“Tacking Into The Wind” (season 7, episode 22; originally aired 5/12/1999)
In which Worf does what needs to be done…
You want to talk about call-backs? “Tacking Into The Wind” features the semi-resolution of a plotline that’s been a mainstay of the Trek-verse for years; it goes back, in fact, all the way to the first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Heart Of Glory.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that what happens in “Tacking Into The Wind” had been planned from the start. I highly doubt it had, and the idea that television storytelling needs to have everything set in stone before the first episode begins is a pernicious, harmful fallacy. But “Heart Of Glory,” which was TNG’s first real attempt to give Worf more to do than glowering, introduced the concept of a Klingon Empire torn between the dictates of its warrior culture, and a slow, inevitable shift towards peace.
This conflict, and the way it allowed for an increasingly corrupt central government (in that Klingons were so eager to believe they could still be their old conquering selves that they’d put up with just about anything from their rulers), defined Worf’s arc through both TNG and Deep Space Nine. And in this episode, it finally peaks as Worf, sick of Gowron’s bad leadership and petty jealousies, challenges the chancellor to a duel to the death.
As arc closure go, it’s more of a “Oh, nice” than a grand operatic conclusion, but it’s still thrilling to see DS9 do its best to close things out on a high note. Worf’s earlier conversation with Ezri (a conversation which inspires him to eventually challenge Gowron after Martok refuses to do it himself) allows the counselor to put as neat a bow on the situation as you might like; and while Ezri’s short summation of the situation could’ve played as an over-simplification, it comes across instead as a gratifying moment of clarity, for both Worf and the audience.
The Klingon Empire is dying. Empires tend to do that, especially if they can’t adapt. As brave and passionate and frequently entertaining as Klingons can be, “adaptation” isn’t their strong suit. After all of Worf’s efforts to hold back the inevitable, Ezri forces him to face the truth. Gowron is a symptom of a deeper problem. Dealing with him, as satisfying as that is, will only delay the inevitable; the Empire needs a leader who is capable of bringing his people together and working with outsiders towards a new future. Martok, with his low-born blood and all-around awesomeness, should fit the bill quite nicely.
The Klingons aren’t the only empire struggling to rebrand itself. “Tacking Into The Wind” also pushes the conflict between Kira and the Cardassians to a head, and the results are more optimistic than one might expect. The episode as a whole shows the benefit of all the build-up that came before it, as for the most part we’re able to cut to the heart of a crisis without needing to spend much time establishing the conflicts. We already know that Martok is frustrated and Gowron is insane, because we saw evidence of that in previous episodes; when Worf decides to take matters into his own hands, it’s a culmination of conflict that’s been around for longer than just this week. Similarly, the tension between Kira and Rusot has been well-established, and while that led to a sort of stasis in previous episodes, it means that when Rusot finally confronts Kira and makes the mistake of laying a hand on her, it plays as inevitable, and not forced.
Also helpful is how this episode establishes the real reason for Kira’s work. Defeating the Dominion is the top priority, and her strategy and advice are key to establishing Damar’s forces as an effective guerilla fighting team. But there’s a question of what happens to Cardassia after the Dominion leaves, a question that hadn’t really come up at all until Garak mentions it. Rusot, with his instant distrust of Kira and stubborn refusal to change, represents the old ways; cleverly enough, most of his objections are understandable (he doesn’t want to risk Cardassian lives, and he’s frustrated when Kira criticizes a successful mission for an obvious mistake), but the contempt which drives them isn’t. In the little we’ve seen of Cardassian leadership (Dukat and the Obsidian Order among others), there’s an investment in domination and control which can’t go forward if the society wants to thrive.
This has all been such an inherent part of the Cardassian culture on the show that it never even occurred to me that it could change. But then, that’s the hallmark of a great plot development, especially one that moves in the direction of optimism over pessimism. Damar’s decision to finally stand up for himself and for his people has sparked a wave of reform in his soul that would’ve seemed utterly impossible a season ago, and it’s impressive just how well the show manages to sell the idea that he might ultimately be able to make things better. It doesn’t hurt that Garak is the first person to mention the idea. The tailor might not be the most trustworthy character on the show, but he knows (and loves) Cardassia as well as anyone, and when he tells Kira that Damar might be the last chance his people have left for a future, the statement carries weight.
Garak’s words come after a short confrontation between Damar and Kira, one which sets up the episode’s climax. After learning that his family has been murdered by the Dominion (he had a wife? Huh), Damar is shocked into wondering what kind of people would give such orders, would target innocents in a perverted attempt to enforce “justice.” Kira, unable to stop herself, says, “Yeah, Damar, what kind of people give those orders.” It’s not a question.
