Nutshell: Intense and pulling few punches, this is one of the most powerful dramas in the history of the franchise.
O'Brien is wrongfully charged with espionage by the Argrathi government and sentenced to submit to an artificial memory implant that makes him believe he has been incarcerated in a cell for 20 years. He wakes up after a few hours of "therapy" (torture would be a better word) to return to a life he hasn't known for a perceptual eternity.
It's not too often that O'Brien gets a story all to himself, and it's a wonder why not—Colm Meaney is a terrific actor, which is demonstrated in full force by "Hard Time," a powerful, engrossing tale about a man trying to cope with the psychological effects of an agonizing mental punishment.
I think the reason this episode works so well is because it is, in essence, a very simple concept: A man rebuilding a life he hasn't known, while simultaneously burying a dark secret. This makes riveting drama, especially when applying it to a character that the audience has grown to care about over the years of two television series. O'Brien is the perfect character to apply this tragedy to, because he's the series' resident "everyday man," with a family who loves him, and friends who worry about him.
The plot sticks to the essentials. (Aside from a passing reference, "Hard Time" doesn't waste any time explaining why exactly the Argrathi punished O'Brien, or if they even gave him a trial, or even who the Argrathi are.) This story is solely about the aftermath, which is empathizing to say the least.
I suppose even a sturdy character concept like this could potentially be botched, but with Deep Space Nine's creative team at work, there is never an iota of evidence that the writers, producers, actors, and director Alexander Singer didn't know exactly what they were doing. Because "Hard Time" lies in capable hands, it becomes a show with emotional substance.
Consider, for starters, the first act. O'Brien returns to DS9 for, what is to him, the first time in 20 years—and the episode drives the point home with a surprisingly simple but very effective shot of the station from O'Brien's point of view in the Runabout. This success of this shot all lies in its method: It's as if the episode is showing us the station for the first time ever (sort of like the opening scenes of the pilot episode, "Emissary"). By this point, "Hard Time" had my complete attention, and for the remainder of the show it kept it.
The show spans the weeks following O'Brien's return, as he sees Keiko for the first time in two decades (even forgetting that she was pregnant), begins the process of relearning the station, and eventually tries to go back to work. It's drama that rings very true because of top-notch execution. Perhaps part of the success lies in the episode's skill of using detail. Scenes like O'Brien's difficulty with using the replicators, his initially bizarre-seeming habit of rationing food, and the fact that he has become accustomed to sleeping on the floor may seem easy to overlook at first, but they convey emotion and uncertainty extremely well.
The other reason this works is because of Colm Meaney's performance—he's terrific. Just about every scene directly involves him, and in every scene Meaney is compelling, commanding, passionate, and believable. His ability to successfully convey a wide range of emotion—whether confusion, sorrow, anger, or frustration—is highly admirable. It's above and beyond anything he's done on the series to date; the writers finally supply him with a story that has genuinely great impact.
O'Brien claims he was alone in his cell for the entire sentence, but the episode's flashbacks prove otherwise. He in fact had a cellmate named Ee'Char (Craig Wasson) who became his best and only friend and helped him mentally survive his endless lockup. But now on DS9 he begins hallucinating; Ee'Char appears to O'Brien on numerous occasions and tells him to listen to his friends and come to terms with his experience.
But O'Brien can not come to terms with his ordeal because he refuses to fully acknowledge it. He tries to repress irrepressible memories, and doesn't want to admit how severely the experience has affected him. And it becomes evident that something else happened to O'Brien aside from his jail term—something that is eating away at his very soul.
Bashir sets him up with a counselor, but O'Brien refuses to continue going to the meetings. O'Brien becomes edgy and impatient, eventually demanding that Bashir stay the hell away from him. He threatens Quark over a petty situation. He gets impatient and nearly hits his own daughter. His inability to deal with his situation forces Sisko to relieve him of duty and mandate counseling terms.
Still, O'Brien does not want to face what he has been burying since he returned. The episode climaxes when O'Brien pulls a phaser out of a weapons locker and contemplates killing himself. And when Julian talks him down from suicide we learn why O'Brien is so tormented and overwhelmed with guilt: because he killed Ee'Char over a heated misunderstanding just weeks before he was released.
This turns out to be one of those "human situation" messages, and it works quite well. It's about how O'Brien needed to feel like an evolved human incapable of murder despite what the Argrathi put him through. Yet, in one moment of rage, he killed his best friend over some scraps of food—and now he is unable accept it or accept himself. He feels no better than an animal. Bashir's point, however, is a relevant one: that an animal wouldn't have given killing a second thought, whereas O'Brien believes he deserves to die. Now this is strong storytelling.
The episode ends the way it should: with no miracle cures to O'Brien's problems, but simply the assurance that over time he will survive, recover, and return to his normal life.
Technically speaking, the episode is nicely structured so that flashbacks and current time fit together properly and smoothly. Also lending a helping hand is a poignant score by Dennis McCarthy—one of his best in a long time—which often sets an appropriately dark mood. But the overwhelming reason "Hard Time" is a winner is because of its human and emotional qualities wrapped up in a positively gripping hour.
I have only one worry about the outcome of this episode, and I worry because I've seen it happen all too many times on TNG, DS9, and Voyager: I worry that next week we may see no evidence of O'Brien's experience, despite the fact that this type of experience should noticeably change his personality. If O'Brien is walking around next week as if nothing has happened, I will not buy it, and I will not be pleased. Still, in such a case that would be a fault of the series in general, definitely not the fault of "Hard Time."