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  • Ric Crossman

4.1.18 Only Obeying Stationery Orders

Updated: Apr 13, 2022


Mauritza holds a napkin over the lower half of his face.
Masks last episode, veils this time around. Marritza wants Kira to see him, but not too well.

So, this will be interesting. I’m not dealing with a minor entry to the canon this time, or some forgotten classic in need of a polish. If episodes were celebrities, everyone would start their interviews with “Duet” by saying “My next guest needs no introduction…”. We’ve arrived at what is more or less unanimously regarded as the best episode of Deep Space Nine’s first season, and a regular fixture in “best of” lists for the entire show. Hell, for the entire franchise.

But is that actually correct?

Before The Storm

The good news, for the approximately everyone who adores this episode, is that I’m not going to disagree with its reputation, so much as add some caveats. “Duet” is clearly astonishingly good, proof positive that all you need to create riveting viewing is stick two great actors in a room and have them bite chunks out of each other before spitting them back into their owner’s face. Visitor is at the absolute top of her game here, letting the horrors she both endured and witnessed during the occupation bleed into Kira’s standard short temper, while retaining her cool just enough to keep Sisko on side.

Guest star Harris Yulin, for his part, is nothing short of a revelation. The fact the dude could clearly act is almost beside the point – though his portrayal of the mass-murdering Gul Darheel as a blazing cannonball of charismatic self-belief is certainly pitch-perfect. What’s really impressive, though, is how he manages to play one character playing another character deliberately playing the first character poorly. Marritza-as-Darheel, Marritza-as-Darheel-as-Marritza, and Marritza himself are all distinct performances, but all are recognisably the same guy, which is astonishing.

Avery Brooks is also on form here as a man recognising he’s an outsider to a situation he can barely conceive the contours of, but who knows he has a responsibility to ensure due process is followed on his station. The manner in which he talks to Kira here is almost unrecognisable from the way he threatens to “have [her head] on a platter” in “Past Prologue”, despite the fact it appears she’s once again gone over his head to get what she wants – last time Admiral Rollman, this time Minister Kaval. Sixteen episodes is a long time in television, though, and Brooks makes clear the degree to which Sisko has come to respect and rely on his first officer. Once again, Vedek Winn has already lost.

Points are also gained by the story's williness to interrogate the fact the Bajoran revolutionaries may not have been completely innocent, and the possibility that not every Cardassian on Bajor was equally guilty, all while refusing to shy away from the breadth and depth of the Cardasssian’s moral atrocities. It’s the series of stinging gut-punches the set-up to this show has always promised.

So no. No sacred cows were harmed in the making of this essay. Like “Arena” before it, though, there is some work to be done to prove “Duet” deserves the lofty position it has been given. One niggling issue that has to be recognised and processed. Because, to paraphrase my partner’s response after she watched the episode for the first time, ‘Isn’t this just arguing “I was only obeying orders” is a valid excuse, so long as the orders only related to a concentration camp’s filing system?’.

“You Should Be Opening Fire, Not Clinging To Legal Niceties!”

Sisko himself raises a similar point early in the episode. “So that makes him a war criminal, just being there?”. The question is perhaps a little badly phrased – it’s not his presence there that’s the issue, it’s the difficulty in imagining a reason for him to be at a forced labour camp without contributing in some way to its running, and therefore its atrocities. Nevertheless, the question of whether file clerks, or chefs, or cleaners at a concentration camp bear responsibility for the horrors inflicted in those camps seems relevant here.

This is another one of those questions Trek throws up that I’m not capable of satisfactorily tackling. For one thing, I’m neither a moral philosopher nor a legal expert. Furthermore, like Sisko, I have no link to the atrocities perpetrated by the Cardassians – or rather, to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis that the Cardassians are so obviously functioning as a stand-in for. Yes, my brother has a medical condition that the Nazis labelled as making people “life unworthy of life” (as did my sister, before it took her life last year), and people whose only crime was to hold political views similar to mine were being arrested and shipped to Dachau as early as 1933. What could have happened and what did happen are not equivalent, though, and I’m fully and uncomfortably aware that the history I’m sifting through here is not my own.

