Nutshell: A powerhouse. This is truly what three weeks of setup warrants.
Featuring a flurry of excitement, "The Changing Face of Evil" is a riveting, carefully crafted balance of all the elements we've had over the past three weeks and before that. As DS9 plots go, it's probably the most viscerally engaging edge-of-seat experience this season.
There's a sense that although "Penumbra," "'Til Death Do Us Part," and "Strange Bedfellows" were all solid, interesting, forward-progressing shows, they were somehow lacking something necessary to elevate them to greatness—something "The Changing Face of Evil" clearly has. That element, I think, is emotional release. It's fun to be set up, teetering on the edge of payoff. But at the same time it's in some ways unsettling and frustrating. The payoff is where the crux of satisfaction lies.
"Changing Face" is like the proverbial roller-coaster ride—a skillful tap into a variety of feelings, mainly fear, exhilaration, and anticipation. If "Strange Bedfellows" was the piece that revealed to the audience how characters were committing to new directions, "Changing Face" is the piece where those characters reveal that commitment to other characters.
There are many different types of scenes in this episode, and pretty much all of them work exceedingly well. The episode wastes no time in getting its intentions under way; moments after Worf and Ezri are greeted with happiness as they return safely to DS9, the bad news arrives—the Breen have attacked Earth. A shot of San Francisco shows the burning remains of destroyed buildings at Starfleet Headquarters; the Golden Gate Bridge lies in ruins.
Suddenly, the Federation and its allies, who apparently have had the edge in the war recently, find themselves again facing desperation now that the Dominion have forged this new alliance with the Breen. The Breen's audacity in attacking Earth directly on a suicide mission is unsettling. At the moment, the Breen seem to operate at least partially upon psychological strategy: To strike fear into the enemy is to gain an advantage over the enemy.
With the tone for the hour set, what's interesting about "The Changing Face of Evil" is that a lot of its first half doesn't comprise a tight plot so much as a series of little character snippets leading up to the final act's major events. There are many scenes of calm, everyday life aboard the station, though everyone's a little more alert of the possibility of forthcoming battle.
A surprising amount of this works through the doses of humor. There's a running gag introduced here about a scale model O'Brien has built depicting the battle at the Alamo. The Alamo references, as anyone who has been watching this season at all knows, have become an ongoing tradition, and here O'Brien—and the show's writers—take it to a completely new level that seems to approach self-parody. Here are two guys, O'Brien and Bashir, who have become so obsessed with the Alamo that they have taken to playing out the battle on a 30-square-foot scale model. Or, as Worf observes, "They play with toys." Say what you will about the Alamo references, but I find the quirky persistence of the gag to be strangely refreshing, especially now that the Alamo has left the confines of the holosuite and is being played out in the middle of Quark's bar.
The fact we can have such broad humor in this episode—particularly the joke about Bashir "misplacing" the figurine of Colonel Travis (Nog: "Can't you make another one?" O'Brien: "What, so he can lose it again?")—is an odd pleasure, particularly considering how intense the episode grows in its final act.
Also amusing is the new play on Worf and Ezri. It's nice to see them able to sit with each other at Quark's and socialize without the constant tension looming overhead. Finally, Worf is able to see Ezri as Ezri, and not Jadzia. (Ezri: "You're a good friend." Worf: "I know.") And now that Ezri thinks she might be in love with Bashir, Worf can offer his friendly (sarcastic) opinion on the matter. Okay, so "He plays with toys" isn't the most persuasive argument against Bashir, but it is a funny one.
The newlywed Siskos also get some screen time here, leading to the inevitable but necessary discussion on how they both still have jobs to do and ships to captain, despite the danger with the war going on. None of this is groundbreakingly original, but it is sensible and well played, so I have no complaints. It's marital bickering that's truthful in its concerns and not annoying, so it's absolutely fine by me.
As with the previous three installments, the episode cuts back and forth between several perspectives, one of them of course being the inevitable collision course of Damar and Weyoun. (Actually, the collision has already happened; Weyoun simply doesn't know it yet.) The chemistry between these characters proves absolutely stellar here, the best Damar/Weyoun scenes we've had to date (and quite possibly the last of them). Damar, who has been plotting secretly with Gul Rosot (John Vickery) to prepare the launch of an insurrection against the Dominion, is a changed man with a new confidence—and Weyoun has taken notice.
The dialog here is sharp and acted to perfection. Jeffrey Combs' mocking jest at Damar is as much fun as it has ever been, but the dynamic is different because Damar is no longer willing to be a Dominion puppet ... and Weyoun doesn't see that. The fact Weyoun mistakes Damar's attitude change as a renewed confidence in the Dominion's ability to win the war is absolutely delicious—and absolutely appropriate. In the meantime, the dialog plays suspense games with us as it appears Weyoun might, maybe be on to Damar's plan—before showing us that Damar indeed does have Weyoun completely duped. Casey Biggs brings a commanding confidence to Damar; seeing how his partnership with Weyoun has disintegrated is probably the most well-played element of the past four shows, and in no small part because of Biggs' performance.
