Welcome back to The Year of Garak!
Lat time I looked at a tie-in novel that explored the relationship between Garak and Sisko and also followed up on "In the Pale Moonlight," and so I thought it would be worth pursuing to look at some of the DS9 episodes that informed that novel and also will inform a lot of the works coming after this. Namely, the trio of "The Wire," "In the Pale Moonlight," and "Afterimage." These are some of the strongest Garak episodes, and I'm very luck to be joined by fellow Garak enthusiast and writer Nicasio Andres Reed to discuss all things Garak. Warning, this is a fairly long post. And only one part of a much longer conversation that we'll be having throughout the Year of Garak. So get comfortable and settle in for what I hope is an interesting examination of these episodes and the character of Garak.
Oh, and in case you don't know my guest today:
Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Liminality, Inkscrawl, and Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. Nico currently lives in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.
so without further delay, let's delve into the episodes!
CP: Okay, so opening salvo. The first thing I notice in this group of episodes is OMG Garak looks weird in "Afterimage"—why did he suddenly grow Serious Ridges?! That aside, though, I remember these being some of the Garak episodes that stuck with me longest. Especially "The Wire" and "In the Pale Moonlight" have some of my favorite Garak being Garak moments. If anyone is looking for Garak summed up in one scene I would point to the last one of "The Wire" as being the moment when I fully fell in love with the character. The heavy flirting with Julian, the blurring of stories and the truth, the feeling that he has both completely exposed himself and is unreadable…that scene is one that I always just have to raise a glass to. It also sets up a good deal of his character pre-Dominion War, where he is exiled but also has hope. Hope not just because he has made a friend but because however distant from Cardassia he feels, it still exists. The art, the culture, the mentality. When he gives Julian that novel it's because he still believes that Cardassia is eternal, that the cycle will go on and on forever. And I think that you see as these episodes progress his deep understanding of what the cost of the war is going to be—and it's going to be Cardassia.
NR: THOSE BAD RIDGES ARE SO PERSONALLY OFFENSIVE TO ME. Especially in an episode that has such good Garak. They’re also less than ideal in a couple In the Pale Moonlight scenes-- notably in the scenes in his shop.
I want to dig into The Wire because it’s my favorite episode, but first before I forget I want to also throw into this conversation two poems that I always come back to when thinking about Garak, and about the personal and political narratives that his arc draws from.
Dedication by Czeslaw Milosz (this is more of a post-Dominion War one), and On The Term of Exile by Bertolt Brecht (straight-up The Wire porn to me).
(Re: the Brecht, I always think before looking it up that the title is “On the Terms of Exile”, which I think would bring a better charge to the title-poem relationship. Makes me wonder at the translation? But more likely than it being a mistake, I am just imbuing it with my own desired take.)
Exile, as a direct topic and an over-arching theme, is something I find under-explored in genre lit and media, but something so potent to me personally and to, I dare say, diasporic people in general. Even if we are immigrants of choice, we are to some extent living in exile, and one of the most sharply painful parts of that experience is to watch from afar when tumult comes to your home. Garak is such an intriguing, and such an uncomfortable lens for this particular exploration, because of who he was on Cardassia. Not only was he a member of the Obsidian Order, not only did he idolize the likes of Enabrin Tain, but he liked it. Which is to say: not only did he willingly participate in some of the darkest actions of an authoritarian regime, but, most damning, he was a true believer.
Garak’s exile is not one of conscience, but a shunning. “The Wire” deals with that painful reckoning. “In the Pale Moonlight” gives us Garak trying to be what he was in a world that no longer valorizes cruelty. More-- that will do to him again exactly what he was exiled for: ask him to indulge in cruelty, and then reject him for it afterwards. And what “Afterimage” hits on so well is the anguish of still caring, still yearning, for a place that has rejected you.
SO ANYWAY “The Wire”! And the Brecht. The heartbeat of the exile is sustained by the notion that their plight is temporary. To get comfortable in exile, God forbid, to find yourself enjoying a moment of it, to make friends, to personalize your living space, all of this is a betrayal of the lost homeland. And Bashir, poor soul, is the face of that to Garak. His first, best friend, whose company Garak so enjoys. In the throes of withdrawal, we see how sickening Garak finds the pleasure he takes in Bashir’s company. It’s absolutely wrenching.
