“Return To Grace” (season four, episode 13; originally aired 2/5/1996)
In which Kira is getting too old for this shit…
One of the best parts of serialization on a long-running TV show is the way it can suggest other series inside of itself as time goes on. On Deep Space Nine, we have our main characters, and we know more or less what they’re up to with each passing season. Sisko is a captain, and he’s running the station, and he’s worried about the Klingons and the Dominion War. Bashir runs the infirmary, Odo is the loneliest constable, Worf is uncomfortable, Dax plays with people’s minds, O’Brien is, well, O’Brien. And so on—the point is, this is the main ensemble’s story, and individual episodes tend to focus on one or more of them, which is how TV works. What’s unexpected is when a recurring character drops by, and you suddenly realize that shit has been going down for them the whole time, and we just didn’t know it. Those changes are less noticeable when it’s someone like, say, Garak, who has a past, but these days spends most of his life on the station, having lunch with Bashir and cutting clothes. But when Gul Dukat pops up near the start of “Return To Grace,” and we learn he’s been demoted and divorced after the events of “Indiscretion,” that’s unexpected. In the previous episode, Kira persuaded Dukat not to kill his half-Bajoran daughter, even if that meant his political and personal ruination. Well, he didn’t, and it did, and he’s not too happy about it.
Dukat’s arc on the series thus far is strong enough to have carried its own show, and we’ve only seen segments of it. Imagine it in the mold of one of those antihero narratives that are so popular of late: A proud military man who believes the subjugation of another people by his own is only just, slowly but surely getting his face ground in the idea that there’s no such thing as a “superior” race. The effort he has to expend to maintain power in the face of shifting realities, as first his position is eliminated, and then the very government he’s given his life serving is overthrown. And then he comes face to face with a symbol of his own compromised past, and, unable to destroy that evidence, he loses everything. Now, just as his people find themselves weak, adrift, and teetering on destruction, he himself is reduced to his lowest point, determined to fight his way back to prominence, but stymied by a developing conscience and a lack of options. That’s where this episode kicks off, but it had me looking back, and you know, I’d love to watch a TV show with that kind of through line. Especially one starring Marc Alaimo, whose ability to make Dukat charismatic, slimy, and yet weirdly sympathetic has helped make the character one of the best villains in Trek history. While Sisko and the others are doing their thing, Dukat has watched his world crumble, and all we get are snapshots.
“Return To Grace” finds Kira once again forced to team up with her longtime nemesis, first as a passenger aboard Dukat’s new freighter (well, new to Dukat; he’s been demoted to busywork post-Tora), then as his co-captain as the two work together to track down a Klingon ship that destroyed a proposed peace conference between Bajorans and Cardassians. Kira also runs into Tora, who’s living aboard the ship with her father; while he’s lost everything else, his long-lost daughter is determined to stand by him whatever the cost. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that she doesn’t have a choice, as her Cardassian/Bajoran parentage makes her an outcast in both societies. But as with “Indiscretion,” Tora helps to humanize (well, you know what I mean) Dukat, especially in Kira’s eyes. While it’s hard to imagine the major ever truly liking her former enemy, or even getting much beyond tolerating his presence, Tora is at least a reminder that there is some sincerity behind all that unctuous charm. Cyia Batten once again brings an almost uncomfortable directness to the role, and her presence helps to make Dukat’s big speech at the end of the hour ring true. He is a man of some convictions, if you know where to dig.
