[Blogged by Noah Burns]
This is the first installment in what will be a series of short, one-off reviews of some of my favorite episodes in the Star Trek universe. This series will include at minimum this review, a review of ‘The Menagerie’ from the original series, and a review of The Next Generation‘s ‘The Inner Light.’ Those are the episodes about which I definitely have something to say at present, but I hope this list will grow. These reviews will not impede the release of a new review for The Inside, which reviews have been few and far between lately. Rest assured, the ‘Point of Origin’ review will be coming soon (I know the internet is holding its breath). In the meantime, however, I am excited to post a few thoughts about Deep Space Nine‘s ‘The Wire,’ one of its finest episodes, a very high distinction.
[Deep Space Nine: ‘The Wire’]
En route to their regular lunch date, Garak and Dr. Bashir are discussing Cardassian literature. Bashir informs Garak of his distaste for The Neverending Sacrifice, a Cardassian novel that Garak claims to regard as “without a doubt the finest… ever written.” The two main problems with the book, according to Bashir, are that it’s repetitive and that its characters embody a false moral:
BASHIR: I just thought the story got a little redundant after a while. I mean the author’s supposed to be chronicling seven generations of a single family, but he tells the same story over and over again. All of his characters lead selfless lives of duty to the state, grow old and die. Then the next generation comes along and does it all over again.
GARAK: But that’s exactly the point, Doctor. The repetitive epic is the most elegant form of Cardassian literature, and The Neverending Sacrifice is it’s greatest achievement.
BASHIR: None of his characters ever really come alive, and there’s more to life than duty to the state.
GARAK: A Federation viewpoint if ever I heard one…
Garak goes on to accuse Bashing being a “prisoner of Federation dogma and human prejudice.” As Bashir begins to notice that Garak is pain, Garak attempts to deflect the conversation back towards literature, and tries to interest Bashir in a “more accessable” Cardassian novel. Nevertheless, Bashir persists. His attempt to deflect the conversation having failed, Garak changes tactics and hides his condition from Bashir by storming off in a prideful fit.
In these few lines, writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe has seeded the structure of the episode, as well as its themes and character insights into Garak. ‘The Wire’ takes its structure from what we are told about The Neverending Sacrifice, except it is a Cardassian novel told by Garak that is reformulated to appeal more to Bashir’s (and our) human prejudices. It is a repetitive epic, but instead of the same story repeated with different characters, in ‘The Wire’ Garak tells several different stories about the same character, himself. In the first story, Garak depicts himself as a character straight out of The Neverending Sacrifice: he was an obedient officer who fulfilled his duty to the state no matter the cost, and who was exiled only because of an accident of politics.
GARAK: During the occupation, I was a Gul in the Cardassian mechanized infantry. We were stationed just outside the Bajoran Capital. Shortly before the withdrawal, a handful of Bajoran prisoners escaped from my custody. My aide, a man named Elim, tracked them to a Cardassian shuttle about to depart for Terok Nor. Elim got aboard, but the captain refused to let him search the ship, because he claimed he was under strict orders from Gul Dukat to depart immediately. So I had the shuttle destroyed, killing the escapees, Elim, and ninety-seven Cardassian civilians.
BASHIR: You can’t be serious.
GARAK: I followed my orders. None of those prisoners escaped off of Bajor alive. Unfortunately, as it turned out, one of the passengers on the shuttle was the daughter of a prominent military official. I was stripped of my rank and commission, and exiled from Cardassia. So now you know, Doctor. I hope I haven’t shattered too many of your illusions.
In his first account, Garak is a good soldier, and more importantly, a good Cardassian. This behavior is horrifying to us and to Bashir, but typical of what we have come to expect of Cardassians. And that’s precisely why, if it were really the full story of Garak’s exile, it would be deeply disappointing. Not only do we want something with a bit more intrigue for an ambiguous character like Garak, but Garak does not strike us as a normal Cardassian. Garak doesn’t spend his time with Bashir discussing The Holy State or defending the occupation. No, he and Bashir discuss literature, fashion, art, and other worlds. In short, Garak is more complex than the standard Cardassian soldier on the show, and for his backstory to be so ordinarily Cardassian would be disappointing indeed. Fortunately, we cannot take this first account at face value. After turning off the implant, Garak experiences withdrawal symptoms, and gives us a similar story, but with a completely different ending.