I love that you bring in the cyclical nature of Cardassian storytelling as an aspect of the Cardassian worldview. The insights we get into the history of governance in the Cardassian empire reveal a long history of civilian vs military power struggles, followed by revolution, followed by installation of yet another questionable regime. (A trap we’ll see Garak try to escape in post-Dominion War books.) A Cardassian observing the long arc of history, then, would perhaps see an acceptance of that cycle as more realistic than fatalistic, and a Cardassian invested in maintaining the social order might tout the cyclical classics of literature as triumphant. I will dig up the actual quote at some point: Garak describing, with total satisfaction, the usual arc of a Cardassian classic novel, ending with the social order being reaffirmed by subservience to the government.
CP: Those are great poems and I love reading them with Garak and Cardassia in mind. And I also love what you say about Garak being a believer. Because I think that it strikes at a part of Garak’s story and his abuse that frames his exile nicely. Probably we’ll talk more about this when we get to the episodes with him and Enabrin interacting directly, but with “Afterimage” we do get to see that Garak is dealing with his claustrophobia but that it’s gotten worse and I would argue that ever since “The Wire” it’s all been about claustrophobia. Because I think with that we see part of how Garak sees his exile. That this is him being shut in the closet. That this is him being put somewhere and left and he must show how good he is and how sorry he is but that it will end. And through these episodes we see Garak dealing with that directly and indirectly.
In “The Wire,” for instance, I come back to the idea that the exile is a torture for him. That the situation brings him constant pain. And maybe because I feel a bit for that with having to live and act in situations that are painful, but it fits into “Afterimage” so well because in both we see him trying to find ways to cope with the constant stress and pain of exile. Which is in many ways the stress and pain that he was conditioned with. Again I want to talk more about this with the Tain episodes and how this abuse shapes him, but here we see that Garak is being corrupted in some ways by the Federation values. He says so blatantly in “Afterimage” but even in “The Wire” when he talks about his betrayal and how much he enjoys spending time with Bashir it’s there as well. That he’s in the closet, yes, but that he’s found that maybe it’s not a closet. That there’s this entire galaxy outside the closet and there’s a part of him that wants it, that yearns for it. Because of what he can see as the cruelties and problems with Cardassia. I agree that part of what makes Garak so interesting is that he was and in many ways is “team Cardassia” in the worst of ways, but also in the best of ways as well. That Garak was always very good at being a Cardassian, but he also didn’t fit in. He’s ruthless and efficient and brilliant, as we see in “In the Pale Moonlight,” but he also is skeptical of power and driven by a deep loneliness and desire for community, a desire that has always been a weakness in Cardassia but is shown as a strength in the Federation.
But to go back to the poems and to the Brecht specifically (also the Terms/Term is interesting in part because I associate “terms” so heavily with terms of surrender which is an interesting in the context of exile which often follows defeat). I do think that Garak relies on the cyclic nature of Cardassian rule to imagine the limit of his exile, but the longer the war rages, and the more that he has to rely on the Federation and others to help free Cardassia from the Dominion, I think the more he sees that when the wall crumbles and he can reenter Cardassia, everything else may have crumbled as well. It’s something that he doesn’t really want to face but it shows through in “In the Pale Moonlight” and “Afterimage,” when he talks about the costs of the war. When he talks to Sisko at the end of “In the Pale Moonlight” he lists the costs of the Romulans entering as a senator, an operative, and the self-respect of one Star Fleet officer. He doesn’t, though, talk about the cost to himself or to Cardassia (which will be much worse). As you say, he’s falling into his old role again, one that he’s increasingly uncomfortable but still very good at. He can see the draw of being a tailor and just a tailor, but the war requires sacrifice and he’s willing to sacrifice a lot. He doesn’t list the cost to Cardassia because (I think) he doesn’t think Sisko needs that particular ethical wrinkle, but also because he doesn’t want to hear that Cardassia deserves it. That Cardassia is losing the war because it lost the moral argument first, which is something that Garak (living among the victims of Cardassian rule for so long) is plagued by, the erosion of his absolute faith in Cardassia. If he was a true believer then he is no longer by even the time of “The Wire,” and if he’s not a true believer he needs to face his past and his people’s past. Which is very uncomfortable but I think something that DS9 does quite well and is part of what makes Garak such a compelling character.