While “Indiscretion” serves as a starting point for much of the character work in “Return To Grace,” the latter is the superior episode. Gone are the forced moments of levity, and the attempts to build some kind of unsettling romantic chemistry between the two leads; while Dukat is still trying to pursue Kira, they don’t share a laugh together, and while she seems troubled from time to time, it’s clear by the end that she’s mostly just concerned for Tora, who she sees going down a dark path. The big difference here is balance, and how Dukat’s advances are portrayed. It’s possible to feel a little sad for how his life has turned out—not to the point of serious pity, mind you, and it’d be hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve most of what he’s wrought so far. Saving Ziyal and bringing her back to Cardassia was the right thing to do, but when “not killing my daughter” is the highest mark on your list of good deeds, you aren’t exactly a hero. This episode gets that balance; Dukat love for his child and his desire to save his people are sincere, but that doesn’t mean his sleazy efforts to undermine Kira’s love life are somehow legitimate or welcome. They play like the kind of asshole behavior of a business executive who thinks he can get whatever he wants so long as he keeps pushing for it, exploiting the fact that most people won’t tell him to fuck off as though that means they’re actually welcoming his advances. While I understand the dramatic value of putting Kira and Dukat in confined quarters, it’s never going to be my favorite setup for a story, even when the episode (like this one) is quite good. It’s just creepy in a way that’s never satisfactorily addressed, that I’m not sure can be addressed. But at least “Return To Grace” makes no question about the selfishness of Dukat’s attraction.
As for the rest of the episode, the novelty of having Klingons as villains (or at least a dangerous threat) still hasn’t quite worn off for me, and there’s some old school fun to be had in Kira’s plan to turn the freighter (whose in-ship weapon’s system is so weak it can’t even dent the Bird of Prey’s hull) into a formidable killing machine. The major is once again called upon to put her freedom-fighting past to good use, reminding Dukat he needs to think more like a terrorist if he wants to win. (A loaded statement, but a true one in this case.) The fight against the Klingons is thrilling and fairly clever, but the real kicker of the hour comes at the end, after Dukat gets his great triumph. Ever since he realized he could potentially destroy the ship that murdered so many ambassadors, Dukat had been gloating about his return to power; only to find that once he’s succeeded in capturing the enemy vessel, his superiors order him to stand down. He’ll be given back his military position, but the Cardassian government wants peace with the Klingons, not war, even though the Klingon ship has detailed records and codes that would give the Cardassians a much needed edge.
The title of this episode, “Return To Grace,” is a little ambiguous; while it’s obvious Dukat is the one doing the returning, it’s hard to say if the “grace” is ironic or serious. After all, he does have a chance to go back to the home that exiled him in all but name, with his former rank restored to him, but he rejects that chance, in favor of starting his own guerrilla assault on the enemy. There’s something almost noble in his choice, and the fervor with which he rails against a Cardassia willing to bow down and embrace its own obsolescence. He invites Kira to come with him, and she, of course, refuses (for all his intelligence and cunning, Dukat isn’t the best judge of character), but when she offers to take Ziyal onto DS9, to save her a life of running and gunning, he allows it. That says something about what all this hardship has done for Dukat’s character. He’s still not trustworthy, and he’s still capable of unnecessary violence (witness his cool destruction of the entire Klingon crew), but he’s a purer character now. Maybe what we’re seeing is Cardassian grace: superior intelligence and ruthless efficiency combined in the purpose of utter domination.
- It’s a small touch, but I love how Kira has to get inoculated before going to the conference. The Cardassian health care system is a wreck; how far the mighty have fallen.
- “The best way to survive a knife fight is to never get in one.”—Kira, laying down some truths.
- I wonder if we’ll see Tora Ziyal on the station again? It’s a good setup, actually; most shows, you’d know that Ziyal couldn’t stay behind because it would be too much of a change of the status quo, but DS9 is big enough, and the serialization loose enough, that she can hide until whenever the writers want to use her again. (I also love the idea of the station being a place where misfits and oddities eventually wind up. Although that doesn’t work for everyone, as we’ll see in the next episode.)
