Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Duet”
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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: “Duet”

“Duet” (season 1, episode 20; originally aired 6/13/1993)

In which Kira learns a new song, much to her regret

There are impossible situations. They happen every day, and we’re all a part of them, and we live with it. You couldn’t exist in this world if you didn’t. As I type this, people are suffering. Some of them are starving, some of them are being assaulted, tortured, mutilated, and, well, this is already getting too grim for a Star Trek review, but you feel me, right? As individuals, we can sign petitions, we can post pleas for sanity on the web, and we can do what we can with whatever we come across in our own lives, but we are largely powerless to change the course of the world. It’s not defeatism or an excuse to say there are limits to the effect of good intentions; it’s simple plain facts. But it’s also impossible, because we’re taught that you can’t be a good person and allow others to suffer. No, it’s more than that: It’s something most of us feel intuitively, without having to be told. Empathy is one of the most valuable tools at our disposal as human beings. It makes solitary existence less lonely, and it allows us to grow societies where immediate reward isn’t the primary motivation. And yet, ultimately, it doesn’t make us superheroes. There’s only so much you can do, and the only way to survive is to find some balance between the impossible and what you need to let you sleep at night. And even that’s too much to ask in some situations. When the harm is so big, and the bodies are all around you, balance is lost. And so you fall, and you keep falling, and the most you can hope for is maybe, someday, you’ll hit bottom.

Once upon a time, the Cardassians controlled Bajor, and they did horrible things. We’ve heard about the occupation before, but in “Duet,” Kira gives a speech about what she saw while liberating a forced-labor camp, and it’s the most direct description of the atrocities committed against her people that the show has given us. She talks about broken bodies, minds destroyed, and of captives humiliated, starved, and beaten, and her voice catches on the words. So when an apparent survivor from the camp arrives on the station, she’s eager to meet him. The visitor requires immediate treatment for an affliction known as Kalla-Nohra, which only affects individuals who were at Gallitepp, the labor camp, during a mining accident. Kira rushes to the infirmary to greet the new guest, but instead of a Bajoran, she finds a Cardassian named Aamin Marritza receiving Bashir’s ministrations. Kira demands Marritza’s immediate arrest, because she knows he had to have been there, and he has to be responsible. Except Marritza denies any direct involvement in the torture of Bajoran citizens; he claims he was just a file clerk. Kira thinks he’s lying, and that’s when things get interesting.

The specter of the Cardassian occupation has hung over Deep Space Nine from the beginning. Ostensibly, Sisko and the rest of the Starfleet personnel are on board DS9 to help usher Bajor into the Federation, but they also serve as a deterrent, should the Cardassians ever get it into their heads to pick up where they left off. The occupation shaped Kira, made her the troubled, impassioned woman she is when we first meet her; it also fractured her culture, leaving the Bajoran people insecure, jumpy, and overeager to prove themselves. (It also made them even more dependent on religion for cultural identity, which is something we’ll get into next week.) The technology on the station was designed by Cardassians, so every day going into work means dealing with a history that’s literally built into the scenery. Capturing someone from Gallittepp is a huge coup, not just for Kira but for the whole Bajoran race, because here is someone they can punish. That’s one of the ways we deal with those impossible situations: We decide who’s responsible, and then we hold them accountable, and we call it justice. It doesn’t bring back the dead, and it can’t ever change the past or clean off the blood, but it at least creates an illusion of continuity. This man did a bad thing, but now he’ll suffer the consequences. Thus a senseless act gains a structure. It is now its own story: victims, suffering, prosecution, catharsis. Once pain has been incorporated into a narrative, we’re on our way to processing it.