BASHIR: You mean when you had that shuttle shot down to stop those prisoners from escaping?
GARAK: Stop them? I only wish that I had stopped them.
BASHIR: You didn’t?
GARAK: No, Doctor, my disgrace was worse than that. Unimaginably worse.
BASHIR: What could you have possibly done worse than that?
GARAK: I let them go. It was the eve of the Cardassian withdrawal. Elim and I were interrogating five Bajorans. They were children, Doctor. None of them were older than fourteen years old. They knew nothing. They lived in bombed-out rooms, scrounged for food on the streets; they were filthy and they stank. The room was freezing cold, the air was like ice, and suddenly the whole exercise seemed utterly meaningless. All I wanted was a hot bath and a good meal. So I let them go. I gave them whatever latinum I had in my pockets, and opened the door, and flung them back into the street. Elim couldn’t believe his eyes. He looked at me as if I were insane.
BASHIR: You took pity on those children. There’s nothing wrong with that.
GARAK: No! I was a fool! I should’ve finished the interrogation and turned them over to the troops for execution. But because I was chilly and my stomach was growling, I failed in my duty and destroyed everything I had worked for.
There are a number of interesting moments in this account. First, let me say that Andrew Robinson knocks this scene out of the park. His acting is excellent throughout, but he’s really phenomenal in this scene. Now, I’m particularly interested in the discrepancy between Garak and Bashir’s interpretations of why Garak let the prisoners go. Garak claims twice that it was solely because he was hungry and, in particular, because he was cold. Earlier in the episode, when Garak is telling Bashir that living on Deep Space Nine as a human outpost is torture for him, one of the principal reasons he gives is that “the temperature is always too cold.” The Cardassians, as a reptilian species, prefer a warm environment. And it is in precisely this moment of coldness on Bajor that Garak’s reptilian, Cardassian side gives way to something else. Although he cannot say it, and though he would blame his lapse solely on his own physical discomfort, I believe that Bashir is right about Garak: he had pity for the Bajoran children. Now, whether the details of this story have anything to do with real events from Garak’s life, I think we can glean something about Garak’s character from them. Even if it is a lie, Garak is telling Bashir this particular lie for a reason. And I think Bashir has hit on what Garak is telling him, whether Garak means to or not (one must always qualify endlessly with respect to Garak): there is a part of Garak that has always been not Cardassian. Garak possesses many thoroughly Cardassian traits: sly intelligence, wit, aggressiveness, and the instinct for killing. But what he lacks, I think is this: the ability to subordinate his conscience to authority. When Garak is describing the hell of his life on Deep Space Nine, he also mentions the loathing and contempt of the Bajorans on the station. Other Cardassians have remarked on this, and many more of them will remark on it in the future. But none have been bothered by it in quite the way that Garak is. I believe his story about taking pity on the orphans is telling us why: he feels bad about the occupation. The part of him that is just a little bit not-Cardassian will not allow him to swallow his conscience out of respect for or siple obedience to the decisions of the state For most Cardassians, at least most Cardassians we’ve seen (the major exception, of course, being Marizza), the empire was doing what was necessary for its preservation, and any feelings of guilt are assuaged by the knowledge that the soldiers were just following orders. They were doing their duty. Garak cannot do this.
