Nutshell: The setup continues, and so does the suspense.
"'Til Death Do Us Part" is a pretty scary title when you stop to consider what it implies, weighing in the story's central warning of unknown but approaching danger.
The key word, I think, in these early "Final Chapter" episodes is "suspense"—a suspense whose momentum builds slowly and steadily, like an accelerating freight train. The payoff is being deferred, but we sense that payoff is most definitely arriving in the near future. "'Til Death Do Us Part" is a lot like its predecessor, "Penumbra," in that it establishes the groundwork for a lot of what's yet to come. It leaves us dangling on the edge, thirsting for more.
On that level, for that purpose, this episode is effective. But, again, it's somewhat difficult to analyze a story that's based almost completely on setup—especially considering there's at least four plot lines running concurrently through the episode.
I'll say this: We're definitely getting somewhere. Or everywhere. I'd probably also say "'Til Death" had me more wrapped up in the overall story than "Penumbra" did—now that I know what to expect in terms of plotting structure. They both have their shining moments as well as weaknesses, but overall I got a sense that "'Til Death" was a little more cohesive.
Sisko's plan to marry Kasidy was thrown a curve at the end of last week's installment, and here he's faced with two at-odds options not unlike his dilemma in "Tears of the Prophets" last season: follow his existence as a human being, or follow the will of the Prophets. Either choice will undoubtedly have painful consequences.
At first, Sisko chooses to obey the Prophets, and tells Kasidy he has to back out of the marriage. This has a reasonable, natural reaction on Kasidy's part. Yes, she's angry and heartbroken, but the episode doesn't resort to histrionics and instead plays it down as solemn and sullen. Much of the rest of this storyline is about Sisko agonizing over his decision, leading up to the inevitable moment where he changes his mind.
What's best about this arc playing out over a course of so many episodes is that it gives the writers enough time to tell the story properly. Yes, we're moving through plot pretty quickly these days ("'Til Death" can hardly be called slow-moving), but we're still investing time in character reactions and decisions. Sisko explains his problem to Jake and Kira in scenes that make sense. (What's interesting is that he doesn't reveal his personal problem to Kai Winn, but simply explains to her the "trial" he's to face as Emissary. I guess Sisko's view is that his personal affairs are none of Winn's business, and I certainly don't blame him.)
Kira's reaction proves especially true to character through its simplicity. Sisko hopes for a sympathetic ear that will help him change his mind, but in Kira he doesn't find it; he gets a sympathetic ear that tells him that listening to the Prophets is the right thing to do. Subsequently, when Sisko changes his mind and decides he can't obey the Prophets' warning this time, we see that Kira is worried that Sisko is making a mistake.
Overall the Sisko/Kasidy storyline works for the same reason it worked in "Penumbra"—it deals with emotions and reactions plausibly and benefits from good performances. There's no excess here, just what is necessary to make the story work as a mini-payoff that also serves as a setup for the presumed tragedy around the corner. The fast and fairly fanfare-free marriage ceremony is quiet and pleasant, an approach that sort of offsets the big, jovial moments in "You Are Cordially Invited" last season.
And the Prophets have spoken again: Sisko is in for rough times. The Sarah-prophet even interrupts his ceremony to try to persuade him to stop. What's most interesting is the maternal worry that the Sarah-prophet holds for Sisko. There's genuine concern here, and her simple, heartfelt "Be careful, my son" ends up having quite an impact. (David Bell's endlessly brooding and foreboding score also helps set the stage, particularly at this moment; many scenes through the episode are scored to feel like a prelude to disaster.)
Needless to say, the suspense angle is particularly urgent in the Sisko/Kasidy storyline. Ben has disregarded the Prophets' warning, and there's without a doubt going to be hell to pay, in one way or another. How exactly this will play out is a big part of the fascination. We've got a dozen other things going on here, and they're all likely to play into it.
One of those mysterious elements is Dukat, who is now floating around the station as a Bajoran under the assumed name Anjohl. This is the episode's most opaque storyline; Dukat has probably come to the station in part to wreak some sort of vengeance on Sisko and the Bajorans, but it obviously runs much deeper than that, into his devotion to the Paghwraiths. He seems to be seeking self-discovery as much as anything else. The first thing he does once aboard the station is seek out Kai Winn, and Dukat's cover story turns out to be exactly what the Kai foresaw in a vision from the Prophets. (Can we even be sure? Was Winn perhaps contacted by the Paghwraiths alleging to be the Prophets?)