This is the first acknowledgement between the two that Kira still remembers Ziyal’s murder, and even behind that, there’s the memory of all those years of Cardassian occupation behind her words. It’s a tense moment, as even Kira wonders if she may have gone too far, but it’s a necessary one. To fight and win against the Dominion is good and necessary goal, but if there’s a chance for something more than that, it’s worth striving for. Where before, Kira work with Damar and Rusot had seemed more designed to force her into close contact with people she despised, here the episode reveals the true purpose of the arc all along. Kira isn’t there to suffer, or even learn any lessons (unless she’s learning that even someone like Damar can change). She’s there to offer Damar a chance to recognize the mistakes and horrors of the past, and perhaps make it possible for something better to arise.
All of this comes to a head when Kira, Damar, Garak, Rusot, and Odo attempt steal a Breen ship. It’s a well-constructed suspense sequence (predictably, things go well right up until the moment when they nearly fall apart completely) that’s notable for two reasons: one, Rusot’s sudden, disastrous decision to end Kira’s involvement in the cause; and two, Odo’s collapse. The latter incident gives Odo and Kira a few nice moments together, but it’s the former that offers as a decisive a conclusion to Damar’s internal struggles as we’re likely to get. Rusot pulls a phaser on Kira; Garak pulls a phase on Rusot; and Damar, after hearing arguments from both sides, shoots Rusot. “He was my friend,” he explains, “but his Cardassia is dead and won’t be coming back.”
It’s as upbeat as a scene that ends in murder can be, although it’s tied for that status with Worf’s fight against Gowron. After having been such an important (if mostly unseen) part of the Klingon government for so long, it’s a little surprising to see Gowron go down, but it works, largely for the reasons stated at the beginning of this review (you can check if you like, I’ll wait); Worf deciding he has to take a stand is a pay-off that’s been a long time coming, and those few seconds in which he wears Gowron’s robe are thrilling stuff. But Worf has learned some valuable lessons over the years, and his decision to hand leadership over to Martok is also a culmination of a sort. Worf realizes that however much he might want it, he is not the man to bring his people together. Once again, he sacrifices personal glory for the sake of his people. There’s a lot of nobility floating around this week, and it’s notable that DS9 manages to make so much of it authentically inspiring.
- Garak is stays in the shadows for the most part, as his wont, but every scene he’s in is a great one. It’s fascinating how his history with both Odo and Kira affects their scenes together without the anyone ever feeling a need to remind us of that history directly. As much as I love Trek’s spirit of togetherness and cooperation, there’s something to be said for subtextual tension.
- Odo’s condition is so bad that I was very tempted to look up his fate online. I’m glad I didn’t, as it gets resolved in the very next episode. But it seems like a legitimately possibility that a member of the main cast might die before the end, which is not something I would’ve said while watching TNG. I don’t know if that in and of itself makes this a better show, but it does make watching these last few hours considerably more intense.
- Goodbye, Gowron! Ole Bug Eyes will be missed, I guess. I mean, in theory. You were a mediocre leader and a weasely bastard, but Robert O’Reilly made the most out of the character. His delivery of “He’s expected to survive” was one of the best laughs of the episode.
- Kira and the others got hold of a Breen weapon! So, y’know, keep that in mind.
- The Female Changeling orders Weyoun to fill Dominion shipyards with Cardassian civilians, so that Damar’s resistance will be forced to kill innocents in their effort to rebel. Yeah, she’s a sweetheart. (She also informs the current Weyoun that he’ll be executed as soon as the cloning facilities can be rebuilt. He did not appear to take this very well.)
“Extreme Measures” (season 7, episode 23; originally aired 5/19/1999)
In which Bashir and O’Brien go full Dreamscape…
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention O’Brien or Bashir once in my review of the previous episode. They certainly have scenes in it. And they’re good scenes, too! Very banter-y. But the majority of the Bashir/O’Brien action is in this week’s second episode, which is the closest thing to a standalone that we’ve had in quite some time. Not only does the hour stick with one story, and tell that story largely through the perspective of its two leads, but the whole thing feels rather charmingly old school: a mind-fuck plot about the intrepid doctor and his faithful engineer companion (feel free to reverse this if you like) and their efforts to find a cure to Odo’s disease by linking electronically with the contents of Sloan’s dying brain.
DS9 has run stories like this before. Not this specifically, sure, but the sort of dream logic and mind games Bashir and O’Brien have to endure before finding their way to the truth have a pleasingly familiar ring, right down to the “Wait, what if we aren’t actually out of the program?” twist. In the past, this predictability could’ve been a little tiresome, even with O’Brien and Bashir at the helm. With everything else that’s been going on, giving up so much screentime to two characters could’ve seemed like a waste of time. But it doesn’t come across that way.
Partly this is because the stakes are very high throughout, if not for O’Brien and Bashir (they’re technically in danger of dying if they stay inside Sloan’s head for too long, but c’mon), then for Odo. Along with everything else it did well, “Tacking Into The Wind” did a fine job of establishing just how sick Odo was, and doing it in such a way where it legitimately seemed possible that the constable might die. “Extreme Measures” reinforces this possibility by sticking Odo in what looks like an open coffin, giving him a tearful goodbye with Kira, and then having Bashir telling him he has a week, maybe two, left to live. It can be difficult for a show to try and generate extended suspense from a threat to a major character—spend too long on the threat, and it becomes comical, but end it too easily, and it becomes that much harder a trick to play down the line. But given how close we are to the series finale, it seemed all too possible that Odo might succumb.