Back on Bajor, the Winn/Dukat arc continues to foreshadow the likely disasters to come, but I was particularly glad to see that the Evil Scheming Dialog at the end of "Strange Bedfellows" was more of an isolated moment of dramatic excess than a true indication of Kai Winn turning to transparent "evil." In this installment, she's depicted more as a person searching for answers, trying to come to an understanding of the Paghwraiths and her role in using them to bring about the "Restoration" of Bajor. Unfortunately, what she doesn't seem to understand is that the path she has chosen is more than simply a self-serving means to an end; it's a path of unknown danger that could spell disaster for her and all of Bajor, especially considering our awareness of a "great trial" that the Emissary will have to face. What consequences exactly this will have is anyone's guess, but it seems pretty clear that Winn is completely unaware of the gravity of her situation. She continues to get in deeper and deeper. At this point she has removed books about the Paghwraiths from Bajor's sacred archives, including an ominous text called the Kosst Amojan, which may be the key to releasing the Paghwraiths. Her perusing of these forbidden texts, however, has raised the suspicion of her chief aide, Solbor (James Otis).
Meanwhile, Dukat's menacing side resurfaces in a frightening way (the mere presence of Marc Alaimo's is enough to send chills). When Solbor tries to return the texts to the archive, Dukat punches the guy and tells him not to interfere. Ultimately, Dukat has his way with the Kai, simply because there's no one else around to stop him from manipulating her.
The first four acts of this multi-layered story provide backdrop. The whole time, through the humor, the setup, and the character dynamics, we get the feeling the story is turning into one big, ticking time bomb waiting to go off—which it does in its final act.
Sisko is ordered into a major battle when it looks like the Federation is going to lose its only foothold in Dominion space (the Chin'Toka system, gained in "Tears of the Prophets"), and suddenly the whole tone of the episode launches into anticipation when the prelude to battle takes an unusually large amount of screen time (and is executed with great skill). In a way, it feels almost like the beginning of an end, a final battle. That might be because it is the final battle for the Defiant, which engages the Dominion/Breen fleet and is disabled and destroyed in a sequence of alarming and surprising swiftness. One minute, Sisko is ordering his ship to engage the enemy, and the next, Sisko is suddenly ordering his crew to abandon ship. The Defiant's death is almost painful to watch. (The visual-effects sequence works on the visceral level, but the concept of the Defiant's destruction benefits even more from the human touches, like Sisko's final glance at his wrecked bridge before heading to the escape pod.)
That leaves the Federation with another problem: the Breen's new energy-draining weapon, which takes the Federation by surprise and leads to the fleet's swift loss of the battle at Chin'Toka. Fortunately, Damar's timing couldn't be better; his insurrection has begun. Cardassian fleets have attacked Dominion outposts, and Damar gives an invigorating address to the Cardassian people, telling them to "resist today."
Watching the reaction to Damar's speech is an episode highlight. The key to success is in how all the actors involved look as if they truly believe they are inside the story as it unfolds. Watching Damar on the screen, speaking the unthinkable, Odo stands with a thoughtful, compelled look on his face. Admiral Ross sports a can-you-believe-this-is-happening look. Sisko wants confirmation on what Damar is claiming. Weyoun is absolutely disgusted. I wanted to cheer. This is a real payoff, as entertaining as it is powerful. (One of the first Dominion targets the Cardassians strike is the cloning facility, which conveys a clear meaning: No more Weyoun clones. Now there's poetic justice.)
Weyoun orders the Breen to find Damar, no matter how many Cardassians have to be killed in the process. Immediately after he gives this order, a brilliantly subtle shot has Weyoun looking suspiciously over his shoulder as a Cardassian mans his post in the background. (Talk about your uneasy situations.)
While the Federation and Dominion are having their troubles with the shifts in power, Winn continues a downward spiral that, based on a series of bizarre circumstances, seemingly cannot be halted; she seems destined now to follow through on what she has started. Solbor's appall at the Kai's actions, along with his suspicion of Anjohl, have led him to uncover the truth of Dukat's masquerade, which sends Winn into a shocked frenzy. But she can't allow herself to be exposed, and stabs Solbor in the back—in a brilliant sequence where Winn is so trapped by her inability to relinquish her power and come forward with the truth that she's virtually forced into murdering her own aide (in her mind, anyway). I could understand every moment of her actions and desperation here, because they stand on such a sturdy foundation.
Magical Bajoran properties lead to the secret of the Kosst Amojan's hidden words, but I need not explain this in detail (this review is long enough as it is); suffice it to say Winn's intentions are so close to turning around and backing out of the Paghwraith path, but at the last moment the knowledge and power reveal themselves, leading her—based simply on who she is and how power has constantly led her astray—to continue down the path Dukat has so deviously laid out for her, whatever that may be. (Though it's interesting to note that Dukat seems nearly as awed about everything going on around him as does Winn.)
Of course, stellar execution over this slew of plot and characterization certainly doesn't hurt. Mike Vejar's cinematic direction of this episode is phenomenal. "Changing Face" has the aesthetic qualities of a feature film; Vejar's visual sense is always a highlight, and here it enhances the mood wherever necessary.
But what's perhaps most commendable about this episode is that the plot, for all its eventfulness at the end, never obstructs the insight of characterization. Even though most of the events taking place are larger than the characters can possibly be in themselves, the characters never, for one instant, become cogs in the plot's wheel. The personalities remain exceptionally strong and well defined, and major events are punctuated with nice touches (like the simplicity of Weyoun saying, upon the Defiant's destruction: "Poor Captain Sisko. I believe he was quite fond of that ship"). And it's in an episode like this that one can appreciate how much previous stories have made it possible for the motives, dialog, and actions of the characters in a plot of this magnitude to not only make sense, but to be a logical outgrowth of what came before.
"The Changing Face of Evil" is a clear triumph, executed with panache. It has plenty more setup, but it also has a great deal of release. It's a very satisfying hour. Sign me up for the next installment.
Next week: Chapter five. Kira has a new role in a new alliance, and dons a new uniform to boot.