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A Failure of Leadership

I first started re-watching this episode a year ago as an attempt to understand the events through Carter's point of view because this is one of the episodes where we see her being almost uncharacteristically meek throughout. But the more I watched it, the more I realized that every member of the team was reacting oddly in response to a change in leadership style by Jack O’Neill.

One of the defining traits of a superb team is that each individual has very different strengths that he or she uses to shore up every other team member's individual weaknesses. It is this gestalt of trust, talent and initiative that makes SG-1 effective enough to be so hated by the System Lords.

In this episode, we see something that is a rarity in the Stargate universe: We see SG-1 failing to act as an effective team. Carter is uncharacteristically quiet, even submissive for much of the first part of the episode. Daniel is argumentative in all but a handful of conversations. Teal'c takes almost no independent action at any point during their entire mission. O'Neill shows a marked lack of respect for his teammates as brilliant individuals who are experts in their fields and also his close personal friends. His lack of respect and occasional hostility to the rest of SG-1 was arguably the linchpin of all the ensuing problems.

It begins with Colonel O’Neill arriving two hours early to find that Carter and Daniel haven't left yet. O'Neill makes a crack about having ordered Carter to get a life that would under other circumstances have been an expression of exasperated affection for one of the team's irredeemable workaholics, but instead comes out sounding like an irritated criticism. This sets the tone for an episode in which O'Neill uses his humor as a weapon against the people under his command instead of as a method for bonding or as a defense against the situation they find themselves in. He repeats this trend with a comment to Carter that the 3 deaths weren't her fault. The words are right, but the tone and body language sap any possible comfort from the sentiment and turn a phrase of encouragement into an order to bottle it up and move on.

The first scene after the opening credits shows three of the members of SG-1 briefing General Hammond with their usual give-and-take, inter-dependent approach, and each one providing data as it becomes relevant. O'Neill sits silently and doesn't appear to ever look directly at any of his teammates, even when they are speaking. The second time we are in the conference room, O'Neill still seems to be bored and irritated, though he offers no resistance to the mission. Hammond tells him that he is authorized to negotiate for weapons or defense technology and O'Neill again remains uncharacteristically quiet, wearing a pained expression that won't be leaving his face any time this episode.

The tension between the four teammates is most clear during their first encounter with the giant room full of stasis pods. Carter's only comment is that they're in stasis and she completely refrains from asking any follow-up questions about power requirements or maintenance needs. Daniel limits himself to a question only of how many people are in the pods, not asking even the most obvious questions about who was chosen, how, and with what plans for waking them. Indeed, the question about the ability to revive them comes uncharacteristically from Teal'c, who also keeps himself to the single inquiry. Jack lets loose with a quiet whistle, but ignores the opportunity to make any kind of joke about popsicle people even after Alar has moved out of earshot. This is an unusual display of tact that doesn't sit well with the worry and discomfort in his body language.

Up until this point, all of the non-verbal cues I have described could indicate many things. Jack might have woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Carter and Daniel might be exhausted from their all-nighter and not feeling particularly chatty. Teal'c could be trying to present a non-threatening facade to Alar after the Eurondan's clear discomfort at his presence. In fact, the only time anyone appears to be happy and relaxed is when O'Neill is first trying out the piloting interface. This ends when Jack finds out that he unknowingly risked brain damage, which alarm rapidly spreads to the rest of the team.

Dinner begins the rapid spiral into lack of teamwork and general badness. What would already have been a tense situation is made worse when Teal'c unintentionally insults the Eurondans by not joining in the toast. Daniel fails to jump in with an attempt to put everyone at ease. When Carter begins to offer an unusually polite and restrained explanation of heavy water, O'Neill cuts her off. Regardless of whether he intended for it to sting or if he was just trying to avoid appearing ignorant after having needed Carter to explain the weapons system, you can see from Carter's reaction that she now intends to avoid offering unsolicited explanations in the near future.

The official beginning of the end, though, has to be when O'Neill intentionally and obviously ignores the less than subtle hint that Daniel has ethical concerns. Jack’s normal reaction in other circumstances would be to let Daniel run with the ball for a bit, trusting his ability to ask questions in a way that would not jeopardize any later trade agreement. This time, though, O'Neill clearly indicates to his team that he wants them to keep quiet and just take the shiny weapons without inquiring into the price. Carter stays out of the ensuing conflict when Daniel predictably ignores O'Neill's request to discuss his concerns later in private.

