While I tend to place the tipping point of DS9’s quality in the third season (I’m a Bald Sisko guy.), it’s undeniable that DS9 is a far more consistent show right from the start of the second season. That three-parter was the first of its kind, and though it’s not the long-form serialization that has become expected for all shows, it was a creative risk at the time that paid dividends. Of course, for someone like me, there is no surer barometer of the show’s quality that the presence of Garak. Plain, simple Garak.
Remember him? He popped up in the second episode, the enigmatic Cardassian tailor, the possible spy and probable exile, who came out of nowhere like some Manic Pixie Dream Cardassian to creepily give Bashir a taste of his own sexually harassing medicine and uncover a plot between the Duras Sisters and some Bajoran terrorists? Played by Andrew Robinson (no relation), the man who gave us the Scorpio Killer and ad-libbed “Jesus wept” in Hellraiser? When I watched this for the first time back in 1993 (presumably wearing like, all the flannel), I figured that would be it for him. I wanted him back. He was such a singular presence, filled with promise, that it seemed like a crime not to bring him back. Then, a season went by and nothing.
Until this week. Garak is back, baby! And, he’s just as maddeningly mysterious as ever! He runs into Bashir at the replimat, and the conversation establishes that the two have remained uneasy friends -- well, uneasy for Bashir, Garak is as cordial and gregarious as ever. Bashir hangs on to his conviction that Garak is a spy while the latter deflects and dissembles. This comes to a halt when a Bajoran man comes in leading an eight-year-old Cardassian child, who is clearly wearing a Bajoran earring. Garak goes over to creepily say hi (It’s tough for Garak to do anything without seeming just the tiniest bit creepy, almost like he’s measuring the world’s inseam all at once and really liking what he sees.), and the boy freaks out. Terrified, he bites Garak on the hand.
Turns out the boy, Rugal, is a Cardassian war orphan, left behind on Bajor after the evacuation and adopted by native Bajorans, A disturbingly common phenomenon, it’s doubly worse because these kids have the faces of the oppressors but none of the crimes. They live in orphanages, and occasionally get adopted into Bajoran families, but the degree of acceptance varies. Rugal appears to be one of the lucky ones, and though allegations from a third party (who quickly vanishes) claim abuse, Rugal and his father profess to love one another. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the dad from telling Rugal all the awful s--t the Cardassians got up to, leaving Rugal with an intense loathing and crippling fear for his biological species.
While the investigation happens, Rugal is placed with Keiko O’Brien, by the logic that she’s the schoolteacher and won’t let him fall into the the station’s shark tank or whatever. They forgot (or don’t know) that nobody hates Cardassians like Chief O’Brien, and he promptly flips out when he learns that Keiko allowed the boy to play with toddler Molly. “Gentleness was bred out of them a long time ago,” he hisses to Keiko, and that might be the most racist thing any heroic character has ever said on Star Trek. I love it, because it once again shows that these people are not boring, cardboard supermen, but real people with flaws, and that O’Brien has a damned good reason for hating the Cardassians. O’Brien spends his time bonding with Rugal to the point that by the end of the episode, if Twitter existed, O’Brien might start up a NotAllCardassians hashtag. In Rugal, he learns that the root isn’t biology, and if Cardassians would just act like proper civilized Bajorans, Chief would be cool with them. Okay, it’s not the most enlightened thing in the world, but come on. Cardassians are basically North Korea, but competent.
Something is not right. Immediately after Rugal bit Garak, and literally moments after Bashir tells the story to Sisko, Gul Dukat calls about the incident and expresses terrible concern over the plight of war orphans. Somehow, he knows all about it. When Bashir tells Garak (who thinks it’s very funny that Dukat mentioned they were friendly), he asks Bashir what single trait best defines the Cardassians. Bashir is a nice guy, so he doesn’t say, “terrifying genocidal police state,” and instead just stammers. Garak cites an attention to detail. Yeah, sure, let’s go with that. He points out that Dukat himself was in charge of the evacuation, so if he wanted to do something about war orphans, he could have done it then.
Dukat, with a DNA sample forwarded by Bashir, quickly identifies Rugal as the presumed-dead child of a prominent politician. The boy was believed to have been killed in a terrorist bombing. This same leader, Kotan Pa’Dar, was one of those who ordered the evacuation, which had the side effect of damaging Dukat’s career. Garak likes this even less (though how he learns about it is kept murky) and embarks on a search through the records, dragging along a baffled Dr. Bashir. Garak is utterly absorbed in his task, affecting his cheerful persona of affable tailor wherever they go. In the best moment of the episode, Garak speaks to the woman in charge of the orphanage where Rugal lived, asking her about when he was brought in. “I wouldn’t know . . . I was in the Underground then,” she growls in a plain threat to her Cardassian guest. Garak brightens with apparently sincere pleasure, “Really? Perhaps we have met!”
It comes down to a question of culture. To a Cardassian, and this is explained by Pa’Dar when he comes to the station, the family is paramount. To abandon one’s children is the ultimate disgrace. If it comes out that he did this, his career is over. Garak and Bashir uncover the fact that Rugal was brought to the orphanage by a Cardassian military officer (normally Bajorans would do this), and it’s Bashir who breaks the story in Rugal’s custody hearing while a beaming Garak stands behind him, a figurative devil on his shoulder. As Dukat’s composure begins showing a few cracks, it becomes more obvious that this was a ploy -- a pretty damn deep one at that -- for Dukat to destroy a political rival. And, never forget this, Dukat was willing to destroy the life of a child for that. As personable as he is, always remember he has fangs.
Sisko, chosen as arbiter by both Rugal’s Bajoran and Cardassian fathers, ultimately decides to return Rugal to Cardassia. To the show’s credit, there were no easy answers. Rugal’s Bajoran father seemed like a good guy, and there was no evidence of abuse. He was just really, really racist when it came to Cardassians. The nicest thing about Rugal he could say was that the boy wasn’t Cardassian anymore. Pa’Dar was the most sympathetic Cardassian we’ve seen thus far, a grieving father delighted to hear that his son was still alive. Did Commander Sisko make the right decision? I have no idea, but that’s the man’s job. Make tough decisions and live with them, and Sisko has to deal with consequences more than any other Trek captain before or since.
Bashir and Garak end with a conversation, the doctor still naively flummoxed about what the hell just happened. Garak teases him, pointing out that if he wants to know, the evidence is all around. One only need look. Bashir just looks confused. Poor guy. Tailors are weird.
Next up: Bashir finds someone else to sleaze on.