and ds9 is not a starship. The station was supposedly built by bajoran slaves or at least that's what Sisko claimed. The only way this is possible is if obrien is intentionally changing how the station works and not telling any of the crew so he can keep his job.

The ep itself was great. Obrien should have taken spent some quality time with girl bilby got him. Kieko would have understood it's part of his job. Is always wanted obrien and Keiko to divorce so obrien could find someone nice anyways
Dave in NC - Sat, Aug 23, 2014 - 11:04am (USA Central)
@ Quarky

O'Brien fought the Cardassians for years (on Stelik III and elsewhere). It stands to reason he already had a ton of experience with Cardassian computers.

Besides, the systems might be different, but at the end of the day, DS9 doesn't have a warp core or engines: controlling airlocks, Federation weaponry, and life support systems doesn't sound THAT horribly complicated for a guy like O'Brien.
Nick - Wed, Sep 3, 2014 - 6:54pm (USA Central)
DS9 does Donnie Brasco.

Plot was cliche.

Matte paintings of grungy alien world were cool. Lots of smoke effects, channeling Blade Runner. ;)
Josh - Sun, Sep 28, 2014 - 8:10pm (USA Central)
I haven't seen this episode in a long time, but whatever one might say about the plot, the acting is solid and the production design holds up extremely well. It's great, actually, and the pacing is brisk and aided by unique matte paintings and a richer score.
$G - Wed, Oct 1, 2014 - 8:44pm (USA Central)
This one doesn't work for me for mostly the same reason Trek's one-episode romances don't work for me: the development of the relationship is way too sped up, which forces cliched bonding scenes and makes the characters act naive and irrationally.

Bilby's reason for trusting O'Brien makes the whole episode seem silly. And no, Bilby admitting that he's too trusting doesn't excuse the rushed pace of the relationship. Mistakes in judgement under duress is one thing when we know the character and what he or she is about. We know nothing about Bilby, so he just comes off as wearing the idiot hat.

It is mighty difficult to sell a story like this in 40 minutes (less, even, considering the obligatory fit-the-whole-cast-into-each-show scene with everyone complaining to Kira about broken equipment). I don't begrudge the producers for TRYING, but they have to know by now that the stories need to fit the format.

This one just barely gets 2 stars from me. It's at least watchable, I guess.
Moegreen - Tue, Jan 6, 2015 - 1:31pm (USA Central)
Halfway through the episode, Bashir arrives as Richie Gazzo.

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