Nutshell: It pushes too hard at the end, but it's a compelling chapter of pivotal character moments.
"Strange Bedfellows" is about a myriad of characters agonizing over difficult situations, showing how they ultimately come to make certain realizations.
Damar, realizing that Cardassia's role in the Dominion is becoming more and more like arranged slavery, must decide if the alliance is worth anything anymore.
Worf and Ezri, realizing they made a mistake by sleeping together in "Penumbra," must face each other and perhaps admit that it was in fact a mistake.
And Winn, who realizes the Prophets have abandoned her, must make a choice that ventures into the deepest truths of her own perceptions of spiritual existence.
What we have, then, particularly with the Damar and Winn storylines, is some interesting commitment for characters' change in the DS9 universe—change that makes sense because the writing has long been on the wall.
Like the first two installments of the "Final Chapter," much of "Strange Bedfellows" is dependent upon what came before. DS9 as a whole benefits from having this ultra-large canvas of events and history leading up to the latest events. You could see last week that the events in "Strange Bedfellows" were on the horizon. The fact that characters have come to the choices they make here isn't terribly surprising. That's not a criticism, because seeing how these characters come to finally make these realizations is where the gold lies. It makes for good viewing because of the series' pre-planned story arc mentality; we can watch the characters' paths being charted and can therefore understand the reasons behind the decisions they make.
In many ways, "Strange Bedfellows" is more setup, and in some ways it's another mini-payoff. Sisko's storyline is shelved for the week (aside from a few amusing Martok lines about Sisko's new marriage being the beginning of a whole new "war front"), while the Dominion/Breen and Winn/Dukat stories take center stage and go in new (well, not really) directions.
As I had hoped and expected, the Dominion's new alliance with the Breen is not something Damar is happy with, especially considering the Cardassians are the ones currently taking the largest losses. The Female Shapeshifter has arranged a treaty that brings the Breen into the alliance in a way that basically replaces the Cardassians' usefulness. The Breen have full reign over the military operations, and now Damar suddenly finds himself answering to Thot Gor, a Breen officer who now outranks him. When Damar objects, Weyoun tells him in no uncertain terms that he's a servant of the Dominion, period. When Damar demands to know how many sacrifices "his people" will have to make, Weyoun reminds him that the Cardassians ultimately aren't important; it's the Dominion and the Founders that matter. That Damar and Weyoun are headed for a major collision is nothing short of obvious.
And speaking of Weyoun, I just have to reiterate how much I love this guy. Jeffrey Combs can turn on a dime from funny to fearfully menacing. And Weyoun's posturing and overconfidence can be so entertaining. In one scene, Weyoun brings an offer to the imprisoned Worf and Ezri, and his unctuous overconfidence gets him killed in a scene of enormous amusement. I loved the unexpected swiftness with which Worf snapped Weyoun's neck, and even more the fact that Damar couldn't help but laugh with satisfaction while kneeling over Weyoun's body. ("Overconfidence. The hallmark of the Weyouns," he notes, knowingly.) Oh well; say goodbye to Weyoun-7, and hello to Weyoun-8.
What this is all really about, however, is Damar's choice. He's sick of the Dominion, he's sick of Weyoun, and he's no longer going to stand by idly while millions of Cardassians are killed for the "greater good" of an ally that gives nothing in return. Ultimately, he helps Worf and Ezri escape Cardassia with a message: The Federation has an ally on Cardassia. To Weyoun, Damar is able to blame the escape on Jem'Hadar incompetence (though I wonder if Weyoun wouldn't be more suspicious). So how and when the Cardassians will turn on the Dominion is still uncertain, but it certainly will be soon. It's satisfying to see Damar finally getting fed up with Weyoun—as well as fed up with himself and his own inaction. Damar has finally realized that it's time to put away the liquor and stop wallowing in his helplessness and self-pity.
Back aboard the station, Dukat continues to manipulate Winn, but there are some key decisions that Winn makes knowing what she's likely getting into. Near the beginning, she has another vision, but this time the Paghwraiths come out and reveal to her their true identity; there's no more pretense used to get her attention. I'm guessing this is because the Master Plan has already been set in motion; Dukat has already come to Winn with his "Anjohl" cover story (which was likely planned out in advance by the Paghwraiths and conveyed to Dukat to play out), and Winn has already accepted him as her guide. By the time she learns the Paghwraiths are part of the game, she has already ventured too far to simply turn back. She's caught in a moment of weakness that Dukat fully intends to exploit.
