Nutshell: A few problems, but the net result is quite powerful.
"Tears of the Prophets" exemplifies the DS9 "event" show: miss this episode, and you miss some very important stuff. There's plenty of substance here worth digesting, and I think it provides a good example of many of this season's strengths (as well as some of its weaknesses).
Of course, the most touted event in the episode is the death of Jadzia Dax (and all three people out there who didn't know about it weeks or months before "Tears" aired now know), but what's interesting is that Dax's death is part of a much bigger scheme in terms of DS9's pivotal pieces, as it plunges the overall focus of the series into an abyss of despair.
This is an episode that takes a while to get where it's going, but delivers in the long run. Aside from some occasionally off-kilter execution in the direction and performances, "Tears" is, more than anything, an effective and important chapter in the character arc for the tortured Benjamin Sisko, a man who has so many burdens to carry that I don't see how he can even function anymore, let alone be one of the strategic leaders for this huge war while balancing his other duties as a Starfleet officer, Emissary, and father.
I'm certainly glad I'm not him.
Ever since "Sacrifice of Angels," it has become clear that Sisko's relationship with the Prophets would become increasingly important—not just in what it means to Sisko as the Emissary and to the Bajoran people, but also because the Prophets have been taking action in ways that directly affect the state of the Alpha Quadrant. Dialog has made clear the fact that the Prophets are prohibiting passage through the wormhole, thus meaning Dominion reinforcements will never come from the Gamma Quadrant. (It's interesting to note that no episode since "Children of Time" more than a year ago has taken place in the Gamma Quadrant.) I've been waiting all season for Sisko's penance that was strongly foreshadowed in "Sacrifice of Angels" to pay off in some way, and in April (or early May, depending on your syndication schedule) we finally got "The Reckoning."
Well, I wasn't a big fan of "The Reckoning"; it was horribly campy and I felt (and still feel) that it didn't add up to much in the scheme of things as they had been earlier prophesized. However, some of the elements from "Reckoning" help set the stage for "Tears," an episode that I think does bode well in the scheme of the DS9 game—very well, in fact.
In "Tears," Starfleet has finally decided it's time to go on the offensive against the Dominion. With the help of the Klingons and the Romulans (the latter of whom are actually present in an episode for the first time since brought into the game in "In the Pale Moonlight"), Starfleet plans to invade Cardassia. Sisko is selected as the man to plan and lead the attack.
This subsequently puts Sisko in a position where he has been before—having to choose between being the Emissary and being a Starfleet captain—but never before has it cost him what it ultimately costs him here. The Prophets, in their convoluted way, tell him not to leave the station. Why? Because the danger is too great. What does that mean? The danger to whom? Well, Sisko doesn't really know. He never really knows when it comes to the Prophets; they're always vague, and this time is no exception.
Meanwhile, Gul Dukat makes a return to the scene, showing up on Weyoun and Damar's doorstep, revealing that he has reached a moment of clarity. The post-"Waltz" Dukat is a guy consumed with hatred, and he's on a mission to enact revenge on both Sisko and Bajor. Having studied up on ancient Bajoran texts, he's ready to fight Sisko on levels of higher power. He has obtained a pah-wraith, and he's ready to take on a war with the Prophets themselves, hoping to somehow destroy Sisko and the Bajorans in the process.
A lot of this is fascinating. As much as the "good versus evil" game in "The Reckoning" struck me as simplistic and goofy, the idea of a pah-wraith being intentionally released for the purposes of unleashing self-serving evil seems to me an interesting idea, especially knowing what we know of the new Dukat. (At the same time, I still have my serious doubts about the silliness of body possession, synthesized voices, and dark-red eyes.)
All connections to the plot of "Tears" aside, I'm honestly not sure whether or not the new Dukat is something that will work in the long run. It works here, but a part of me wonders if the complexities of the pre-"Waltz" Dukat have been lost in this transformation. He's anything but subtle these days, and his role here is one of a cavalier, albeit intriguing, loose cannon. Marc Alaimo can still sell the "madman Dukat" personality with every bit of credibility he has to offer.
Since "Tears" is also a major war episode, there is, of course, the requisite Big Battle™, which naturally, is nicely done. But I was far more intrigued by the dramatic implications of "Tears." Seeing the invasion of Cardassia and a huge development in the war was definitely interesting, but the personal costs of these advances are what make this season finale a winner.
The episode was also laced with a lot of nice little snippets. For example:
- I liked the moment when Ben Kenobi, er, Ben Sisko sensed the destruction of Alderan, er, felt the Prophets reaching out to him as the wormhole was being closed off. Seeing this vivid connection between the Prophets and the Emissary is one of the mythical elements of DS9 has always given the series an aura of faith beyond its sci-fi conventions. (Still, I fully expected Sisko's line at this moment to be, "I felt a great disturbance in the Force.")
- The Romulans' skepticism, and particularly the discord between them and the Klingons, was good continuity.
- It was nice to see Kira taking the initiative and taking command of the ship once Sisko was incapacitated (although, I give up on ever figuring out the nature of the chain of command on the Defiant; Worf has taken command over Kira every other time I can remember whenever both were on the ship).
