Kira is kidnapped, surgically altered to appear Cardassian, and told that she has been an Obsidian Order operative disguised as a Bajoran.
Plot Summary: When a holosuite excursion with Dax is interrupted by a transmission from Bajor, Kira finds herself being questioned about her time at the Cardassian prison camp at Elemspur – a place she has no memory of being. She departs for Bajor to investigate the records, but Sisko learns that she never arrived and Kira wakes on Cardassia, where she looks in a mirror to see that she has been modified to look like a Cardassian. An Obsidian Order operative named Entek tells her that she is really an undercover agent named Iliana Ghemor and that she is currently at her father’s home, where she will soon recover her repressed Cardassian memories. Iliana’s adoring father, Legate Tekeny Ghemor, confirms that Iliana went to Bajor having been modified to look and think like the captured rebel Kira Nerys, whose preserved corpse Entek shows Kira. Certain that the body is a fake and that her own memories are real, Kira refuses to cooperate with Entek, leading to increasing threats of interrogation, much to Ghemor’s distress. Meanwhile, Garak tells Sisko and Odo that he believes the Obsidian Order has captured Kira. Sisko demands that Garak join in a rescue attempt. Ghemor tries to share details from Iliana’s life with Kira, but she persists in her attempts to escape, and finally Ghemor agrees to help her flee Cardassia rather than let her be tortured for information. Realizing that Ghemor must be a dissident, Kira guesses that the Legate and not herself is the target of Entek’s scheme, using her resemblance to Iliana to trick Ghemor into committing treason. Entek bursts in to arrest Ghemor, but just then Sisko, Odo, and Garak appear, helping Kira and Ghemor escape as Garak shoots and kills Entek. On Deep Space Nine, Ghemor explains to Kira that he must go into exile to attempt to elude the Obsidian Order, but since he has no way to contact the real Iliana, he intends to treat Kira as his daughter. He also warns her that despite Garak’s efforts on her behalf, she should never trust the tailor-spy.
Analysis: Despite superficial similarities with “Face of the Enemy,” in which Deanna Troi is altered to look Romulan for an espionage mission, “Second Skin” is an original and gripping episode with a lot of development for Kira and Garak, the two regular characters with the most obvious potential for explosive conflict. Some of the details we get about Kira are little things – she doesn’t like holosuite adventures, she’s an expert at picking locks – while some are huge character issues, since, as in “Duet,” she proves capable of seeing the good in a man who wears the face of the enemy and puts together the larger scheme surrounding his story. The hardest part to swallow is the idea that she might doubt even for a minute who she is. Aside from practical considerations, like the fact that Bashir has surely given her a physical at some point in the past couple of years which would have revealed Cardassian DNA, she knows full well that the Cardassians are as capable of implanting memories as extracting them, and her story about shooting a cat which Entek reveals that he knows was likely implanted after she was kidnapped. I can see Kira becoming exhausted, enraged, even suicidal under house arrest with Ghemor and Entek playing good cop-bad cop, but I can’t see her for a single moment looking in the mirror at a Cardassian face and believing it might be her own. We get to see a lot of Nana Visitor’s range – her appearance as the young Kira and the young Iliana, her rage and sorrow and sense of irony even under Cardassian makeup, her horror at the sight of a body that looks so much like her own, her pathos for a man she knows isn’t really her father yet whom she quickly grows to care for – yet it’s her relief in the end, her obvious happiness to be back in her own skin despite her regret at what has happened to Ghemor and his warning about Garak, that’s the most subtly interesting.
As for Garak, there’s obviously something going on with him from his first cryptic mealtime conversation with Bashir expressing nostalgic wanderlust and a hint of paranoia. He seems to know about Kira’s abduction before anyone else does, though he keeps insisting that everything he knows, even top-secret Cardassian military commands, were merely overheard while hemming trousers. He and Sisko do a marvelous job manipulating each other, because it seems rather obvious that Garak really wants to go on the rescue mission, but he protests when Sisko demands it, possibly just to see how far Sisko will go to get him to agree. Sisko doesn’t bother with threatening force, since he only has to suggest that he could let the Bajoran government kick Garak off the station to secure Garak’s cooperation. When Garak announces that he has no intention of risking his own life to save anyone else’s, Sisko says it sounds like the first completely honest thing Garak has ever said to him – not entirely fairly, but a reminder, like Ghemor’s warning, that there’s a huge amount of Garak’s backstory yet to be filled in. One of the biggest reasons the audience never doubts Kira’s true origins even when Kira herself does is that Garak makes clear his belief that she is being held against her will by the Obsidian Order. His reasons for giving up this information are never made clear; he doesn’t have any great affection for Kira, and he and Ghemor apparently have past hostility or at least distrust between them. Is he merely looking for an excuse to go shoot Entek? And if so, is it because he hates Entek personally, or to get the attention of someone else in the Order? So many of Garak’s secrets never come to light.
What is clear, though, is that there is a struggle going on between the Central Command and Obsidian Order on Cardassia, and Ghemor is the highest-level dissident we’ve seen, though whether he’s connected to Natima Lang and her circle is not revealed. This power struggle seems centered on Bajor and its relationship with the Federation and the Maquis – all the questions we hear Entek ask Kira are about Starfleet strategy relating to the DMZ, a concern for the Cardassian ship that intercepts Sisko’s as well – the Dominion is not yet an issue, and the brewing war, along with Dukat’s intervention, would seem to be the point that forces a reunion of values. Might Cardassia have been on the road to democracy otherwise? It’s not clear how deep Ghemor’s frustrations go, whether his dissent concerns the Cardassian power structure or merely the treatment of Bajor and the lengths to which young Cardassians like his daughter would go to put a stop to what they describe as terrorism. I find it curious that Ghemor doesn’t ask Kira-as-Iliana any questions about her experiences on Bajor – not tactical information like Entek wants, but since he expects that she’ll prefer Bajoran food and culture, I’d think he’d want to know how the Occupation affected Bajorans personally, what it was like to belong to that world and how the Cardassians are viewed there. Again I’m reminded of “Duet” with its themes of good people living within a society that committed atrocities. That society may have its Orwellian aspects, with spies on every corner and giant viewscreens telling the population that freedom is slavery, as we saw in “Tribunal” and in Next Gen‘s “Chain of Command,” but it’s evidently evolving, and the strength of family ties are no less strong for Cardassians than they are for Bajorans and humans. That, perhaps, is the biggest thing Garak and Kira have in common, even more than both living among people they aren’t sure whether to trust or defend. There are many masks at work in “Second Skin” among friends as well as enemies.