Nutshell: Some weaknesses—one disappointing conclusion in particular—but overall it's a poignant and satisfying end to the final arc and the series.
DS9's final episode is an emotional, eventful story that covers ground like there's no tomorrow—because there is no tomorrow. Here's an episode that must end a war, tie up numerous threads, and essentially close the book on every recurring DS9 character in existence—not an easy task. I dare say they pulled it off very well.
But at the same time, they could've done some things better. Naturally, with the series now over, there could still be half a season's worth of stories to follow up what happens here. Not everyone is going to be satisfied with what we leave behind (there are of course some issues that go unresolved), but I'd guess a great deal of the audience will be. Me—I'm mostly satisfied, although there were some things on the wish list I didn't get.
I liked this closing chapter in the DS9 saga a great deal. No, it's not perfect. I wouldn't call it the best overall episode of the season. But I would call it a big winner, and probably the most emotion-packed and important DS9 outing of the year. Even if it can't wrap up every one of a million storylines, it's a captivating ride that does many things.
The episode's got it all: tense action, smart and probing discussions, gripping final showdowns, fulfilled prophecies, tragic consequences, satisfying comeuppance, gut-wrenching suspense, bittersweet goodbyes, some laughter, and plenty of tears. There's a lot here to reflect upon, even though there's the temptation to reflect upon what there wasn't.
This episode has some flaws when considering the very big series-spanning picture. There's the sense that anything less than perfection would seem somehow disappointing because the series is over. The book is closed and what is here is all we have left to answer the many questions DS9 has posed during its run.
I should probably confess an affection for this series that exceeds any television show I've ever watched, including close runners-up Homicide: Life on the Street and Star Trek: The Next Generation. There's a poignancy in seeing the characters head into their respective final chapters, their fates probably forever being sealed, as there will be no DS9 feature film as was the case with TNG.
So, aside from the sentimental qualities, you ask, was "What You Leave Behind" any good? Well, as I switch into review mode here, I must say the answer is a definite "yes."
The thing that has been both DS9's best quality and at the same time the source for its biggest drawbacks is that there's so much ambition behind the stories that the final outcomes can't always live up to the vast layers of depth and subtlety the creators seem to promise. It's a strange two-edged sword that works both for and against the series, and one can see the phenomenon in operation here. (Of course, I've usually argued that the strengths of this policy have by far outweighed the weaknesses, and I will be arguing that case again here.)
"What You Leave Behind" is the final outcome of the huge arc we've had for the past eight weeks. But more than that, it's also the final outcome of the Dominion War we've had for the past two years. But, more than that, it's also the final payoff for character paths we've had for years before that: Sisko as the Emissary, Dukat as the major adversary, Winn as the schemer of Bajor, Odo as the rogue Changeling, Kira as the heroic freedom fighter, Garak as the exiled Cardassian, and the Founders as the paranoid aggressors of the Gamma Quadrant.
So, then, as they say, where were we?
We've got Kira, Garak, and Damar hiding out on Cardassia. We've got Winn and Dukat embarking on a devious mission into the Fire Caves of Bajor. We've got Sisko, Martok, and Ross leading what they intend to be the final assault on the Dominion fleets. By the end of the show, we presume, all these elements will come together in some way or another, and we've pretty much presumed right.
Perhaps the most interesting series-spanning parallel in "What You Leave Behind" is that of Cardassia and Bajor. While we've had this connection drawn for us recently, most notably in "When it Rains...," I like the idea of the series ending where it started—with an analysis of Cardassia and Bajor. Society-wise, it would seem this episode is more interested in Cardassia than in Bajor (Bajor has been limited via microcosm to Winn, Sisko, and the Prophet/Paghwraith struggle), but along with the topic comes the full circle that plays into a little bit of everything about these two cultures.
From the outset of "What You Leave Behind" (heck, from the end of last week's "Dogs of War") it has seemed abundantly clear the war would be ending on Cardassia Prime. All the major characters are either there already, or on their way.
On Cardassia, the organized resistance is over, but Damar's attempts to bring about a new resistance through the citizens of Cardassia has proven successful; we now have acts of sabotage against the Dominion, giving them even more troubles behind the lines to contend with, and at the worst time to have such problems.