The second major point I want to make about this retelling is about Elim. In the first telling of the story, Garak had the shuttle destroyed, killing his aide. From my first viewing of this episode, I assumed that Elim was more than Garak’s aide from the very first story. Why mention by name someone unimportant to him personally? We learn from Tain at the end of the episode that Elim is Garak’s first name. I read this as an invitation to see Elim as a part of Garak in Garak’s stories. I see Elim as representing the part of Garak that is thoroughly Cardassian. In the first story, we see Elim fulfilling the life plan set out by The Neverending Sacrifice: he dies a noble death in service to the state, a death that Garak does not get to have. Despite having done his duty, Garak is exiled from Cardassia. I see this as a metaphor: in killing Elim according to his duty, Garak has exiled himself from his Cardassian half. In other words, the Garak in the story, who represents the not-Cardassian part of Garak, becomes separated from Elim, the Cardassian side of Garak, because of acts like the one Garak describes: a crime in service of the state. As the second story shows us, eventually Garak can no longer commit crimes in service to the state. The part of him that allows him to do this has been destroyed. Elim is present in the second story, but entirely ineffectual: he stands there, simply confused and appalled by Garak’s act of conscience. The cold representing Garak’s isolation from Cardassian society, and internally, his isolation from his Cardassian side, descends on Garak. Garak’s exile from Cardassia deepens.
Now we come to the third story. After nearly dying, Garak regains consciousness enough to tell Bashir one more story about his exile. He labels this one, ‘The Truth’:
GARAK: You’ve done enough, Doctor. More than I deserve. There’s something you have to know.
BASHIR: What’s that?
GARAK: The truth.
BASHIR: I’ve about given up on learning the truth from you, Garak.
GARAK: Don’t give up on me now, Doctor. Patience has its rewards. Now listen carefully. Elim wasn’t my aide, he was my friend. We grew up together. We were closer than brothers. For some reason, Enabran Tain took a liking to us. Before long, we were both powerful men in the Obsidian Order. They called us the Sons of Tain. Even the Guls feared us. And then there was a scandal. Someone in the Order was accused of letting some Bajoran prisoners escape. There were constant rumors of who was going to be implicated. Fingers were being pointed at me. By then Tain had retired to the Arawath Colony. He couldn’t protect me. So I panicked: I did everything in my power to make sure that Elim was accused instead of me. I altered records, planted evidence, only to discover that he’d beaten me to it.
BASHIR: He betrayed you first?
GARAK: Elim destroyed me. Before I knew what was going on, I was sentenced to exile. And the irony is, I deserved it. Oh, not for the reasons they claimed, but because of what I had tried to do to Elim, my best friend.
Reading this with the metaphorical filter I outlined above, I see this as Garak describing his feelings about his exile. His act of conscience, whether he really let any prisoners go or not, was intolerable to Cardassian society. As an act of conscience, it exulted the autonomy of the individual, both the moral agent and the those he saved through his moral act, over the state. It was a declaration that there is something more important than duty to the state, which, as Garak told us at the beginning of the episode, is a thoroughly un-Cardassian sentiment. Now, in response to this scandal, both Elim and Garak implicate each other. I see this as a metaphor for Garak’s self-doubt and internal conflict. His Cardassian side points the finger at his conscience, and tries to have it exiled. Garak’s political misfortune is blamed on his non-Cardassian side, which his Cardassian side tries to have exiled from his personality. Meawhile his conscience tries to blame his reptilian brain, the animal part of him, represented in the fact that Garak attributes his act of conscience in the second story to his being hungry and cold. If his conscience can place the blame for his un-Cardassian action on his reptilian, Cardassian side, then he can keep his conscience and still feel connected to Cardassia, which he does love. Unfortunately, he can’t deny his conscience. Elim “destroys” him by having him sent into exile. In metaphor, his Cardassian side “exiles” his conscience, opening up a rift inside Garak that he has not been able to close since. This is the root of Garak’s problem. He is not only physically exiled, he is emotionally and psychologically exiled from his home, his people, and the person he used to be, and which part of him still wants to be. Garak says that his exile is “deserved” for what he had tried to do to Elim. I think Garak feels guilt over his isolation from Cardassia. He still wants to be Elim. But he also feels guilt over still wanting to be that person. Garak is saying that he deserves exile from Cardassia for having acted like a Cardassian! These wonderful character insights will be expanded into the brilliant season three two-parter, ‘Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast.’
