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?