So now, the Dominion's patience with the Cardassian people has run out. Weyoun retaliates in full force, reducing Locarian City and its population of two million to ashes. He says future acts of sabotage by the Cardassians will be met with similar acts of destructive retaliation.
Well, if there's one thing Weyoun and the Dominion haven't learned, it's that their attitude of absolute totalitarian control over such "Dominion puppets" isn't as easy in the Alpha Quadrant as it may have been in the Gamma Quadrant. Just as Weyoun completely misread Damar before his defection, so has he misread the Cardassian population. This is a group that's supposed to be intimidated into submission with threats of annihilation? Cardassian society is as good as dead under Dominion rule, and given Cardassia's proud history, Weyoun's speech is more likely to cause further upheaval, methinks. Needless to say, it's a thrill to watch all of Cardassia begin to finally turn on their supposed ally—an "ally" that assumes its occupied territory's citizens will sit by idly while their interests are being blatantly ignored.
What we have here is an unstoppable freight train set in motion early in the season with Weyoun's idle insults of Damar. Cardassia will rebel, and two million Cardassian deaths is the catalyst, not the extinguisher.
By the time the Dominion realizes this fact, however, it's too late. The Federation and its allies, on the offensive charge into Cardassian space, have engaged the Dominion fleets. By this time, the Cardassian ships are turning their fire upon the Dominion and Breen ships, suddenly turning the tables. Sisko says it all: "The timing couldn't be better."
As was the case with "The Changing Face of Evil," it takes a little while for all of this to get rolling. The episode keeps a healthy emphasis on the character flavor, giving us one last time to follow a halfway-normal day in the lives of the people. A lot of this works every bit as well as it did in "Changing Face"; these people still have lives and plans, even though half of them are headed off into a huge battle. It was nice to see Keiko and the kids again, as well as hear about O'Brien's plans to move back to Earth and teach at the academy after the war ends. Kasidy's morning sickness was a bearable comic scene with a serious (albeit derivative) undertone about leaving behind the loved ones while going off to fight the battle.
I was ho-hum about the Bashir/Ezri bedroom scene, which seems to exist for confirmation of consummation more than anything else, but if you're a Bashir/Dax fan, please feel free to revel in it. (On the other hand, I did like the subtle shot later on where the two glance worryingly across the bridge—seeing if the other has been harmed—when the Defiant comes under heavy fire.)
There's plenty of crosscutting between the storylines, and since they're all interesting, none of them really trip up any of the others. Indeed, it's a credit to Allan Kroeker's direction that an episode with so much going on proves, surprisingly, mostly dead-on in terms of pacing. The story doesn't feel rushed the way a lot of Big DS9 Episodes in the past have. Fast-paced at times, yes; rushed, no.
The only major players in the story not headed for the collision course on Cardassia are Dukat and Winn on Bajor. Dukat returns with his sight restored (after his act of treachery in "When it Rains..."), ready to embark on the mission into the Fire Caves. Noteworthy is how Winn doesn't even look up from her reading when Dukat proudly swaggers into the room, for this is a partnership based on mutually understood exploitation. And their trek through the Fire Caves is the prelude to a separate conflict that has nothing to do with the Dominion War. (More on this, of course, later.)
Behind the lines are Weyoun and the Female Founder, who share a god/child relationship that we've long since understood, but it benefits here from some interesting dialog. There's the sense that Weyoun's unconditional worship of the Founder often falls on deaf ears, as the Founder has an almost unconscious tendency to cast him aside as a mostly irrelevant servant. Still, though, there's a bond here that seems to be unique, as she confesses at one point that Weyoun is the only solid she has ever come to really trust. These are the types of conversations that make DS9 much more than an exercise in plot and instead a rich character show.
Most of the finale's first hour follows the battle to reach the enemy. It's mostly well executed and entertaining, which is important since entertainment value is as necessary a quality as anything else.
There are the expected pyrotechnic battle sequences, an effective mix of special-effects footage from "Sacrifice of Angels" and "Tears of the Prophets" (among others) melded with some new shots. The bottom line is that the battle as conveyed works. And there's one fearsome visual (benefiting from a particularly strong Dennis McCarthy musical punctuation mark) of an immense fleet that reveals just what the Dominion has left for its last stand at Cardassia.