NR: AAAAAAAAAAAAGH I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT GARAK AND THIS CONVERSATION SO MUUUUUCH
That very last note you hit on is also something I think is huge in the episodes with Tain when he’s asked to torture nonexistent information out of Odo. If “The Wire” is Garak raging against his own acquiescence to his exile and how it’s changed him, then those hours with Odo are his bargaining stage, as he wheedles with Odo, and finally begs him: let this end, but also: let me end this. Justify this, somehow.
Re: “term” vs “terms” - yes, exactly! And also: “term” implies a set amount of time, with a definite end. Which is, of course, the fantasy of the exile. “Terms”, though, are something one must accept and live with, perhaps forever. They make your life thereafter conditional; they are non-negotiable. And like you say: terms of surrender. Something imposed on the defeated. What you have to live with once The End has scrolled across the screen of the great conflict of your life.
It will perhaps be impossible to talk about these quadrant-shaking political shifts without feeling or drawing comparisons to what we’re living through day to day now.
I, too, had a particular idea about what the long arc of history tended toward. Not the Cardassian cycle, but somehow, despite everything, I thought that history tended toward progress. Not in a steady rise, and not for everyone at the same time, I’m too brown and too queer to hold onto that. But I bought it, I feel like a fool now, I bought into the idea that we all wanted to be better to each other, and would work towards that goal, even haltingly. And the last eight years I’d thought we were climbing that rise. I didn’t see the trough coming. Not like this.
So when I watch “Afterimage” now, and I see Garak grappling with the fact that he’d thought they were at that part of the cycle of history, but in fact they are at this one, that’s a sinking feeling that I recognize. He’d thought the place he’d left was recoverable, in something like the state he’d left it. That his home would be there, even if he could not return to it. But it won’t be, and he can’t.
Christ, every time I think of it, it’s worse. Not only to find friends among the Federation, but, so much worse, to find camaraderie. To be so taken in by that camaraderie that you come along on their missions, on their ships, you forward their goals, add to their intelligence. Cute moments with their Ferengi ensign, drinks at the bar with a Starfleet officer who made his name in a war against your people, and an it’s-complicated with their most starry-eyed devotee for as long as he’s in awe of you, which turns strange and bitter as the Federation loses its shine for him and gains one for you. And finally, when you get the leverage in this new sphere to use it to help Cardassia, it’s by getting Cardassians killed. By the hundreds, by the thousands, by the god only knows.
Garak finds that he’s become that one thing that in so many moralities is the worst possible thing: he is complicit.
A thing I am too all over the place this morning to nail down: tying in that FUCKING LINE which is possibly from Improbably Cause: “Sentiment is the greatest weakness of all.”
ALSO I CAN’T STOP THINKING OF MILOSZ POEMS: Account.
Plus, you know, the Bukowski:
hell is crowded yet
you always think that you are
and you can never tell
you are in hell
or they’ll think
I do not know why Garak reduces me always to gesturing wildly at poetry. But yeah the above: The Wire. The claustrophobia you talked about: trapped under all the lies, so practiced that he lies compulsively, on instinct. Even when he tries, in The Wire, to confess to Bashir, they’re someone else’s confessions. But they spill from him like he can’t help it. Maybe this one will be a release, or this one, or the next.
On claustrophobia-exile, you say
being put somewhere and left and he must show how good he is and how sorry he is but that it will end.
Contrition, I get the impression, isn’t a matter here of some big show of remorse. It’s one of those awful things where insincerity is just about a given, but the point is to say you’re sorry as a show of obedience. (Ugh, we keep coming back to the Tain episodes, but it’s here too, I swear!) The idea that if he’d just lay himself absolutely low, if he’d show his belly, then all would be forgiven. If you can live with doing that, then you’ll be allowed to live.
I feel that we’ve referenced In The Pale Moonlight less than the other two here, perhaps because it is so much more about Sisko and his qualms. The most interesting thing to me in that episode is Garak’s seemingly sincere surprise at Sisko’s reaction to Garak doing what was asked of him. Sisko thought he was asking Garak for something clandestine, distasteful, but at least clean. Garak understood that Sisko was asking him to do the monstrous things that a good person cannot, because Garak’s been asked that before. That’s what Garak’s purpose was for Tain, and ostensibly for Cardassia. So when Sisko objects to the murder, Garak fires back: am I not your monster?
