Nutshell: A little too extreme at times, but mostly a very, very intense and gripping hour.
One of the most interesting things about Dukat, the Cardassians, and the entire Deep Space Nine universe is that they have always been filled with such challenging grey areas.
It is a bizarre irony, then, that an episode that effectively deletes many of those shades of grey from Dukat's character can still be extremely complex and interesting, and equally challenging. There have been many times in the past when sympathizing with Dukat—despite his incessant need for his actions to serve his own interests—was not a difficult thing. But after "Waltz" I find myself only partially understanding Dukat and not exactly wanting to understand the rest of him. And I truly hope that if I'd personally known Adolf Hitler the way I've come to know Dukat over the years, I wouldn't be a fraction as sympathetic or interested in knowing more about him as I am with Dukat.
That's not to say I sympathize with a man who admits to a pattern of thought that Dukat admits to by the end of "Waltz"; I'd probably react just the way Sisko did—with a determined "him or me" attitude that can't see the man as anything more than "pure evil." What, rather, I am saying is that virtuosic scripter Ron Moore has done something very interesting: He has gotten me to see things from inside the twisted mind of a mad, raving, racist, self-serving yet broken and tortured dictator who has lost everything—his empire, his daughter, his mind, and his entire sense of reality—and now plans on making up for lost time. Is that somewhere I really want to go? The answer to that question is probably the reason "Waltz" is so extremely psychologically intense for such a long time. Dukat is one of the most fascinating characters that Trek has ever maintained—but at the same time, some of the dimensions he takes on here scare the hell out of me, and I don't think I'd be doing my job if I didn't say his raving display was disquieting.
If you haven't gotten the idea, I think this makes for very powerful, wonderfully executed drama. Marc Alaimo's performances rarely disappoint, and here he does a balancing act unlike anything I've seen him do before. Dukat has changed in some ways, while remaining the same in others. He's definitely no longer stable. Alaimo offers us the witty side of the Cardassian that has always been likable, sympathetic, and interesting. He often seems like the same Dukat we've always known: self-serving but doing what he believes is in everyone's best interests. At the same time, when his buried feelings finally come exploding out into the open dialog, we see a frightening display of repressed hatred (powerfully conveyed by the actor). In between Dukat's surface and inner-self are the voices of dissension in his head, which take on the form of Weyoun, Damar, and Kira—a device which is effectively utilized.
The rudimentary plot does a good job of staying out of the way. The whole game begins when Sisko, who is to give a statement for Dukat's initial Federation hearing, is on the same ship that is transporting the Cardassian criminal. The ship is suddenly attacked by Dominion forces and destroyed. A handful of survivors make it out alive, including, of course, Sisko and Dukat, who are the only two people on one shuttle that escapes. Sisko is injured, the shuttle is damaged, and Dukat is forced to land on a barren planet. The two then have nothing to do but wait for rescue and, of course, discuss everything that has been left unsaid for years.
This is of course the core of the episode—a very solid core, at that. It's interesting to note that the crux of the way both Sisko and Dukat see "Dukat, the person" is not simply in context of the Dominion War, but mostly in terms of the Cardassian Occupation, where Dukat served as prefect. Just what were Dukat's intentions as he oversaw the Occupation? To what extent was he responsible for the genocide? It's an issue that's on both men's minds throughout the episode, though Sisko obviously wants to avoid it—he'd rather not address Dukat under the given circumstances.
But would Sisko ever have wanted to find the real answers to Dukat that "Waltz" eventually supplies? I'm not so sure. Sisko, contrary to some things he says early on, does have an opinion of Dukat, even though he knows he doesn't have all the "evidence." Disliking Dukat's self-serving motives (which led to the whole Dominion/Cardassian union, for starters) and coming to a middle-ground decision based on Dukat's reputation from the Occupation days (whether it's fairly or unfairly deserved) seems like the only somewhat comfortable position Sisko could ever reside in. Finding out Dukat's true intentions for overseeing the occupation of Bajor could either complicate matters with unexpected grey areas, or simplify them with the contempt in realizing that Dukat is as guilty as many say he is.
It's a great credit to "Waltz" that the final payoff manages to push the envelope to an extreme that I didn't see coming—yet, in a way, accomplishes in simultaneously painting shades of grey and exposing the contemptible side that one can rightly call "evil." As we learn, Dukat hadn't truly intended widespread death or destruction for Bajor; he wanted justice and control over the Bajoran resistance—at a point when it was far too late. As he puts it, he tried to "save lives" by "reaching out" with a kind hand—a hand which the Bajorans consistently "slapped away." He would answer terrorism with equal and opposite terror, and in his mind he was fully justified and right—far more generous than most people in his position would be. Well, maybe that's true (as echoes of "Duet" and the butcher Gul Darhe'el arise). But what Dukat fails to realize is that the Cardassians had no right in being on Bajor in the first place. Dukat's wrong-headed observation that the Cardassians were obviously the "superior race"—and that, therefore, he had free reign in telling Bajorans where their place was on their own planet—is precisely the kind of poisoned thinking that causes tragedies like the Cardassian Occupation (or the Holocaust, for that matter) to happen.