For what little it’s worth, said sifting suggests Marritza might not be legally culpable, at least. In recent years Germany has relaxed its standards for what constituted a crime as regards working in a concentration camp. For many years, an actual act of murder was required for prosecution. This changed in 2011 with the sentencing of Jon Demjanjuk, establishing the precedent that being a concentration camp guard – even one such as Demjanjuk, who was essentially an “accountant” (i.e. he catalogued the money and valuables they stole from the inmates) – was enough to be guilty of contributing to genocide. Because if you’ve got the job of making sure the machinery of death keeps running, what difference does it make whether you’re actually pulling the leavers?

Onc again, I’m not a lawyer – still less a German lawyer with experience of prosecuting Nazi war criminals – but I’m not sure even this expanded definition of legal culpability would extend so far as admin staff. That's a legal judgement, though (however useless a one), rather than a moral one. And note that it’s only Kira here who seems to understand the distinction. Her response to Sisko’s question is fairly unequivocal – the atrocities of Gallotep were so many and varied and horrifying that yes, simply being willing to be present in the place they were happening makes one guilty through inaction. A little later she makes it very clear through her tone and body language that while she knows Sisko won’t hold Marritza for simply being at Gallotep, she’s not at all happy about the idea. For Ben, the outsider, what matters is that the legal process as currently exists is followed. For Kira, who saw the nightmare of Gallotep with her own eyes, there’s a rather greater form of justice in play than how the Federation defines a war crime [1].

You can see why Odo loves her.

Let’s move on from the question of whether Marritza meets the legal definition of guilt, then, and start talking about Kira. To restate the problem under consideration: here we have a member of a brutally oppressed population not just forgiving a member of the military responsible for having a role (however minor) in that oppression, but also ends up describing someone posted at a more or literal concentration camp as being “a good man”.

The worst-case scenario for the episode is therefore obvious – it’s a message that the oppressed should forgive their oppressors, provided those oppressors make amends. Which is a) a viscerally upsetting idea, b) not even the worst argument about the need to forgive war criminals the franchise has given us, and c) a sufficiently compelling surface reading that we can’t just dismiss it.

Looks like Marritza’s going to get a trial after all.

I’m going to start by briefly putting the specific context of the Cardassian/Bajoran relationship aside. Not for long, I promise; trying to pass judgement on any of this without considering the still-damaging background radiation of the Occupation would clearly be ridiculous. As a temporary measure, though, it has some utility when sounding out the fundamental structure of what we have here. Absent that context, then, the basic shape of Kira’s arc here is pretty obvious. The Major is learning there’s a difference between a people and its government/military, and therefore also a difference between hating a people and hating its government/military. This is a story, let’s not forget, which begins with Kira insisting that how you treat a patient with a given medical condition should depend on their nationality.

This positions the story as pushback to the “planet of hats” problem. And in a franchise which spends so much time telling us every culture other than ours can be summed up in a handful of adjectives, this is entirely welcome. The Cardassians are neither their government nor their military, no matter how totalitarian and interconnected the latter two are. Blaming the entirety of their race for the occupation isn’t just unreasonable, either. By raising the spectres of multiple imperial powers who fought on both sides of WWII [2], we’re reminded that ultimately, blaming an entire nation for the actions of its authorities (and, yes, those who are willing to commit atrocities in service to those authorities) simply gives the next generation of nationalist warmongers a handy group of people to scapegoat. We’ve seen this before in “Past Prologue”, and we’ll see it again at the start of the next season.

Mixing these ingredients together leaves us with a potent brew. And now, with this initial solution made up, we can allow the context to start dripping back in, an experiment in titration that will let us find the point at which everything turns red.

First, we add in the fact that Kira’s beef with the Cardassian military is so colossal and so understandable. What are we to make of the fact that the lesson is being learned by a member of an (until very recently) oppressed people about someone who played a role (however minor) in that oppression? One response here might be to note that nobody, inside the show or out of it, has the right to tell Kira how she should process the twin traumas of her childhood under Cardassian rule, and the horrors she witnessed while fighting to bring that rule to an end.

This though is a stance with limited utility. Kira isn’t real; someone else already had to decide what she thinks about space-Nazi filing clerks. At least one of the people involved was a Jewish American, which seems at least somewhat relevant here, but ultimately you can’t defend a script’s decisions by saying there must be someone somewhere who holds the views being put forward.

