“Through The Looking Glass”/“Improbable Cause” S3 / E19-20
- B+ Community Grade
“Through The Looking Glass” (season 3, episode 19; originally aired 4/17/1995)
In which Sisko is the best imitation of himself…
Sisko’s wife is dead. He’s mentioned this a few times, but it’s a difficult bit of backstory to keep bringing up. The death is a few years old, so the initial wounds have healed; and since Sisko rarely dates (at least, not that we see), there’s no reason to deal with the lingering pain of a lost spouse. We don’t know anything about Jennifer Sisko. She appeared in the pilot, but even then, she didn’t make much of an impression. Nice woman, pretty, seemed fond of Benjamin, and now dead. Widowing your leading man (or woman) is an easy way to add a taste of tragedy without drowning out the other flavors. But it’s the sort of thing which is best left in the past. There’s no question that losing a spouse is an awful, life-changing event, but if Commander Sisko spent every other episode moping around Quark’s and telling the same three or four anecdotes about a woman we don’t care about, it would get old fast.
Thankfully, “Through The Looking Glass” isn’t really about Ben and Jennifer, although that’s the ostensible premise. A strangely dressed O’Brien shows up in Ops and kidnaps Sisko; a couple scenes later, we’re in the Mirror Universe. The strangely dressed O’Brien is actually Miles from the other side, and he needs our Sisko’s help. It turns out that the Mirror Sisko is (presumed) dead, having been blown up on his own ship during a fight with some Romulans. This wouldn’t be a huge problem, but Mirror Sisko’s wife, Mirror Jennifer, is working on a project which will allow the Alliance (who are the baddies) to track down all of the Resistance’s hidden bases, and Mirror O’Brien wants our Sisko to persuade Mirror Jennifer to set aside the project. Which raises all sorts of troubling issues for Sisko, not the least of which is that Mirror Jennifer and Mirror Sisko weren’t exactly on speaking terms. But because Mirror O’Brien refuses to send him home otherwise, and because Sisko really does want to see Jennifer one last time, whatever version she might be, he agrees to go along with the plan. Wackiness, as one would expect, ensues.
This is only the second Mirror Universe episode DS9 has given us (and just the third in the whole history of Star Trek), but the concept is already wearing a bit thin around the edges. “Through The Looking Glass” doesn’t ever drag, and it’s fun watching Mirror Kira do her hyped-up-sexy-evil thing, but the episode never really manages to shake the nagging suspicion that there’s no point to any of this. The first (and arguably best) purpose of an alternate-reality storyline is to show familiar actors and concepts in a different light. On the regular show, Kira is passionate and deeply moral; in the mirror world, she’s venal, sadistic, and perverse. This is fun because it lets Nana Visitor show off different skills (this is not intended to be a creepy comment), and because it suggests what might have happened if our Kira had taken a series of increasingly wrong turns in her life. Mirror Kira is creepy because she’s entirely self-focused—she doesn’t seem to have a value system beyond, “If it keeps me alive, and also if it feels good.” It’s like all of our Kira’s good intentions rotted out from the inside.
This sort of logic extends to the rest of the Mirror Universe design. Seeing DS9 as a vile place where slaves are forced to work until they die is a reminder of what the station was like during the Cardassian occupation, as well as a warning of a possible future. Other characters serve as shadowy twists on their normal selves—and, okay, I don’t really need to get explicit about the premise here, since we’ve already been through one of these. Which is actually my problem, because after that initial coolness wears off, there really isn’t a lot to recommend the Mirror Universe. The charm of it is in the novelty, of that sudden shock of seeing good guys be evil and evil guys get martyred, of seeing a place where the Trek vision of a Utopian future never quite made it off the drawing board. It’s hard to imagine anything good lasting for long in the Mirror Universe, so it’s hard to root for anyone, or get all that invested in what happens next.
