"Dirty Hands" has an intriguing focus on a topic that's one of the series' crucial "big idea" questions: Just where is this broken society headed? In the absence of Cylon siege, can the fleet continue to function as a society, and what will that society look like if and when it reaches Earth?
As was usually the case with the various Star Treks, the focus of this series is generally on the more elite characters: the people who run the show. Admirals, captains, pilots — the ones who make the big decisions and get the lion's share of the glory. In the opening sequence of "Dirty Hands," on the other hand, we experience what life is like on Chief Tyrol's flight deck. Much of it is hard, physical, repetitive labor with a minimum of glamour and no shortage of extraneous crap jobs, like delivering the weekly laundry. You don't normally think of who delivers the laundry on the Battlestar Galactica, but somebody has to do it.
The message of "Dirty Hands" is that the rote routine of such jobs can't be sustained by the same people forever. At some point, human beings become unhappy and disenfranchised. This is demonstrated in an early scene where Seelix, who has taken the pilot's entrance exam and scored well, has been turned away for no other apparent reason than because she's too important in her current operation as a mechanic on the flight deck. Few things are more infuriating in the career world than being told you are ineligible for advancement because you're too vital where you are now. At some point, what's the incentive for continuing to do a job you hate?
In Galactica's universe — and here's the rub —the incentive is that if you don't do your job, people die, and perhaps the entire human race is destroyed as a result. The grumbling on the flight deck is a problem, but a much bigger problem is the grumbling on the fleet's tylium refinery vessel, the Hitei Kan. Once the fleet's most reliable ship, the president notes how it has descended in recent weeks into a disaster waiting to happen. The chief of the refinery, Fenner (David Patrick Green), has become a thorn in Roslin's side, with daily requests for better working conditions and even overtime pay. (I'm not sure what overtime pay can possibly mean in a fleet that has no apparent working economy as we know it, but there you are.) The situation comes to a head when a Raptor with a contaminated fuel supply goes out of control and crashes into the Colonial One and only by pure luck doesn't kill anybody.
When Roslin and Adama call Fenner in to discuss the problem, Fenner explains that contaminants in the fuel are a side effect of a refinery whose production line has been overworked to a breaking point. Roslin says, simply, "Fix it." Fenner then makes a veiled threat that if he isn't heard on his labor issues, further problems with the fuel supply might surface, and perhaps not unintentionally. Roslin orders Fenner jailed for extortion, in part because Fenner quotes from Baltar's new prison book, which was smuggled out by his lawyer and predicts an opening class divide.
Adama puts Tyrol in charge of getting the refinery back up and running. Tyrol's eyes are opened — and so are ours — when he goes over to the refinery and sees exactly what the working conditions are like. This is a harsh existence of hard, dirty, dangerous, unremitting labor, with 12-year-old workers and a ship full of people whose perception is that no one cares about their plight. I have no idea whether BSG's production staff built this set or repurposed an existing location, but the effect is vivid: This is an implacable juggernaut I would not want to spend a day on, let alone define every working day of my life — which for many of these people has been every day since the original attack on the Colonies. It's also a place whose workers are on the verge of exploding, with the power to hold the fleet hostage. They've already hidden key filtering components that halt production, and the remaining tylium supplies are dwindling.
One question about Roslin and Adama and their reaction to the refinery crew's grievances: Isn't it awfully shortsighted for them to approach the problem as hardliners rather than more even-handedly? These people aren't terrorists, after all. Roslin's initial closed-mindedness borders on being out of character. (Yes, she would react in such a way to, say, Baltar, but would she cut Tyrol off so quickly regarding legitimate working conditions? This is the same Roslin who negotiated over a labor dispute in the flashbacks of "Epiphanies." Or maybe she's not the same, and that's the point.) If the fleet's sole refinery ship is in such bad shape that it could literally explode, shouldn't it be top priority to repair it? And this is in addition to the awful working conditions, which are threatening to cause the workers' morale situation to explode.