Eventually, defeat becomes clear and imminent for the Dominion; they simply have too many problems and find themselves completely surrounded at Cardassia Prime by the Federation alliance's fleet. Meanwhile, the Female Founder has ordered the elimination of all Cardassians on the planet surface, hoping to ensure an end to Cardassian resistance once and for all. But it's too late, because the weak links have already been exploited.
Kira, Damar, and Garak escape capture and near-execution at Mila's house, thanks to Cardassian troops turning against the Jem'Hadar in retaliation "for Locarian City." Much to Garak's dismay, however, Mila is killed and tossed—discarded—down a flight of stairs, followed by his childhood house being leveled as the Jem'Hadar destroy the city building by building. For Garak, the irony couldn't be more tragic. Here he is, finally ending years of exile, only to return to a Cardassia being destroyed by the Dominion. His plan to keep fighting—with revenge as the primary motive—draws a powerful full circle. Kira has been at this point before—when the Cardassians were the aggressors—and here she is again, fighting the freedom fighter's battle for the Cardassians as history repeats itself and another world is left decimated, albeit under interestingly different circumstances.
Kira & Co.'s latest objective is to make an assault on the Dominion command center in the Cardassian capital—a building so well armored that the explosives they have wouldn't even dent the entrance door. There's a well-conceived but not well-executed gallows humor scene where Our Resistance Fighters laugh at the prospect of their suicide mission not even having the capability to get off the ground, let alone end in a blaze of glory. (Oh well; Nana Visitor's giggle has always been one of the few things I never quite found convincing.) One plotted convenience says the Jem'Hadar—with such impeccable timing—would open the door and release the compound's defenses just to execute some Cardassians. Another convenience has Weyoun send so many guards off to eradicate the population that he leaves his key defenses vulnerable. What can I say? Suspension of disbelief has always been a factor in the equation. It's no worse here than usual.
I was somewhat disappointed by Damar's death. It comes in an action scene and with very little fanfare. Perhaps that's the point—he died in a routine firefight trying to free Cardassia. Still, as a key element in this arc for the past two months, it's almost as if there simply wasn't time to deal with the death of the man who would've been the leader of a new Cardassia. The notion seemingly is: He's dead; on with the story.
Kira and Garak are able to capture Weyoun and the Founder. Weyoun's caustic comments land him in real trouble, and Garak kills Weyoun in a comeuppance scene that shows Garak in all-business mode. I should probably point out that DS9 is the only Trek series where one recurring character can shoot another in cold blood and it can come across as satisfying and even justified. It's an example of how this series can tell Trek-universe stories with dark undertones and get away with it.
In the end, I think the way Cardassia played into the end of the war is among the most brilliant and well-conveyed of the series' large-scale ideas. Their alliance with the Dominion came under extreme, desperate circumstances; the alliance didn't pan out as I'm sure Dukat had envisioned; and ultimately, Cardassia pays the price and becomes a destroyed, defeated, anguished world with more than 800 million dead. One difficulty in the war storyline has been in showing huge losses in the Federation, simply because the higher powers in the Trek universe dictate (appropriately) that the Federation must survive. Making Cardassia pay the price, especially given how much of them we've seen over the course of the "Final Chapter," is the next best thing dramatically.
And watching Cardassia's fate unfold through Garak's eyes couldn't be more appropriate, because he is the survivor we identify with. He is the one who has longed to return to Cardassia and loved his world for what it was. And his painful, truthful, perceptive discussion with Bashir afterward is one of the highlights of the two hours. His acknowledgement of the oft-unspoken-of Cardassian arrogance that "betrayed the entire Alpha Quadrant" is powerful to hear in actual dialog, and his mix of sadness and anger and ultimately his calm acceptance that "We live in uncertain times" is superbly portrayed by Andrew Robinson. Through Garak, Cardassia's losses are hammered home with a true note of partially self-inflicted tragedy. Bravo.
Also of interest is Martok's toast over a devastated Cardassia, and Sisko and Ross' refusal to participate. It's almost as if the war's end has brought about a new sobriety concerning the lingering consequences that lie ahead—yet Klingon warriors will celebrate the victory nonetheless.
