In the eleventh episode of the sixth season of Deep Space Nine, this show takes the whole “enemies trapped together” trope and uses it to rip my heart out. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Deep Space Nine.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of ableism (re: depiction of mental illness), racism/xenophobia, and genocide.
This is absolutely one of the most intense episodes of this show, and I HAVE A LOT TO SAY ABOUT IT.
Ronald D. Moore’s script, expertly directed by Rene Auberjonois, is about the waltz between good and evil; it’s also about the philosophical waltz between a man who believes he did his best (and was not thanked for it) and a man who wants to the world to be nuanced and layered, and yet realizes how flawed he is in believing this. It is complex, frightening, and ultimately, it’s the most disturbing character study in Deep Space Nine. AND THERE ARE A LOT OF DISTURBING MOMENTS IN THIS SHOW, OKAY.
But “Waltz” got under my skin, partially because it is both morally and physically brutal, an unflinching portrayal of the closest portrayal to evil that I have ever seen. It doesn’t start off that way, and if anything, I saw the first half of this episode as a story about desperation more than anything. While stuck together on a planet with a harsh existence aboveground, Dukat confines Sisko to a cave and presses him to tell the truth: What does he really think of Dukat?
It seems such a silly concern in the grand scheme of things, but it reveals Dukat’s intense desire to gain the respect of a man who he respects a great deal. Sisko has, time and time again, found a way to subvert and trick Dukat, and in their long struggle against one another, Dukat admires Sisko’s cunning, strategic mind. That’s not a surprise nor a revelation in “Waltz,” so the opening scenes are just a continuation of that idea. As soon as Sisko revealed that he secretly did admire Dukat, then clearly, Dukat would turn the emergency beacon back on, and all would be fine!
Hypothesizing about what Dukat might have done is weird in hindsight, though, because now I’m not even sure what would have transpired if Sisko just told the man what he wanted to here. First of all, that’s not who Sisko is, and Dukat rightly pointed that out during one of the scenes here. Sisko makes split-second judgments all the time! So surely, he must have an opinion on Dukat, right?
Thus, the waltz unfolds, and it is a terrifying thing to witness.
I hesitate to offer criticism of the show’s depiction of Dukat’s mental illness because I myself am not disabled in this specific way, so I can’t comment on how hallucinations really work in this context. My issue is more general: without much mental illness on this show in general, it becomes harder to not equate mental illness with Dukat’s evil nature. My hope is that anyone could do so, and the story itself does not make excuses for Dukat. He is not evil because he’s hallucinating; he is evil because he willingly admits to desiring genocide, to believing that the Cardassians are a superior race, to dedicating his life to the eradication of the Bajorans. That’s what makes him evil. He knows what he is doing, he knows the implications of his actions and beliefs, and he doesn’t care.
Yet Dukat’s hallucinations are, canonically at least, because of the trauma of him witnessing Ziyal’s death. They manifest here almost like alternate personalities, and the writing isn’t exactly clear on this. I read them as specific parts of Dukat’s mind vocalizing themselves in these people. Damar was his most pure Cardassian side; Kira was his doubt and resentment; Weyoun could easily have represented indifference and violence. That works, sure, but there’s no talk of the logistics of this, so occasionally, it muddled the story itself.
Just a little bit! Seeing Sisko’s reaction to it, though, made me feel better. He didn’t exploit the fact that Dukat was imagining people, though it’s true that he was working in self-interest, too. Sisko is a survivor, and he knew he couldn’t escalate things right then. Instead, he tried his best to accept that Dukat was talking to “others,” and he urged Dukat to focus on him alone. And yet, the waltz turns to disaster; Dukat’s anger spills over with betrayal, and EVERYTHING BECOMES A MILLION TIMES MORE HORRIFYING THAN I WAS READY FOR.
Deep Space Nine has often opted for nuance and complication, for layers and meaning, and thus, it disturbed me to watch Dukat shed all of those layers on purpose. Sisko – who by the way, broke his arm during the crash, suffered from plasma burns, and then had his arm re-broken when Dukat attacked him – manages to distract Dukat, though in doing so, Dukat reveals his true self.
He is absolutely the monster everyone thought he was. If he ever seemed at all charming, if he ever seemed like a fool or someone desperate for validation, it’s all gone. He was always a hypocrite; he always knew he was a liar; he always knew he was manipulating others. In the end, the thing he wanted more than everything else was to wipe the Bajorans out of existence. And for what?
For not appreciating how gentle he was while oppressing them.
Dukat’s logic is not new, nor is it a stranger in our modern times. There are people who will soon be in control of my government who truly have themselves convinced that their evilness is moral and good. But even in that case, I still think there’s a difference. With “Waltz,” Dukat doesn’t really care if what he’s doing is good or right; he admits he wants to kill all the Bajorans for a petty reason, and that is what makes him a monster. There’s no mystery, no misguided morality. He is evil, and that’s it.
Good lord, I am utterly terrified for how this show is gonna deal with the Sisko/Dukat rivalry in the future. I’M NOT READY.
The video for “Waltz” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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