I'm not sure I always believe the characters would act the way they do, but given these actions the episode powerfully dramatizes the problems on both sides in this dispute: Adama and Roslin cannot negotiate with extortionists because they fear a potential floodgate of subsequent worker revolt if they cave. Meanwhile, the refinery workers are realizing they are doomed to an unending existence of dangerous labor.
What I found interesting about the episode were the implications of the emerging class divide, in which societal lines that were drawn long before the Cylon attack now play out in the newly emerging post-apocalypse. Poor colonies like Aerelon and Sagittaron, which were known primarily for their farmers and manual laborers, were like second-class citizens to wealthier colonies like Caprica, which had more professionals, artists, and politicians. Tyrol makes an excellent point about the inheritance of duties that's chilling when you hear it spoken aloud. People trapped on ships like the refinery are stuck along with children who are now being taught how to man the refinery because there's no one else to do it. Is this the start of generations of laborers who will have no control over their lives?
Roslin concedes the point and enacts a random fleet-wide lottery among qualified workers for such jobs, but even that process is problematic, as evidenced by the kid who was a "farmer" in title because he spent a summer doing it before college. It's an imperfect post-apocalyptic world with imperfect solutions.
The episode's best scene comes when Tyrol feels compelled to visit Baltar in the brig and hear the prisoner's theories on the rising aristocracy. In a surprise bit of character backstory, Baltar reveals that he grew up on Aerelon and tried to suppress his true working-class heritage by ridding himself of his native accent and leaving his old life behind for a more prestigious one on Caprica.
This scene is brilliant in its ideological observation about the class divide as well as its notion of redefining who we think Baltar is. James Callis is superb at convincingly revealing dimensions to Baltar that we'd never suspected, while at the same time showing Baltar as a master manipulator able to cause problems throughout the fleet from inside his jail cell. (Is it true what he says about his past, or just something he concocts to lend credence to his ideological argument? With Baltar you can never be sure.) There's a credibility to Baltar's missives on the "emerging aristocracy" that's frightening to contemplate.
I also liked the scene where Tyrol, after witnessing a work-related injury, makes an emotional decision and declares the refinery on strike. It's a satisfying moment of drama as a populist gesture, sold in no small part by Bear McCreary's score, which has a flavor that feels just right.
Tyrol also puts the entire flight deck on strike, a gesture that gets him thrown in the brig. The ensuing showdown with Adama is dramatically charged but not entirely believable. Adama threatens to have Cally shot as a mutiny ringleader, which strikes me as more oppressive than Adama would likely approach the situation. While Adama makes completely valid points about how the chain of command cannot be viewed as "optional," his reaction strikes me as excessive. And when Tyrol relents and calls off the strike, Adama immediately allows him to talk to the president. I don't know about that either. If Adama is trying to prove a point (the only possible conclusion to draw from this scene), why doesn't he simply appeal to Tyrol's sense of duty more directly before threatening to kill people?
Thematically, I see what the writers were going for here, but I don't think it works when compressed into two minutes of screen time. (I also don't think you can have Adama threaten to execute mutineers here if he's going to let Helo walk free without an investigation in "A Measure of Salvation.") And the next scene where Roslin hears Tyrol's labor grievances (over drinks, no less) and appoints him as the head of a labor union is also an awkward about-face. Simply put, if Tyrol makes so much sense to Adama and Roslin now, why didn't they listen to him before the strike?
So the ending is problematic. Still, this is one of the most useful and provocative episodes yet about the way society functions in the BSG universe. It's a reminder that aside from this series' focus on the military and the Cylon threat, there are also a lot of civilians and workers out there that are going to have to grapple with an emerging future that has not yet taken form. Balancing the creation of that future society with the immediate reality of a fleet still on the run from possible attack is, obviously, a major challenge that will require concessions from everybody. Some will have to live harder lives than others. This episode is hopeful that with responsible leaders and the right decisions, a just outcome might be possible, despite the validity of skeptic opinions like Baltar's.