Fortunately, there are better arguments against the idea the episode is making a general claim about the need for forgiveness, and we’ll come to them later. For now, though, let’s game out the idea that, by showing the oppressed learning to view the oppressor with nuance, “Duet” renders itself unworkable. I think it’s fair to note that if this is the fact that sinks the episode, there’s no alternative that would have allowed it to stay afloat. For sure, I don’t see anything useful in a story centered around an oppressor learning the people they’re oppressing didn’t deserve it. Nazi-analogue learns that labour camps were bad, actually? What could possibly make anyone think anyone else needs to consider their perspective?

Centring the oppressor necessarily means decentring the oppressed. I mean, I’m sure there’s probably a counter-example to this – there is to almost any blanket statement about how to story. In the context of Deep Space Nine, though, the issue with the Cardassians isn’t that too much time is spent suggesting the Bajorans need to get over their reflexive hatred of them. It’s that no-one else, writers included, seems to recognise that there are certain Cardassians that do need to be hated. It’s not nearly so much of a problem that Kira learns a lesson about Cardassians here as the fact Gul Dukat continues to be framed as a caddish but charismatic blowhard, rather than a literal mass-murderer. I realise Odo probably doesn’t actually have saliva, but even so, the fact this show suggests there is ever any response to seeing Dukat’s face other than to spit at it is one of its greatest failings.

“You Say You Want A Revolution”

In short, then, if you’re going to set up an episode like this, focussed on a change in attitude by one half of the oppressor/oppressed relationship toward the other (and it is very focussed – note that this episode doesn’t have a B-plot), this is the better way round to do it.

Those aren’t the only two options, though. The third approach is to explore attitudes towards the former enemy in a context where neither side could obviously claim the moral high ground. And actually, “Duet” pushes this idea as far as the backstory will allow. Once Marritza’s plan comes to fruition, and he’s free to be “himself”, he directly challenges Kira to admit her own culpability in the murder of civilians, and the fact she may not have felt as morally conflicted about this at the time as she’s claiming now.

There are two things to say about this. The first is that the episode doesn’t shy away from the fact that resistance movements are extremely unlikely to be able to keep their hands entirely clean in the fight against their oppressors. The idea that not all Cardassians – even those who were stationed on Bajor – are guilty is coupled with the recognition that not all Bajoran freedom fighters are innocent. This isn’t to detract from the obvious righteousness of the Shakaar’s cause, or to suggest some spurious and offensive moral equivalence. Rather, it’s to point out that overthrowing a vicious, murderous regime isn’t something that can be done without the deaths of people who didn’t deserve to die. To require a resistance movement be entirely above reproach is to require them not to exist (which of course is often the point of the requirement in the first place). [3]

Kira’s specific history as a member of an armed resistance cell – a history that Marritza was both aware of and apparently counting on – needs to be borne in mind here. She’s already aware that actions, and therefore inactions, have a wider context, even and especially in war. Her decision to recognise she can’t claim automatic moral superiority over a filing clerk, no matter who he worked for, after around two decades of killing Cardassians (or at least helping to kill them) isn’t equivalent, to say, a civilian survivor of Gallotep drawing the same conclusion.

(One aspect of the episode that really does bother me is the fact that the actual victims of Darheel’s atrocities arrive on the station, but are denied the right to actually speak for themselves. Even here, though, each alternative approach comes with its own drawbacks. Leaving them completely off-screen renders them entirely absent in a story focussed on their experiences. Giving them dialogue means taking it upon yourself to in some sense speak directly for the survivors of a concentration camp, and I’m not inclined to judge anyone harshly for concluding that’s not their job.)

The second thing to note is that it isn’t entirely clear why “Darheel” is bringing up the Shakaar cell at all. His revelling in Darheel’s crimes and recycling of his abhorrent rhetoric makes perfect sense – he doesn’t want Kira questioning whether he’s the actual Butcher of Gallotep, and he wants his trial to reveal as much of the vile truth about the Occupation as possible. He was a filing clerk, after all – he’s going to be bringing a lot of receipts.

