7.23 (aired May 19, 1999)
“My death isn’t a tragedy. It’s a celebration. In death I can finally step out of the shadows and prove to my self that I existed. That I lived.”
— Luther Sloan
Let’s say I get attacked by a barbarian. We’re talking a classic image: fur loincloth, helmet with horns on it, yelling something about Crom, the whole bit. Let’s also say that I somehow defeat him. Stop laughing. This is a thought experiment. The point is, when I tell you about what happened at, say, a barbecue or something, gesticulating wildly with my beer, I will have a wealth of options of how to tell you what happened. I can throw around evocative words like “disembowel,” or “eviscerate.” I can be clear if I merely killed him, or if I annihilated, destroyed, or crushed him. My story can use only the purplest vocabulary, and I will never repeat an adjective, so many will I have to choose from. Now, ask me how I feel about my wife, my mother, the movie Alien, or bacon cheeseburgers, and I’ll use the same word.
I love them.
In English, we don’t have many options for expressing an affinity stronger than “like.” Sure, there’s “adore,” but that has a layer of irony behind it and feels strange to use unless you’re expressing an opinion on small dogs in sweaters or a new kind of artisanal milk. So, we as English speakers are left with only one option, and the word “love” does a ton of heavy lifting, encompassing a plethora of distinct feelings.
But wait, it gets worse. That, incidentally, could be the motto of 2017. American culture is also preoccupied with an antiquated notion of masculinity. Even fundamentally well-meaning people who want to erase the artificial distinctions between genders generally line of up on the side of giving traditionally masculine traits to women rather than vice versa. Women are allowed to be warriors and wear pants, but a man who wants to be a nurse and wear a skirt? That’s weird. Expressing affection between men is even more fraught, as loving another dude is a little bit gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, only there secretly is.
As much as Star Trek wants to be the far future, it’s still tied to the mores of the time it was written. The ‘90s were an improving landscape, and on the whole the DS9 writing staff was a collection of forward-thinking men (Yes, all men.), but even they are trapped. The nice part is that it bears some fruit in this episode.
In their desire to close off the various threads of the show, the writers took this week’s hour as a way to tie a bow on the Bashir/O’Brien friendship. It’s one of the defining relationships of the show and evolves in much the same way as the series itself. They begin hating each other, transform into rivals, and finally into inseparable best friends. In an emotionally healthy culture, there would be absolutely no homoerotic subtext here. People should be allowed to be close without implying that it’s sexual. Also, there’s nothing wrong with homoerotic subtext in the slightest — there’s a metric ton in Bashir’s relationship with Garak, and it’s awesome.
This episode resolves exactly how they feel about each other. It’s the best moment in the hour, and an incredibly rewarding one as we’ve watched them grow together. Bashir puts it into words, “You love Keiko, but you like me a little more,” and he feels the same about Ezri. (Still not a fan of that, but I need to let it go.) Love is generally assumed to be just a turbo-charged version of like, which isn’t it at all. Love and like are related emotions, to be sure, but one isn’t required for the other. Think of every poisonous relationship you’ve ever seen or been involved in, where the two people genuinely despise one another but at the same time can’t be apart. Or, you know, how you feel about a parent who voted for Trump. That’s love without the like.
Parks and Recreation, which might be the best show ever at charting friendship, also created one of the greatest romances with Leslie and Ben. Their “I love you and I like you” is a perfect summation of how these two ideas are fundamentally different. Bashir and O’Brien like each other better than they like the women they love, as they share more in common and have bonded over many adventures, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a close friendship without a sexual component, but in our American culture, this is viewed with suspicion, even by those involved in the relationship itself.
While the revelation is a small one, it’s a good way to cap off the friendship. Unfortunately, the episode has to pull double duty, relegating this emotional subplot to the background. Unfortunately, we’re robbed of one final O’Brien Must Suffer episode, but the next best thing is uniting the twin threads of Bashir episodes: the medical mystery (extra points for being Dominion-related) and his obsession with espionage. The writers needed to tie up the thread of the Founder Plague that’s killing Odo, and this way makes the most sense. He’s in bad shape, too, with maybe only a week of life left, spending it on the station in some kind of medical pod. Kira and Garak return to the Resistance; Odo can’t bear to see Kira in pain in the last moments of his life. He would rather remember the happier times. Kira, being all about respecting the free will of others, agrees, though it breaks her heart.
Bashir and O’Brien bait their trap with a false message to Starfleet Command that Bashir’s found the cure. Sloan shows up, and Bashir captures him pathetically easily. It’s a little silly in the context of the nigh supernatural Sloan as displayed in “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges,” who uses plot magic to escape certain death. Still, it’s satisfying to watch our heroes put one over on the smug secret agent. There’s an extra layer of irony: Bashir plans to use some Romulan Mind Probes on Sloan, the same illegal devices used on Bashir with Sloan’s knowledge.
The wily Section 31 head has a final trick, and here he’s shown as a true believer. He trips a device in his brain that will kill him. Bashir manages to slow the death down — being a brilliant doctor with a genetically enhanced brain has its upsides — and comes up with an insane plan. He will go into Sloan’s brain and find the cure among the rapidly decaying memories. O’Brien insists on going along, and the two of them descend into the crumbling mind of the the master spy.
Last-minute budget cuts and a need to preserve a plot twist, though, turn what could have been a psychedelic voyage into a mundane walk through some of DS9’s corridors. It’s a drab choice that robs what they’re doing of some of the wonder that should be present. What they find are two Sloans. The first is grateful to the two of them for essentially killing him. He’s a Federation patriot who loves his family and is pleased to have been returned to them. He’s alienated from his later actions and wants nothing more than to help right at least one wrong. It’s the fundamental paradox at the heart of a spy. To do the work requires a near fanatical love of country and perhaps even principle, but in turn shows the principles to be false and the country to be as soiled as any other. This is the wide-eyed idealist Sloan. Unsurprisingly, he’s shortly murdered by the dominant part of the personality, the ruthless operative hopelessly corrupted by a lifetime of morally questionable actions.
This Sloan does everything he can to put off the discovery, but eventually the two friends find the inner sanctum. A dying Sloan tells them it’s the headquarters of Section 31, a disorganized room scattered with information. There is no such room in the real world, though, with Sloan keeping every bit of information on his doomsday conspiracy locked away in his mind. O’Brien quickly finds the cure — it’s literally just sitting out. But Sloan tries to tempt Bashir into recovering more information. There’s enough in there to presumably destroy Section 31 for good. O’Brien sees what Sloan is really after, though. If he can keep Bashir in his mind until he dies, Bashir will die as well, the cure with him.
What Sloan didn’t count on was O’Brien. Had Bashir gone in alone, he would have succumbed to temptation and died. O’Brien pulls him out of there. The two share a drink and toast to friendship. While this episode is flawed, unfortunately not quite nailing the trip into Sloan’s mind, and making the acquisition of the cure look like magic, it does a good job of showing how far these two have come. They’re a study of opposites, but when it comes down to it, they’re two of a kind. Shame there’s no word for precisely how they feel.
Next up: The end, part 8.