Probably not the Klingon. The Changeling would be a bad choice too. Ditto for the genetically engineered doctor, the three-hundred-year-old martial arts expert, or the guy who punched out Q. How about the little Bajoran first officer? No thanks, she’s been murdering Cardassians with ruthless efficiency while most girls her age were still into boy bands. Even the station’s tailor is a terrifying killing machine.
So, you think to yourself, there’s really only one choice. The station’s everyman. The doughy chief engineer, who looks like he might beat you at a hot dog eating competition, but never in a mano a mano duel to the death. It’s easy to fall into this manner of thinking about O’Brien even as a fan. After all, his main role on the series is to suffer. You’ve seen him beaten down so often you forget one important thing: O’Brien gets knocked around so much because he’s already done all the killing he cares to do in this life. He’s just too damn good at it.
Let’s look at O’Brien’s credentials, which are on display in this claustrophobic nightmare of an episode. Most famously, he’s the hero of Setlik III, which was the origin of his racism in the classic TNG episode “The Wounded.” He fought through the entire Federation-Cardassian war, gaining a dislike of Cardassians that never fully goes away, even as Kira’s grows more nuanced in episodes like “Duet,” “Second Skin,” and “Ties of Blood and Water.” In the early second season, he was singled out as one of only two DS9 command staff with combat experience (the other being Kira). Lastly, under oath, Worf acknowledged that not only is O’Brien an expert in combat situations, Worf has a deep respect for his opinions and experience in tactical matters.
It’s time to remind everyone of that.
This is one of my favorite O’Brien episodes, because it’s very different from most of the others, while preserving everything that’s appealing about the character. His rumpled, put-upon everyman persona is on display, as well as his paternalistic concern for Nog, and his fundamental nature as an engineer. O’Brien is a fixer. He sees the world as a series of problems, and if he can, he’s going to put them right. It’s a subtly powerful trait for a heroic character, and an enormously engaging way to make world-saving a blue collar enterprise. The episode opens, of course, with O’Brien’s longest simmering conflict: him vs. the station. Specifically, DS9’s plasma manifold is shot, and the Cardassian models defy replication. It’s an excuse to go on a salvage run to a neighboring station, Empok Nor, now abandoned. It’s the same model as DS9, so all they have to do is redress the sets and not hire any extras this week. Works for me.
Because Cardassians are essentially an entire race of Bond villains, they booby trap materiel they leave behind, and a lot of the time these traps are keyed to non-Cardassian DNA. No problem. There’s a friendly Cardassian on the station. The tailor-spy-assassin-saboteur-magnificent bastard Garak. He’ll go along, accompanying O’Brien, a couple of goldshirts, and Cadet Nog, getting used to this whole Starfleet thing.
They quickly learn that the Cardassians left a couple soldiers behind in stasis -- ones whose battalion motto is “Death to All” -- who were awakened when intruders set foot on the station. These guys weren’t just badasses. They were hopped up on a drug that enhances the xenophobic tendencies in Cardassians. A drug, incidentally, that Garak ends up exposed to in relatively short order. The soldiers trap the salvage crew on the station by blowing up their runabout, and then proceed to hunt the crew while Garak proactively hunts the soldiers back.
At first, O’Brien is set on creating a makeshift signal to DS9 to call for rescue. Then, he starts losing men to the Cardassians. First to the soldiers, who Garak stalks and coldly executes one at a time, and then to Garak, lost in the grips of the drug. Garak grows visibly more unhinged throughout the episode, but it’s worth noting he’s somewhat antagonistic toward O’Brien from the very beginning. While on the ride over to Empok Nor, he plays kotra, a Cardassian game, with Nog. While the Ferengi protects his assets and retreats, Garak scolds him for not being more bold. He tells O’Brien he’d much rather play against the hero of Setlik III. That man is all about bold moves.
As the drug erodes Garak’s pleasant veneer, you can see shades of the character revealed in season two’s “The Wire.” This Garak is frustrated by his straitjacketed existence. This Garak wants to play full contact kotra, where you know who wins by which guy is still alive at the end of the game. On the face of it, O’Brien is badly outmatched. Garak is a killer, and O’Brien is a chubby father of two. Yet two things work in his favor. The first is that the drug short-circuits Garak’s primary power: his caution. The second is that Garak is a problem and O’Brien is an engineer.
True to form, after enduring a vicious beating to save Nog, O’Brien incapacitates Garak with a simple phaser/tricorder bomb. They speak about it afterwards, while the tailor recovers in DS9’s infirmary, and Garak points out that had he been any closer, he would have been killed. O’Brien admits that was the idea. Garak understands.
Andrew Robinson, Garak’s actor, was not thrilled with this episode, as it played in the same territory as his defining role as the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry. While I don’t like to gainsay the man behind my favorite character, I do like this episode for Garak, almost entirely because of the first and last scenes. Large chunks of the middle aren’t really him, but the worst bits turned up to eleven with the knob broken off. But the end, when he has the conversation with O’Brien and expresses genuine regret over the one Starfleet man he murdered, this is the face of a half-reformed killer. He understands O’Brien’s attempt to kill him -- he’d have done the same thing, and for a moment, you can see he almost wishes it. It connects nicely with the first scene, which includes the episode’s quote.
This is one of my favorite aspects of Garak. He understands what a dangerous, amoral monster he is. Why can’t the people he cares about get that through their thick skulls? O’Brien is the one man who never forgot, because maybe O’Brien is the true badass on a station full of them.
Next up: Jake and Nog want the perfect baseball card.