When Garak approaches a Cardassian boy on the Promenade only to be bitten on the hand, the questions begin. Who are the Bajoran parents that have been raising this boy? Have they been teaching him to hate his own people? Have they been abusing him? Who are the boy's biological parents? Do they know he's still alive after the Occupation, and might they want him back? It's an uncertain moral mine field, with an espionage component that Garak is happy to lead Bashir through.
There are some very sophisticated issues at play in this episode, and it grapples with some more effectively than others. An intriguing contradiction is introduced to the Cardassian race. The importance they place on family has been mentioned before (on The Next Generation), but here we see how little regard they have for orphaned children, learning there's "no place" for orphans in Cardassian society. You can observe in the real world plenty of people who claim to have the interests of children at heart, but whose practical outlook rarely extends beyond their own children (or unborn children). Helping kids who face poverty, starvation, violence? Their parents should be the ones stepping up, not us. No, it's not hard to believe this anti-orphan streak in Cardassian society at all.
There's an intriguing allegory here for interracial adoption. (Well, I suppose it's not even allegorical. Cardassian children being taken in by Bajoran parents is literally interracial adoption.) People in society at large have conflicting views about what values and traditions a child like that should be taught. "The child was born of this heritage, and should be exposed to it." "We took the child into our family, and we're going to raise them as we see fit." Both sides have a point, from which it's hard to find common ground.
No surprise, then, that the episode can't resolve it satisfactorily in 42 minutes. But it is a bit disappointing that it doesn't keep focus there. The more the episode unfolds, the less it is about the struggle between young Rugal's adoptive Bajoran father and his Cardassian birth father, and the more it becomes a mystery about what political game Gul Dukat played. That angle is interesting to a point, but far less sophisticated. And at the end of the episode, Rugal is shipped off to live with a father he barely knows in a society he's come to despise -- with no real examination at all of what this means!
This marks the first time since the pilot that Dukat appears in person (not just on "FaceTime"), and reveals him as a manipulator so forward thinking that he can enact an eight-year, slow burn plan to humiliate a political rival. The episode does even more to flesh out "plain, simple Garak," in the character's second appearance. Actor Andrew Robinson had been told by many on set during his first episode how much they were enjoying his work and how they'd like to have him back, but was too wily an industry veteran to trust it. He said he knew they truly meant it when he got this offer, and he was "thrilled" to return.
Robinson felt that Garak really developed in this episode, noting that Bashir's humanist tendencies rub off over the course of the hour. I'm intrigued that Robinson saw it that way -- and of course, it's the actor's job to look for deeper facets within his character. I just don't see it myself. Robinson has given interviews on this episode, and talked about Garak slowly coming around and helping Bashir with this orphaned Cardassian. To me, the motivation seems more vengeful. The deeper into the mystery they dig, the more it appears that unraveling it will hurt Dukat politically. That's more than enough for Garak, with no altruism required. Perhaps I latch onto this angle more because it fits with other details in the episode -- Garak's continued insistence that he isn't a spy, his ability to break into Bashir's quarters undetected, and the way he taunts the head of Bajoran orphanage with twisted glee. It is, I admit, a less nuanced reading of the character.
Even though recurring characters figure heavily into this story, many of the regulars are well utilized throughout. Sisko shows his diplomatic skills as he calmly defuses anger between Rugal's warring parents. And Avery Brooks makes a great moment of glaring at Bashir's interruption of a conversation with Dukat to play detective. (I don't know what's more delicious: the dressing down that follows, or the "better you than me" reaction Kira gives Bashir as it happens.)
Of course, it's a big Bashir episode, as Garak draws him into a web of mystery and espionage. But a very effective runner makes this a good O'Brien episode too. The writers dare to depict him in a bad light, being unabashedly racist toward Cardassians when he finds out his daughter has been playing with one. Keiko shuts down this ugliness immediately, in the strongest moment written so far for that character on this show or The Next Generation. And ultimately, Miles reaches a minor milestone in understanding that this young Cardassian isn't bad -- they share a mutual hatred of Cardassians (culture, food, generally).
The only down side of this compelling story arc for O'Brien is that making room for it in the episode means there's no time for Jake Sisko to appear. It would have been interesting to see to see Rugal interact with someone his own age. Then again, Rugal's "own age" isn't particularly well defined -- he feels a bit old to be biting people, even when they creepily approach him and touch him without asking.
- Some particularly distracting aliens are placed in the background of the opening scene. Costume Designer Robert Blackman says these weird hatbox aliens (my term, not his) were the beginning of an experiment to use more hats on the show. Said experiment ended before the season did, which Blackman chalked up to producers and directors (generally, not just on Star Trek) saying one thing but wanting another. From one interview: "You draw them up, they like it, you do it, and then it's 'I hate it. Take that thing off. I can't see the face.'"
- The accusation that Rugal is being abused by his Bajoran parents doesn't get much exploration. The alien who mentions it doesn't seem a particularly credible source, and vanishes before any follow-up questions can be asked.
- This episode establishes the prior name of Deep Space Nine while it was under Cardassian control: Terok Nor.