Last night's Battlestar Galactica episode, "The Oath," about a violent, tragic anti-cylon rebellion in the Fleet, was one of the series' best. It was also a character study of how a good person goes bad.
In "The Oath," a young tactical officer named Felix Gaeta lead a rebellion against Admiral Adama's leadership, challenging the military government's choice to ally with the Rebel cylon fleet. Though Gaeta has been living in an ethical gray area for a while, many were taken aback by his sudden flare-up of evil.
His transformation, however, represented the culmination of several plot lines stretching all the way back to the Fleet's encounter with the fascistic Battlestar Pegasus, whose violent, military leader Admiral Cain was a dark foil for Adama. If you were a dork like me and watched the DVD extras, you'd have seen a plucky, cute side of the early Gaeta. In one extra scene, the young tactical officer meets with officers from the Pegasus, who say they can transfer to him all the data on their shipboard computers, including some kind of futuristic mega-Wikipedia that contains all human knowledge. Gaeta smiles and says, "Hey, do you have any porn?"
We know that Gaeta served with Adama for a few years before the Cylon attack, and his talent with techie tactics has helped the Fleet out of several scrapes. He's also often held the ship's leadership to a high moral standard, and has a history of acting on his convictions. He's the guy who uncovered Tigh and Dualla's plot to rig the election when Baltar is running against Roslin. When he refuses to keep quiet about this perversion of democracy, he's rewarded by new president Baltar with the position of presidential aide.
And that's when our plucky, idealistic young Gaeta started to go bad. Baltar decides to bring the Fleet to New Caprica, which is soon occupied by a cylon force. During the cylon occupation, Gaeta tries his best to retain his strong moral center. When he discovers that resistance leaders are being executed, he betrays Baltar and begins secretly passing information to resistance leaders. Without his aid, it's likely the human resistance would never have succeeded. But when he returns to the Fleet, after risking his life repeatedly to save it, he's spit on by the people he saved.
Nobody believes that he was part of the resistance, and Starbuck's secret court almost has him airlocked. He's treated like a pariah, beaten, and nearly killed for a crime he did not commit. At the last minute, he's able to prove he was the resistance mole and Starbuck lets him go. Eventually, his role in the resistance is widely-known and he's given proper credit by the Fleet. Even after he's reintegrated into the fleet, however, he's still punished. He loses his leg in a clash between Helo and Starbuck during their search for Earth.
Still, as we learned in the webisodes "Face of the Enemy" that took place between the first and second half of this season, Gaeta has a lot on his conscience that we didn't know about. When he was working with the resistance on New Caprica, it turns out he developed a romantic relationship with a Number Eight Sharon model cylon whom he thought was helping him to sneak prisoners out of the cylon jail. But in "Face of the Enemy," his Number Eight reveals that she was, in fact, killing many of the prisoners he'd asked her to release. And then she kills more humans when they are stranded in a space capsule together, arguing that they had to die so he would have enough oxygen to survive. Worst of all, she blames Gaeta for the deaths of the prisoners back on New Caprica, claiming he suspected what she was doing and had done nothing to stop her.
At that point, it seems that all of the pain Gaeta has endured in his efforts to help the human Fleet comes crashing back into his brain. He's lost everything, now. All the sacrifices he made on New Caprica, and all the horrors he endured when he returned, seem for naught. Perhaps he really was the evil collaborator that Starbuck believed he was all along. In a fit of rage, he murders his Number Eight right before the Galactica rescues him.
It is this Gaeta who returns to the Galactica and begins the insurrection as the second half of season 4 begins. His confidence in his own moral goodness has been shattered, and his one positive relationship with a cylon has turned to terrifying betrayal. Though he hates Starbuck, he suspects that she may have been right about him after all. What happens to a person who believes they have been doing good, but then learns they have been collaborating with evil?
I think we have to regard Gaeta's actions in "The Oath" in this light. We know that the once-carefree and idealistic tactical officer has a history of speaking truth to power. He may not be one of the most powerful people in the Fleet, but he wasn't afraid to call shenanigans when Tigh tried to destroy the Fleet's nascent democracy by rigging the election. And he also wasn't afraid to challenge both Baltar and the occupying cylon fleet's power by passing intel to the human resistance. Throughout these trying times, Gaeta has kept himself together by believing that he's upholding moral principles and protecting the Fleet from abuses of power. He's the quintessential little guy who stands up to the Man.
The problem is that when Gaeta challenges the Man, even on legitimate moral grounds, it always makes things worse. When he challenged the rigged election, he wound up putting the weak and corrupt Baltar into power. And when he challenged Adama and Lee's alliance with the cylons - whom he knows from experience cannot be trusted - he allied himself with the power-hungry Zarek. While Zarek's intentions may have been good at one point, he long ago became a classic Machiavellian politician who uses people's idealism to manipulate them.
Unfortunately, the shattered Gaeta falls for Zarek's manipulation completely. Gaeta is still an idealist at heart, and he believes that the military's alliance with the cylons is yet another instance of corruption of power on Galactica. He's just discovered that cylon allies may not be what they seem. He sees the Zarek mutiny as the only way to save the human Fleet from the same fate that met those prisoners on New Caprica, the ones whose lives he trusted to a Number Eight.
If you consider Gaeta's actions from the perspective of all this history, it makes perfect sense that he tries to save the Fleet by taking out its most powerful members. And it also, tragically, makes sense that his efforts result in a situation far worse than the one he's trying to fix. Instead of saving his human brethren, he turns them against each other. Instead of saving lives, he destroys them.
It seems that Gaeta is beginning to realize this when Zarek kills an innocent bystander at the beginning of the episode, but at that point it's too late to turn back. Zarek has become a new version of Gaeta's Number Eight - an ally whom he trusts to save humanity, but who is actually bent on violently controlling it.
I think what's brilliant about "The Oath" is that Gaeta's perfidy may have the unintended consequence of saving the Fleet, just not in the way he expected. In the face of his mutiny, many of the characters who have been wallowing in ethical ambiguity suddenly sharpen up and remember their true duties. Starbuck returns to heroic soldier form when she rescues Lee from mutineers. Adama and Tigh reaffirm their bromantic love for each other as they fight side-by-side for the freedom of the Fleet - and for peace with the cylons. Even the tormented Tyrol returns to form, aiding the resistance against Zarek and Gaeta, risking his life to save president Roslin and Baltar.
Indeed, one of the most promising results of Gaeta's mutiny is the return of Roslin to the role of strong, decisive leader. She's been wanting to step down, enjoy her new romance with Adama, and slowly fade away. But when push comes to shove in "The Oath," she thinks fast and takes command, guiding Starbuck and Lee to Baltar's quarters, where she knows Baltar has a secret wireless communications system she can use to entreat the Fleet to resist the mutiny.
She delivers a stirring speech, begging for peace, and forges what I believe will become an important alliance with Baltar. Even Baltar, the whiny, greasy, morally blank fake religious leader, is redeemed by Gaeta's mutiny. In a pinch, he aids the president and Adama, despite their long history of animosity. And he tries to convince Gaeta to stand down, in a scene that's taut and moving.
For the first time in his life, Gaeta's efforts to save the Fleet may have worked. Just not in the way he intended.