What's most interesting about this aspect of the story is the way it puts Winn through a wringer in a way that makes us sympathetic for her situation, even if we disapprove of the self-serving blinders she continuously wears. Once the Paghwraiths have contacted her, she's thrown into a hysteria of distress, and understandably so. Winn's portrayal here is one of someone who sincerely wants to know the love of her gods and steer clear of evil. There's a powerfully empathetic scene where the Prophets refuse to talk to her through the orb because she has been in contact with the Paghwraiths. The camera tracks back from an anguished Winn pleading futilely with an orb box that's not going to return an answer.
Far and away, the highlight of the episode is the scene where Winn calls upon Kira for guidance. Winn is desperate to understand why the Paghwraiths have come to her, and why the Prophets have abandoned her. The irony of the situation speaks volumes; here we have Bajor's spiritual leader so confused about her own soul that she's asking for help on matters of spirituality from someone who has for years disagreed and even despised her high-handed political tactics. It's one of the most quietly powerful scenes I've seen on this series in quite some time.
What's particularly amazing about the situation is how telling it is. It makes absolutely perfect sense. Winn has always been convinced she is doing what's best for Bajor. She is convinced that Bajor needs her. She is convinced that her political power is a necessary thing. But it's because she simply cannot overcome her own nature of Looking Out for Number One that she is consistently traveling the wrong road. When Kira tells her that redemption lies in relinquishing the power that has led her astray, Winn's reaction is completely, 100 percent "Winn": How can giving up power be the answer? Bajor needs me! Surely that's not what the Prophets meant!
In essence, this highlights a fundamental similarity between Winn and Dukat, which I'm sure Winn isn't even aware of: Both are people who have long been vying for the acceptance and love of the Bajoran people, and both have failed. And now both are going to turn to the Paghwraiths as a new avenue to find what they're looking for. Each may very well be exactly what the other deserves. Or they may end up destroying each other. (Perhaps those two statements are equivalent.)
This episode, while containing some excellent material, has some evident weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is the Breen. I just can't take the Breen "characters" seriously the way they stand around on the set under those silly helmets, occasionally expelling an unintelligible, electronic utterance. (The other characters can understand the Breen, sort of like the way Han Solo can understand Chewbacca.) I couldn't help but chuckle as it occurred to me that the Breen might best be utilized in a comedy routine as the galaxy's ultimate straightmen. (After all, one can't see a trace of your expression when you're under a helmet like that.) As characters, it's very hard to get any valuable feedback from the Breen, because they're by definition wooden.
And, unfortunately, the Evil Dialog at the end of the episode managed to detract from the Winn/Dukat storyline. As much as Jay Chattaway's score heightened the Mood of Evil, this dialog was too theatrical, too scheming, too glib and overblown, and it simply came off as Bad-Movie Writing. Strangely, it's the same problem that the end of last season's otherwise sensational "Waltz," also written by Ron Moore and directed by Rene Auberjonois, suffered from.
Also, while I can certainly see Winn doing whatever it takes to see her own needs fulfilled, I wonder somewhat about her sudden conversion to walking the path of the Paghwraiths. Sure, maybe her religious beliefs have been empty worship and a means to an end for years, or even a lifetime (which is quite a revelation), but I wonder how exactly she arrives at the conclusion of the Paghwraiths as the answer to everything, especially considering how much struggling she does through most of the hour.
There's of course one other subplot in "Strange Bedfellows," and that's the continuing Worf/Ezri soap opera. Again, it's the most trite of the three storylines, but it finally finds its way to getting somewhere this time around. Again, there's probably too much of the annoyed bantering and snide humor. (And, boy, Ezri can be humorously juvenile in her barbs, taking absurdity to the extreme level, particularly her jab on Jadzia's pre-Worf sex life: "You're right; it was more than a few. It was dozens. Hundreds. In fact, I don't think there was anyone aboard DS9 who wasn't her lover!" My, how surly.)
But at last, these two start talking on civil terms (a looming death sentence has a way of doing that), and we finally, finally get to the heart of the matter. Here are two people who were drawn together by this awkward situation of a past life's love, and here they both realize that love remained in the past. The struggle to realize this truth has been a difficult climb during the past three episodes, but now that the struggle is over, it seems Worf and Ezri have escaped this mess as good-intentioned people who perhaps can be friends after all. I think I rather like that resolution.
So, then, what's the bottom line on "Strange Bedfellows"? Oh, I don't know. It's certainly another compelling outing with plenty more setup. But it lacks a little of something—perhaps the emotional cohesion of a truly confident story—to arrive at greatness. Here exists an hour that moves like a blur. An entertaining blur.
Next week: Chapter four. The Federation's survival depends on ... Damar?