Winn's role in the game is also going to be interesting, because she's becoming a pawn in Dukat's plan (or perhaps they're both pawns in a struggle of higher powers). After her initial vision from the Prophets, she believes she has found a guide in Anjohl, whose appearance and personal circumstances seems to be exactly what the Prophets had foreseen.
Of course, I must wonder how it is Anjohl is not recognized by Winn as Dukat. The disguise is good, but it's not that good, and Dukat's voice is unmistakable. (I suppose even in the 24th century we will not escape the Shakespearean all-convincing masquerade contrivance.) Maybe Winn is simply too distracted to notice Anjohl is Dukat; I would hope Kira's or Sisko's reaction upon seeing him would be much different, as they have been in much closer contact with Dukat in the past.
I'm also wondering about the nature of Dukat's manipulation of Winn. There are simply too many coincidences and fortunate twists of fate for Dukat simply to be lucking out and catching Winn's ear, saying exactly what she needs to hear when she needs to hear it. I'm guessing the Paghwraiths somehow have told him what he would need to do to become Winn's guide. But the story doesn't make it clear, and there are moments here that are difficult to truly decipher. I expect these questions will be answered, but for now they're still only tantalizing questions.
On the war front, events too are building. Early in the episode, I was particularly interested in the powerfully conveyed analysis of Damar. Here's a man whose role in this war is nearly becoming pitiable. He's the leader of a severely hurting world that's taking great losses for the Dominion. He's supposedly calling the shots for his people, but he's a pawn in the game, always answering to Weyoun and the Female Founder. Really, all of Cardassia is a pawn in the game at this point.
Damar has fallen into a hopeless routine that's pathetic. He wakes up hung over morning after morning. These days he can't even look at himself in the mirror. In one of the episode's highlights, Dukat tells Damar to turn inward and find the man who he once was. And Damar seems to be listening.
What's interesting is the dual loyalty here. Damar is loyal to his former mentor, but Dukat has also forgiven Damar for everything that has happened in the past. What remains are two men who have faced difficult chapters in their lives and must now overcome them. If Damar wakes up and acts in time, he might be able to bring Cardassia back from the brink of complete submission to the Dominion.
In fact, that might be something we're seeing the beginnings of, because the Dominion, I'm guessing, doesn't care much about its Cardassian ally. The Big Bombshell unleashed on us by the end of "'Til Death" is that the Breen are forming an alliance with the Dominion. And I doubt Damar is going to take well to that news.
About the Breen: The writers have these players joining the game a little late here—and the Breen never come off as much more than cartoon figures in the machinations of a plot bigger and smarter than them—but this has possibilities considering Cardassia's probable uselessness in such an alliance. We could be set for some serious collisions here, and if that's the case I'll be pretty impressed, even if the Breen do turn out to be nothing more than the boring and faceless (albeit nasty) "bad guys" that they currently are.
For now, the Breen plot is more of an avenue for the continuing saga of Worf/Ezri. What most hurts the Worf/Ezri storyline, and probably the whole episode, is the annoyance involving the prefab pattern that each Worf/Ezri scene seems to follow: We have a somewhat interesting character realization, followed by Worf/Ezri dialog that often crescendos into an argument courtesy of Worf's short fuse and quick retorts, at which point Breen come storming in to interrupt the dialog/argument and grab Our Heroes and haul them away. This pattern is repeated so many times that in the end it almost feels like a joke. Given their desperate circumstances, I wish there would be more understanding and support between Worf and Ezri, and less boiling-over impatience and bickering. This aspect of the story could've benefited by taking a tip from the more understated Sisko/Kasidy scenes.
Even so, I liked some of what we learned here, even if this romance game is being set up with a suspense angle as much as every other element in the episode (i.e., "Who will Ezri end up with—Worf or Bashir?"). I'm glad that "Penumbra" wasn't the last word in the beginning of a Worf/Ezri relationship. It's all still ambiguous at best, and as a result maybe we'll be able to get more out of the characterizations. At least, I hope so, because so far the results have been mixed.
For now, I'm going with a high three-star rating for "'Til Death." This is rich stuff. There's a lot of story. If things keep building like they have been these past two weeks, the whole production is likely to explode. To say my interest is piqued would be an understatement. But I expect the best is still yet to come, because, despite all the ambition, this still isn't quite it.
Next week: Chapter three. Dukat and Winn, and the Dominion and the Breen, make for strange bedfellows.