The actual end to the war, not surprisingly, comes with a truce (this is, after all, the world of Star Trek), and not the battle to the last Dominion soldier as the Female Founder initially promises. The nature of the truce makes sense, and builds through Odo's arc involving the Founders' disease, the cure, and the long relationship Odo has with his people.
The fact Odo is able to persuade the Female Founder to surrender is a notion that has numerous implicit possibilities. Over the past few months the Founder has grown increasingly ruthless and impatient. (One argument is that the consequences to the Great Link have become increasingly clear and dire.) The ability for Odo to change her mind by linking with her and offering to cure the Link is something that is completely consistent with the nature of the Founders as we've known them.
Back in "Sacrifice of Angels," it was clear the war was never quite so important as protecting the Link; the war was simply a means to an end, complicated by a plethora of other political situations. Here, the truce arises out of the Founder's need to protect the Link while trusting Odo. Included in the negotiated package deal for the truce is Odo finally returning to the Link—something the Female Founder has long been trying to convince/trick/lure Odo into doing, but also something Odo has long wanted the opportunity to do under the right circumstances. The way Odo and the Female Founder tie into the ending of the war is something I think grows naturally from all the past dealings we've seen, so I have no objections. (The change of heart in the Founder might seem sudden, but let's face it—with the cure, Odo is holding the right cards to strike a bargain. Besides, his understanding of "solids" is something the Founder might be willing to listen to given her vulnerable position.)
With the war over, the latter passages of "What You Leave Behind" focus on the final destination of the characters and the situation in the Fire Caves, where Dukat and Winn have successfully released the Paghwraiths.
One execution question I have concerns just how long Dukat and Winn are in these caves. The story crosscuts between the war's final showdown and the scenes in the caves. Then the truce is formed and most of the major characters return to DS9 for celebration and reflection. All this time, Dukat and Winn are in the caves. Apparently it all happens in a matter of hours—making this a particularly active day in the history of the Alpha Quadrant.
The timing seems a bit odd, but manageable. However, this adventure in the Fire Caves brings me to my one serious qualm with "What You Leave Behind"—the one piece of the story that truly didn't live up to where it seemed to be headed: namely, the final analysis of Dukat and Winn.
For me, the jury has been out concerning the nature of Dukat's twists and turns since his downfall last season in "Sacrifice of Angels." "Waltz" was a powerful episode but left Dukat headed in a direction that didn't seem nearly as interesting as the complex layers in what came before. "Tears of the Prophets" and later "Covenant" had him bouncing in a new uncertain direction with the Paghwraiths that seemed to be building somewhere. I thought we were finally getting somewhere truly compelling with the beginning of the final arc. What would Dukat's role in Bajor's fate reveal about him? What is it about Bajor that he really seeks? And what exactly is the nature of his hateful relationship with Benjamin Sisko?
Well, the answer provided in "What You Leave Behind," alas, is about as simpleminded as it could be. In short, "I've won, Benjamin. You've lost" is not what I envisioned as the ultimate explanation of Dukat's motives. And while an epic struggle of good vs. evil, Prophet vs. Paghwraith, Sisko vs. Dukat is entertaining (plenty of neat-looking fire and fury help set the stage of melodrama), DS9 has always been more compelling when dealing with shades of grey, not cut-and-dry absolutes. I wanted an analysis of Dukat that unveiled those complex layers, but here he instead laughs the Evil Laugh, speaks as a Paghwraith about an entire galaxy "burning for all eternity," and exercises the parlor poltergeist tricks that sunk last year's "The Reckoning."
While I think this final showdown proved by far more dramatic than "Reckoning," I still feel short-changed in seeing how simple this conflict resolved itself considering the weeks of buildup we've had devoted to it. Winn's role is a little more opaque; she seems to be uncertain in where her destiny lies, especially (and tellingly) after her own plan to seize the day fails. But the situation with Winn also never quite pays off. Once the Paghwraiths are released, she poisons Dukat, who dies only so he can later be resurrected (and magically transformed back into his true Cardassian form) by a Paghwraith.