The drawback to this is that deep down, we know justice won’t change the past, and the only way to deal with that uncomfortable knowledge is to get angry. When we’re angry at someone, we aren’t sad about someone else, and that’s a relief; but the anger needs to be fed, and it needs a target, which puts us in the uncomfortable position of putting emotion ahead of judgement. To a certain extent, that’s what happens in “Duet.” As soon as Kira sees that Marritza is a Cardassian, she’s determined to see him back on Bajor to be tried for his crimes, but the situation doesn’t add up. Sisko has doubts, and while he’s sympathetic to Kira, he insists she follow due process. The Bajorans aren’t shy about putting the pressure on Sisko, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t bend or back down. It’s a trait he’s demonstrated convincingly throughout the first season. He’s reasonable, sympathetic, and open to discussion, but he will not be pushed into anything. At the same time, he can change his mind if given cause. Realizing it would be hard for Kira to maintain objectivity, Sisko initially puts Odo in charge of the Marritza investigation. But Kira pleads with him that she can follow procedure and be impartial as necessary, and that it’s important that a Bajoran should be handling what is, in a way, Bajoran business. Sisko agrees, and puts her in command. It’s an important step in their ongoing relationship, because he’s trusting her. He has every reason not to, and it’s not as though Kira has always presented herself as a model of poise and detachment. But for them to work together, he needs to allow her opportunities to prove herself. Trust only really means anything when it comes with a certain level of risk.

The heart of “Duet,” and the scenes which give the episode its name, are the conversations between Kira and the imprisoned Marritza. The Cardassian suspect is played by Harris Yulin (a character actor who has been a lot of TV and film; as someone on Twitter pointed out, he was the “hanging judge” in Ghostbusters 2), and the actor does a tremendous job in conveying a complex, often obscured personality without ever appearing inconsistent or vague. We don’t know the real truth about Marritza until the very end of the hour, but when the final reveal is made, everything building up to it makes sense. That’s partly due to some great writing (the episode has three credited contributors: Peter Allan Fields wrote the teleplay, and Lisa Rich and Jeanne Carrigan-Fauci provided the story), and partly due to Yulin. Guest stars have to create convincing, compelling characters in a very short period of time, and Yulin is immediately fascinating. He and Nana Visitor bounce off each other beautifully, and where other actors might have been too vague—playing Marritza’s obfuscation as opacity—Yulin is specific. There’s a strong sense from the start the character is hiding something, and Yulin uses this to draw in both us and Kira. He can’t be a simple file clerk, obviously. He has to have some secret so dark he can’t bear to let it go.

Marritza lies for most of the episode, and one of the reasons his interactions with Kira are so interesting is that his lies always feed into what she wants to hear. At first, he denies that he’s afflicted with Kalla-Nohra; he’s a simple file clerk, he has Pottrick Syndrome, they have similar symptoms, he’s being persecuted, etc. But Bashir runs a test that confirms the disease, so Marritza shifts to a new tactic. Yes, he was at Gallitepp, but he still was nothing but a file clerk. He had no part in any violence. He might have heard the occasional scream, but what of it? He argues that Gallitepp’s reputation as a Hell on Bajor was entirely fabricated by the camp’s director, Gul Darhe’el, in a brilliant propaganda move to put fear into the hearts of Bajorans everywhere. Given what Kira’s seen, this is obviously untrue, and when taken at their word, Marritza’s argument makes no sense: He claims it was easier to fake a slaughterhouse than it was to kill for real, and that doesn’t parse out. But what he’s saying doesn’t need to be believable, because he’s not saying it to persuade Kira to let him go. He tells these lies to needle her. First the denial of his own involvement, then the denial of the event itself, both falsehoods carefully constructed to drive a wounded idealist out of her mind with rage.

Besides, she wants him to be guilty—any sane person would. Imagine it’s just after the second World War, and you find a Nazi living next door. When you go to turn him in, would it be better if he was Himmler, head of the Gestapo and destroyer of thousands of lives, or Hans, the schmuck who kept his eyes down and made sure the reports were turned in on time? The greater the evil, the more satisfying the punishment; it even makes for a better story, because the former has drama, while the latter complicates the dilemma, forcing you to perform a sort of moral algebra with yourself as the main variable. I would never be a Himmler, or a Hitler, or any other powerful monster, because I lack the desire (and the capacity) for cruelty on such a grand scale. But I am also kind of a coward, and while I’d like to believe I’d stand up if the Nazis (or any other monstrous organization) took power, I don’t know for sure. So how do you punish someone for not being heroic? How can you get that catharsis, that grief-mollifying click, when the situation becomes more complex than “Good” versus “Really, really, really bad”?