This isn’t a premise that can really sustain serious long-term development. It’s hard to root for anyone, partly because it doesn’t seem like they can win, and partly because just about everybody in the Mirror Universe is an asshole. Mirror O’Brien fares the best (I like this; it implies that Miles’ essential O’Brien-ness is consistent regardless of the reality), but given the general tenor and scarcity of these storylines, even he fails to register much. Yeah, it’s funny to see Bashir as a pushy asshole, and it’s funny to see a sexually aggressive Dax with a different haircut, but it’s impossible to escape the impression that this whole concept is a one-note joke trying to achieve depth, and not quite making it. In its way, it’s as frustrating as last week’s only-in-Bashir’s-mind episode, as once again we have one regular character isolated in a world familiar to strangers. There’s more of a sense of consequence here, since these people exist outside of Sisko’s head, but it’s still perilously close to filler. Now that the novelty is gone, the Mirror Universe has to stand on its own, and there really isn’t much holding it up.
It doesn’t help that Sisko and Jennifer’s conversations aren’t revelatory. I wasn’t a fan of Felecia M. Bell in “Emissary,” and while she’s given more to do in this episode, her low-key approach still fails to make much of an impression. Admittedly, unlike the rest of the cast, she doesn’t get to riff on a well-established character; Mirror Jennifer isn’t all that different from what we saw of our Jennifer. But even cutting her some slack, her work doesn’t generate the kind of sparks necessary to make “Through The Looking Glass” worth the time. Bringing back Sisko’s dead wife is probably the last card the writers can play with the Mirror Universe. It’s this or bring back Bareil, and in many ways, that would create the same problems: dull actor, sketched-in relationship, no place to go beyond the initial shock of meeting. Mirror Jennifer isn’t Sisko’s Jennifer, after all, and while he’s happy to see her, and the two seem to get on well (better than Mirror Jennifer got on with her actual husband, even), no one suggests bringing her back to his world, or him sticking around on the other side. Which means there’s no real crisis at the core of the story, and no significant suspense. Apart from the death of poor Mirror Rom, there are no shocks. Sisko and O’Brien come up with a plan, Sisko manages to persuade Mirror Jennifer to side with the rebels, Sisko uses his knowledge of the station against Mirror Kira, and Sisko and Mirror Jennifer have a brief conversation in which she makes it obvious that she knows he isn’t her real husband. Bittersweet, sure, but bland, like a reheated leftover in need of more salt. Maybe our next trip to the other side will have more to recommend it, but for now, the Mirror Universe is a pit stop on the way to something that matters.
- Oh, and Mirror Dax and Sisko slept together. I can’t decide if the writers are trying to push the real Dax and Sisko together, or if they’re just messing with fans’ minds. Either way, I appreciate the lack of hand-wringing about it. It’s Sisko’s job to pretend he’s Mirror Sisko; Mirror Sisko and Mirror Dax are having sex; ergo, Sisko needs to have sex with Mirror Dax to keep his cover. Admittedly, Mirror Dax has little if any bearing on the rest of the episode, and her appearance is played more as a joke (how do symbiotes work in the Mirror Universe, anyway?) than anything else. But it’s legitimately, if mildly, surprising, which is something.
“Improbable Cause” (season 3, episode 20; originally aired 4/24/1995)
In which Garak gets an offer he can’t refuse…
What makes Garak great? His insincerity is so intense that it somehow turns back around on itself, becoming honest. He’s almost always lying, his smile says, but since he knows he’s lying, and you know he’s lying, isn’t that a sort of truth? It would’ve been easy for Garak to turn into a cipher, a mysterious figure who existed solely to deliver an increasingly elaborate series of shocking twists, but that isn’t the case at all. There is a core to the ex-spy which, while difficult to pin down, is undeniably there. Part of this is the writing, and part of this is Andrew Robinson’s performance; it’s possible to see the precursor to Lost’s Benjamin Linus in Robinson’s work. But where Ben was a great villain on a show that didn’t shy away from good and evil, Garak walks a thin line in a franchise which, to the best of my knowledge, has never had a recurring character so relentlessly ambiguous. Maybe Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation—but while Q’s methods weren’t always obvious, his motives (to screw with Picard, to entertain himself, and to maybe teach everyone a lesson) were. But at this point in DS9’s run, I really don’t know of what Garak is capable. I don’t know how far he’d go, and who he’d betray if he felt it was necessary. Yet at the same time, there’s enough to his at the core that these questions remain important, and compelling. Garak has just enough of a soul to make me hope he never sells it—and he’s just untrustworthy enough to make me believe that’s still a risk.