- The exchange between Damar and Weyoun where Weyoun dismisses the Bajorans' gods out of hand (while taking the Founders as given) was exceptional, and Jeffrey Combs' acting range continues to impress me every time I see him.
- Worf's warrior cry when Jadzia died was another nice bit of continuity that worked all the better because it came without a tacked-on explanation.
On the downside, I wasn't particularly thrilled with some of the trivial characterization. For one, the whole idea of Bashir and Quark pining over the very-married-and-now-thinking-about-having-a-baby-with-Worf Dax was too much of a dramatic dead-end (no pun intended). As I said in my "Valiant" review, this is rehash material that I simply don't find convincing. The only reason to do it again is to show just how many people love the wonderful Jadzia, thus making it that much more tragic when she dies. To a degree, I guess, it's okay. Having Vic sing Quark and Bashir a song, with the camera cutting to them as he sings "Here's to the losers" makes this at least entertaining.
In any case, the melodrama in the scenes leading up to Dax's death was laid on incredibly thick. All the talk of having a baby, all the happiness, all the excitement—and it's manipulative right down to the final line on her deathbed where she tells Worf, "Our baby would have been so beautiful." (Please, just pull out the tissues, already.) Surprisingly, Jadzia's death didn't hit me the way I hoped it would. I partially blame that on the fact that I've known for months that Terry Farrell would be leaving the series; the rest I attribute to the somewhat unsatisfying randomness of her demise.
But I'm not too worried, because it comes together so beautifully in terms of the larger picture. As a price for Sisko's choices, it was exactly what we needed for this episode, because, really, this episode is about the set of choices made by Benjamin Sisko. His decision to ignore the Prophets' warning was an agonizing choice he had to make in the best interests of the Alpha Quadrant, and his subsequent decision to take a leave of absence after everything goes wrong—which was the true hard-hitting moment of the episode for me—seemed like a choice that Sisko was forced into. This is a man who has carried the weight of practically an entire war in addition to all of Bajor—and now, with Bajor cut off from the Prophets and Dax dead for reasons Sisko sees himself as responsible for, he has reached a crossroads unlike anything he has encountered.
As far as lamenting on the dead is concerned, I believe it was a good idea that the show didn't lumber through Dax's funeral. One could argue that we already saw some of what we needed with O'Brien's speech last week in "The Sound of Her Voice"; and besides, showing Sisko's sole reaction to Jadzia's death keeps the story very focus on its narrative goals and the cost incurred to its central character. In context, Dax's death really works.
So, then, that brings me to the few but still notable things that I felt were off in "Tears of the Prophets." It's hard to put my finger on some of my troubled feelings specifically (some of my qualms are in the omission of things I would've liked to have seen), but I think my most significant complaint is that there are elements in Behr & Beimler's story that are out-and-out unclear. For example: Did Sisko (or anyone) know how Dax was killed? Did she tell someone before she died? Did anyone know that Dukat had beamed aboard the station? I'm guessing the answer to those questions are no, but depending on whether or not certain characters had knowledge of certain events, the ultimate meaning of Sisko's despair could be changed. I think it would work fine in any case, but I was still left with questions I would've liked answered.
Overall, there's a good amount of confusion that's open to interpretation. That's not always a bad thing in this episode (sometimes, in fact, it's a good thing), but I do wonder about the nature of the pah-wraiths. How many more of them are there? Is the existence of the evil connected somehow to the Reckoning that was halted in "The Reckoning"? Just what is the nature of the penance Sisko must pay from "Sacrifice of Angels"? Has he paid it here?
I'm not so sure I can answer all these questions at this point, or even if they will ever be answerable, but I will say this: "Tears of the Prophets" is an episode that prompted me to think deeply about character connections, the implications of various Bajoran prophecies, and the degree of Sisko's self-torture and need for answers. It's all open to debate and discussion and still has basis in solid characterization.
My perspective actually embraces some of the story's confusion and uncertainty, because such uncertainty is exactly what Sisko is struggling with—struggling with so intensely that he has to leave DS9 and walk away from Starfleet so he can clear his head and make sense of the chaos that is pulling Bajor down an uncertain path. He even takes his baseball with him, which, as anyone knows, is evidence of a grave situation. The episode's final scene on Earth, of a Sisko completely removed from everything we normally see him involved with, is a downright poignant moment that left me reflecting upon the state of the universe the character lives in.
When I get feelings like those, I know I've seen a standout episode. This episode was by no means perfect, but it has a lot going for it, and the more I ponder the possibilities, the more intrigued I am by them. DS9 has had a tendency to spin its wheels with many routine offerings this season, but with this finale I feel like we've gone out with some development and character changes that should impact storylines well into next season. Considering all the loose ends introduced here—Dukat floating around with his vengeful agenda; Sisko at a crossroads in his life; the collapse of the wormhole and the implications on Bajor; Federation troops landing on Cardassian soil; the question of whether we'll see Dax in a new host sometime in the future—I'm intrigued. A season finale should get its hooks into you, and "Tears of the Prophets" certainly got its hooks into me.
Upcoming: Reruns, reruns, reruns. I'll of course have the season recap, probably sometime in mid-July. In the meantime, no more reviews (except for movies, starting with The X-Files feature, which I'm sure I'll write sometime this week—but that's another story).
End-of-season article: Sixth Season Recap