Monday, February 11, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part VII: The Justice Trick

BENDER: Forget it, you can't tempt me.
ROBOT DEVIL: Really? There's nothing you want?
BENDER: Hm. I forgot you could tempt me with things I want.

Futurama, "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings"
If Deep Space Nine's character development has a theme, it is the loss of innocence, and of an idealized self-image. The characters who undergo this process most prominently over the course of the series are Sisko—who not only loses his iron grip on the difference between right and wrong in his efforts to win a brutal war, but also surrenders his objectivity and his detached rationalism in the face of the Bajorans’ faith—and Odo—who at the beginning of the series believes himself to possess an innate sense of justice, but discovers not only that his people have no true understanding of the word, but that his own grasp of it is rather tenuous. Bashir starts out the series a literal ingénue, whose delusions about the glory of war and the glamour of spy life are soon worn away by constant exposure to the real thing. Jadzia, O’Brien and Worf do not have explicit character arcs, but in episodes like "Blood Oath," "Hard Time," and "Change of Heart," respectively, each ends up betraying a cherished principle and discovering that they are not the person they thought they were or wish to be. Even Jake gets to face up to his inadequacies when he’s dropped into a battlefield in "Nor the Battle to the Strong."

The exception is Kira, who, in spite of her violent past and the show’s tendency to put her in situations that force her to choose between personal loyalty and the greater good, never compromises her principles. The argument could be made that Kira has an easier time with this task because her principles are less demanding—she isn’t governed by a strict set of rules like Odo, or devoted to the notion that violence is the very last resort like Sisko—but to my mind she actually has a much tougher job than either of them. As I wrote in the previous entry in this series, Kira has a fundamental understanding of right and wrong, but having rejected a rigid framework through which she can apply these abstract concepts to everyday life, she is forced to judge every case she encounters individually. The result is an attitude that is compassionate without being unreasonably forgiving.

At no point does Kira forget or excuse the crimes committed against her people. She doesn’t allow her rage at these crimes to govern her, but she won’t sweep them under the rug either, no matter how much she might wish she could. Though she loves Bareil, she prepares to give him up to Winn when she believes him to have collaborated with the Cardassians, and throughout her friendship and love affair with Odo, she is both supportive and clear-eyed, tethering him to the morality he claims to hold so dear while still being prepared to let him go—which she in fact does in "Chimera." Kira is far from perfect. Her politics are sometimes disturbingly reactionary, she is more violent than the rest of the cast, and her willingness to be ruled, in some of her most important life choices, by the will of the prophets can verge on the disturbing. Nevertheless, she is the most unambiguously good character in the cast.

"Nobody ever had to teach me the justice trick," Odo Mickey Spillanes in "Necessary Evil," which is one of the more egregious examples of his capacity for self-deception. Apart from being one of the best episodes in the series's run, "Necessary Evil" is a seminal point in Odo's character development and in the development of his and Kira's relationship precisely because it is in this episode that we see him first being taught the justice trick. And boy, is he a slow study. As the flashbacks to Odo's early career as Terok Nor's chief of security show us, he came to Dukat's attention by acting as an arbitrator for the Bajorans on the station, settling their petty disputes. When Odo is given charge of a murder investigation, he goes about it as if he were determining who stole whose blanket or how food should be parceled out. When Kira, in their very first meeting, insists that he is going to have to pick sides, Odo angrily denies this, and insists that he is a neutral party, a claim which he repeats throughout the episode, to Kira's increasing frustration.