The reason this is important is made evident in an episode like “Improbable Cause,” the beginning of a two-part storyline which brings our favorite tailor back into the limelight. This time out, there are no alternate realities or telepathically induced comas, and the focus is on a seemingly mundane assassination attempt—no high concept sci-fi hooks to distract us, just Garak, a blown-up shop, and a mysterious killer. That’s a good enough premise regardless of the focus, but by placing Garak in the center of everything, the hour gives itself an extra, exciting edge. After all, we know so little about the Cardassian’s past that the attempt on his life could’ve come from anyone, and for a wide variety of reasons. It might even turn out that he deserved it; that some horrible bit of treachery he committed while serving in the Obsidian Order has finally come back to bite him on the ass. Or it could just be that he set the bomb off himself, for reasons of his own.
SPOILER ALERT: It was the last thing. Garak exploded his own shop, because he saw a Flaxian assassin lurking around the station, realized he was probably being targeted, and decided to force the issue. This is, you’ll pardon me for saying, classic Garak, a duplicity so straightforward it’s practically routine. The truth comes out about halfway through the episode, and the best part is, it doesn’t really matter. On another show, the reveal that the supposed victim was actually behind the attack would be a third act twist; here, it’s a stratagem to maintain control and smoke out the real culprits, as well as ensure the sympathy and assistance of outside parties.
That’s telling, by the way. Instead of seeing the Flaxian and reporting him to Odo, Garak uses a lie to help find the truth. This is how he thinks: The simplest approach to any problem is the one which requires the most lies. He’s probably even right. While Odo is undoubtedly driven to maintain order and justice on the station, any report from Garak would’ve been met with suspicion, if not outright disbelief. By framing his potential killer, Garak ensures that he’s given at least some benefit of the doubt.
Besides, by the time Odo does catch on to what happened, the Flaxian is dead, and it’s become obvious that something is going on. (Odo’s deduction, based on the fact that the Flaxian assassin used gas to kill his targets, and therefore wouldn’t have changed his habits while targeting Garak, is very Odo-like, methodical and based entirely on his observation of behavior.) Which means there isn’t much point in arresting Garak. A number of other former members of the Obsidian Order have been dying off recently, which, while suspicious, can’t be considered all that unusual. After all, the Order is a powerful group of paranoid, brilliant government operatives, and while there’s no doubt that Cardassians are innately talented at the sort of game-playing such work requires, you’d still expect to see a high casualty rate among the retirees. (It’s actually somewhat surprising that these people are allowed to retire in the first place.) No, where things get really interesting is the fact that the Flaxian is connected to the Romulans. They’re the ones that destroy his ship (and him inside it) when he attempts to leave the station, and they’re also the ones that most likely hired him in the first place.
So something is clearly going on, and it’s up to Odo and Garak to find out what. Once they know that old Obsidian members have been taken out, Garak decides that his old boss, that loveable nut Enabran Tain, is next for the chop. Odo heads out to investigate, and Garak, much to Odo’s chagrin, tags along. It’s an excellent pairing, and one we haven’t seen much of before. Garak’s intricate, constantly shifting conversational approach (he plays lies like Glenn Gould played the piano) bounces right off Odo. The changeling is dogged, smart, and relentlessly straightforward, and it isn’t really possible to charm him or put him off with empty wit. The two only really get one big scene together, flying a shuttlecraft to a mysterious planet where they think Enabran may be hiding, but it’s excellent. Slowly, patiently, Odo forces Garak to admit that his concern over Tain’s life isn’t merely academic; Tain was his mentor, and Garak really does care what happens to him, despite the miserable conclusion of their professional relationship. What’s fascinating is that this is far from the darkest secret a person could hide. Garak being fond of his old boss is nothing to be all that ashamed about, and yet the fact that it makes him vulnerable makes Odo’s ability to winnow out the truth all the more impressive. All Garak can do in response is point out Odo’s perpetual outsider status, and his clear lack of emotional connections—an accusation which, judging from what we know about Odo’s feelings for Kira, is bullshit.
