Review: DS9 – Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast

review by Ina Rae Hark

We often get insights into a character when we see him or her contrasted with another person who shares certain life circumstances, faces similar obstacles and confronts similar moral choices. Those factors that nevertheless differentiate one of these characters from the other then serve to key us in to essential truths about each. In “Improbable Cause” and “The Die Is Cast” (hereafter IC and TDIC), a two-part episode from DS9‘s third season, Garak is the foil who deepens our understanding of Odo. They are among my very favorite hours of the series, primarily because of their intense focus on my two favorite characters, played at the tops of their considerable games by René and Andrew Robinson.

Garak and Odo are the only ones of their species living on the station, both consider themselves exiles from the rest of their people, and both of them worked for Cardassian security during the Occupation of Bajor. Both also bury their feelings deep inside, preferring others to believe them immune from emotional attachments. Along these axes of similarity, however, the two represent the converse of one another. Odo was abandoned as an infant and had to create a sense of himself with only beings of a radically different nature for models; he had no idea who or what he was. Only recently has he learned the truth of his identity, one of the Founders of the Dominion. Yet despite the eager invitations to return extended by the creepily maternal figure of the Female Shapeshifter, he declines on ethical grounds.

Garak was raised in a rigidly controlling totalitarian state, his whole life dominated by another parental figure, the genial but sinister Enabran Tain, a demanding father who would never acknowledge Garak as his son (as we learn in season 5). It is only after reaching full maturity as a son of Tain and a son of Cardassia that he is disgraced and exiled for alleged crimes never specified. Garak wants nothing more than to return to his former life.

Odo believes in justice and did his best to serve his Cardassian superiors without compromising his morals or punishing the innocent. Garak worked for the Cardassian secret police in its covert ops division, the Obsidian Order, and carried out without scruple whatever his superiors believed to be in the best interests of the state, collateral damage to innocents be damned. Odo was a “constable,” Garak a spy, assassin and torturer.

Odo is straightforward, brusque, truthful and prickly. Garak is charming, untrustworthy, and slippery, all lies and evasions.

Prior to these episodes, the two men had a purely “professional” relationship. Garak maintained that he was a plain and simple tailor with nothing to hide; Odo suspected that he was a security threat and kept him under observation. But in IC/TDIC they connect as people in a scenario fraught with intrigue, threat and betrayal. It begins when Garak realizes that a Flaxian assassin newly arrived on the station may be after him. Being Garak, he does not lay out the problem for Odo and ask his help, but blows up his own shop—while he’s in it—in order to prompt Odo to investigate. Odo soon sees through this ruse and also easily thwarts the assassin, but when the man’s ship explodes upon leaving the station, and the Romulans appear to be involved, he and Garak take off in a runabout to the Gamma Quadrant to try to unravel the mystery.

There follow a series of duets, scenes in which only Odo and Garak appear. At first there’s a sort of competition, similar to that between Odo and Quark, in which the shady character upon whom the cop has never quite managed to pin anything strives to one-up his nemesis, and vice versa. Garak encrypts a message sent to Tain in a particularly clever way, saying that he expects Odo to appreciate the method’s aesthetics. Odo probes for reasons behind the fondness Tain’s housekeeper, Mila, expresses towards Garak and speculates that Garak’s quest to protect Tain must stem from a deeper personal attachment than mere collegiality. Garak counters that Odo doesn’t appear to know enough about such attachments to project them onto someone else and so challenges Odo to confess to personal attachment to at least one person in the galaxy. The audience knows about Odo’s love for Kira, and wonders whether Garak is on to it, or just fishing, but Odo remains inscrutable and wins the skirmish by telling Garak that if he did happen to care for someone, he certainly wouldn’t share the information with him.

These exchanges have emotional undertones but are played primarily as snarky comedy. Everything changes when a Romulan warbird captures the runabout, revealing the big picture: Tain and the Tal Shiar have decided to join forces to make a pre-emptive strike to wipe out the Founders. As the second hour of this two-part episode begins, it weaves a complex web of loyalties tested, emotional bonds probed, and, most centrally, betrayals forgiven. On every score Odo emerges as the moral victor.

