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The Future Will Be Carpeted: An Analysis of ‘Deep Space Nine (S3E20)’

“The truth is usually just an excuse for a lack of imagination.”
     — Elim Garak

As I’ve been working my way through the series, I’ve been singling out my favorite episodes of each season. Thus far, they have one thing in common: Cardassians. That will hold true for next season’s favorite, as well, and probably beyond, but I don’t remember. I love them partially because, in their minds, they are the great heroes of the galaxy. They are the rightful Stalinist overlords of the Alpha Quadrant, and if all these other races would only realize it, maybe we could get some order around here. In this week’s episode, we turn to not only my favorite Cardassian, but my favorite character overall, the exile/spy/mystery man/simple tailor, Elim Garak.

Garak has once again settled into a comfortable routine of lunches with the doctor where they discuss their mutual distaste for the art of each other’s cultures (more on that later). After they split up for the day, an explosion rocks the Promenade. Garak’s shop has exploded, and our simple tailor is on the floor and bleeding. Although still cracking wise, because c’mon. Explosions be damned, Garak’s gonna do Garak.

This dovetails with one of my other favorite types of DS9 episode: Odo gets his noir on. It’s enormously appealing when the constable digs into a mystery, and even better when the subject is a man who is obsessively mysterious himself. Though the show had not really been teasing this pairing, it is not only natural but cathartic to see it play out onscreen. It feels as if last season’s “The Wire” was a lead-up to this. Garak defeated Dr. Bashir in an intellectual cat and mouse. Can he defeat Odo, as well?

No, he can’t. Why? Odo is good at his job. I’ve always been a fan of characters being awesome at what they do. Even allowing Odo to peel back the veil of secrecy over Garak feels more like a vindication of the former than an indictment of the latter. They’ve spent two seasons showing us how good Garak is, so that when Odo unravels the mystery, it’s a victory over a worthy opponent.

Although even victory on DS9 has consequences. Odo’s investigation into the explosion rapidly unearths a hired killer, a specialist in poisons that Odo expertly interrogates. Then, this killer is murdered (because it’s noir, and that’s how it’s done) by Romulans, and Odo has to reach out to an old contact in the Cardassian government. This is basically Cardassian Deep Throat, and they meet in the 24th century equivalent of a parking garage: a barren moon cave. Garak isn’t the only former agent of the Obsidian Order to meet with disaster. He’s just the only one to survive. You know, because Garak’s good at his job, too.

As it turns out, these other agents were all close associates of Enabran Tain. You remember him: the former head of the Obsidian Order and architect of Garak’s exile. Garak cops to this, and it’s the final piece of the puzzle. “You blew up your own shop, Garak,” Odo growls. Assassins don’t change their methods, so a poisoner isn’t going to suddenly become a bomber. Odo reasons that Garak spotted the assassin and did the most logical thing to pull Odo in. The constable even turns the knife when he hypothesizes that Garak likely enjoyed the act. Here, Andrew Robinson, Garak’s performer, taps into the seething resentment that helped make “The Wire” such a riveting hour. There’s the sense that Garak truly hates his new life, and the worst parts are ironically the things that make it most bearable: his friendship with Julian and his work. Because if he grows to like it, he might never make it back.

Now, forming an uneasy alliance of necessity, Odo and Garak try to contact Tain, supposing that if his old associates are being bumped off, he might be next. They, instead, get his housekeeper Mila, a character that will prove more important later. She and Garak seem to have a bond as well, and she tells him that Tain left suddenly, then makes Garak promise to find the old man.

Fortunately, Garak knows about Tain’s old safehouses and heads for one with Odo. That’s when a Romulan Warbird decloaks in the middle of Cardassian space and takes the two of them hostage. They’re brought to the person ostensibly in command, and it’s Enabran Tain. Also, Tain is wearing the equivalent of a Cardassian old man cardigan, and that’s never not funny. Anyway, remember that fleet in the Orias System that Riker’s transporter clone was trying to attack in “Defiant?” The one that wasn’t supposed to be there? Turns out this is all part of Tain’s plan to wipe out the Dominion. Using the location of the Founder homeworld — remember, Starfleet shared all its Dominion intel with the Romulans in “Visionary” — the Obsidian Order-Tal Shiar (that’s Romulan Intelligence) fleet will cut the head off the hydra. Tain offed his old associates, because when he’s finished here, he plans to return to his old position and he couldn’t leave loose ends. When he finds that Garak came here to save him, he agrees to let bygones be bygones. The episode ends with Garak accepting Tain’s offer to return to the Obsidian Order.

It’s a two-parter, too. So, we got the slow burn here, and next episode we’re cutting the brakes and going big.

Other than the plot, which is masterfully constructed, two moments make this episode stand out for me. Both involve Garak’s colorful interpretation of human culture in the face of an incredulous Dr. Bashir. The episode opens with Garak angrily dismissing Julius Caesar as a farce. “I knew Brutus was going to kill him in the first act!” Garak snits, missing the entire point of tragedy. It’s ironic that a Cardassian, whose finest literary genre is the repetitive epic, would not like something so predictable. Then again, it makes sense when looked through the lens of the race’s penchant for full-contact politics.

The second moment is even better and was, unfortunately, too long to be the episode quote. Garak will not stop lying about the explosion in his shop. Bashir takes it upon himself to tell the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. At the end, when Bashir gives Garak the lesson — lie too much and no one will believe you when you are telling the truth — Garak asks him if he’s certain that is, in fact, the lesson the story teaches. Bashir asks what else the message could possibly be. “That you should never tell the same lie twice,” Garak tells him.

It’s perfect soft science fiction: when someone from another culture interprets a human story through their own lens, in such a way that it is almost more accurate than the established interpretation.

Lastly, this episode allows me to bring up the title of this whole feature. As I mentioned way back in the review of the pilot, DS9 is carpeted and that’s weird. They mention the carpeting in this episode, as Bashir and Kira discuss preparing quarters for some kind of alien. The atmosphere is so corrosive, it began to eat the carpeting. Back at WonderCon, I had the opportunity to speak to someone who used to work on DS9. I asked about the carpet, and he gave me the very simple and probably painfully obvious answer: it was to muffle the sounds of the actors walking around. Can’t get usable dialogue when everyone’s clomping around like Clydesdales. Still doesn’t make sense in-universe, but there’s one mystery solved. It’s like I’m the next Odo.

Next up: Tain’s plan works about as well as you’d think.




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