“Sons Of Mogh” (season four, episode 14; originally aired 2/12/1996)
In which Worf loses his brother…
I’m a soft touch when it comes to Klingon-centric episodes, but even I have to admit that a lot of the plots are getting stale; we don’t need more entries featuring a couple of regular cast members going off in search of a mystical Klingon artifact, at least. There’s none of that in “Sons Of Mogh,” and while the hour does focus on Worf and the responsibilities of his culture, it finds a new angle in Worf’s brother, Kurn (Tony Todd, who is, apart from the voice, completely unrecognizable from his appearance in “The Visitor”). This is Kurn’s first appearance on DS9, but while Star Trek: The Next Generation dealt with the sibling rivalry/bond between the two Klingons, raised apart only to discover one another’s existence long after they were full grown, this episode is more about what Worf owes his family now that he’s taken a stand against Gowron and the empire’s actions. Worf’s idealism and nobility were often contrasted against the hypocrisy and venality of modern Klingon culture, but here, he’s put in a situation where someone he loves deeply has been set adrift by Worf’s actions. However justified and necessary those actions were, Kurn is still a wreck, his honor gone, his house stripped of lands. All he wants now is death. And Worf, at least at first, is willing to oblige.
That’s a twist I didn’t see coming. Reading a brief teaser for the episode (something like, “Kurn comes aboard the station, wanting Worf to help him die in a Klingon ritual”), I assumed that most of the hour would be taken up with Kurn getting angry, Worf struggling to convince him that life could get better, and the whole thing would end with some kind of bittersweet resolution. Which is roughly what happens, only Worf agrees to kill his brother right after their first scene together. And he would’ve succeeded, too, if Dax hadn’t realized what was happening and interrupted them; as it is, Worf still manages to plunge a large knife into Kurn’s chest before Dax breaks in to whisk the fallen Klingon to the infirmary. This is a smart way to play expectation against character; for us non-Klingons, a relative in good physical health demanding we murder them is cause for deliberation, discussion, and delay. For Worf, well, this is a guy who wanted to be put out of his misery when there was a chance he might never walk again. He’s definitely not happy that Kurn wants to die, but he also believes in the customs of his race, and he has some very deep-rooted convictions about honor and responsibility. Whatever his own wishes might be, it’s his duty to help his brother. To not do so would be to deny the foundations of his own character.
Still, he’s maybe a bit hasty here, and this does lead to the least in the ongoing series of “Worf does something stupid, and Sisko and the others have to set straight” mini-stories. Thankfully, unlike TNG (which seemed to set aside time each week for Worf to get schooled), DS9 has been letting Worf get some wins in, like his backgrounded capture of the assassin stalking Shakaar in “Crossfire.” And his behavior here isn’t simply adherence to (in our eyes barbaric) custom. As Kurn repeatedly points out, the end of the House of Mogh is, for all intents and purposes, Worf’s fault. His refusal to go along with Gowron’s attack on Cardassia led to Kurn’s current impossible situation, and unlike Worf, Kurn has no Starfleet to turn to if he wants meaning in his life. His position is lost, and since he’s become an outcast through no action of his own, there’s no real way for him to get back what was once his. He’s depressed and angry for completely understandable reasons, and to its credit, the script never undermines or tries to mock his pain. It’s a legitimately agonizing problem, and it’s only through an improbable (but kind of cool, and heartbreaking) final twist that we’re able to find something even remotely approaching a happy ending.
But there’s a lot of angst before we get there. (Good angst, too. The well-earned kind.) Sisko isn’t happy about Worf’s stabbing party, so there’s some shouting; to his credit, Worf doesn’t try and defend himself. (Dax stands up for him, though. And this after we saw the two of them sparring and debating weapon efficiency in a holosuite earlier. Love is in the air…) But even after admitting his error, he’s still got a sad, messed up brother kicking around. Kurn is, of course, angry to find that he’s still alive, but instead of turning the episode into a big fight between the two, the focus is more on trying to find some way around Kurn’s death wish, giving him some new life to replace the old. This goes as well as you’d expect, but in a nice touch, Worf asks Odo to take Kurn on as part of the security force, and it turns out Kurn is very good at his job; having given his life over to Worf’s hands, Kurn believes it’s his duty to do whatever’s asked of him. It’s a passive-aggressive move, done to force Worf to take responsibility as well as to demonstrate just how pointless and wretched Kurn believes his life has become. But he doesn’t cheat. He does well as a security officer (Odo even praises him. Odo!), right up until somebody pulls a gun and Kurn lets himself get shot. He survives, but death wishes aren’t great for group morale, and Worf is back to square one.
