Odo is afflicted with a disease by the Founders in order to force him to face judgment for having killed a changeling.
Plot Summary: While quarreling with Garak over the tailor’s efforts to play matchmaker for him, Odo collapses and is found to be losing his ability to maintain humanoid form. When he tries to leave the infirmary, he starts to disintegrate. Bashir realizes that only the Founders may be able to help Odo and accompanies Sisko along with much of the senior staff on a trip to the Gamma Quadrant to find them. Garak comes along to distract Odo and to attempt to speak to the Founders on behalf of Cardassian prisoners of war. The Jem’Hadar surround the Defiant and beam the female shapeshifter whom Odo has met before onto the ship. She admits that the Founders made him ill to force him to return to them so that they can judge him for the crime of killing another changeling. Though she agrees to take him to her planet for treatment, she demands that the Jem’Hadar be allowed to control the Defiant’s navigation so that the Federation can’t discover where the Founders now live. Though Sisko is reluctant to permit this interference and Garak is furious to learn that all the Cardassian combatants have been killed by the Dominion, Odo insists that he wants to join with his people. He enters the Great Link, only to return as a solid, having been turned into a human by the shapeshifters who don’t believe that he ever can be one of them. They leave his face unfinished as a reminder of what he has sacrificed. Meanwhile, Worf discovers Garak attempting to blow up the planet, willing to sacrifice himself and the rest of the crew in order to destroy the Dominion. Though Worf is able to stop Garak, the crew is shocked yet again upon returning to DS9 to learn that Gowron is now preparing to go to war against the Federation. A still-reeling Odo recalls that while he was in the Great Link, he saw Gowron’s face, and realizes that the leader of the Klingons is not himself, but a changeling.
Analysis: When “Broken Link” first aired, it was impossible to know that it would become, after several abortive starts, the pivotal episode for the development of the Dominion War and the changes in the Klingon Empire that would set Deep Space Nine apart from (and, I would argue, above) other Star Trek shows. Several series-changing events occur in a short span of time: Odo becomes ill with a manufactured disease and finally begins to understand his people, Garak reveals the extent of his ruthlessness, Starfleet learns that there may be a shapeshifter in a top position among the Klingons. All of these events will resonate and recur in future seasons as the tables are turned on the Founders, Sisko takes advantage of Garak’s skills as an assassin, and Worf’s involvement in unraveling the Klingon crisis brings him back into Klingon culture. Yet when “Broken Link” first aired, I hated it. It was impossible to foresee all the wonderful twists yet to occur. What I saw was that, in a season that had severed Worf and Quark’s ties to their homeworlds, distanced Dax and Kira from their respective people, and cemented Garak’s status as an exile from Cardassia, now Odo too was cut off seemingly forever from his own kind. The project appeared to be to glorify human bonds and human values at the expense of anything set up as alien. There were still characters with wrinkly noses and pointy ears walking around the Promenade, but “Broken Link” looked like a sign that Gene Roddenberry’s dream of infinite diversity in infinite combinations was to be reduced to glorifying Earth and its people. It felt like that terrible moment in The Undiscovered Country when an increasingly bigoted James T. Kirk informs Spock that “everybody’s human,” just before a calmly logical Spock calls this attitude insulting.
In such an atmosphere, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Garak at his most vicious, and to have Worf put him down in a physical brawl rather than have one of the Starfleet officers do it in a lecture about values. Garak’s flip “Don’t tell me you’d object to a little genocide in the name of self-defense?” to the Klingon is trumped by the retort, “You fight well…for a tailor.” It’s even better because we’re permitted to believe at first that Garak is exaggerating when he brags to an ailing Odo about the many assassinations he carried out as a gardener on Romulus; how awesome is it to realize that the stories are probably true, and what a perfect set-up later for one of the series’ finest episodes, “In the Pale Moonlight,” when a Sisko who can’t pretend he didn’t know what Garak was asks for his help in dealing with a war-time Romulan crisis that he knows but won’t admit can be resolved with a couple of murders. In retrospect, now that we know what the Founders will do to the Alpha Quadrant, given the disease they give to Odo and the far worse disease that Starfleet gives to the Founders, I can’t decide whether to see Garak as the dangerous extreme of Vulcan logic or the perfect epitome of the equation whereby the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. He knows that the Jem’Hadar will kill him and everyone on the Defiant for his planned assault on the Founders, but it isn’t selfish ego that makes him want to exterminate them. He sees his attack as revenge for the slaughter of Cardassians and protection for the rest of the Alpha Quadrant, even species he doesn’t like. How refreshing that soppy human values about the intrinsic worth of every life form haven’t touched Garak, and what a perverse relief to know that there are still humans in Section 31 who think like him.
It’s likely that changeling values are also radically different from human values, but we’re really robbed of any opportunity to find out. It’s no surprise that they come back to get Odo, admitting that they’ve been spying on him all along and they’re willing to let him die if he won’t come home for judgment, just as it’s no surprise that they killed every Cardassian who opposed them instead of taking prisoners. They treat solids alternately as animals deserving of condescension and predatory beasts who need to be put down. I know there’s a school of thought which claims that they really thought they were doing Odo a favor, giving him what he used to wish for, making him a solid, but if that had been true they wouldn’t have left him an unfinished face as a reminder of all he’d lost. To the Founders, being a solid is a terrible fate. What we never learn is why, because we get almost no explanation of what goes on in the Great Link apart from Odo’s plot-driven memory of seeing Gowron’s face. What is their basis for judging the only changeling who has ever harmed another, an act he committed to save many humanoid lives? What sort of defense does he offer? Are such terms meaningless in a link where everyone shares thought and feeling, where the Founders probably know what it felt like to be Odo at the moment of the killing? The writers don’t seem to have thought out this alien society any more fully than the societies from which Quark, Worf, Garak, and Dax are now living apart. The changelings are even more different from humans than the Borg, since their collective consciousness does not wipe out individuality nor seek to make others like themselves. This is worth exploring! If only Data would show up and for once not blather about how he wishes he could be human but instead emphasize the things humans could learn by wishing to be something else.
Garak’s purported jealousy of Odo, who is about to experience many new things as a human, rings particularly hollow, since Garak knows better than anyone that pleasurable new experiences do little to alleviate a longing for home. If DS9 has an overall fourth season theme, it’s that the crew has become a unified unit, even a family; no more divisiveness over Bajoran vs. Federation interests, no more struggles with dark secrets from families or past lives. Worf has made a permanent home on the Defiant, Quark has been collectively adopted by the residents of the station, Kira has moved in with the O’Briens, Dax has realized she’d choose rejoined love over Trill law, Garak has made friends, and if Sisko’s romantic life has undergone a sharp disruption, at least he has Jake and the others looking out for him. But there’s an insidious flip side to this, a hint that the way to deal with outsiders is to turn them into insiders…to make them more like everyone else. Hence at this juncture we have a tamed Dukat, a defanged Winn, and Klingons whose bad behavior suddenly looks attributable to outside influences. I don’t object to the idea that deep down all sentient beings share certain core qualities, but here it’s tinged with the arrogance that people are best when they’re most like ourselves, that it’s less important to learn from one another’s differences than to file them down and reconcile them whenever possible. It feels like the opposite of Roddenberry’s original legacy, where the supposedly universal desires for food, sex, shelter, safety, and happiness were explored within the confines of widely varying cultures and traditions with respect for all. I’m not sorry that a war will be the price for that legacy to return.