The theme of betrayal opens IC as Garak is discussing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with Bashir. Well-trained as an Obsidian Order agent, for whom betrayal is a necessary job skill, Garak is incredulous that Caesar never expected Brutus to betray him until “the knife was in his back.” And yet we will soon discover that Garak has himself been caught off guard by accusations of betrayal against himself, and by Tain’s apparent ease in ordering his assassination. We never find out what got Garak exiled from Cardassia but we learn in IC that he is believed by Tain and most of his colleagues to have betrayed both his mentor and Cardassia. Only Mila refused to believe that he did so. Garak’s own denial is typically equivocal: he did not betray them…at least not in his heart.

But suddenly Tain declares himself willing, not to forgive, but to forget and to invite Garak to join him in his action against the Founders. Despite Odo’s warnings that Tain can’t be trusted, Garak eagerly accepts the invitation. This however makes it necessary that he betray Odo. Although Odo has “turned his back” on his people, Tain rightly concludes that he wouldn’t aid in a genocidal war against them, and, besides, Tain thinks Odo may have hitherto undisclosed knowledge about the Changelings that would help insure victory. Thus Garak can only regain Tain’s trust if he agrees to interrogate Odo for this information.

Garak is conflicted in all sorts of ways about this situation and his usual smooth prevarications fail to convince anyone. Although he comes across snide and mocking to Odo, reminding the Constable that they’ve never pretended to be friends, nor has Garak ever pledged any loyalty to the Federation or Bajor, Odo spots this as his guilt talking. When Garak tries to deter Tain from brutalizing their prisoner with the quantum stasis device by asserting that Odo has nothing to tell, Tain acknowledges that it was inevitable that Garak develop feelings for the people among whom he spent his exile. It is to quell Tain’s doubts that Garak agrees to what becomes an horrific ordeal for Odo, and probably also to keep the Romulans from conducting the interrogation even more painfully. When the interrogation fails to produce the desired results, he then has to scramble to keep Tain from terminating Odo, but the Romulan Lovok also supports keeping the Changeling alive. Later he insists that Garak seemed to betray personal feelings for Odo, prompting one of my favorite lines: “I’ve never been psychoanalyzed by a Romulan.”

On the other hand, Odo’s taunts during the questioning to the effect that Garak has been missing his time in the interrogation room are not completely off the mark. Although there’s no evidence that Garak enjoys seeing people suffer physical agonies—his proudest achievement having been Dr. Parmak’s confession after four hours of Garak merely staring at him—he does enjoy making them reveal their secrets. He speaks of his pride in his work.

Garak doesn’t have to put Odo through this hell; they could easily concoct some misleading story (since none of these supposedly ruthless secret spy organizations has bothered to put surveillance devices in the room.) But Garak guesses that Odo is holding something back and wants to know what it is—for his own satisfaction, not Tain’s.

Finally, though, Odo’s agonies become so terrible—brilliantly conveyed to viewers by René’s body language, eyes and voice, with considerable help from the makeup department—that Garak can’t bear it, and he’ll stop as long as he is given even the simulacrum of a victory. He urges Odo to lie, if necessary, but to say something. As we would expect, the weakened and dying Odo however tells the truth: despite his moral revulsion at what his people have become, he wants nothing more than to return to them in the Great Link, to “go home.”

With this revelation the torture ends, and we are left with the searing image of the desiccated Changeling liquefying at last, including bits of him that have fallen off onto the floor, while Garak buries his head in his hands with guilt and shame.

The final betrayal is still to come, and it will put Garak and Tain in Odo’s place. For the Founders have learned of Tain’s plan and infiltrated his fleet in the person of Lovok, the Tal Shiar commander, a Changeling in disguise. As Garak frees Odo so that they can escape the ambush, the Lovok Changeling reveals himself and makes the same offer to Odo that Tain made to Garak: you are free to go, but you are also welcome to join me and return home. (The framing of the two shots is identical, to underscore the parallel.) Though both we and Garak know how strong Odo’s desire is to do just this, we see him make the right choice rather than the tempting one.

