O’Brien is sent to infiltrate the criminal Orion Syndicate, but becomes too close to one of his informants.
Plot Summary: A compromised Starfleet sends Miles O’Brien undercover to infiltrate the Orion Syndicate and befriends a mid-level operative named Bilby, who watches O’Brien seemingly save the life of one of his henchmen and believes O’Brien’s story that he’s just out of prison. Impressed by O’Brien’s honesty and discretion, Bilby casually reveals that the Starfleet informant within the Syndicate was formerly in charge of the weather system on Risa, but by the time O’Brien can give this information to Starfleet Intelligence operative Chadwick, he has made a more unnerving discovery: the regional Syndicate leader, Raimus, has been meeting with a Vorta. Starfleet Intelligence wants O’Brien to remain undercover until he knows what the Dominion is planning. Bilby introduces O’Brien to his family and takes him into his confidence, vouching for his trustworthiness with Raimus, which could cost Bilby his life if O’Brien betrays them. Chadwick assures O’Brien that Bilby will be kept safe in a Federation prison, but O’Brien worries about what will happen to the friendly, generous Bilby when it’s learned he brought a spy into the organization. Raimus and the Vorta recruit Bilby to assassinate a Klingon ambassador, which they believe will be blamed on Gowron’s forces and deepen a schism among the Klingons that could end their alliance with the Federation. When O’Brien notifies Chadwick, the intelligence officer reports back that the Klingons have been warned and will dispose of the would-be assassins. Because Chadwick won’t warn Bilby, O’Brien knocks him out and goes to warn Bilby himself, but Bilby says that he has no choice but to let the Klingons kill him, because if Raimus thought Bilby had brought a traitor among them, Bilby’s entire family would be slaughtered. He asks O’Brien to take care of his cat, which a troubled O’Brien brings back to Deep Space Nine.
Analysis: Though I get pretty tired of DS9 trying to do stand-alone spy genre episodes – and for some reason, until Section 31 begins to occupy a substantial place in the series, it tends to be engineering nerd O’Brien sent undercover, which doesn’t make a lot of sense – Colm Meaney is always more than up for the acting challenge of carrying a drama. So episodes like “Honor Among Thieves” work despite having a lack of originality in the dialogue and a phalanx of caricature supporting characters, though it’s frustrating to know that after the sort of emotional development O’Brien gets in episodes like this one or “Whispers” or “Hard Time,” he’ll spend the rest of the season getting little to do besides complain about mechanical problems, speak technobabble about computers and engines, participate in cliched marital and family situations, and hang out on the holodeck with Bashir, who at this point seems to understand him much better than his wife does and who serves more often as a confidant. I suppose it makes sense that the Orion Syndicate would have more use for an engineer and would come to trust him more quickly than, say, a doctor or a former Bajoran freedom fighter, but given some of the awful experiences O’Brien has had while isolated and working away from the station, I’m surprised Starfleet Intelligence isn’t afraid he might have PTSD or at least be susceptible to Stockholm Syndrome. He bonds quickly with Bilby despite seeing the latter murder a colleague who tried to rip off the Syndicate; he isn’t persuaded by arguments that Bilby chose a life of crime and deserves the bloody fate he’s likely to get, if not right away at the hands of the Klingons, then later from some unhappy Syndicate superior.
Personal loyalty has always run very deep in O’Brien – we’ve known that since he was on the Enterprise, when he defended Captain Maxwell despite the latter’s attacks on Cardassian installations that could have set off a war. Quark’s the person I’d think would be obvious for an undercover mission to the Orion Syndicate. Though he’s proven his loyalty at this point to his Starfleet friends, it takes a lot longer for the Ferengi to trust people, so Bilby’s ultimate fate likely wouldn’t trouble him much. Most of Quark’s personal history works better than any Starfleet cover story, plus he’s good at manipulating computer systems and dataports. But assuming that Starfleet Intelligence wants one of their own on the job, it still makes little sense for it to be O’Brien, who’s much better at manipulating computer parts than people. O’Brien didn’t go to the Academy and we’ve seen that he’s not as rigid in promoting Starfleet ideals as some of the others. He’s broken rules to protect his family and bonded with captors, even with Maquis, when he felt that they might be in the right. Plus, as we’re reminded in the one scene involving the rest of the cast, he is the only person who fully understands DS9’s unique hybrid systems; for that reason alone, he is invaluable right where he is. Then again, it’s equally hard to believe that a kind-hearted family man like Bilby has made it so far in the Orion Syndicate. He can be ruthless about bumping off people who’ve ripped him off, but faced with the enormity of O’Brien’s betrayal – a betrayal that could get Bilby’s entire family killed – he continues to extend his friendship.
Overall, the Orion Syndicate seems to be an awfully clean crime ring, with happy prostitutes and optimistic lackeys, even adorable cats that don’t seem to need to catch rodents in seedy back alleys. Even in a future like this one, there will always be people who choose shortcuts to get ahead in life as well as people who choose violence over a nice cushy life, but the Mos Eisley cantina in Star Wars seems about as realistic as this bar on Farius Prime. Some background on the planet, how both the Federation and the Dominion are able to land ships there without the other noticing, what happens to the people who don’t want to be part of the Syndicate, even a link to Odo’s undercover friend trying to bring down the criminals would have been nice. But the important continuity here concerns different characters. I assume that Rosalind Chao wasn’t available to play Keiko (or the producers didn’t want to pay her for a small part), but the result of that happening so often is that O’Brien develops much greater intimacy with Bashir than he does with his wife. Bashir is the one who goes to Sisko expressing concern about O’Brien’s well-being, the only one who’s missing the man rather than the engineer. When O’Brien confides his sense of guilt and unhappiness about the assignment, it’s to Bashir – not his doctor, but his best friend – while Bashir’s principal concern is not with Starfleet machinations or Dominion conspiracies, but with expressing his relief that O’Brien is back safely. No wonder the writers have to clarify at the end of the series that though O’Brien loves his wife, he might like Bashir a little bit more.