Welcome back to a year-long celebration of everyone’s favorite plain, simple Cardassian. Every month I’ve been looking at various media starring Elim Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and this month I’ve reached the end of the television series. The culmination of all the various plot lines that had been building over seven years of Garak stories. It’s...well, it’s big. And it pays off in huge ways, just as it disappoints in others. But if you’re just checking out the Year of Garak, I very much recommend starting at the beginning, as there are things that will be referenced from previous talks. You can find all the posts here: January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September.
And I’m flying solo this month, looking at the final episodes of DS9. Or, at least, the parts with Garak. The finale of DS9 spanned a great many episodes, after all, and a great many plot threads. Garak returned to play a rather significant role, though, first with Kira and Odo helping in Damar’s resistance, and then on Cardassia itself, helping to push the people toward open rebellion against the Dominion. The finale as a whole does a great job of wrapping up everything that DS9 had begun, weaving together character arcs and larger political arcs to bring the Alpha Quadrant to a whole new era. So buckle up and get ready for a whole lot of me talking about Garak. Cheers!
A Lion Among Wolves
These episodes tackle a lot of things, but looking at the Garak parts of them, we’re following him, Kira, & Odo as they are brought into Damar’s resistance, teaching them how to be rebels and revolutionaries. It’s a very powerful sequence because we find Cardassians having to learn from Bajorans the skills Bajor needed to resist the Occupation, and we find Kira stuck in this rather impossible situation of having to be okay with all of it, even as she’s hated, even as the situation deteriorates. Much of the conflict here is with Kira and Damar, Kira and Odo, Odo and his growing sickness. But in the background there is Garak, as well, back to work with Cardassians, among Cardassians, and still being an outcast. Especially after last month’s look at the fanfiction and how that piece placed Garak among his people, I like how these episodes capture the very complex nature of Garak among Cardassians.
We’ve seen this again and again throughout the Year of Garak—the way that he is an outsider among other Cardassians, the way that he wears masks constantly and plots and plots and plots. In Scorched Earth we heard Bashir tell Garak that being around Cardassians, that being on Cardassia, is bad for both of them. That in many ways the most monstrous parts of him come out when he tries to set himself to steering his people toward a better, more secure future. And I think to some extent we see the why of that here, as Garak moves around Damar’s resistance, who all pretty much hate him. The mask that he wears around Cardassians is perhaps his most dangerous, forged through the pain and isolation that he faced growing up and as an adult. It’s here that I, at least, really see the queerness of the character bleeding out, because he’s never been able to believe that part of himself would ever be accepted, is anything but a liability, that when he’s among other Cardassians it becomes a thorn under his skin, a constant reminder of his difference and the threat he faces.
And for me this is always something that poisons his relationship with Cardassia. I’m thinking of Robinson’s story in Prophecy and Change here, which is all about masks, which gets back to the discussion we had much before about the character and identity and Garak’s insistence that people are nothing but masks, just a series of them on and on. Part of what I love about Robinson’s story is that it captures this moment where Garak...he doesn’t change his mind about masks. But he gets this vision from his father saying essentially “what if you wore a Garak mask. What if your inner feelings and your outer persona were finally, finally allowed to coexist.” He’s not saying that it’s not a mask, but that even if we can never be fully honest, we can at least try to be honest with ourselves. True to ourselves. And in that story we saw Garak putting on a mask not to blend in, or to conceal himself, but to reveal who he is and what he believes in. At this stage when Garak is helping the resistance, though, we’re still seeing the friction between Garak the outsider and Garak the man who loves Cardassia. He doesn’t love the military, doesn’t love most of the people he has to work with. But Cardassia, his home, full of all the art and music and literature that inspired and affirmed him...that he loves, and we see that love draw him on even as he seems much more comfortable with Odo and even Kira than he is around Damar’s men.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones
And then, of course, everything goes to shit. Damar is betrayed, his resistance crushed, and Garak, Damar, and Kira all end up stranded in the basement of Garak’s childhood home with Garak’s mom, Mila, looking out for them. It’s almost adorable, seeing the banter between Mila and Garak, seeing how easy they lie between each other and how they obviously care about each other. Also, Damar and Mila make a cute couple. Things come pretty full circle here for Garak, hiding at home, hunted, carrying out missions in the dark against the Dominion. He’s home, but not the way he wanted to be. Still, at this point the rules of the game are still rather set. There’s still hope in his eyes, and Damar is down but not really defeated. Together they still have work to do, and there’s the sense I got that Garak was in some ways happy with it all. Finally, home and working again.
And then, of course, everything gets worse. I actually love how brutal this ending is when it comes to Cardassia. Because theirs has been such a brutal history and arc throughout the series. And redemption seems like something they can hope for. And then the Founder gives the order to have them all killed. It’s something that The Never Ending Sacrifice gets way more into than the show, the fallout from that, but it’s also something that comes to dominate everything about Cardassia after the war is over. That order, to kill them all. There was the feeling up to that moment that recovery might have been possible. That Damar might have led them into a new direction. But then he dies, just as so many people die. And there’s just Garak, and a gun.
