Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Deep Space Nine 3x21 "The Die Is Cast"

rating: ****

the story: A joint Romulan/Cardassian war party enters the Gamma Quadrant as Garak's betrayal continues to sink in.

what it's all about: Where "Sins of the Father" sowed the seeds of a continuing Klingon arc in Next Generation, famously, the exact moment Deep Space Nine transitioned from episodic to serialized storytelling, which eventually became its trademark, is far harder to determine.  One might argue the general introduction of Winn in the first season finale, "In the Hands of the Prophets," or the Dominion in the second season finale, "The Jem'Hadar," but the later Dominion War that became the hallmark of the series really owes its greatest debt to the two-part "Improbable Cause"/"The Die Is Cast," in which the Alpha Quadrant actually declares war on the Gamma Quadrant first.  This was an arc that had quite a few claims to a beginning (the most obvious ones would be "Defiant," where we first learn about a secret Cardassian fleet, or "The Wire," in which we learn a little of Garak's mysterious past in a Cardassian espionage ring called the Obsidian Order), but if you really want to pin the origin of the series as it became known, you'd probably want to settle on "The Die Is Cast."

Yes, it continues the story from "Improbable Cause," which concludes with Garak betraying his friends aboard the station and reuniting with his old mentor (and father) Enabran Tain.  Before this (and after) Garak was best known for his incredibly ambiguous presence in the series, in some ways the very heart of a series that came to be defined by its ambiguousness, never comfortable with the much more definite conclusions found in most other corners of Star Trek as a whole.  If Garak was never a main character, he stood at the forefront of a rich cast of supporting characters, who when he did appear always had something worthwhile to do, and never moreso than in "Die Is Cast," the one moment in the series he flirts with being unambiguous, a suitably villainous Cardassian at last.

This is ironic, because this was the season the Cardassians took a turn for the friendly, something that would sit just as uncomfortably as it seems even now, until the fifth season when they joined the Dominion and thereby officially ushered in the war that would encompass the rest of the series.  Only the unabashed heroic reversal of Damar would ever truly and permanently redeem them.

No, Garak was never a hero, but when the sequence that defines this episode finally begins, you begin to see just how unique he really is in Star Trek.  He tortures Odo.  It's horrible.  I mean, torture is always horrible, but until The Passion of the Christ I would never again see anything approaching what Garak does to Odo in this episode.  In some ways, though, it's directly responsible for crystalizing the third season's efforts to bring out the best of the series, and the incredible depths it would explore later.  When we discover the torturer has no taste for his art, that he desperately wants Odo to give him something, anything, so he can stop, because he genuinely does want to stop, we learn that the lie wasn't to his friends, the lie was to himself, and the cost was too great to further pursue.  In the end, like Next Generation's answer to why Picard means so much to Guinan ("Time's Arrow"), it's such an obvious conclusion it still seems impossible: Garak is a good person who was asked once too often to be something else, and it nearly broke him. 

We would see echoes of this conclusion later, but in no greater form than in this episode.  And why is the war the defining element of the series?  For the same reason.  Garak's torture forces Odo to admit, for the first time, that he yearns to return to his people, the Founders, who run the Dominion.  This is itself an act of betrayal, and that's why Odo fights so hard to suppress this desire, and yet it's a pure one despite how others might interpret it, and that's why Garak finds in him a kindred soul, something pure that exists in the midst of something awful, such an inexplicable existence and yet this is a series jam-packed with such individuals, broken lives struggling for redemption (the parallels with Lost are why I found that series so hugely rewarding, too).  People remember the war.  Well, this is where it begins, and everyone's implicated, even Starfleet: it was Starfleet's decision to partner with the Romulans in the acquisition of a cloaking device for the Defiant that emboldened the Romulans in the first place.  This is why the war happens, not because of anything else prior to "Die Is Cast," certainly not the what-if scenario of the season premiere, "The Search," which for everything it helped set up still exhibited safe storytelling, compared to the pipe bomb of this episode, but for the direct provocation everyone all but willed to happen.  For the first and only time in franchise history, war is declared inevitable, a crucible in which truth finally stands revealed. 

This is exactly where you look to see what the whole series was about.

criteria analysis:
  • franchise - War! What is it good for?
  • series - Well before the Dominion War itself begins, this is where it began.
  • character - Where we finally find out the truth about Garak.
  • essential - For the torture sequence alone, this is a classic.
notable guest-stars:
Andrew Robinson (Garak)
Paul Dooley (Tain)
Leland Orser
Ken Marshall (Eddington)

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