After the pivotal battle of the Dominion War, Sisko discovers that the Prophets have one more task for him.
Plot Summary: On the morning the joint Federation-Klingon-Romulan fleet will depart to invade Cardassian space, Ezri and Julian wake up in bed together while Miles and Keiko discuss moving back to Earth so he can teach at Starfleet Academy. Weyoun is distressed when the Founder promises Earth to the Breen if they win the battle, but she assures the Vorta that she just wants to guarantee a victory, particularly once they learn that Damar is alive and stirring up rebellion. Kira, disguised as a Breen, helps Damar and Garak sabotage Dominion communications. When the Founder learns of this, she orders Weyoun to begin destroying Cardassian cities in retaliation, but this only increases Cardassian resistance. Sisko comforts Yates while she suffers from morning sickness, then boards the Defiant and is disturbed when the Prophets send him a vision warning that he is nearing the end of his journey. On Bajor, Dukat returns to Winn with his eyesight restored; she tells him that she has been waiting for him, and the two set off for the Fire Caves, where she summons Kosst Amojan. Because the Pah-wraiths demand a sacrifice, Winn poisons Dukat, only to scream in horror when Kosst Amojan reanimates Dukat, restores him to his Cardassian appearance, and makes him the Emissary of the Pah-wraiths.
In the wake of a Dominion attack that kills two million Cardassian civilians, the Jem’Hadar murder Mila and take Damar, Kira and Garak prisoner. Before they can be executed, sympathetic Cardassians free them and join their plan to attack Dominion headquarters. When the Federation-Klingon-Romulan alliance assaults the Dominion fleet, the Cardassian ships turn and attack the Dominion as well. Ross wants to stop the battle as the Dominion ships retreat to regroup, but Sisko and Martok insist that they should press their advantage. Though Damar is killed storming the Dominion’s central command, Kira and Garak successfully penetrate the defenses and arrest the Founder, who initially refuses to tell the Jem’Hadar to stand down so that the Federation will suffer millions of casualties. Odo beams down, links with her, cures her illness, and persuades her to surrender, since he intends to rejoin the Great Link and save all the rest of the dying shapeshifters. The Breen agree to a cessation of hostilities. Worf is appointed the new Federation ambassador to Qo’noS, and Bashir says goodbye to both Garak, who plans to help rebuild Cardassia, and O’Brien, who has decided to move his family to Earth. Sisko refuses to celebrate victory on Cardassia because of the millions of Cardassian civilians killed, but he returns to the station for a farewell party for Odo, O’Brien, and Worf.
While Sisko is enjoying himself at Vic’s with Yates, he has a sudden vision warning him that Dukat is in the Fire Caves with the Pah-wraiths. The Emissary takes a runabout to Bajor, where he finds the reanimated Dukat in the Fire Caves threatening the destruction of Bajor, the Celestial Temple, and the entire Alpha Quadrant. Though Dukat paralyzes Sisko, Winn is able to alert the Emissary that the ancient book of the Pah-wraiths is they key to stopping them. While Dukat is distracted sending flames to engulf Winn, Sisko dives at Dukat, knocking them both into the fiery pit with the book. Sisko then finds himself in the Celestial Temple, where the Prophet who is also his mother tells him that he has trapped Dukat and the Pah-wraiths forever, but that Sisko must remain with the Prophets now. Yates has a vision of Sisko in the Temple, explaining that he can’t leave, though he promises to return to linear time in a year…or yesterday. After a begrudging farewell to Quark, Odo boards a runabout with Kira, who takes him to the changeling planet. They say their goodbyes before Odo revives the dying Great Link. Back on the station, Kira tosses Sisko’s baseball, congratulates Nog on his promotion, warns Quark against gambling, and goes to Jake, who is watching the wormhole open, both of them thinking of his father and the planet and quadrant he helped save.