All of this insight into Garak’s problems makes me appreciate the drug addiction metaphor. Garak’s drug habit is a way for him to cope with the extreme isolation that he feels: he can’t get past it by simply making friends because he is divided internally. The only thing that will distract him from the conflict inside of him is pleasure produced by turning on his implant. That it is malfunctioning is, of course, a metaphor for the negative effects of drug use. But I think it also represents the temporary nature of the solution: the implant, just like the liquor from Quark and the pain medication he takes in his quarters, is only a balm. It does nothing to resolve the internal dichotomy that is tearing him apart. Garak and Bashir also refer to the implant as a punishment device. Garak is being punished by his guilt, both for, at least metaphorically, letting the prisoners go, and for stopping them. The forgiveness he asks from Bashir at the end is for both Elim and for Garak.
I also love what this episode tells us about the friendship between Garak and Bashir. In the scene right after the opening credits, Dax and Bashir are talking about Bashir’s friendship with Garak while Bashir is tending to a dying plant. (The plant is also a metaphor for Garak, and Bashir’s solution to the plant’s problems will be his solution to Garak’s, both plot-wise and in metaphor.) Bashir says that Garak won’t tell him what is wrong with him because of his “Cardassian pride.” It is understandable that Bashir would place the blame on a particularly Cardassian fault of Garak’s, given the details of their argument in the opening scene. Bashir was unable to understand or connect to the Cardassian novel Garak lent him, which makes him fear that he won’t be able to connect to the Cardassian side of Garak at all, which Bashir perhaps sees as the whole. Dax reinforces this fear by saying that he and Garak aren’t really friends. Later in the episode, Garak will insult Bashir’s “Federation sympathy,” and claim that Bashir doesn’t know him at all. He even tells Bashir that he hates him. But what we learn about Garak in this episode is that he isn’t all Cardassian. Even in his withdrawal fueled rage at Bashir, Garak tells Bashir that he really did look forward to and enjoy his lunches with Bashir. As much as he wants to deny it in that moment, there is something about Bashir that Garak likes. We have already seen what that something is. The part of Garak that does not fit in Cardassia, the part of him that took pity on those children, is drawn to Bashir’s human sympathy. Part of Garak agrees with Bashir about the tedium and meaninglessness of obedience to the state. In his own life, he rebelled against it on moral grounds, because of his sympathy for Bajoran children (or something like that). But the pain of his exile is causing him to hate that in himself. He blames his human conscience for his isolation and his pain, and so projects that internal anger onto Bashir.
So why is Bashir drawn to Garak? Well, as we learned from Bashir’s first appearance on the show, he is wants to be on the frontier, roughing it, exploring. He is bold, assertive, and maybe even a little dangerous. Tain remarks on these qualities when Bashir comes to see him. Perhaps there is just a little Cardassian in Bashir after all. There is a bit of Garak in Bashir, and a bit of Bashir in Garak. (Which is just what the internet has always wanted, by the way. You’re welcome.)
The friendship between these two, and the deeper understanding they now have of each other, of their similarities and their differences, addresses the root of Garak’s problem. Their friendship is much more therapeutic than Garak’s implant could ever be.
‘The Wire’ is a wonderful example of the best aspects of both Star Trek in general and Deep Space Nince in particular. Star Trek has always used alien races to discuss humanity, and ‘The Wire’ does this brilliantly, using Garak’s internal conflict and some beautiful metaphors to illuminate complex human phenomena like isolation, self-doubt, drug use, the conflict between self and society, the formation of conscience and moral values, and the nature of friendship. Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, excels all other Star Trek shows at character insight, layered storytelling, and use of structure to tell its stories. Here, Wolfe uses a brilliant narrative device to combine deep human insights with psychological exploration of characters we care about and drama. ‘The Wire’ is a brilliant, beautiful example of television as art.