So why go off-piste like this? Why try to force Kira to defend her own contributions to the bloodshed that took place during the occupation? Perhaps he simply heard Darheel himself rant about the Bajoran Resistance, so threw that into the mix for the sake of verisimilitude. Perhaps he figured trying to equate Kira’s actions with Darheel’s would help make her too angry to consider the gaps in his story (which is almost what happens, in fairness).

In fact, though, I don’t think it’s either of those. In one of my favourite details in the episode, Marritza explains that he’s not doing this to harm Cardassia, but to save it. He knows no culture can commit so appalling a crime as the Occupation and then pretend nothing has happened, not if it wants to avoid poisoning itself with its own lies until it finally dies [4]. He brings up the Cardassian civilians killed by Kira and her cell because the Cardassian lives lost during the occupation genuinely bother him. He understands fully why the resistance did what it did – what it had to do. But it still cost his own people, and clearly he cares so much about his own people that he’s willing to be executed for them, in the hope of forcing an escape from a cycle of collective amnesia that will otherwise damn them all. He can’t quite fully forgive Kira for the countrymen she killed.

It’s here that we should pause to note that this episode isn’t called “Dialogue”. A duet is a performance, not an exchange, one that includes two distinct voices. And while Kira is clearly central to what Marritza is doing, she’s not a performer here, she’s the audience. So what are the two voices that actually make up our duet here? We could identify them as the two roles Marritza portrays before he is finally unveiled. A more interesting take though might be to recognise that Marritza is playing both parts of the raging battle going on right now within the Cardassian soul.

The risk of casting Kira as the audience here is that it denies her the ability to perform an active role in a song that centres on her own people. There are a number of responses to this – it’s a mistake to think audiences exist outside of a performance (or at least any artist who decides differently is doomed to produce increasingly terrible art); it makes more sense to see Kira as a music critic rather than simply a punter; it’s just a metaphor, and just like everything else, you can only stretch a metaphor so far until it breaks.

In truth, though, the real reason this criticism doesn’t bite is because Marritza himself doesn’t see Kira as a co-performer. He genuinely is centring the oppressor here, attempting to bring Cardassian war crimes to light because he can’t see any other way his own culture can survive. Nor is there any sense he would see Kira as a fellow performer in this impromptu recitation. If anything, he views her as a monster. Just look at how he shrinks back on his prison bunk as she gets physically close to him for the first time in the episode. For all he understands the Shakaar’s actions in the abstract, he’s terrified of meeting someone with so much Cardassian blood on her hands.

Notes Toward Redeeming Redemption

This brings us to the question of redemption. A lot of online pieces on “Duet” use this word in relation to Marritza, and it’s worth considering the validity of arguing that this is what he achieves. Or even what he’s aiming for. He’s clearly acting at least partially out of guilt, yes, but the need to be punished and the desire to be redeemed are not equivalent. The fact his motivations are so focussed on the future of the Cardassian people means it’s not clear redemption is actually what he’s after. And even if it is, that same commitment to his culture’s survival means you can squint at him and see one more example of a Cardassian using Bajorans in order to further the cause of their own people. His terror of Kira might make his actions all the more brave (especially for a self-confessed coward), sure. With the occupation and his military career both over, though, seeing her as a threat doesn’t really suggest Marritza has fully left behind the racist assumptions that underpinned the occupation to begin with.

We should also consider this situation in the wider context of US TV. American television has always seemed unique in my experience in the frequency with which it presents redemption as something you can unilaterally declare yourself working towards. There are plenty of shows in which the hero (or heroes) is guilty of crimes that should land them in jail. Instead, though, they split their time between evading the law (often explicitly framed as in the wrong, if not actively villainous), and performing the good deeds they’ve concluded are more valuable to society than them engaging with the legal system.

The reason why so many US shows, up to at least the turn of the century, engaged in this approach is a topic for another time (though here’s a hint: I blame libertarianism). I’m bringing it up here though because a surface reading of “Duet” suggests the same thing is going on here – that Marritza is deemed to have redeemed himself through his attempts to force Cardassia into accountability. If this is the case, it’s not just an example of the phenomenon described above, it’s a uniquely unpleasant iteration – how dare a member of a military that engaged in a decades-long brutal occupation conclude it’s up to him how he washes away his complicity?

