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As the episode opens, a ceremony is being held in the Gateroom. General Hammond and the Secretary of Defense are congratulating the SG teams for rescuing SG-1 in "Into the Fire". I do think the Secretary of Defense lays it on a little thick, but it's amusing to find out that he's a Stargate fanboy. To finish up the ceremony, Hammond promotes Carter to the rank of major, and it's a pleasure to see her beam with pride.
O'Neill steps up to say, "usually I am a man of few words" and is amusingly beamed away by the Asgard. This begins their tradition of beaming people up with no warning whatsoever; it really seems like there must be some polite notification of this that is used in Asgard culture. O'Neill meets Thor, Supreme Commander of the Asgard fleet, in person on an Asgard ship orbiting the Earth.
Thor says that the System Lords are out to get the people of Earth because they are becoming too dangerous to the System Lords, with their latest Goa'uld kill (Hathor in "Into the Fire"). Thor has arranged to negotiate between the Asgard and the System Lords to include Earth among the Asgard's protected planets (such as Cimmeria is, from "Thor's Hammer"). Thor reveals that he will be bluffing the System Lords, because at this time, the Asgard do not have the ships available to mount a defense against the System Lords; they have a more powerful enemy that they are fighting in their own galaxy.
O'Neill returns to Earth and lets General Hammond and the Secretary of Defense know about the upcoming negotiations. Three System Lords will be traveling to Earth for the meeting. They are Nirrti, who wiped out the people on the planet SG-1 visited (and rescued Cassandra from) in season 1's "Singularity", Cronus, and Yu. We find out that Cronus killed Teal'c's father, who was First Prime for Cronus. One of the conditions of the negotiations is that no weapons at all will be permitted, which certainly rubs O'Neill and the others the wrong way. But they really have no choice.
The Goa'uld arrive with their usual over-the-top costumes and attitudes. They scoff at the primitive nature of their guest rooms and trade insults with Teal'c, who is having none of their attitudes. But things proceed.
The initial meeting between the three Goa'uld, O'Neill (as the human representative) and Thor is cut short when O'Neill inadvertently insults the Goa'uld (usually his insults are most advertent, ha). After Daniel writes an apology for O'Neill in Goa'uld, the System Lords return to the negotiations. The main stipulation that the Goa'uld want added to the treaty in regards to the Earth is that Earth must relinquish both Stargates. (It's a good question about how they know Earth has two.) O'Neill and the other humans there are very unhappy about this, but they see little choice. Thor has assured them that if the treaty negotiations fail, the System Lords will send an attack force many times larger than Apophis's last attack.
Before the negotiations can conclude, the plot thickens. Medical personnel are called to Cronus's quarters, where he and Teal'c are both unconscious and injured. Knowing the past events between them, it appears that Teal'c decided to attack Cronus. None of the SG personnel think Teal'c would jeopardize Earth in that way, but of course the Goa'uld don't doubt Teal'c is at fault.
Dr. Fraiser is able to help Teal'c, along with his symbiote, but Cronus is more badly injured and will die shortly. The SGC offers Nirrti and Yu the use of a Goa'uld healing device to help Cronus, but Nirrti claims Cronus is too badly injured and can only be healed by a sarcophagus.
Now Earth is in a lot of trouble. If they let the Goa'uld leave, even if it's ostensibly to save Cronus, the Goa'uld will certainly attack them in vengeance. If they keep the Goa'uld captive, the other System Lords will attack when they don't return. So the SGC throws in the towel and pulls out the guns again to keep Nirrti and Yu under control.
Teal'c recovers consciousness and says that he went to Cronus's quarters at Cronus's request; when he arrived, Cronus denied making the request. Teal'c says they were then attacked by something invisible. The others might have scoffed at this before encountering the Re'tu last season in "Show and Tell", but now they seriously wonder whether someone there has the technology to become invisible.
Meanwhile, Carter uses the Goa'uld healing device to heal Cronus; as Cronus remarks, this fact itself will not save the Earth from the System Lords' retribution. But it does shine some light on which Goa'uld might have the invisibility technology.
O'Neill eventually gambles on bluffing Nirrti and accuses her of possessing technology to make herself invisible. Nirrti protests way too much, and Yu is upset that she didn't share the technology with the other System Lords. Nirrti promptly uses the device to try to escape, but the SGC personnel are prepared with the detection devices from "Show and Tell" and track her down.
O'Neill delivers Nirrti to Yu's custody after getting Yu to agree to the treaty between the System Lords and the Goa'uld, with the stipulation that Earth can keep its Stargates. The three Goa'uld leave via the Stargate, first warning the humans that while humans on Earth are safe from Goa'uld attack, any humans off world are fair game.
This episode is a major change in the Stargate universe: Earth is now protected officially by the Asgard. We don't really have that clear of an idea what is involved with that. Apparently the Goa'uld cannot attack the Earth, but can attack humans or Earth interests not located on the Earth. What else is involved? This certainly makes exploration through the Stargate more dangerous, as there may be Goa'uld out there specifically looking for them. However, it does take a bit of pressure off the SG teams to find new defensive technologies as quickly.
The Asgard must be extremely powerful, as we see the System Lords actually heeding the Asgard's requests and acting like civilized beings. It was amusing to see them sitting down, looking through treaty documents, and quoting sections by numbers. Although we do learn about Goa'uld (like Nirrti) doing extensive research, we never really see them doing it, and so it's not clear how educated many of them are. I suppose that with genetic memory, they should all be pretty book-smart.
The Asgard may be operating from a position of weakness at the moment, but that certainly doesn't deflate their arrogance. From whisking people away without warning to refusing to give any advice, they act superior every moment. It's interesting to see the idea of Star Trek's Prime Directive applied to our own society - pretty frustrating. It's also very interesting that the Asgard have apparently visited Earth a number of times before - clearly they are being set up as the aliens "seen" by a number of humans who have claimed alien abductions and so on.
One does have to wonder what enemy the Asgard are fighting in their own galaxy that is so powerful that they have to devote most of their resources to that battle. And just the simple fact that they are from another galaxy is pretty amazing...they have the technology to quickly travel between galaxies and even protect less-evolved species in another galaxy.
The episode didn't shed much new light on our main characters, except for Teal'c. The story about his father was typically dramatic, and I loved O'Neill's reaction of "Why doesn't he tell us these things?!" It does provide motivation for why Teal'c became such a powerful warrior. The tension between him and Cronus crackled.