That’s another reason Garak is great: he isn’t always right. It’s easy to make this kind of character infallible. A large portion of his strength and his charm comes from the way he stands slightly apart from everyone, always knowing which way the wind is blowing, and just where to stand if he wants to avoid it. (While the two have very different personalities, Odo and Garak share this quality—and I wonder if Garak’s conversational assault on him in the shuttle isn’t at least partly driven by Garak’s jealousy that there’s someone out there who’s even more perfect an observer than himself.) The temptation, then, is to make him always two or three steps ahead of the game, because if his brilliance is punctured too many times, he turns into a joke, an over-confident buffoon whose only advantage is that he’s too stupid to recognize his failings. Obviously Garak isn’t that, but he’s also not so idealized as to be personality-less. Instead, he’s distinct, clearly mortal, the mere fact of his presence on DS9 a constant reminder that something in him prevented him from being the true Cardassian sociopath he once aspired to be.
Which is especially important in “Improbable Cause” when you consider how the episode ends. Garak and Odo find Tain—or, to put it more accurately, he finds them. It turns out Tain is responsible for the deaths of those other Obsidians, and he was also the one who had the Romulans send the Flaxian after Garak. The former head of the Order has decided to come out of retirement, permanently, and to do that, he needed to make sure that there weren’t any former associates with embarrassing secrets hanging around. He has big plans. There’s a reason we’ve heard rumblings of the Order and the Romulans recently. The two groups have teamed up to make a major assault on the Dominion, taking the fight directly to the Founders. In their effort to solve the mystery, Garak and Odo have stumbled upon the flagship of the new Obsidian Order/Romulan coalition. They’re headed straight through the wormhole, and now that he’s seeing Garak face-to-face, Tain has decided to be reasonable. He offers Garak a position by his side in the new government, and Garak accepts.
This is what all of Garak’s excellence comes down to. With a lesser character, it would be easy to predict what happens next. If Garak was more of an obvious hero, his acceptance of Tain’s offer would simply be a contrivance in order to protect himself and Odo until he could figure out a way for both of them to escape. If Garak was more of an obvious villain, then this would be the final reveal of his true colors, and Odo would be on his own. Odo is, after all, a changeling, and Tain is going to have some very definite (and presumably unpleasant) uses for him in the immediate future. But there’s no way to know how much Garak means of what he says. He’s obviously happy to be working with his old master once more, but is there a tinge of forced satisfaction in his voice? Impossible to say. Garak is a hero and a villain, and he just got handed what he wanted most in all the world. There’s no telling what he’ll do next, and that’s exactly as it should be.
- Another reference to Odo’s “connections.” There’s a scene where he talks to a Cardassian informant in a cave system which is kind of like getting a glimpse of Odo’s crime-show spin-off. He may not be the most sociable creature in existence, but he knows his work.
- Garak’s moral from “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”: “That you should never tell the same lie twice.”
- “Well, the truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination.”—Garak again, obviously. (What I love about one-liners like this is the baldness of Garak’s deceptions. He hides by being completely and utterly open about lying constantly.)
- It’s also possible that Garak’s speech about Odo having no friends or loved ones was a way to subtly needle him about Kira. Riddles wrapped in enigmas, etc.
Next week: Garak and Odo face off in “The Die Is Cast,” and Sisko and Jake spend some quality time as “Explorers.”