That is the core of the brilliance of this episode. At no point is the true question laid out in front of Captain Sisko, who is forced to choose between his conscience and quite possibly the Alpha Quadrant. Because, if it were, he would reject it. Instead, the question keeps getting posed, and each time Sisko is asked to violate his principles. Small sins at first, but they grow progressively larger and larger. And each time Sisko crosses the line, the next time he crosses it becomes a little easier. After all, he had a reason the first time, and to make that sacrifice meaningful, he might need to sacrifice more. He makes compromise after compromise, digging himself deeper and deeper, until he can’t see any way out. Incidentally, that’s called the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and it’s why you’re repairing your car for the umpteenth time. Sisko is behaving perfectly in line with human psychology, and only in the end, when it’s all laid out for him, does he see what he’s done.
And the worst part is, he kind of knew.
The episode is framed in flashback, with Sisko recording an entry into his personal log. These are shot, for the most part, head on, with Sisko on his couch, holding a tumbler of whiskey. As the episode progresses, he first removes his uniform’s coat, then opens it up, in essence, baring his heart to the viewer. We are the only ones who see the great man in this private moment. We are the only ones who can judge him.
It begins with Sisko facing another impossible reality of the Dominion War: its staggering casualties. Every Friday, he posts them in the wardroom, and the crew gathers to see which friends, acquaintances, or loved ones were killed, wounded, or missing. The message is unmistakable: The Federation is losing this war. To use the parlance of our time, Sisko needs a game-changer. He hits on the perfect one when he gets yet another report of Jem’Hadar ships sneaking through the Neutral Zone to attack. He needs to get the Romulans into the war.
The problem is, of course, that Romulans pretty much hate anyone who isn’t Romulan. They’re positively thrilled that their three biggest rivals are duking it out. Whoever wins is going to be in sorry shape for the aftermath. Sisko needs some kind of evidence that the Dominion is planning to invade the Romulan Empire. Real proof. That they are is a matter of faith. After all, the Dominion is obsessed with placing the galaxy under the Founders. They’re not going to leave the task half-done.
So, Sisko reaches out to the one person he knows that might be able to get to a recording like that: plain, simple Garak. This isn’t the first time Sisko has used Garak as a go-between, and, thus, in some ways, Sisko has already taken the first steps down the dark path of this episode. Garak, ever the Cardassian patriot, agrees. He warns Sisko right up front that this will be a bloody piece of business, but Sisko is tired of seeing Starfleet dead. He signs the metaphorical contract on the dotted line.
Problem is, all of Garak’s contacts turn up dead within one day of speaking to him. So, Garak suggests an alternate plan: Don’t have the documents? Forge them instead. When the Dominion invades Betazed, Sisko agrees that such drastic action is necessary. To that end, Sisko gets a master forger out of a Klingon prison. It’s clear the forger and Garak have a past, and he’s (quite sensibly) completely terrified of the Cardassian tailor. As the criminal forges the communication on a special Cardassian data rod (acquired only after Sisko bullies Bashir into giving up a quantity of highly regulated medical equipment that could be used for any number of nightmarish purposes), he unwinds in Quark’s bar. One thing leads to another and he ends up stabbing Quark. Sisko, already knee deep, bribes Quark to keep the incident quiet, and the Ferengi utters perhaps the most important line of the episode when he quotes the 98th Rule of Acquisition: “Every man has his price.” We are seeing Sisko’s as he sells his soul piece by piece.
The last step is showing the forgery to Senator Vreenak (the great character actor Stephen McHattie), a pro-Dominion voice in the Romulan government. If he turns on the Dominion, the Senate will follow. Right as the senator arrives in his cloaked shuttle, Garak informs Sisko that he’s going to poke around in there and see what he can find. It’s such an innocuous moment that it’s easy to forget until the final act. Vreenak is arrogant and aloof, but quite sensibly wants to see the evidence before he commits to anything. Of course, it all falls apart when he correctly determines it’s phony. McHattie holding up the rod and hissing, “It’s a faaaaaaake!” has become a minor meme among Niners ever since.
Sisko thinks he might have just doomed the Alpha Quadrant, pushing the Romulans into the war on the Dominion’s side, but two days later, he gets a piece of information. Senator Vreenak’s shuttle, returning from a meeting on the very same world where Dax nearly died, exploded. While the crew brightens over the realization that the Dominion has apparently just assassinated a Romulan senator, Sisko knows the truth, and he rushes off to confront Garak.
Of course, it was him. And Garak turns it on Sisko, telling the captain that he knew this was where the path led. Garak murdered Vreenak and the forger (and Vreenak’s escorts, but they’re never mentioned), but that was the price of saving the Alpha Quadrant. That and Sisko’s self-respect. Garak, in this story, served as the devil at the crossroads. He granted Sisko’s wish, but at the cost of an essential part of what makes Sisko Sisko.
The episode ends with Sisko reflecting on his decision, and the episode quote is the final speech. Avery Brooks can often be stagey in his performance, but, here, it is entirely warranted. Here, he delivers a soliloquy on what it means to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Perhaps most damning is that he would do it all over again. So, while Bashir found that compromising one’s principles for victory was unacceptable, Sisko did not. He saved the Alpha Quadrant, and for that, he can sleep soundly. Maybe.
The episode ends as Sisko finishes his log. Then, he orders the computer to erase the entire thing, and the screen goes to black. No one will ever hear the Emissary’s confession. This was for him, and him alone, a chance to unburden what soul he has left.
Next up: Odo does it his way.