the story: Archer uses deception to glean information from Degra.
what it's all about: "Stratagem" is one of the most fascinating episodes of the series. Like "Twilight" and "Similitude" before it, "Stratagem" is a standalone episode with deep roots in the season-long Xindi arc, and the results show the producers at their most clever. In all three episodes, they look at the arc from a unique vantage point, and each of them characters are pushed to their limits. In "Stratagem" it's actually Xindi scientist Degra, a recurring character we've seen repeatedly throughout earlier episodes, but now revealed to be a crucial element of the season, not merely as the designer of the doomsday weapons his people are using against humanity, but as Archer's best hope to stop them.
And the episode doesn't just feature Degra heavily, it essentially is his episode. For Archer it's a kind of "In the Pale Moonlight," the classic Deep Space Nine tale of Sisko using every means to draft the Romulans into the Dominion War. Archer is merely trying to trick Degra into giving him information, but it's still fascinating, watching Archer do things he'd never really done before. At various points in the season he seems almost totally out of control, and yet in "Stratagem," he's clearly completely in control, his best showing of the season and possibly the whole series.
But we're still left sympathizing mostly with Degra, who has every reason to believe Archer isn't being merely clever but exerting a kind of psychological torture on him, presenting him with fictional scenarios Degra keeps seeing through. And at the end of the episode? He's set loose, not really comprehending what's happened to him. In later episodes he does become Archer's best ally, fighting against the rest of the Xindi Council, risking everything.
So why isn't "Stratagem" an episode about Archer merely convincing Degra of the morality of switching sides? Well, for one, all Archer has at this point is humanity's perspective. Later he'll have material for a better case. Besides, the earlier episode "The Shipment" already had Archer reaching a kind of understanding with a Xindi, one who is far less invested in the conflict than Degra. Degra is less Oppenheimer, horrified at the full destructive power of the atomic bomb, than he is Einstein, realizing that the German people have been betrayed by their own arrogance.
Here is the start of the endgame of the season arc, the turning point, and at its center Degra, on his journey to horrible comprehension. He learns it by being tricked. When the full scope of the arc becomes apparent, "Stratagem" takes on a kind of perfect symmetry.
- franchise - A classic study of enemies confronting each other.
- series - The turning point of the season.
- character - Degra at last takes the stage, and Archer reaches arguably his most brilliant moment.
- essential - An episode that proves the cleverness of the whole arc.
Randy Oglesby (Degra)