Dig deeper, though, and we find the reverse is true. Because Marritza isn’t trying to evade the justice system. He’s charging straight at it. Yes, he’s confessing to crimes other than the one’s he’s guilty of. In the sense that he’s taking his former commanding officer’s guilt on to himself, though, he’s committing entirely to the idea that everyone who followed Darheel was fully complicit in the man’s crimes. He’s refusing to accept that even the death of a war criminal obliviates the responsibility to see restitution made (something to think about the next time someone tells you reparations stop making sense the instant the last of those directly responsible for the original injustice dies).

Marritza hasn’t decided his grand gesture brings him redemption. He’s letting the Bajorans decide for themselves what’s necessary for the crimes of the Occupation to be redressed. In doing so, he’s not just rejecting the Cardassian line regarding their actions on Bajor, he’s blowing a hole in the theory that redemption, if it’s possible at all, can only be achieved by submitting to the judgement of the communities you’ve damaged.

This isn’t an argument to just meekly submit to whatever justice system is current in operation, of course. It should hopefully not need saying that, had the Occupation not ended, Kira could only be redeemed for killing Cardassian civilians by volunteering to be processed by one of the Union’s literal show trials. What bodies have the moral authority to try what people under what circumstances lies outside the frame of this post, though. I’m fully onboard with the idea the Provisional Government has the right to put both Darheel and Marritza on trial.

So why does Kira decide the latter doesn’t need to happen? Perhaps she already knows her government isn’t interesting in prosecuting Cardassian admin staff, regardless of their postings. Maybe though she suspects they will prosecute Marritza, and – as she so often does – she’s decided she doesn’t need to help the provisional government out when she thinks they’re in the wrong.

Here, as promised, we return to the idea that Kira’s actions here are intended as a blanket statement about the need for forgiveness. Marritza makes the case that he needs to be punished, and it’s entirely possible the Bajoran government will agree with him. It’s Kira herself who rejects this idea. We can quibble whether this was the right call, but it remains her call, entirely consistent with her past actions. What matters here isn’t whether Kira is unquestionably in the right. It’s that when she really believes she is in the right, she gives precisely zero damns for what anyone above her has to say on the matter.

The result is a story in which Kira experiences a personal revelation that she doesn’t want to see every member of the Cardassian military machine punished for having set foot on Bajor. It achieves this without allowing Cardassians in general or Marritza in particular dictate the methods by which they can atone. To frame this in modern terms, we learn there are Cardassians who want to be allies to the Bajorans (though – as is too often the case in the real world – this is ultimately being done for reasons of self-interest). But it also recognises only those they want to be allies to can judge whether they qualify.

This is some of the most nuanced political commentary the franchise has ever managed, Discovery included. It’s not just that it recognises the complexity of the situation, it’s that it recognises which aspects of that situation are complicated, and which are completely clear. It’s willing to engage with the questions it asks without offering didactic conclusions. And it does it all by putting together one of the most talented regulars in the franchise’s history with one of the most talented guest stars of the franchise’s history.

All that, and it finds time to not merely be one of the best episodes of Trek ever, but to undermine the crappier aspects of the TV landscape around it. The franchise may never get quite so good in quite this way ever again.

For the second time this cycle, the defence rests.


1. Duet

2. Arena

3. (The Infinite Vulcan)

[1] It’s worth noting at this point that at one stage the episode’s working title was “A Higher Law”.

[2] Though for some reason the list of powers being echoed here doesn’t include The United States. Clearly just an oversight.

[3] This idea is returned to in the Season 6 episode “The Darkness And The Light”, in which Kira makes it clear that she did consider all Cardassians legitimate targets, irrespective of whether they were military or not. They weren’t the people she was specifically aiming for, but she didn’t let the possibility of their deaths stop her striking at military personnel.

[4] The fact British imperialism and its resulting horrors were being drawn on in the writing of “Duet”, and that the UK is currently tearing itself to pieces as international, economic and even health policy is replaced with WW2-drenched jingoism, seems more than a little relevant here. Darheel ran a camp regime so horrifically brutal it stood out even among the ubiquitous moral outrages of the Occupation, and they buried him under the largest military monument on Cardassia Prime. Churchill knowingly starved millions of innocent Bengalis, and the UK stuck him on the five-pound note.

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