I think that greatest inter-character dynamic I’ve yet seen on Deep Space Nine was in the two-parter of “Improbable Cause” and “The Die is Cast.” This isn’t to say that I don’t find other character interactions amusing, important, or well-developed; they all are. Deep Space Nine would be nothing without the relationship between Jake and Benjamin Sisko, or without Kira and Sisko always having each other’s backs even when they fight, or Jake and Nog’s friendship, or the O’Brien family, or Sisko and Dukat’s verbal sparring, or… Look. They’re all GoodTM.
But Garak and Odo.
(spoilers alert because I’ve got at least one mutual who isn’t this far into the series)
Within every character relationship in the show, there’s always an element of control, in a conversation, in a situation. Is the control taken? Shared? Given?
Take the relationship between Ben and Jake for example. As the father, Ben has more authority between them, but he is a good father who recognizes that Jake is growing up. That Jake needs to have authority of his own. So in multiple cases, he relinquishes control to Jake. The biggest example is Jake staying friends with Nog.
Between Sisko and Odo (and Sisko and Kira) the relationship is actually very similar. Odo and Kira, as his subordinates, and as subordinates who respect Sisko, they relinquish a lot of control to him. But if you couldn’t tell, Benjamin “commanding-officers” the same way he “dads.” And that shows up especially in his interactions with his non-Starfleet staff. So we find that frequently, in a situation or conversation, he will share control with them.
And then there’s his relationship with Dukat. Dukat loves to take control of a situation, and Sisko shuts him down every time. What’s interesting is that Benjamin often ends up in control of their encounters, not because he takes control, but because he refuses to give it. Dukat takes control of situations by having control over the people involved. Sisko always remains in control of himself, and in denying Dukat that control, he remains in control of the situation.
And that is almost the relationship that Garak and Odo share…
…except they bothfight for control of each other. Every interaction with them in this two-parter is them fighting for control over one another. Unlike Ben’s responses to Dukat, which are entirely defensive (which is not the same thing as passive), Garak and Odo are both aggressive.
Anytime Odo touches too close to the truth, Garak immediately lashes out with a psychoanalysis of his own. In the torture scene, when Garak is in full control of the entire physical situation, Odo responds by attacking Garak’s character and conscience. Until the bitter end, both of them are clawing for control, not giving an inch, until it’s Garak, the torturer, who cracks.
He drops to his knees and begs Odo to give him something, anything, a lie, so that he can stop torturing him.
For the first time in the two-parter, Garak loses his control. He’s vulnerable.
Like we saw with Lwaxana Troi in “The Forsaken,” Odo tends to meet vulnerability with vulnerability. He hid himself from Lwaxana until she opened up to him, and that allowed him to trust her in return. And I think, that to a certain extent, he feels like it’s right to respond to vulnerability with a display of his own.
We’ve seen time and again that he doesn’t want the worst of his experiences to be repeated by anyone. It’s why he tries to free the Jem’Hadar child. It’s what sets off his aggression in “The Alternate.”
And growing up in a laboratory, he was forced to be vulnerable, without control.
So instead of fulfilling Garak’s plead for him to lie, he chooses to tell a very personal truth.
And the funny thing is that, in the midst of their vulnerability in that moment, they both still claw for control. Even though he’s pleading, Garak still keeps the stasis generator on. Even though he’s sharing an intimate fact, Odo still throws a jab at Garak’s conscience.
But something shifts in that moment. At the episode’s end, they have one last conversation and it’s a strange moment when they are both, in their usual, private ways, offering each other a bit of control that neither of them take.
These episodes gave so much focus onto how much alike Garak and Odo are - their loneliness in the separation from their people, their desire for privacy, their ability to read people and situations - and I think the way they clashed was the most dynamic interaction I’ve seen between the DS9 cast. Which, considering the rest of the cast and relationships, is saying something.