SG-1 is finally left alone when the Eurondans rush off to defend their installation and both O'Neill and Daniel take the opportunity to start their argument. Carter again uncharacteristically chooses not to join in and we see some of the most submissive body language from her in this scene that we will see in the entire series. Teal'c is the butt of an insult disguised as an ill-tempered joke. Daniel raises valid ethical concerns and O'Neill not only dismisses them out of hand, but walks away mid-argument, leaving Carter to shoot beseeching looks at Daniel in an effort to get him to come back to the SGC with her instead of following after Jack.

General Hammond is the only regular character that we have demonstrating effective leadership and teamwork in this episode. He listens to both sides presented to him and specifically seeks out Daniel's dissenting opinion. Even when Hammond doesn't agree with him, he doesn't shut Daniel down. Carter also seems to keep listening, though she started out loudly disagreeing with Daniel. When Daniel makes a good point, Carter is quick to support it. We can deduce from later comments that Hammond also is able to see the logic of his concerns and gives him permission to keep pursuing them.

Meanwhile, O'Neill and Teal'c are in the war room. O'Neill volunteers them both as pilots. Teal'c appears to have reservations, but follows O'Neill's lead without question.

The team dynamic doesn't begin to rebalance itself until O'Neill kills one of the enemy while assisting in the Eurondan defense. All of the ethical dilemmas he had been trying to avoid or ignore come home to roost. He is not immediately less dedicated to completing the mission as he sees it, but you can see the cracks forming in his certainty that they were doing what was necessary.

The second dinner doesn't go any better than the first. Daniel grates on O'Neill's last nerve with his questions, O'Neill cuts Carter off when she requests to stay behind and study the fusion reactors, and Teal'c manages to insult Alar yet again by not joining in the toast. It's obvious that no one has explained Teal'c's "no alcohol" policy to the Eurondans because they provided him with alcohol yet again, instead of offering a different beverage that would allow him to participate. As Carter is getting up from the table, the grimace she makes at O'Neill speaks volumes about how little she is enjoying the current mission.

The thing that finally changes O'Neill's attitude is when Alar asks that Teal'c not return. This is the first time that the Eurondans have shown something other than respect for the members of SG-1. (From Jack's perspective, they've probably had the patience of saints regarding Daniel.) Jack finally starts listening to his own better instincts and gives Daniel free rein to be his normally inquisitive self. He even goes so far as to apologize, which clearly confuses Daniel and we can assume from this and other episodes that it is a rare event. Carter is spending this time getting familiar with the technical specifications of the underground facility. Though she has shown a marked reluctance to volunteer information to O'Neill, it's clear that she hasn't decided to stop asking questions or pursuing data. O'Neill takes Teal'c to do some exploring and actively seeks out Teal'c's opinion of Alar and the others.

The final battle is when we see the team start moving as a unit again. Carter has figured out how the war started, Daniel has figured out why, and while O'Neill and Teal'c are taking action to correct the team’s earlier mistakes, Carter and Daniel buy them the time they need to succeed. Carter and O'Neill then work together to cover their retreat.

One set of moments that is, perhaps intentionally, left ambiguous is Carter's reaction to Alar's request to come with them, and his offer to teach them everything he knows in exchange for helping him to escape. Her facial expression is obviously stressed and concerned, but it's unclear whether that's because she wants to salvage some scientific advancements from this failed mission, or if it's because she finds the idea of bringing him back with them to be distasteful, or if it's because she dislikes the idea of deliberately choosing to leave someone behind to die. It is interesting to note that she turned and went through the Stargate before O'Neill started to turn. Then when she got through to the other side, she again promptly turned to face the wormhole, waiting to see who came through behind her.

I don't know what to make of the exchange of looks between Carter and O'Neill when he ordered the iris to be closed so that anyone following behind them would die. Carter looked like she'd just been punched in the gut. Whether that was because O'Neill had chosen to let Alar die or because O'Neill had chosen to refuse his knowledge, or even because O'Neill took so very long to come to his senses and listen to what his team was telling him is left up to the interpretation of the fanfic authors.

The episode ends on a note of unbalance, with two members of SG-1 off in the distance and the other two facing each other with something decidedly less than joy at having survived another mission. Very little is clear except that all four of them will need to put time and effort into restoring the easy camaraderie and teamwork that they previously maintained.
Tags: 0402 the other side, meta, season four
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