Kira is convinced something is going on, so she (with some help from Odo and a few others) keeps digging. She eventually hits what must seem like pay dirt: An old photo of the camp reveals that Marritza is apparently lying about his identity. He’s no file clerk—he’s Gul Darhe’el in the flesh. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect outcome. When Kira confronts Marritza with her discovery, he switches from manipulative deceiver to bombastic demagogue, spouting off about the inferiority of the Bajoran race, how the people needed to be cleansed, and how he has no regrets. He’s spiteful, unashamed, and utterly despicable, providing Kira with the sort of ideal, ends-tied-neatly resolution one rarely finds in real life.

But it isn’t true. That would be too easy. Odo gets a call from Gul Dukat, and when he tells the Cardassian who they have in custody, Dukat is astonished. Darhe’el, he insists, is dead; he died years ago, and was buried with full military honors on Cardassia Prime. This puts Kira in a quandary. She has the evidence of her eyes, she has a prisoner who’s confessed to his crimes, and what’s more, she has that ache she needs to take care of. The want which is really just a need you pretend you can forestall. Because if the prisoner isn’t Darhe’el, not only is she robbed of immediate resolution, she and the Bajorans will never be able to bring the real butcher of Gallitepp into the light. If the real Darhe’el is dead, he died peacefully among his own people, who revere him as a war hero. His victims, the bodies “who moved too slowly and never moved again” won’t ever be at peace. Still, Kira has principles, and she know she has to find the truth. She works with Odo, and finally, they realize that Marritza can’t be Darhe’el. Darhe’el wasn’t at Gallitepp on the day of the accident which caused the Kalla-Nohra disease. So the Cardassian sitting in a cell on DS9 is someone else entirely. But who? And why would he pretend to be the Devil himself?

Going by the details, it’s a ridiculous twist: Marritza really was a file clerk at Gallitepp, and, haunted by the memory of the suffering and atrocities committed there, he decided to take extreme action. Believing a trial was the only way to bring Cardassian guilt to light, he surgically altered his face to look like Gul Darhe’el, and then travelled to DS9, where he knew Kira would recognize the implications of his Kalla-Nohra, and that she’d also persecute him with every means at her disposal. He then gave her a series of false stories, to make the “real” false story all the more convincing. It’s a plan worthy of a Bond villain, even if it was executed with the purest of intentions, and requires a significant suspension of disbelief. It works, though, mainly for two reasons: This is a science fiction show, and it’s okay if the details are a little ridiculous; and even if the plot itself is far-fetched, the core emotions driving it resonate strongly enough that nitpicking becomes irrelevant. “Duet” doesn’t argue that Marritza suffered worse than the Bajorans; it just suggests that the impact of a horrific crime goes beyond the fate of the victims. Marritza is not a bad man, and while it would be easy to judge him for standing by and letting others suffer, that would be forcing an expectation on him that we can’t fulfill ourselves. Kira’s final interrogation, as she gently, mercifully breaks down Marritza’s defenses, is a beautiful scene, and, for a few moments, there seems a possibility that the tragedy the two of them share might have an ending after all. Atrocities can, and will, occur, but it might be possible to find a way beyond them, to a world where such things might not happen again. Kira forgives Marritza for being imperfect. For being weak, and frightened, and alone. If she can do that, if she can feel compassion even under the weight of all she’s seen, maybe…

Oh wait. A Bajoran just murdered Marritza for being a Cardassian. Never mind, then.

Stray observations:

  • “Duet”’s only serious flaw is the ending. It manages to be both overly telegraphed (“Huh, I wonder why we keep seeing that pissed-off drunk guy?”) and completely out of left field. I understand wanting to shock the audience, and it’s possible to imagine this being effective, but it’s just a shade too bleak and manipulative. Thankfully the rest of the hour was so good, those last three minutes don’t matter.

Next week: Apologies for the off-format review, but I thought “Duet” deserved it’s own space. Next week, we’ll look at “In The Hands Of The Prophet,” and I’ll conjure up some general thoughts about the first season of DS9.

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