The denouement of the episode goes on to reveal an essential part of Odo’s personality that would not have been apparent up to that point. He has a great capacity to forgive people for acting toward him in a manner that is frankly unforgiveable. Before IC/TDIC, we saw this primarily when he was able to get past Kira’s lying to him about the Vaatrick murder, but we could chalk this up to his being in love with her. There is no doubt, here, that Odo goes out of his way to forgive Garak for betraying him. First, when Garak won’t leave the damaged ship without Tain, Odo could simply depart without him, but he instead knocks Garak unconscious and carries him to the runabout. Then, albeit somewhat grumpily, he accepts Garak’s apology for what happened, noting that he may disapprove of what the Cardassian did, but he understands his longing to go home. “The Wire” had shown us that Garak desperately wants to be forgiven for everything he has done and yet can only ask it from a surrogate, his friend Bashir, who has never suffered from one of his many betrayals. Here he does not go so far as to ask forgiveness, only to admit guilt. Before the episode ends, however, he has tacitly received it.

Odo’s generosity of spirit reveals itself fully in the last scene of TDIC, one of the most artfully directed sequences in all of DS9. It opens as Garak enters his ruined shop and takes up a piece of cloth with which to wipe the soot off one of his mirrors. Immediately we see Odo as a small figure reflected in the glass. He’s actually standing in the doorway and Garak, in closeup profile, turns to talk to him. Unlike usual editing practices, there is never a cut to Odo and his POV. The whole scene plays out in this one shot. I think this composition of the shot reflects the unreality both we and Garak feel when, after what happened in the interrogation room, Odo nevertheless offers his friendship to his former torturer.

Not that it’s a straightforward offer, of course. The conversation begins with Odo’s gratitude that Garak did not reveal his longing to return to the Great Link to Sisko. (Garak kept this from Tain, also. As eagerly as Garak gathers secrets, he almost never divulges them.) And then it turns to the matter of whether Garak will rebuild his shop. Odo had previously intuited that Garak relished destroying it, the symbol of his exile, yet now he urges the Cardassian to return to that life. “The sad thing, Odo,” Garak replies, “is that I’m a very good tailor.” Here again the contrast between the two men tells us something about Odo. Both of them have found something they’re good at in their lonely isolation from others of their species, but Garak cannot embrace the role as Odo has. It’s still sad to him that he should excel at anything other than serving Cardassia.

Perhaps it is this realization that prompts Odo’s final gesture. He suggests that Garak and he should have breakfast some morning. Since Garak’s closest relationship on the station, with Bashir, takes place through weekly lunches, the implications are clear, without the reticent Constable having to make any direct declaration. Garak is reluctant to believe them, however, protesting that he thought Odo didn’t eat. “I don’t,” is all Odo replies as he turns and walks away, thus affirming the invitation as a pure gesture of friendship, since it has no practical value to him otherwise.

Even leaving aside what happened on the Romulan ship, what has compelled Odo to take this step, to move from seeing Garak as a suspicious person to be kept under surveillance to being someone he is willing to befriend? (After all, for all the obvious affection between Odo and Quark, the Constable never drops his pretense of disliking his Ferengi nemesis.) I think it comes down to empathy, to Odo seeing his own longings and his own despair reflected in Garak’s tormented soul. Changelings ought to be supremely empathetic. “To become a thing is to know a thing,” the Female Shapeshifter has told Odo in “The Search.” Yet she and the rest of the Link seem to derive only fear and contempt from their emulation of all things solid, rather than understanding. IC/TDIC, and this last scene in particular, show that Odo’s empathy is of a more healing sort. That’s the real cure for the Changeling disease that we can have confidence he brings to his people when he returns to them at DS9‘s conclusion.

Screen capture from