Nutshell: A lot of this feels unfinished, like merely a promise of what's to come, but what was here was handled quite nicely.
It's interesting how well the season finales of both DS9 and Voyager can sum up their respective seasons. Voyager had a fairly pointless cliffhanger installment that highlighted a basically pointless and problematic season. DS9, on the other hand, offers a finale that, while frustrating in some of its cliffhanger-like respects, offers some potentially riveting background material. "Broken Link" is a worthwhile episode to end a very good season.
The episode opens as Odo begins to literally disintegrate for reasons Bashir cannot begin to fathom. Odo begins experiencing difficulty in holding his humanoid form—in one scene, he's trying to apprehend a criminal but collapses into a puddle of Changeling goo on the floor with practically no warning (the criminal gets away). Bashir realizes that Odo's molecular structure will not hold up for more than another week or two, and with no hope for a cure in sight, Odo has only one chance for survival: to ask the Founders for their assistance. The Defiant departs for the Gamma Quadrant to begin a search for the Founders' new homeworld.
That's right, the Dominion—again. As the season finale—again. It's okay with me, though. As little of the Dominion's actions we've really seen this season (considering "The Adversary's" notion that the Changelings were "everywhere") it's nice to see some potentially groundbreaking development back in the works for this storyline. Still, "potentially" is one of the key words here. What amounts from this episode could easily have major repercussions next season, but it could probably just as easily be put off until who-knows-when (like the "Adversary" plot); and what happens in the long run is not something I can really analyze now.
And that results in a bit of difficulty for dissecting this particular show at this particular time. How are we supposed to respond to what comes out of this? I guess, for now, I'll try to take everything at face value. I don't think I have much of a choice.
"Broken Link" isn't really a Dominion story so much as it is an Odo story, and, as one could probably expect for a primarily character-driven series, this is in the show's favor. Where "The Jem'Hadar" and "The Adversary" worked well as action-driven shows, "Broken Link" has a different agenda. It doesn't center around putting the away team or Defiant crew in life-threatening jeopardy like the earlier shows did; it takes a more subtle approach with less focus on violent confrontations and more focus on the smaller-scaled, more complex human qualities.
Once the Defiant is intercepted by Jem'Hadar fighters (who disable the ship's navigational recorders in order to keep the trip to the Founders' new homeworld a one-time occurrence), the female shapeshifter who has been watching over Odo in episodes past (Salome Jens) beams aboard and explains the situation to Odo. The episode turns out to be, in fact, a personal consequence of a confrontation from "The Adversary": Odo's unavoidable killing of a shapeshifter infiltrator to save the Defiant from imminent doom, which earned him the unpopular reputation of being the only Changeling to ever harm another of his own kind. Odo's self-disintegration is being caused by the Founders to force him to return home, where he must join with the Great Link, the Founders' intertwined mental network of mass knowledge, to be "judged" for his "murderous" action.
Two substantially impacting developments result from this show: One is the sentence for Odo's judgment, the other is a revelation connected to a side-story early in the episode concerning Gowron's urgent, attention-demanding threats of war. I'll get to those in a minute. First I want to describe what "Broken Link" offers besides these two surprising moments.
In terms of screen time, the show has a surprising amount of filler, especially for a season finale. But the padding scenes work nicely, even if a bit on the lightweight side, and all manage to have some sort of decent character point for Odo. He has a number of quiet but relevant discussions with other characters—Bashir, Kira, the female Changeling, Garak. The female shapeshifter in particular, in addition to being the episode's necessary bearer of information, manages to make the Founders understandable and not simply malevolent. She doesn't want Odo to suffer needlessly, but she does require that he answer for the death of the Changeling he killed.
One interesting note about the situation is how troubling even the other Founders find it. The female Changeling explains to Odo that there was widespread disagreement in the Link on how to deal with their rogue shapeshifter. Some wanted him executed, while others thought it best just to leave his destiny to that of whatever becomes the other "solids." The consensus finally decided to bring him to the Link, where his actual thoughts and beliefs can be read, and from which an appropriate judgment can be made that will appease everyone—or, at least, all the Founders.
