The Cardassian Occupation of Bajor was used by the writers as a simple shorthand. Any atrocity ever inflicted upon a populace on Earth had an analogue. While the bulk of the inspiration was Nazi Germany -- and remember, this was a Nazi Germany that lasted for fifty years in what amounted to Planet Israel -- you could quite easily find examples of horror stories from whatever oppressed group you most identified with. There were times the Cardassians were Nazis, times when they were British colonialists in Ireland or India, times when they were the United States crushing the Native Americans under a bootheel. The point is, the Cardassians were such big assholes, there’s not really a curse world strong enough to describe them that doesn’t come off as reductive.
And Odo used to work for them.
This was pointed out way back in the third episode, when an angry mob of Bajorans decided they no longer wanted a shapeshifting former Cardassian stooge policing them. It is a little weird when you think about it. Odo was the chief of station security under the Cardassians, and when the Bajorans took over, he kept his job. The story is that Odo was above it all, that his only master was justice. (Go ahead, picture him in a Batman costume.) But the Occupation was so bad, the Cardassian justice system so Orwellian, it beggared belief that he would not be sullied in some way.
That’s what this episode is all about. Sisko, Dax, Odo, and Garak are returning from a conference on Bajor about the Occupation. Garak is whining because what he thought was going to be a spirited debate about fifty years of horror was actually what you’d expect from a conference on Bajor about an Occupation that ended only five years ago. Garak is like one of those guys who lunges into a debate on Facebook saying they’re going to play Devil’s advocate, and then proceeds to act like Satan himself has them on a payroll. Garak is utterly mystified at how the Bajorans couldn’t see that there are two sides to everything.
Garak’s racism is front and center in his characterization in this episode, and you know what? That’s a good thing. Not racism itself, which is terrible, but that they would be willing to give a popular character like Garak so odious a flaw. There’s a tendency for writers to insulate their pet characters from foibles they would logically have, and the idea of a Cardassian in this age not having certain regressive opinions would be unlikely. So, as unpleasant as Garak is when he opines that Bajorans are naturally servile (while allowing that Major Kira is an exception), it’s a triumph of good character writing.
On the way back to the station, the four in the runabout pass out and wake up to find themselves on the station seven years ago. This isn’t quite time travel, as their unconscious bodies are still in the present. Wisely, the writers make sure to add a “if you die in the dream, you die in real life” moment when Garak gets a spontaneous nosebleed after trauma suffered in the past. The time travel, or dream, or whatever it is, is remarkably real. The four of them are treated as Bajorans in the past, sort of like the segment of the Twilight Zone that killed Vic Morrow. At first, it feels like a lesson for Garak. This is your good and orderly Occupation.
In actual fact, things center around Odo. From the start, the constable is jittery. He keeps seeing the apparitions of murdered men on the Promenade. When the crew scans themselves to determine their dream identities, Odo is able to correctly guess the name of the third man. Eventually, he comes clean: Sisko, Garak, and Odo have assumed the identities of three Bajorans who were wrongly executed for the attempted assassination of Gul Dukat.
Dukat himself appears as the man near the height of his powers, but he cuts a strangely pathetic figure. He has Dax brought to his office, and for a moment it looks like things are going to get a little Game of Thrones. Instead, Dukat just wants to talk with someone. He desperately needs to justify himself to a Bajoran and have her agree that what he’s doing is in her best interests. We get some of the best of Dukat’s paternal racist patter, when he compares the Bajorans to children and blames the Resistance on himself for being too generous. “Bad manners are the fault of the parent, not the child,” he monologues. Dax being Dax just cold-cocks him and jailbreaks her friends. It’s one of her more awesome moments.
The first sense that something is seriously off comes in a character played by the great Kurtwood Smith, the iconic actor behind Clarence Boddicker and Red Foreman (who I am convinced are intended to be the same character). Smith is uncharacteristically subdued as Thrax, the security chief who preceded Odo, never once calling anyone a dumbass or requesting bitches to leave. Sisko notes that the man lacks the casual brutality he’s come to associate with Cardassian security personnel, a note that Garak lets pass unremarked on. The weird part is that Thrax should have been gone by the time this miscarriage of justice took place.
Thrax turns out to be Odo, and when this jaunt becomes explicitly dreamlike, the whole thing unravels. The runabout passed through a plasma storm, which irradiated some of the morphogenic cells in Odo’s brain. Searching for the Great Link, he instead telepathically linked with the people in the runabout, bringing them into his guilt dream. This is also a pretty big hint that Odo’s shapeshifting powers weren’t gone for good. Welcome news for everyone, though Odo most of all.
Before the ultimate reveal, Odo begs Thrax to look deeper and conduct a real investigation. The three Bajorans have alibis that are there for the looking. There were other bombings on Bajor with the same signature these men could not have possibly been behind. In short, there’s no way they could have done it, something even a cursory investigation would reveal. Odo is begging himself, wishing he could right a terrible injustice.
He can’t. The episode ends with Kira and Odo speaking in his office. It echoes the standout second season episode “Necessary Evil,” in which Odo closed a case from the Occupation that it turned out Kira was behind all along. This time, the roles are reversed. Kira held Odo up as the one person who got out clean, who never did anything awful to survive the years of hell. She was wrong. Everyone, even Odo, was sullied in some way.
Most heartbreaking, though, is when she wants to know if these were the only ones. The only people who died unjustly under Odo’s watch. He doesn’t know for sure. He can’t.
Next up: Odo and Quark go hiking.