Last week's episode was all about why someone would want to start a revolution. Last night's episode is what happens they day after you bit the bullet.
Of course, what happens depends very much on who you are. In particular, it depends on whether you're Gaeta, or you're Zarek.
Gaeta is the why. The living embodiment of the grievances upon which this revolution is based. "The following is a list of things we are no longer prepared to accept, and will fight to bring to an end". He doesn't want a coup, he wants justice, and a coup is the only way he can see left to get it. It's an action, the cost of doing business, the dividing line between the past, when the fleet was run by collaborators, and the future, when it isn't. As far as he's concerned, the future will be better, has to be better, because those that have sinned will have been brought to justice, and that's supposed to be how society works.
Obviously, you have to be shockingly naive to believe any of that, and of course Felix is. That's not really the point, though. The point is that this level of self-denial, that revolution is the stepping stone between Hell and Heaven, is easy to believe up until you get your hands dirty.
Once the bullets start flying, though, Gaeta has to justify every act of petty vengeance or outrageous self-interest to himself and everyone else, because the alternative is to admit that life might not be better after the coup than before, with the added wrinkle that things mid-coup are likely to be downright horrific. It's no longer "This is what we'll do, and it will kick ass," it's "This is what we are doing, and it wasn't what we wanted, but we haven't been given a choice". The thing about ideological coups (which is what Gaeta is after, though not Zarek, and we'll come to that later) is that in order to commit to them, you have to see the world, or at least society, in terms of black and white. And if the world was ever like that, could ever be like that, then sixty seconds after the first shot gets fired you're going to get drowned in grey faster than a crippled dormouse in a hyperactive cement mixer.
You either accept that, and start fighting because you're you and the other guys are them, or you try to keep a hold on your idealism by taking ever darker shades of grey and just redefining them as white. That's why there had to be a trial for Adama, because trials are good. Legal minutiae letting the guilty off, though, they are bad. Therefore: show trial becomes white (this of course is hardly atypical of revolutions or other regime changes; just ask the French aristocracy, or Saddam Hussein).
Gaeta's panic and revulsion when he sees the bodies of the Quorum mark the first moment when he really realises how deep he's in to this, because it's the first thing he hits that he can't rationalise. "We had the truth on our side," he pleads. What he means is: this was right versus wrong, and now Zarek has made it wrong versus wrong and let see who gets shot last.
That's when Zarek loses Gaeta. He almost doesn't go through with Adama's execution (and I'm pretty sure that when he did call Narcho to get on with the shooting already, it wasn't about justice anymore, or even revenge, but the very last ounce of his belief that once the coup was finished, the world would be better) and ultimately gives up when he belatedly realises he's about to go too far.
So: note to Zarek. Try not to kill the entire government in a fit of pique.
Maybe I'm being unfair, though. Like I said, Gaeta's the why here, but Zarek is quite obviously the how. Gaeta has to use a coup to get his justice, but Zarek has to use Gaeta's sense of outrage in order to get his coup.
He wasn't always like this. Back in the days before Billy was a corpse and Cloud 9 was a glowing wreck, he was to some extent where Gaeta is now (well, where Gaeta was three minutes before they shot him). Revolution was the tool, not the point. What he wanted was social equality, a civilisation in which what you did yesterday made no difference to what you could do today . It was a dream so powerful that it survived years in jail and the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. At the very moment where social mobility became the least of our problems, Zarek returns to his quest to ensure Dude-That-Cleans-Shit can go and do something else (and not just Count-His-Fucking-Blessings-He's-Even-Alive, either).
But while Gaeta was beginning to wonder whether you could change the system from within the system (from working for the Resistance to perjuring himself at Baltar's trial), Zarek kept finding himself robbed of the power he needed to effect change time after time. By Lee, by Gaius, by the Cylons showing up on New Caprica. Mainly though, by William Adama. The man who will accept a school-teacher as President, but not the man who was actually on the ticket that got elected. The man who threw a screaming paddy when Roslin disappeared, but managed to simultaneously abdicate all responsibility for the fleet and tell Zarek he was unfit for command.
Somewhere along the line, Zarek stopped thinking "I need power to win my decades-long struggle" and moved onto "I deserve power because of my decades-long struggle". Overthrowing Adama wasn't on the list anymore so much as it was the list. With power seized, stage two wasn't any more complicated than: keep it.
Maybe that's what shooting the Quorum was about. Having spent three years being slapped around by Adama (and I'm guessing life on New Caprica wasn't really a bed of roses even before the Cylons showed up to do their best General Petraeus impression), it was hardly likely that he'd suffer the sudden inexplicable spine-growing of the snivelling politicians.
Plus, Zarek knows what a coup is. He knows it isn't a dividing line but a new direction, a ship that need to be steered constantly to avoid coming aground. You can't lose momentum, because you've got to have all the old guard swept away before anyone has any time to realise they're missing them. There isn't time to persuade everyone that they need to fall in line ASAP. Some people are just going to have to make their minds up before they get blown across the bulkhead.
There's something inevitable about the fact that the ideologue and the power-seeker managing to so completely fuck each other's ideas for the same coup. I'm quite sure that was intentional, and just as sure that there's a quite staggering amount of historical precedent (this isn't really my area, but I'm sort of vaguely pointing at the Russians). And, if nothing else, Gaeta finally got to show everyone who he truly was. Sure, he chose the wrong fight to prove his strength, and drew the wrong lines to prove his principles, but then don't we all?
And let's not forget that we're not at daybreak just yet. Six episodes from now everyone might be wishing to the Gods Gaeta had succeeded.
Update: Here's a nice "letter to the editor" entitled "Why Tom Zarek was right". Aside from the fact that the writer includes information that I'm not convinced any fleet member would be privy too (mainly as regards Cavil) and that they seem to have forgotten that Laura Roslin is not the duly elected anything, it includes on a great many excellent points. Best line:
If we recognize that the rebel Cylon have civil rights, then they surely have civic responsibilities; as such, each and every one of them should fall under the authority of a war crimes tribunal, under accusation of genocide. Somehow, I suspect that these Cylon are not prepared for that degree of integration with Colonial society. If they cannot bear the responsibilities, then they do not deserve the rights. It's also worth comparing Gaeta's reaction to Zarek executing the Quorum with Zarek's response to his fellow prisoner's attempt to rape Cally back on the Astral Queen.