"The Oath" is a superb, straightforward action show that's more about the execution of individual beats of action and character than about complex storylines or mythology. Suffice it to say that it's a riveting, pulse-pounding experience that moves its pieces (i.e., characters) around with near-ceaseless momentum, where the stakes couldn't be higher and the drama couldn't be tauter. The overall vibe I get from "The Oath" — from its general action beats and nuts-and-bolts approach to showing who is where and when — is that it's a top-notch episode of 24, right down to the title cards that serve as a ticking clock. It doesn't take place in "real time," but it might as well have. This episode is a dissection of crisis management, punctuated by nice vignettes of character.
It also takes a back-to-basics approach to the series. After all the mythology in season four, "The Oath" is simply about the explosive uprising on board the Galactica and in the fleet after the weight of that mythology has come crashing down. Earth turned out to be an empty promise, and the Cylon alliance is for many the final straw. Something's gotta give, and that something appears to be the Adama/Roslin administration. Gaeta has organized an alarmingly sizable mutiny (perhaps too quickly and quietly to be believed), and has coordinated a power grab with Zarek, who is prepared to take control of the civilian government.
What's perhaps most interesting to consider about this power play is that neither Adama nor Roslin see it coming — or indeed even as a remote possibility. Consider the opening scene, where Roslin, who has practically moved into Adama's quarters and is not bothering to hide that fact, tries to offer up nuggets of advice for how Lee might handle Zarek and the Quorum — but then she backs off and insists she is not getting involved in that morass. If she had an inkling of what was about to go down, you can bet she'd be extremely involved. Assuming the power grab is ultimately put down, both Roslin and Adama are going to have a lot of hand-wringing to do: Roslin for stepping aside and creating the power vacuum that allows this to happen, and Adama for not having a better sense of the discontent festering under his command.
The Galactica mutiny is all the more scary because it seems to be so sweeping. It's not just Gaeta and a bunch of nameless marines. There are notable secondary characters we know — Racetrack, Seelix, Skulls — who are in on this. And that says something about the state of the fleet. If people who are your friends have bought into this uprising, what does that mean for the fleet at large? Perhaps that the whole thing is on the verge of coming apart.
The way the mutiny goes down is simultaneously fascinating and agonizing. We see how Gaeta has gotten all the pieces in place he needs in order to move men and weapons where he needs them, all while keeping Adama and Tigh completely in the dark. He's the one-man line of communications between CIC and the rest of the ship, and that allows him to manipulate the game and stage a series of complex ruses that would otherwise be impossible to sustain (and even here is only sustainable for so long). Galactica becomes an exploitable chessboard, with Gaeta as the gatekeeper. It's frightening how one man, given his unique position, can mastermind taking over the entire ship. The episode, in its writing and direction, is expert at showing how Gaeta's ambitious plan unfolds, and the reasons for why Adama and Tigh are blindsided by it.
Ultimately it becomes a race. How long can Gaeta keep this up? Can he get his men in place before the ruse falls apart? The story generates great suspense in the way it puts us on edge for Gaeta as well as for Adama. We of course instinctively root for Adama, but the action also keeps us invested in the progress of Gaeta's plan.
Meanwhile, the episode is ruthless in its momentum. Violence is uncorked, marines go marching, and prisoners are seized in successive-whammy scenes of high adrenaline. The resident Cylons (Caprica Six, Athena, Hera, Anders) and Helo are rounded up and thrown in a cell. The hatred and angry words are allowed to boil over, after having simmered for so long. One touch I liked: Spc. Gage (Mike Dopud), one of the Pegasus dudes who beat Helo and Tyrol with a bar of soap back in season two, appears here to grab the Agathon family from their quarters — and he makes it clear that bygones are not bygones. Gage's presence as a former Pegasus crewman, as well as Narcho's (Sebastian Spence), is in deference to poor Chief Laird (Vincent Gale), who gets a wrench to the head from Zarek, and is the first victim of the mutiny. (I'd wondered who replaced Tyrol after his demotion.)
The action is also expert at putting in place the various characters who, from the lower decks, will be instrumental in resisting the mutiny. Kara gets a show-stopper of a bitchin' scene where she rescues Lee without the slightest hesitation in using deadly force, but while still doing so discriminately. She's so pumped up by the adrenaline rush (as are we) that she says, "This is the most normal I've felt in weeks." They slide quietly through the ship attempting to make sense of the chaos, Die Hard style.
Then the marines take CIC by force. Adama's surprise to the mutiny is telling, but even more compelling is his promise to the mutineers: "If you do this, there will be no forgiveness, no amnesty." It begs the question of what the aftermath of this mutiny (again, assuming it will fail) will look like when so many people have participated in it.
Adama and Tigh are led out of CIC to the brig. In another of the episode's bitchin' moments of adrenaline, Adama and Tigh overpower the marines. I like seeing these old guys in action. This is Adama's frakking ship, and he's not going to be marched quietly into a cell. Ultimately, Adama/Tigh meet up with Kara/Lee. And Kara won't hear anything about taking prisoners. She bluntly tells Adama that it's shoot to kill here: "They are not your men anymore! They are the enemy!"
The president, meanwhile, is shocked by these developments back into action, which leads her to try to get on the air to make a personal appeal to the entire fleet, and Zarek's coup from displacing the entire establishment. The only available person with a radio capable of broadcasting this address: Baltar. There's a nice little exchange where Baltar and Roslin fence over their roles in creating this mess. Roslin to Baltar: "I never really believed in your conversion, so I was counting on your well-honed sense of self-preservation."
Roslin's appeal to the fleet got me thinking about the value of leadership. She makes her case, and it's a compelling one. People may be pissed off with the leadership that led them to the dead end that was Earth, and even more pissed off about having to ally themselves with the very Cylons that destroyed them. But what, really, is the alternative? Watching Gaeta's uneasy place in CIC as he tries to take command of Galactica only drives the point home more. Okay, so you've staged this mutiny. Assume you can take over the fleet and expel the Cylons. Then what? What is your brilliant plan from there? Where do we go?
The episode is occasionally canny in its choices of re-establishing character details: Baltar tries to appeal to Gaeta's better sense. When that fails he mentions their "little secret," the one sealed with the stab to his neck with a pen. Here, the information from the "Face of the Enemy" webisodes comes in handy.
Lee has a moment of playing devil's advocate when he makes a speech about the fleet's very real inability to put the past behind them. He rails at Tigh for being a Cylon. It's a valid point when Lee says that the destruction of humanity has left everyone with very few options. Still, just once, I'd like to get the sense that people like Lee actually understand that Tigh is not simply "a Cylon" but an individual who had absolutely nothing to do with the destruction of humanity and has fought every day for its cause. Tigh has been through every bit as much of an ordeal as any Colonial, and then some.
The overall feelings of "The Oath" are summed up with the (inevitable) ending cliffhanger, as Adama and Tigh get the president off Galactica before making what they know could be their final stand. It's well-staged action, great cinematography and editing, and Bear McCreary's score sells all of it. At its core, it's about these two lifelong military guys defending their turf against those who have abandoned them. If need be, they'll go down fighting. To Adama, Tigh is not a Cylon; Tigh is and always will be Saul Tigh: "It's been an honor serving with you, my friend."