CP: I do not want to fight the impulse to draw things back to the here and now. Because I do love that idea of Garak seeing in “Afterimage” that things are definitely not at the place where he thought they were. And I want to bring that back to “In the Pale Moonlight,” because I agree it’s been a little neglected so far and it’s perhaps my favorite episode of Star Trek so I want to talk about it a little.
As far as "In the Pale Moonlight," I think that it is something that reflects something that is incredibly important in Garak's growth and also in the present moment here. Namely, it shows us a situation that reminds me a lot of currently politics, where you have Star Fleet who rather align with your liberal SJW what-have-you and the Dominion who wrap fascism in the trappings of cooperation and safety. The Dominion is the Federation's shadow here, just as I feel we have the situation now where the conservative elements in the US and abroad have adapted to mirror some of the aspects of post-WWII liberal ideology. This is how you get people who are not only not-marginalized but dominant claiming at being the victims, just as the Dominion claims to be the target of Federation prejudice. Not to say that the Federation can't be prejudiced, but for the Dominion to use that so effectively in order to keep the Romulans out of the war, in order to keep so many people on the fence because they feel like they've been mistreated by Federation liberalness, feels very real to me right now. And Garak sees this. He knows all about fascism and because of his time among humans he knows all about the Federation.
I think a lot about Sisko's discussion with Vreenak because it seems to capture a lot about liberals and conservatives. Sisko lays out his case and Vreenak knows, knows that he's right. The problem with all of this is not that neither of them believe that the Dominion will turn on the Romulans. It's that there isn't some sort of proof. Look right now with Tr*mp and Russia. With Tr*mp and his businesses. With Republicans and racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism. Everyone knows that Republicans support policies that are designed to disenfranchise voters they disagree with. Everyone knows that this comes to prop up corruption and the tyranny of capitalism at its very worst and most excessive. To undermine human rights. In many ways Republicans will even admit that's what these policies do. But as long as they conceal the why of it they can operate with impunity because they're stealing and twisting the ideas of equality and tolerance and freedom. This is the smug superiority of the Dominion and of Vreenak, that they have pushed the Federation into a place where it's not really sure how to defend it's ideals as well as its citizens.
Garak knows. When Vreenak says that Sisko and the Federation are unwilling to do what is necessary to win, in many ways he's right. And it's at this moment that Garak finally commits himself not just to the freedom of Cardassia. Yes, that's what he wants. But what he really commits to here is the Federation model of rule. To the Federation ideals, in order to try and break the cycle of abuse, because by now Garak has lost most of what he cares about, and he knows in part it's because of the way Cardassia has been run. He sees the idealism of the Federation and thinks maybe here is the way out, because it's only through that kind of empathy that Cardassia has any chance at recovery, at healing. Now, as the war draws out and he sees just the damage he's doing to Cardassia this choice gets harder and harder, but for Garak this episode seems to be the one where he decides that for all that the Federation is unwilling to do the worst things, that might make them worth fighting for. For Garak it means doing those things for them. He becomes the person who knows that you can't sit around hoping to catch the Dominion in their lies. They'll just slither out of it, claim the proof is just fake news.
And that's another thing about Garak. His relationship with the truth is just so complicated. Fake or not, he will expose the truth. That data rod is the truth, even if it's a lie, and presenting it in just the right way means that the Romulans enter the war. He'll have to struggle with that, with the constant sense of betrayal, and with the deaths that it means, but it's not exactly his conscience he's troubled by. It's his indoctrination. It's his fear and his doubt and his pride. He's been taught for so long that for Cardassians failure is worse than death, that, as you point out, sentiment is a weakness. But he's always been sentimental, always been compassionate. And he sees the value in it, the power in it, and the only way forward for his people, and that's what bothers him, that it will mean losing something of that Cardassian superiority and exceptionalism. But it will also mean freedom, and a chance at redemption. So yeah, these episodes are crucial to my understanding and enjoyment of Garak. I love them. And I will let that stand as my closing thoughts for this installment of the Year of Garak.
NR: I would absolutely agree that Garak has always been sentimental, and I want to keep a close watch on “always been compassionate” as we segue into A Stitch In Time. Cheers to a good Year of Garak.
Be sure to return next month when we'll be discussing, as mentioned, A Stitch In Time by Garak himself, Andrew J. Robinson.