What Kira is trying to show Odo is that addressing a single injustice within a system that is wholly rooted in injustice, and whose participants, apart from himself, don't care about right and wrong (as Odo later learns, Dukat has him investigate the murder in order to distance himself from a politically sticky situation) does not serve the interest of justice. He doesn't listen. "You were innocent of the crime I was investigating," he proudly tells her when she tries to thank him for saving her life by not handing her over to the Cardassians, and is later heartbroken to discover that she in fact committed it. Left unanswered--unasked, even--is the question of what Odo would have done had he discovered Kira's guilt at the time of the original investigation, and whether that might not have been a greater injustice. (To a certain extent, this issue is addressed by "Things Past," which acts as "Necessary Evil"'s mirror image by highlighting an instance in which Odo handed innocent Bajorans over to the Cardassians to be executed. It is, however, a less successful episode, and comes off as derivative, rather than expanding on the issues raised by the original story.)

By the end of the series, the perception of Odo as motivated by a desire for justice has been thoroughly exploded. Though he's a good man, it's clearly not a love of justice that drives him. In the third season opener, "The Search," the Founders inform Odo that what he perceives as a love of justice is in fact a desire for order. This is in keeping with Odo's behavior throughout the second second, during which he repeatedly complains about being forced to adhere to Starfleet's rules about due process and civil rights--rules which, according to him, prevent him from making Deep Space Nine safe. For the next three years, the Founders alternately torment Odo and try to tempt him back to the Great Link. Their entire discourse with him is based not on morality, but on their understanding of the things Odo wants--Kira, whom they insist he can't have, and the solace and companionship of the Great Link, which can only be his if he accepts their immoral behavior.

Odo, whose stripped-down existence has, up until that point, afforded him very little experience of desire, its gratification or its denial, discovers that while possessing an innate sense of justice with regards to the choices of others is quite easy--all it requires is compassion and common sense, both qualities he has an abundance of--it's a very different matter when it comes to denying his own urges. In the end, Odo says uncle. I don't think it's possible to overstate the magnitude of this failure. There are few exchanges in Deep Space Nine's run that have the power to chill my blood as effectively as Odo telling Kira that he no longer cares about Rom's impending execution, the freedom of Bajor, the survival of the Federation, or the future of the entire alpha quadrant in "Behind the Lines," that he has effectively traded everything he once held dear for the comfort of the Link. Odo turns his back on everything he believes in and everyone he loves, and it's the latter, not the former, that brings him back to his senses. He may not care about the larger injustices of the Founders' quest for galactic domination any more than he let himself care about the injustice of the Cardassian occupation, but a threat to Kira's life persuades him to leave the Great Link.

This choice is uncomfortably reminiscent of the one made by the future Odo in "Children of Time." That Odo sacrifices not only the lives but the very existence of 8,000 men, women, and children, as well as the existence of their ancestors, to save Kira's life. Though he is clearly ashamed of this act, present-day Odo also seems to approve of it, or at least to believe that future Odo's love for Kira justifies it. In hindsight, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Odo is only ever motivated by his feelings for Kira--in his choice to stay on Deep Space Nine after his first and disastrous meeting with the Founders, and even in his choice to let her go all the way back in "Necessary Evil." This is certainly the interpretation the Founders would have us believe, and one that Odo violently objects to--though he is clearly not the best judge of his own character. I have to wonder, however, whether being motivated by an attachment to Kira doesn't speak better of Odo than almost any of his other actions.

In general, Deep Space Nine doesn't go in for the redemptive power of love. Whether it's Quark blackmailing his Cardassian lover into staying with him in "Profit and Loss," or O'Brien nearly killing the Prophets to save Keiko's life in "The Assignment," or Worf turning his back on a mission to save Jadzia in "Change of Heart," or even Odo himself in "Children of Time", the show seems to be saying that love comes at the cost of ideals and our better impulses. When it comes to Odo and Kira, however, love is redemptive. It is through love that Odo finally learns the justice trick. In "Chimera," Odo encounters a fellow rogue changeling, who offers him the best of both world--someone he can link with without betraying his ideals. Laas, however, proves unsuited to life among solids, whom he views with disdain and pity for what he perceives as a limited, meaningless existence, and he is soon jailed for attacking one. When Kira, whom Laas has chided for holding Odo back from exploring his true nature, frees him and encourages Odo to leave Deep Space Nine with him and find his happiness, she finally makes him understand the kind of selflessness, the willingness to think of others and put them first, regardless of one's selfish desires, that is required of true moral behavior. Odo's decision to leave Kira and go back to the Founders only a few episodes later is not a betrayal of their love but an affirmation of it, and of the lessons it has taught him.