Yet Dukat could still probably be understandable despite his extreme, backward oversights—if not for the fact that his repressed rage reveals his utter hatred for Bajorans and the pride they wear as "twisted badges of honor," and the ludicrous fact that he blames the Bajorans' resistance for bringing out the worst in him and all Cardassians. And it's Dukat's rage that Sisko takes advantage of to trick the Cardassian into revealing his uncensored mind—a mind that deep down believes he should've simply killed every Bajoran he could've when he had the opportunity.
One relevant question is whether we judge a person on their actions or their beliefs. Dukat tried to do the right thing in wielding a gentler hand, even if it was a misguided attempt and for all the wrong reasons. But does that alleviate his evil now that we know the real truth—that Dukat is a Bajoran-hater that wants to be its enemy unlike anything the world has ever seen? Once we see the evil emerge, another question this episode demands we ask is whether Dukat's hatred grew out of his recent loss and madness, or if it has always been something he has held beneath the surface. Or did Dukat's hatred grow out of his own hopeless situation of trying to be the prefect that Central Command wanted him to be? How might he have turned out if he were never prefect of the Occupation? Even in what seems like a black-and-white case of terrible darkness and evil, Moore's script finds troubling shades of grey. While Dukat's hatred, admittedly, turns a little too extreme by the end (his desire to continue "unfinished business on Bajor" seemed a bit excessive for Dukat, even considering his instability), there always seems to be a confidently scripted reason behind everything Dukat thinks and does, even if it's difficult to decipher.
Returning to the voices in Dukat's head, I thought the use of the other characters as figments of Dukat's imagination was very appropriate. Each voice was there to provide Dukat with a chance to do what he wants to do more than anything—convince himself that he is justified in carrying out his actions. Whether they support his claims or refute them (causing Dukat to respond with his own rebuttals), they're always present as the symbol of embarrassed guilt and unremittingly determined rationalization—a running element of commentary. And when he Dukat doesn't get his way (even within this battle in his mind) he loses his temper and becomes violent, sometimes even turning his phaser upon thin air. Such behavior, and what these characters have to say, is very true to Dukat—a man who does not respond well to being told he is wrong or unjustified.
Execution-wise, Rene Auberjonois' direction was adept, particularly in utilizing these invisible characters. One effective choice has Dukat closing himself inside a shuttlecraft along with his three other "voices"; another has "Kira" mocking him, as she turns into a surreal, invisible laugh that drives Dukat to the brink.
Although Alaimo is the real show-stealer here, another performance I'd like to praise is Avery Brooks'. Brooks and Alaimo have always worked well together, but never has the situation felt so tense and personal. This show is about Dukat wanting Sisko's respect and understanding—an understanding that Sisko will never grant him. As a result, a lot of Dukat's dialog is answered with a reaction from Sisko. Brooks' performance is right on target, particularly in scenes where Sisko manipulates Dukat by playing to the Cardassian's ego and telling him exactly what he wants to hear.
Even the subplot, involving Worf taking the Defiant to look for Sisko and the other survivors, was handled well. It was understated, sensible, and featured some nice touches, which was about all it needed. (I particularly liked Kira's calm explanation concerning the limited time for searching for the survivors, and Worf putting Bashir in his proper place by quietly telling him, "You may leave the bridge, doctor," when the situation warranted it.)
On the other hand, Dukat's escape, while reasonably handled, seemed just a little too much like the obvious outcome of bringing Dukat back into DS9's main action. After his broken defeat in "Sacrifice of Angels," it seemed almost unfathomable that this guy could ever end up going back to where he came from. Yet that's exactly what this episode does by the time it ends. It seemed plausible enough, but at the same time it felt a little like a return to how things were before Dukat's downfall. I'd hate to see the Dominion/Cardassian storyline run around in a circle, but Dukat's return to the mix makes it all the more possible, because we all know he's not someone who's going to simply disappear. Hopefully this won't turn out to be character regression. If Dukat's madness doesn't continue to haunt him, and if Dukat ends up unaffected and at Weyoun's side the next time we see him, I'm going to be skeptical. At this point, I don't think it really hurts the episode, so I'm keeping an open mind.
Really, this episode would've been perfect four-star material if not for the final scene which has Sisko reiterate what we've already been adequately shown. It was the only scene in the show that rang false. Despite the substantial dialog in this episode, the dramatic undercurrent of "Waltz" was primarily "show, don't tell" mentality—until this lackluster final scene. Having Sisko slowly turn to Dax and explain how he has seen the face of "pure evil" was completely excessive and unnecessary. While Sisko's interpretation of the situation certainly felt genuine, the scene's existence seemed glib and rather intelligence-insulting after nearly an hour of deep and thought-inviting Sisko/Dukat interaction.
But other than a touch of excess here and there and this final scene, "Waltz" is a big, big winner—a dark, meaty, intriguing chapter that's probably the most ambitious and probing hour of DS9 since "Rocks and Shoals." Bravo to Mr. Alaimo, Mr. Brooks, and Mr. Moore.
Next week: Speaking of great episodes, "Rocks and Shoals" airs again. Catch it if you haven't.