Then there's Garak, who is amusing in his role to "take Odo's mind off his condition" by distracting him with a concoction of "innuendoes, half-truths, and bald-faced lies" about his still-mysterious past. This makes appropriate use of his character, and Odo's suspicious yet indecisive reactions to Garak's suppositions are fun.
Garak has another purpose here, however—one that isn't so lightweight. He wants to know whether the lives of any Cardassians who attacked the Founders (in "The Die is Cast") were spared and taken prisoner. The female Changeling's answer is disconcerting to say the least, and proves that the Founders are a group that one does not want to be in a true conflict with: "They're dead. You're dead. Cardassia is dead. Your people were doomed the moment they attacked us." Quite cold.
But for that matter, I doubt I'd want to be on Garak's bad side either. After the Changeling's icy response, Garak devises, in what could have easily sustained an entire story in itself, a seriously devious plan to wipe out all the shapeshifters by attempting to gain unauthorized access to the Defiant's weapons. Worf intervenes, however, in a fiery argument scene that had my undivided attention. Being a former Obsidian, Garak's logic makes sense—what do the lives of Odo, Sisko, the Defiant crew, and his own matter when considering a plan that may very well safeguard the entire Alpha Quadrant? Garak puts his thoughts as honestly as I've heard anything said in quite a while: "Don't tell me you'd object to a little genocide in the name of self-defense." Quite cold, part two. It's surprising the range his character has, and how credible he seems in both ends of the spectrum, from humorous to sinister.
One more quick ten-second filler bit: There's a rather unlikely moment of comic inspiration where Bashir, whose brain is obviously in idle mode, almost skips a stone off the Changeling lake. Fortunately, Sisko is there to stop him ("Doctor?!"). I was laughing hard on that one.
Padding scenes aside, what "Broken Link" really rides on are the two big moments the show drops on us. First is the Founders' sentence to make Odo human and officially banish him from the Great Link, something Odo obviously would've liked to rejoin had the Dominion not operated on views he opposes as an assimilated humanoid. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this idea yet. I'm pretty sure I like it; doubtlessly, there's heaps of potential for character building and rediscovery, and it's one of the riskier things the writers have tried with a character on the series.
At the same time, I wonder if the creators are tossing aside all opportunities for completing Odo's journey as a shapeshifter trying to find his niche in a society that operates completely differently from another one he originated from but never understood. The show introduced the intriguing notion that being in the Link gave Odo understanding of his people and himself for the first time ever, and that this understanding was all snatched away as the Founders stuck him in a human body and disowned him (which in itself brings up some questions as to how powerful they truly are). Above all, I hope this isn't some sort of ploy that the writers are going to reverse on us next season. If they change Odo back into a shapeshifter, I'm going to seriously wonder what the point of this whole idea is. I suspect that they aren't going to do something silly like that, but I bring it up because there's always the possibility.
The episode's other surprise is that Gowron himself is a shapeshifter, much unbeknownst to the Federation and the Klingon Empire—something only Odo senses while connected to the Great Link. The show ends with Gowron snarling on the viewscreen, demanding the Federation turn old territory over to the Empire lest he declare war on them. In my opinion, this idea is fine—it plausibly explains Gowron's implausibly aggressive behavior, and it will allow something new to develop along the whole Klingon/Federation (and Dominion) front that's been stuck in a state of status quo since "Way of the Warrior."
"Broken Link" has some very good character implications and storyline promises, but it still isn't quite what it could have been. While turning Odo human and revealing that the leader of the Klingon Empire is a Changeling impostor are two ideas that probably don't really belong in the same episode in the first place, the episode's one underlying problem is that it is merely a promise of what's to come. Even though I can respect what the writers are probably planning to do, I wasn't completely satisfied with what came out of the episode. Most of what I've written here is in praise of what I think and hope will result from the events of the show. Standing alone, however, it's hard not to think "so?" after the screen fades to black, because the ending proves a bit more frustrating than it really should've been—even as a season finale. Considering how long it takes to get where it's going, I was hoping the conclusion would've been a little more revealing, especially along Odo's reactions to being human.
I suppose you can't have everything. I'm quite pleased with "Broken Link" and DS9's entire fourth season in general. As always, the potential for continuing with new, intriguing developments is present. The creators just need to seize the opportunity next season.
End-of-season article: Fourth Season Recap