That gives us a very good reason to care about what Bashir and O’Brien are doing, and the episode also does a good job of establishing why they have to do it. Bashir’s genetically enhanced brilliance makes him potentially the only person in the universe who might have worked out a cure on his own, but even he needs time to work in, and Odo doesn’t have any time left. So O’Brien comes up with a cunning plan: Bashir can send a message to Starfleet saying he’s found a cure, even though he hasn’t; Section 31, panicking that the cure might fall into the hands of the Changelings and ruin their plans, will have to send an operative to the station to destroy whatever Bashir’s discovered.
It’s devious, and there’s something a tad uncomfortable about how quickly both Bashir and O’Brien latch onto the plan, and how they ultimately carry it out. The episode doesn’t really offer any overt commentary on their behavior one way or the other (outside of Sisko doing his exasperated dad routine), but while I certainly don’t like either character less than I did, I do think it’s intentional that the choices they make be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. We are informed at least twice that the Romulan mind scanners that Bashir obtains to dig the truth out of the Section 31 operative’s brain are illegal; and if you remove the sci-fi trappings, Bashir and O’Brien are basically trying a form of torture, albeit one that keeps their hands largely clean.
That’s the danger of trying to fight someone like Sloan. The tactics he has at his disposal seemingly require you to meet them with similar tactics of your own. It’s very satisfying to see the look on the bastard’s face when Bashir gets the drop on him. (Sloan makes the mistake of trying that appearing-in-the-bedroom trick, and Bashir is ready for him.) Sadler does a good job of showing what it might be like for someone like Sloan to be in a position where the control and detachment he depends on to do his “work” are no longer available. But there’s something pathetic about him too. Not in a way that makes him sympathetic, but he’s at least human. When Sloan chooses to kill himself rather than let the cure to Odo’s sickness fall into the wrong hands (ie not his), he’s operating under the grip of a kind of perverse idealism. He believes in his cause, right up until the end, and that’s what made him dangerous.
The other reason why this episode works, I think, is because it plays a bit like an homage to similar episodes in the past; episodes which were maybe never quite as clever as the writers wanted them to be, but which still, in their silly, dreamy, occasionally twisted, belong to the heart of what Trek is. This is a franchise about exploration, after all, and while DS9 chose to do its exploring from a political and social perspective more than frontier one, it still found time to poke into people’s brains to try and figure out what makes them tick. I’m not sure what’s in store for us in the final (sob) three hours, but it’s entirely possible that this the last real crazy sci-fi premise we’re going to get before the end. Maybe the Breen will turn out to be something special, maybe we’ll get some technobabble; I have no doubt the Prophets will return, and we still have to deal with that Pah-Wraith craziness. But this could very well be the end of a certain kind of loopiness for the show, so that makes me inclined to view it more kindly.
Even if I wasn’t so inclined, it is all pretty clever. The scene of “good” Sloan giving a speech to his extended family about how sorry he is that he let them all down is the sort of thing that takes a good actor to pull off, and Sadler handles it quite well; the twist that Sloan tricks Bashir and O’Brien into thinking they’re out of his mind lasts long enough to be convincing (although the fact that it’s Sisko and Worf who “rescue” them, not Sisko and Ezri, is a good clue); and the final confrontation in Sloan’s brain office, as Bashir tries to collect all the information on Section 31 he can while the walls shake and fall around them, is a fine climax.
There’s also time (a lot of it) for Bashir and O’Brien to banter, which is just fine by me. As great as the story has been these final weeks (and whatever my complaints, it has been great), the characters are what I’m going to miss the most. That’s always the way it is with the shows we love the most. It’s not grand opera or tragedy, but Bashir and O’Brien arguing over whether or not O’Brien likes Bashir more than he likes his wife.. that’s just kind of perfect, y’know? Section 31 remains at large, though Sloan is gone for good, and that’s not really a surprise; organizations like Section 31 don’t ever stay down for long. But the ending is hopeful nonetheless. Odo is saved (and that shot of him returning himself was delightful), and Bashir and O’Brien are still best friends forever. That’ll do just fine.
- I like how both O’Brien and Bashir are necessary to beat Sloan’s brain: Bashir sees through the “we’re still in his head” trick, and O’Brien makes Bashir let go of his need to have all the answers.
- Bashir tells O’Brien that he loves Ezri; later, when he sees Ezri while still a bit groggy, he tells her she’s beautiful. They’re just going to drag this one out till the end, aren’t they.
- Unless the whole scenario was a lie (which is entirely possible), Sloan’s first name was “Luther.”
- No Dukat or Kai Winn this week! I didn’t even realize they were missing until I sat down to write the review.
Next week: Thanks to the keen eyes of various commenters, we’re going to adjust for the finale—next week, I’ll be looking at “The Dogs Of War” alone; and then, the week after that, it’s “What You Leave Behind,” and the tears will flow.