In the nineteenth and penultimate episode of the first season of Deep Space Nine, I’m a mess. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of genocide, the Holocaust, imperialism/occupation, murder, torture.
I admit that coming off of “Dramatis Personae,” this episode feels like a completely different show. Even if “Duet” is resolved (albeit tragically) in a single episode, it’s a haunting bottle story that’s a vicious examination of a lot of heavy, difficult issues. I’ve been wary of episodes like this in the Star Trek canon, though the writers have gotten better at it. The problem I usually have with stories like this is that the metaphors don’t really fit. There’s a complete misunderstanding of power structures, and that’s how we get episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” and “The Outcast.” The intent might be admirable, but the execution ends up being heavy handed or clumsy.
I did not get that sense from “Duet.” In fact, I think this is one of the best depictions of the colonist/imperialist narrative that I’ve ever seen. Again, that goes back to what I just referenced: this episode understands power dynamics. It’s very clear that Marritza is part of a colonizing force, one that participated in the genocide of the Bajorans. The writers keep this in mind as Kira interacts with Marritza, and it’s why this is so satisfying to watch. Well…I feel weird calling it “satisfying” because it is absolutely the most challenging episode of Star Trek that I’ve seen thus far. But it speaks to the willingness of the writers to let Kira be emotional, to let her spell out what it was the Cardassians did to the Bajorans, and ultimately, to have Marritza confess the horrible truth about what he did and did not do.
It’s a long, uncomfortable, and violent journey to that point. When Kira suspected that Marritza was one of the guards at the Gallitep labor camp, I suspected that this episode would have to address a number of terrible things. In that detail, the show was invoking a number of real-life tragedies. Namely, it referenced the Holocaust, particularly in the violent cruelty that the Nazis used against those in concentration camps. But the script doesn’t build a story strictly from that, though those textual references are integral to the intensity of “Duet.” As Kira pushes Marritza harder – and he resists more – we see a side to the Cardassians that’s so frighteningly real, it made me feel like I was going to be sick. Marritza is openly arrogant throughout this episode, even before he begins to talk about what he did in Gallitep. He speaks of the Bajorans as if they are trash, as if they deserved all the mistreatment they got because they are a lesser people. He characterizes the Cardassians as moral and justified.
Everything he does sets Kira up for failure. If she reacts strongly, it’s because she’s weak and cannot control herself. If she is stoic in the face of his monstrous behavior, it’s because she has no feeling. If she claims the Cardassians are violent, it’s because Bajorans are “bitter” and are “obsessed” with revenge. Every action has an explanation within his worldview, and he knows it. To some extent, I believe that there are people within the Star Trek universe who believe this because…well, there are plenty of imperialists and colonists and committers of genocide who follow the same horrific logic. You can apply the metaphor in “Duet” to so many situations – both those that existed in mid-1993 and those that have occurred since – because this kind of political posturing has existed for countless years.
You can see it in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Or in the actions of imperial Britain or imperial America. I’ve encountered it here in California when descendants of the original Californians (who were Mexican) are told that they don’t belong here. I witnessed it more times than I could count in Hawaii, whose queen was deposed and her lands taken out from under here in a violent coup that is still celebrated as a victory to this day. But it’s when Marritza transforms into Darhe’el that we get a scene I’ll not forget soon. You know, it’s rare that an oppressor speaks so openly about what they’ve done. I suppose that should have been a clue that Marritza wasn’t Darhe’el, but I think it disturbed me for a different reason. When Marritza spoke of what Darhe’el had done in that labor camp, he was sending one message: Darhe’el will always get away with what he did. No amount of revenge or violence or justice could ever undo his reign of terror. Ever. And without making this too personal today, I believe that’s a major cause of my own anxiety. I know that most of the people who treated me terribly because I wasn’t white, because I wasn’t straight, because I was poor, because I was sensitive and prone to crying and full of terrible thoughts…most of them got away with it. The society we live in made sure of that.
So what can you do? How do you move on from a thing like that? Admittedly, Marritza’s solution is over-the-top, but it works for me. It works because it highlights the fact that he was a cog in a wretched, genocidal machine, and he did nothing to stop it. Perhaps Kira is right; maybe he really couldn’t have done a thing to end Darhe’el or the labor camp. But that’s irrelevant to Marritza because he knows that his own guilt isn’t assuaged by those kind of assurances. He was still complicit, even if he was just a file manager. It takes a particularly intense level of guilt and shame to concoct the plan that Marritza does, but he was desperate to do something to end the Cardassian reign of terror. Giving himself up to act as the figurehead for the imperialist, to allow the Bajorans to have some sort of justice, to force the Cardassians to tell the truth about the labor camps instead of relying on bigoted propaganda, was the only thing that mattered to him. He wanted another option.
I think that’s what Kira realizes by the end of this episode. She can be wary of the Cardassians, and she can seek out justice. But what good would come from dishonest acts of justice? Is someone merely being a Cardassian enough to execute them? In a tragic twist of irony, a Bajoran on DS9 stabs Marritza to death, echoing the exact sentiment that Kira uttered at the beginning of the episode. It’s here that she knows that she’s wrong. Marritza being Cardassian was not enough, not because she wants to ignore his complicity or his privilege. It was not enough because it solves nothing.
The video for “Duet” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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