A few weeks ago, I wrote about watching old Deep Space Nine episodes. Last night, I watched surely one of the finest hours in one of the finest programs ever to air: the season one episode Duet. It has been years since I saw the episode, but I had recalled it was an excellent one, and told the DVR to grab it when it aired a week or two ago. I didn't remember the exact plot to begin with, but it quickly came back to me as I watched.
Duet deals with two of the great themes that run throughout literary history and remain appealing: revenge and sacrifice. The drama is excellent in that it follows the Aristotelian formula for tragedy: it offers reversals, and leaves the audience with a sense of catharsis. It is undoubtedly a tragedy in its purest form.
A plot overview and minor analysis follows, below.
The story revolves around a man named Marritza (Harris Yulin), a file clerk who ended up working under the leader of a forced labor camp the Cardassians were running while occupying Bajor. He arrives on Deep Space Nine in need of medical assistance for a rare disease that only those present at that camp are inflicted with (caused by a mining accident). Station second officer Major Kira thinks that the ill person in sickbay must be a Bajoran who had been in the mines. Instead she finds a Cardassian, so she immediately presumes guilt and orders his arrest.
Kira struggles with a serious issue: is she interested in justice or merely vengeance against any Cardassian? She tries to wrap her desires in a cloak of justice, but his prodding, as well as the council of others leads her to admit what she wants: revenge. She wants Marritza to be a terrible war criminal, not a file clerk.
When trying to confirm the identity of Marritza, they find he instead looks like a photo of the cruel leader of the labor camp, not the file clerk he claims to be. When presented with the evidence, he concedes that and glories in the atrocities committed, providing details of how much he enjoyed killing innocent Bajorans. He sees Bajorans as insignificant “scum,” the killing of whom were a bonus to the occupation that mostly served to provide Cardassia with material resources its empire needed. Kira is tortured by the horrid things that spew out of the man's mouth, but she is thrilled with the idea of the evil head of the camp being executed.
But then there is a twist: the Cardassian government informs the station that the man they now believe Marritza to be died six years prior and, further more, it becomes clear that the said leader was not present on Bajor at the time of the mining accident. This information, combined with other bits that they gather, reveals a strange picture: the man they are holding wanted to be caught. In fact, he cosmetically altered himself to look like the camp leader and then arranged for an “emergency medical stop” at the Bajoran owned station — a strange thing for a Cardassian to do. The man is not the leader, but Marritza the file clerk after all.
When confronted with this, the man being held bursts out in even more atrocious descriptions of the acts he claims to have committed; claiming it is insane to compare him to that mere “bug” Marritza. He tries to go on, but he comes apart describing how, first still describing Marritza in third person, then finally switching to first person, he would cower by his bed trying to cover his ears to shield himself from the screams of the prisoners in the camp. He was a coward too afraid to stop the crimes his people were committing. He has come in hopes of receiving the trial his former boss should have, to force the details out and make his people finally admit their guilt; in other words, he has essentially sought to offer himself as a vicarious substitute for his people in hopes of righting the wrongs he was too scared to stop before.
Kira, recognizing the man as the epitome of honor, rather than a war criminal, releases her former nemesis, instead of furthering the prosecution against him, and makes arrangements for him to return to his home planet safely. Unfortunately, this man, who was seeking to heal the wounds between the Cardassians and Bajorans, is fatally stabbed by a Bajoran who runs up behind Kira and Marritza. The major, aghast, cries out to the murderer, who claims he was justified by the fact that Marritza was a Cardassian. “That is not enough,” Kira responds as she holds the now lifeless body of Marritza and the camera pans out to end the episode. The major has come to see that her former hatred and lust for vengeance was empty and destructive, but unfortunately the other Bajoran did not.
The tragic ending, like I said, is classical. The hero, Marritza, is killed unjustly in the midst of his attempts to right the wrongs he was not responsible for. The acting — especially Yulin's powerful enactment of Marritza — and well-written dialogue serve to bring this ever-present issue into a very dramatic height that is dynamic and touching. How often do we let our own need to be avenged, under the cloak of justice, blind us from seeing the innocent people that end up being the victims of a new set of crimes — those that we end up perpetrating?
Duet is an appropriate name, as one finds oneself in the constant dance between mercy and vengeance, between overwhelming guilt and ignorant self-righteousness. The tragic reminds us of how close we could come to being on either side of the situation.