"Some of them are decent people," Odo tells the female Founder in "The Search" when she first lays out the reasons for the Founders' antipathy towards solids. Whether or not the writers intended for Odo to be thinking of Kira at that point (and she is remarkably decent and supportive throughout the entire story, which finds Odo on the verge of leaving Deep Space Nine in a huff and behaving, in general, like a whiny teenager), it is her decency that he brings to the Great Link when he gives her up for the greater good. Through his personal experiences with Kira, Odo hopes to teach the Founders the truth that he was unable to convince them of in their first meeting. At the end of his character arc, Odo substitutes an unsustainable belief in an ideal with a sustainable--and sustaining--belief in a person who embodies it. During the three seasons between his first meeting with the Founders and the occupation arc (at which point his pretense becomes pointless), Odo repeatedly insists to the Founders that he won't join them in the Great Link because he desires justice. They, in turn, reply that what he actually wants is Kira. Is it possible that, in very different languages, they are saying the same thing?


ad said...

As I wrote in the previous entry in this series, Kira has a fundamental understanding of right and wrong, but having rejected a rigid framework through which she can apply these abstract concepts to everyday life, she is forced to judge every case she encounters individually.

I think I would phrase this a little differently. You can not judge any case, unless you have a pre-existing set of standards to judge it against. But Kira uses fewer “logical shortcuts” such as “many Cardassians have treated me badly, therefore all Cardassians are bad.” Her moral reasoning is superior, even if it is not explicit.

The other difference I would note between Kira and most of the characters is that there is a smaller discrepancy between the moral beliefs she believes she has, the moral beliefs she actually has, and the way she actually behaves.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

there is a smaller discrepancy between the moral beliefs she believes she has, the moral beliefs she actually has, and the way she actually behaves.

Yes. One of the reasons that Kira's self-image isn't shattered as so many of the other characters' are is that hers is more realistic. The occupation, presumably, forced her to confront many of the dilemmas that Sisko and the others encounter for the first time over the course of the series, and as a result she has a more thorough understanding of who she actually is and what she's capable of.

Stephen said...

This is an absolutely fabulous series -- some of the best essays you've done on this blog. I eagerly look forward to the rest.

Standback said...

A newcomer to your blog, and very much enjoying. You're very insightful - kol hakavod, and keep up the great essays :)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reviews of DS9, A. N.! They dig very deep.

Actually, it was rewatching Deep Space Nine and getting to understand these intricacies of Odo's and Kira's relationship that you have laid out so nicely here that made me really appreciate and understand the theology of Kierkegaard that I read in my 19th-century philosophy course. Originally, it was very disturbing to me that Kierkegaard would say that a true religious experience, one that is orienting at the deepest existential levels, requires a teleological suspension of the ethical; requires that one place oneself as an individual over and above universal demands. To me, religion had always been very closely connected with morality.

But watching how Odo struggled with morality, especially in his dealings with the Founders which get at the very root of who he is as an individual, allowed me to see how right Kierkegaard was in his rather iconoclastic individualism. In episodes like 'Chrysalis' and 'Covenant', even though Odo keeps denying any kind of faith so described, it becomes more and more apparent that Kira is his spiritual grounding, how he comes to define himself at the most basic existential level.

I think that DS9 illumines this aspect of love and faith perhaps better than any other TV show I've seen, not only in the ways in which they can save (Odo and Kira), but also in the ways in which, when done wrong or for the wrong reasons, they can be completely destructive (Winn, for example, is an exemplar of what Kierkegaard referred to as the 'daemonic' potential of faith).

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