By Alli Snow
The phrase "smoke and mirrors" is commonly used to describe something that distracts or draws attention from a sly or unpleasant action. In the case of this episode, the title is appropriate on several levels. In the story, a rogue group within the already-often-rogue N.I.D. uses stolen holograph technology to accomplish their underhanded goals and, on the set, the cast pulls it together to make up for a Richard Dean Anderson-light episode.
One of the episode's strengths is that it doesn't waste time trying to convince us that maybe, just maybe, O'Neill really killed Kinsey. The writers seemed to have remembered "Shades of Grey" and realized that they couldn't pull another fast one on their audience. Instead of vainly trying to raise our suspicions, they use the other character's reactions to reinforce our belief in Jack's innocence. Even when confronted with seemingly infallible evidence, neither Sam, Teal'c, Jonas or Hammond appear to doubt Jack for a second; instead, they rally around him, devoting their time and resources to finding the real assassin.
Sam echoes the sentiment later, telling a suspicious Agent Barrett that "When you work with someone that long, you just know." Unless you're a brand-new viewer or have a peculiar dislike of the character, that kind of certainty is gratifying to the audience. We don't like our heroes suspecting each other of murder. (It's bad enough when they suspect each other of insanity.)
The story's weakness, surprisingly, has little to do with the lack of O'Neill, mainly because the other characters manage to stay so busy. A very tanned Sam Carter takes the lead for much of the episode, working with Agent Malcolm Barrett to eliminate the cancer within the organization and clear Jack's name. The interplay between the two characters is engaging, and one wonders if it's meant to represent the future relationship between their two organizations, the N.I.D. and the S.G.C.
The theme here is also trust, and the difference a little cooperation can make. Barrett isn't the most dynamic guest character Stargate has ever had, but he reveals himself to be a nice guy and -- considering his profession -- that's enough to put him in our good graces. By the end of the episode, it seems that he might have learned a valuable lesson about having faith in other people, and that gives us some hope for the N.I.D. in general.
Jonas and Teal'c spearhead the effort to find the scientist who made O'Neill's set-up possible to begin with. Jonas is the brains of this dynamic duo, with help from Fraiser, tracking down the suspect Area 51 scientist and then possessing the ability to recall a single airman's face. Teal'c gamely plays the "muscle," effortlessly bringing down the fleeing scientist and later intimidating him into a confession with nary a word.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to this Anderson-light season has been the opportunity for the friendship between these two characters to truly shine. Finally Teal'c is able to impart five-plus years of Earth knowledge to someone else, and in him Jonas has a mentor, confidant, fellow alien and -- in a way -- peer.
The biggest problem with the episode is mainly logistical. The nail in Jack's coffin with regards to the assassination charge is that there is evidence placing him at the scene of the crime, and no one to back up his claim that he was alone at his cabin. However, the drive from Colorado Springs to Minnesota would have taken him between 16 and 18 hours to complete, making it improbable that he would not have been seen by others, or would not have left a paper trail through the use of credit cards. Depending on the reach of the N.I.D. and "the Committee," it's not beyond the realm of possibility that any witnesses could have been silenced and the paper trail covered up, but it's never explicitly mentioned.
This minor flaw is easy enough to overlook, however, especially considering the enjoyable continuity linking this episode to Season Three's "Foothold" (which, conveniently enough, was one of the repeats aired by The Sci-Fi Channel earlier in the week). Something Stargate has excelled at is the ability to reference old episodes without leaving new viewers completely in the dark, and that's been especially true this season, as it tries to appeal to Sci-Fi's larger audience.
The technology from "Foothold" -- and the reason the entire incident was covered up -- was revealed with enough detail for the new viewer to follow along, but not so much that it would bore longtime fans. Some conspiracy-based episodes are accused of being too derivative of The X-Files, but the end result of "Smoke and Mirrors" was less The X-Files and more Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.
Senator Kinsey is arguably the focus of the story, yet he doesn't actually grace the audience with his presence until the last scene of the episode. It's a gem, though, as he and Jack make an uneasy truce that will allow O'Neill to be publicly cleared (although the true importance of that is questionable) while making Kinsey appear to be a friend of the military, protector of democracy and pillar of the community. The idea of a budding trust between these two characters is not even in the realm of possibility, and as the Senator waves and smiles, as smug as though he's already won the Presidency, the audience is left wondering if Jack should have made this particular deal with the devil.
Rating: * * 1/2