“Sons Of Mogh” has two storylines; this isn’t unusual for an episode of television, but they fit together in a clever way. On a trip back to the station, Kira and O’Brien see an explosion in space; a Klingon ship appears soon after and tells him to move long, lest he explode their butts, but the two are understandably curious. Long story short, it turns out the Klingons are mining nearby space in an attempt to cut the station off from the rest of the Bajor. So, obviously our heroes are going to want to take care of that—but to do so, they need the coordinates for the mines; otherwise they’d just have to blunder around and make a note of it whenever anyone blew up. (The mines are cloaked, by the way.) That’s where Worf and Kurn come in. It’s both a smart idea to tie the two plots together—they are, after all, both about Klingons—and a useful tool to make Kurn’s position that much worse. Now, not only is he destitute and honor-less, he’s actively working against his own people; and, worst of all, during the mission, he’s forced to kill another Klingon to save Worf’s life.
This leads to some interesting soul-searching with Worf (which he does with Dax, hint, hint), when he realizes that his inability to see the threat of death in the other warrior’s eyes means that he’s never going to go back to being a “real” Klingon, no matter how much he might wish otherwise. Worf’s journey over the course of TNG and DS9 has dabbled in racial identity (well, species identity), and while it’s never really got beyond, “Man, I hope I’m not a wimp because I hang out with humans. Damn, I guess I kind of am,” it’s a struggle that always made sense. Everyone has to wonder about their legitimacy when they realize they don’t fit every parameter from whatever sociological group they identify with, and while neither Trek franchise has ever suggested that the Federation is worse than the Klingon Empire, there’s an undeniable sadness to what Worf expresses here. There really is no more home for him, not in the way he always imagined there would be.
Which is why the end of the episode is so sad, even if it’s the happiest possible outcome for Kurn and Worf’s dilemma. Realizing his brother can never be happy as himself, Worf persuades Bashir to permanently alter Kurn’s features, as well as erase his memories of the past. Kurn will still know enough to survive, but he’ll no longer remember he was a son of Mogh; Worf even manages to find him a new home and a new house to belong to. It’s all a little goofy in the details, a one-off sci-fi switch-up that, even though the individual steps make reasonable sense, seems a bit goofy when put all together. (Does plastic surgery in the future leave any sign? Is Kurn going to get a physical someday and find out he used to look like someone else? Not to mention the fact that Bashir can’t change DNA.) But it works, because of the emotion behind it. The details don’t matter; what matters is that Worf is permanently cutting himself apart from the only Klingon relative he has left. To save his brother, he has to lose him, and it’s ridiculous and tragic all at once.
- “You thought by distracting me with your outfit, you would gain an advantage.”—Worf, walking into a trap.
- Despite their bonding last week, Worf and Odo still have a very professional kind of relationship; when Worf comes to him to ask for a favor, Odo makes sure to point out how hard the request must be, and how he always collections on his debts. One of the things I like about Worf being on DS9 is that he mixes up the general love-in of the show’s main cast. I don’t need everyone hating on each other, but it’s nice to have a character who doesn’t quite fit in with the others.
- “Uglier, that is. [Pause.] Joke.” “I got it.”—Bashir and Worf. It’s hard to convey in print, but the delivery is excellent.
- “I have no family.”—Worf. Aw.
- Tony Todd is, as ever, excellent; he makes Kurn seem on edge and crazed without ever losing the very real grievance and pain at the heart of the character.
- Love that last shot of Worf walking away, alone.
- SLIGHT SPOILER: I was sad to see this is Kurn’s last appearance on the show. It’s the right choice, though.
Next week: Quark has to struggle with the “Bar Association,” and Sisko meets a potential rival in “Accession.”