Nutshell: Pleasant, perceptive, very quiet; slight on lasting impact.
"Prodigal Daughter" is an example of reasonable storytelling done with sincerity and subtlety. It's a character show surrounded by a serious plot that is executed with the most lightweighted hand. That's not to say the issues are lightweight per se, but that the tone of the episode is. This could go down among the series' most quiet episodes yet.
That's not really a criticism. The DS9 story structure has often ventured into the "do plot things big" arena, like for example the six-episode occupation arc from last season, or as recently as "Shadows and Symbols" earlier this year. It's certainly fine to see the other end of the spectrum, where acting and character relationships are elements within a smaller scale, and thus become a focus point more than the huge, sweeping storylines that are unfolding. And if you're going to do it, you might as well do it in that isolated two-episode lull that's most likely to go forgotten early in the new year.
On the other hand, there's something to be said for huge and sweeping; "Prodigal Daughter" is certainly a watchable episode, but is it particularly memorable? In the current DS9 universe where we want to know, for example, where the war stands and what's going on in the Dominion given the nature of the Founders' illness and so forth, an episode centering around the quiet details of Ezri's family (featuring scenes where guest characters have most of the dialog) is one mystery that wasn't exactly swimming around in my mind. Besides, last week's "It's Only a Paper Moon" provided a meatier, more effective example of how to do a quiet character story.
But that's the nice thing about serial television: Breaking away from the usual business to tell this isolated little tale of Ezri and her family is something writers can do. The flip side of that coin, my brain then reminds me, is that the clock to the end of the series is ticking, tick-tock.
The plot is workable, somehow following up an O'Brien episode from last year while offering insight as an Ezri show. O'Brien, who has been on leave to visit family, has disappeared. Sisko is unhappy to learn that Bashir knew the real reason O'Brien was on leave: because he was searching for Bilby's widow, whom he has been in contact with for the past few months (see "Honor Among Thieves" if you need a reminder as to his reasons). Mrs. Bilby has since vanished mysteriously, and O'Brien feels obligated to track her down.
Once Bashir comes clean and explains the reasons for concern (I liked the amusing bit about Bashir being "in the doghouse" for covering for O'Brien), which narrows O'Brien's whereabouts to somewhere near New Sydney, the captain enlists Dax to use her local family ties (Ezri is originally from New Sydney, you see, and the rest of the Tigan family, her mother and brothers, still live there) to help find Miles.
The story's importance lies not within finding Miles so much as it provides a quiet character outing for Ezri, whom we learn more about a la "Afterimage."
In many ways, this story had a lot of the same impact on me as "Afterimage": It was nice to learn more about "the new Dax," and I just sat back while the story took a routine, everyday sort of pace.
What works best in "Prodigal Daughter" is Ezri's homecoming and the story's analysis of her family life. There are so many perceptive, accurate-feeling notes concerning family tensions that the story subtly picks up on, and I imagine that just about anyone will recognize the sort of uneasy, submerged family schisms that the Tigan family demonstrates. Sure, not every family has problems that run as deep as the Tigans', but I presume most people will identify with the way family members can occasionally restrict one another's space or personal needs, or grate on one another's nerves.
The Tigan household and family mining business is headed by Ezri's mother, Yanas (Leigh Taylor-Young), a well-intentioned maternal figure who has fallen into the unconscious habit of trying to continuously control her children's lives, despite the fact they're all adults. Ezri's two brothers, Norvo (Kevin Rahm) and Janel (Mikael Salazar), live at home and help run the business. The problem here is in two people who are trapped in a repetitive pattern of life, without the ability to move beyond the confines of an existence their mother has created for them.
Norvo in particular is suffering. He's an aspiring artist, but finds himself constantly knocked down by his mother, who conveys her beliefs of his inadequacy more than she should, paving the way for Norvo's depression, apathy, frequent drinking (we presume), and moments of explosive rage (destroying his own artwork). As Ezri points out, Norvo needs to get out. But somehow he can't.
Janel deals with his situation better because he seems to have more commitment to the management aspects of the mining business. Ezri is the one who left the nest, as they say. And she doesn't often return. "You never stay any longer than you have to," Janel notes, expressing honest feelings but with no intended malice. And I liked the way the family scenes uncovered the Tigans' troubles without resorting to cliched histrionics or yelling. (At the same time, of course, the notion of the long-delayed homecoming is as old as the hills.)
It's about here that Mrs. Bilby is confirmed dead, O'Brien turns up, and the Orion Syndicate figures into the mix. Janel and Norvo had called upon the Syndicate for low-interest loans, and when the Syndicate wanted the favor returned—giving the recently widowed Mrs. Bilby a job in the mines—they hardly were in a position to say no. Unfortunately, it didn't end there. Mysterious sabotage followed, and it became clear that to go against the Syndicate would not be the healthiest course of action for the Tigans. The Tigan brothers, unbeknownst to their mother, suddenly found themselves "in," and wanting "out."
I found the Syndicate's methods interesting—an effective strong-arm without being overtly strong-armed. They're subtle but unmistakable about what they want and what they'll do to get it. I still wish the Orion Syndicate would play a bigger part in the series, especially given the connection they've had with the Dominion in the past.
But the Syndicate plot is a means to an end here. O'Brien and Ezri soon find themselves looking for Mrs. Bilby's killer, at which point, the Law of Economy of Characters states that the killer must be someone in the Tigan household. Not a terrible idea, considering how it unfolds, revealing a Norvo who snapped one day and beat poor Mrs. Bilby to death because she complained and talked too much. The psychology of the situation is appropriate given Ezri's role as a psychologist and Norvo's deep-rooted, volatile self-torment brought about by years trapped in that house. And the tragedy du jour is that it's only after the murder has been revealed that Yanas wonders if maybe she wasn't pushing on her son too hard in the wrong direction, asking Ezri desparately, "I didn't cause this, did I?" Ezri feels the burden of responsibility, too, considering that perhaps she was so desperate to leave that she didn't think about those she left behind. It's all very reasonable material—though perhaps underlined by melodrama and not incredibly fresh.
Thompson & Weddle give the script a good deal of human texture and common sense. But they also try to have the plot work both ways: It wants to be a quiet, self-contained character show, yet it also wants to play the DS9 plot thread games by bringing in the Orion Syndicate while doing nothing important with them. It works in context (the Syndicate being incidental to the story rather than vital), but there's still a tendency to wonder why the Syndicate was really necessary beyond filling out the convenience of O'Brien's presence and the murder melodrama.
Besides, some of the story's circumstances strike me as a tad convenient. O'Brien disappears. Fine. He disappears on Ezri's home planet. Okay; an acceptable coincidence. He disappears while looking for someone who has vanished after having been given a job by Ezri's own brothers, one who had eventually killed her. Now we're looking at a pretty small universe.
I'm giving "Prodigal Daughter" the highest "okay" rating I can. There was nothing about this story that struck me as wrong or poorly conceived, and I appreciated a lot of what it had to say. My general reaction throughout the episode was one of nodding in an understanding assent, thinking to myself, "Yeah, I see what's going on here," or, "Yeah, these problems are sensibly conveyed," or "Yeah, Norvo needs to get out of this situation." This is perhaps one of the more competent Trek family tales in recent memory (right down to the use of Ezris nickname, "Zee"). It's just that it's not all that moving or probing, but rather a documented set of events surrounding a group of believable people. The lasting impact is what's lacking.
And besides ... "Prodigal Daughter" can at times be a show that makes me long for an episode where stuff blows up.
Upcoming: Some reruns, followed by a final venture into the mirror universe the week of January 31.