This is all very audacious and mystical, but it's also a bit of a muddle, because it doesn't seem to be making much of a point. Yes, Winn is treacherous and, yes, she's constantly looking out for Number One and, yes, she ultimately helps the Emissary stop Dukat (and is killed as a result), but I can't say this made nearly as much sense as it seemed to want to. And I must say I would've been much more comfortable with Dukat talking as himself and not some weird hybrid of a resurrected Dukat/Paghwraith that makes him Evil Incarnate.
On the other hand, Sisko's role in this was quite satisfying, because he chooses to sacrifice himself to save the day, which ties into his role in protecting Bajor and fulfilling his ultimate duty as the Emissary. He and Dukat go literally into the fire, destroying the Kosst Amojan and permanently sealing the Paghwraiths in the Fire Caves. The Prophets save Sisko, however, bringing him to the Celestial Temple where he apparently has always been destined to end up.
This, however, means Sisko must say goodbye to his corporeal existence, so he comes to Kasidy in a vision and explains that he has much to learn from the Prophets, and still more to do for Bajor in his new role. Even though DS9 will almost certainly never have a life beyond this episode, the writers didn't seem to want to close the book forever. Sisko joining the Prophets seems to be permanent, yet not; he assures Kasidy that he will be back ("Maybe a year, maybe yesterday"), but at the same time there's an obvious change in his existence; he has become a Prophet and seems very disconnected from Kasidy and his former existence, even realizing that his life "is not linear."
There's a sense here of the writers perhaps having their cake and eating it too (why promise Sisko will return after throwing him into the fire with Dukat?), but I guess there's a certain balance of bittersweet comfort in knowing Sisko could come back, but perhaps never will.
The fate of the other characters also gets some good screen time, as some choose to stay while others leave. (If there's an appropriate time for a crew to break up and move on to new things, the aftermath of war seems like it.) O'Brien returns to Earth to teach at the academy; Worf agrees to return with Martok to Kronos with a diplomatic role; and of course, Odo must return to the Link—his people need to be saved, and need to understand what he understands about "solids." Life for others will go on at the station: Bashir, Ezri, Quark, Kira, Kasidy, and Jake stay put.
I must admit I had quite a lump in my throat for most of the final act. The episode gets all the poignant goodbye moments right, whether it's the last crew get-together at Vic's, the wordless O'Brien/Bashir hug-goodbye, or the amusing Quark/Odo banter-goodbye, it was all pulled off with sentiment that proved genuine. The Kira/Odo parting was particularly romantic and moving, with the visual of Odo returning to the Link providing almost a storybook finish to their relationship—I found it quite touching. Kudos, of course, go out to Visitor and Auberjonois, who play their characters with all the right notes.
And while I've generally not been a big fan of montage scenes, the montages here had the tearful effectiveness they were shooting for. Montages are a bit of a cliche, but this is a good example of the right time and place. (A shame, however, there were no Worf/Jadzia clips, as Terry Farrell apparently denied permission of their use.) I also loved the final pull-back shot of the station with Kira and Jake watching the wormhole from the promenade—providing a nice echo of "The Visitor."
If there's any other disappointment to be found in "What You Leave Behind," I'd say it would be within what we didn't see rather than what we did. Most notably lacking is some sort of scene that answers the question of Bajor in the political sense. Will Bajor ever join the Federation? Presumably so, but there's no mention of such in dialog, which seems like a huge omission considering that was Sisko's mission in the first place. The closing sense is more one of "life goes on," with Kira now commanding the station instead of Sisko. That's fine, but a look at Bajor's new role in the post-war Federation would've been nice. I'm sure there are other issues that might've been nice to see this season (which we'll revisit in the season recap article), but I'd say this is the most evident oversight.
But not to end on a sour note, because "What You Leave Behind" was anything but a disappointment. There was plenty of closure, lots of good drama, a superb final chapter in the war storyline, and a great sendoff for many of the characters. If only Dukat/Winn weren't such a letdown this would be an easy four-star show, because it tackled a difficult job with surprising adeptness. It satisfactorily answered a great deal of questions while providing the emotional roller-coaster I anticipated. It's tough to say goodbye to this series, but ends must inevitably come. I vote that "What You Leave Behind" makes for a very nice ending.
It's a wrap for DS9, but it's not yet a wrap for me. As in past years, I will post a season recap article sometime this summer. Stay tuned.
Previous episode: The Dogs of War
End-of-season article: Seventh Season Recap