One of the most interesting little speeches that Garak gives is when Mila is killed and he talks to Kira about revenge. Not freedom, or justice, or anything so noble as that. Just...to express the hurt and loss in violence and there’s that moment that Kira recognizes exactly what he feels and knows that sometimes that’s enough, and sometimes it isn’t, but that it’s what they’ll use if they need to. And Garak, dropping all his subtlety and cleverness, just embraces the movement toward open conflict. It’s a moment when the reasons stopped mattering, which also means it’s when tragedy slipped in. At the point where everyone is just killing to kill, to express their frustration and anger and pain...well, no one wins. Garak gets to the end and, miraculously, lives. He kills Weyoun, he helps to end the war. But. But...
My Dear Doctor
I’ve gone back and watched this final scene between Garak and Bashir—Garak’s last appearance on the show—a great many times. It’s a chilling performance, and one that works so well when compared to Garak’s first appearance. In both we have Bashir acting very uncomfortable, unsure of what to do. We have Garak moving behind him, around him, touching him. Looking at the last shots, the way that the characters part, we see Garak resting his hands on Bashir, a smile on his face. Putting on the mask. But oh fuck are these two very different, different scenes. To be clear, Garak’s final pained speech to Bashir is one of my favorite moments in television. It’s...difficult to watch, because there’s so much going on. With Garak and Bashir, with Cardassia, with war, with everything. It’s raw and it’s this side of Garak that’s rarely seen, perhaps even more vulnerable than in “The Wire.”
But that makes sense. Here is a Garak who is now, finally, home. The Dominion are gone. But so is his Cardassia. So are his friends, his family—pretty much anyone he would ever want to see or be with. What remains are, well, are those who survived. Garak know what it means. He knows that Cardassia isn’t coming back from this, not anywhere close to what it was. He’s grieving here, for all the minds and art and beauty that the war has taken. And even so, he’s disgusted at it, at the waste, at the reasons. He would have done it differently, and you can almost see that playing over and over in his head. That he’s angry, because he’s alive, because he feels he could have prevented this. Which is part of why I love Scorched Earth, because it plays with that idea, that “what if Garak had been in charge?” fallacy. Because the truth is, for so much of the show, Garak wouldn’t necessarily have done “better.” But it’s just so much to take in and I feel in this scene that he’s trying so hard to think of a way it could be different, to both blame himself and blame everyone else and just avoid thinking about what he’s lost and what the galaxy has lost.
And Bashir. Bashir who, you will note, just got with Ezri (eww) and who just basically killed a man in order to get the secrets he had so he could save Odo. This is a Bashir who is much, much different from the man Garak met at the beginning. This is a Bashir who has in some ways lost his way as well, has let himself be pulled along by war in order to do things he knows are wrong. He pulls away from Garak here I think because he can’t deal with the part of himself that wants to be with Garak, who has so many of the same qualities and patriotism but with regards to the Federation. And I think Bashir recognizes a bit earlier how toxic that is, and how it’s led him to do terrible things, and will again, if he lets it. And so he pulls away from Garak here not because he doesn’t want to be with Garak, but because (I think) he believes that neither of them are what the other needs, right then. That what they need to do is face this thing that has happened and find ways to be better. I think he’s scared of what he’d do if he stayed with Garak, which is a fear I feel that rests at the heart of why they’ve drifted apart. So Bashir stands mostly speechless, wrestling with his own demons, silent as Garak nearly begs for comfort and relief.
And there comes this moment when Garak sees it, too. When he recognizes that this, too, is something he has lost, and in some ways that he lost for Cardassia. Something that he could have done differently, perhaps should have done differently. This, too, is where his love for his home has brought him, another pool it has poisoned. And that moment when Bashir puts a hand on his shoulder, and Garak feels exactly what that means, that Bashir is leaving, that Garak is still alone—fuck, hold on. Deep breaths now. There’s that shift between raw pain and...the mask that he puts over it, so that he can smile at Bashir and wish him well, knowing that they will never see each other again, that this is well and truly over. But he smiles, and the scene fades out, and the shows never really return to any of this, so we’re left only with that final lie he tells, that isn’t quite a lie, because it’s also very true. We’re left with the lingering doubt, that maybe this is what Cardassia has earned, what Garak has earned, what everyone hoped would happen. But fuck does it hurt, and fuck it if anyone knows what to do now.
Especially the Lies
Part of me thinks that Garak would love fanfiction. I mean, he’d probably hate it on an aesthetic level, mostly, but the idea of it. I forgot to mention that when we looked at Scorched Earth last month, but it does fit so well into Garak’s ethos, this telling variant stories to get at some deeper truth. So here’s a lie. In that final scene, when Garak and Bashir are standing so close, they finally just kiss and fuck and every wall they’ve built between them comes crumbling down. Bashir resigns from Starfleet because how could he still want to stay? Given what they’ve done, and what he’s done, and the great need on Cardassia for doctors. They have both done things they aren’t proud of. But together they can begin to heal, and to work for something better. They don’t hide any longer, or run from their feelings. Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes loss still steals into their lives. But together they weather the bad days, until they are fewer and fewer, and around them Cardassia heals as well. A different Cardassia, but one worthy of their love. And they all live happily ever after.