Analysis: The passing of years since “What You Leave Behind” first aired have not made it any easier to watch this long farewell to the series that remains Star Trek’s greatest achievement. It’s an extremely gratifying conclusion, wrapping up nearly all the major storylines and bringing in characters from all seven seasons of the show, using both series mythology and diverse human legends, not to mention a sense of poetic justice, to generate the sense that this finale is bigger than the franchise itself. Any ambivalence I once had about Sisko serving as the Bajoran Messiah are gone by the time he throws himself into the flames to destroy the nemesis of both Bajor and the Federation (and the Cardassians, since it was Dukat who forged the unholy alliance with the Dominion). Any lingering resentment of Damar is gone by the time he makes good on his promise to give his life for the new Cardassia – a Cardassia he gratefully admits they will all owe to Kira’s intervention. As much as I adore Kira and Odo as a couple, a pairing that breaks television conventions – I’m so grateful the flashback montage included their lovemaking scene from “Chimera” as a reminder that they have never been the traditional pairing they appear to be on the surface – there’s a great sense of rightness when Odo decides he must return to his people to make them and himself whole again. Even the pain of Garak’s homecoming seems just as it should be.
There are many lines of dialogue and camera shots in “What You Leave Behind” that hearken back to earlier seasons, none more poignant than the very last image of Kira and Jake standing together as they did in “The Visitor” following Sisko’s presumed death. Now, as then, we know that he isn’t really gone, and now Jake is mature enough to cope with the loss of his father without sacrificing his own life, but oh, it’s a bittersweet conclusion for a leader who arrived at Deep Space Nine reluctant and grieving, who now leaves a pregnant wife and hundreds of subordinates wondering how to move forward in his absence. Though in some ways I think Damar’s death is sadder – we all know the Federation will survive without Sisko, while Cardassia has lost a leader who can change the minds and hearts of his people just as his own were changed – it seems so unfair for Sisko to have to accept godhood among the Bajorans as a substitute for the happy family life he planned for himself living among the Bajorans. It’s always been evident that Sisko’s biggest battle would take place not against the Dominion but against the enemies of Bajor, that his role as Emissary would eclipse that of a Starfleet captain, yet we see him denied the role he wants most, that of a husband and father, leaving him with the same regrets that he had when he first came to the station. Is it punishment for complicity in not curing the Founders? Is the Founder’s order to kill all the Cardassians supposed to make it all right that Section 31 tried to exterminate her people? I hope that Sisko in his role as Prophet makes his people think long and hard about that.
How ironic that Winn should get a more satisfying ending, though we’re led to believe that she’s truly gone, not trapped with the Pah-wraiths like Dukat. Winn gets to assassinate the man who’s both the scheming architect of the Occupation of Bajor and the wraith-possessed would-be destroyer of Bajor, his red eyes gleaming as they did when he murdered Jadzia Dax. Plus Winn gets to revel in the pleasure of her actions in a way Sisko doesn’t. Her arguments with Dukat are laced with wry humor and an undercurrent of the apparently scorching sex they had before she discovered his true identity – sex they’re both willing to toy with the idea of sharing again, even though he suggests that she’s weak and pathetic while she calls him heinous and loathsome. These characters are fascinating in their complexity, never mere villains; Winn despises Dukat for his treatment of Bajorans even as she plots to kill their gods and let the unworthy die, while Dukat’s remorse for the Occupation seems to be genuine once he understands the power of the Bajoran gods and their adversaries. The pair at times seem genuinely regretful that they must destroy one another, since there can only be one Emissary to the Pah-wraiths. I really hope that Winn survives her immolation just as Dukat does and they’ll be trapped in the Fire Caves clawing at each other for all eternity. That is the ending they both truly deserve.
It’s nice to see so many love stories emerge, even if many of them are destined for painful conclusions. Dax really seems to be the consolation prize for Bashir after O’Brien – torn for years between his family and his best friend to such a degree that even his young daughter is aware of it – runs out of excuses not to make a choice between Keiko and Julian, and promises to take his wife home. It’s not quite a happy ending for Dax and Bashir, just as it’s not quite a tragic ending for Kira and Odo, who embody the adage that if you love something, you must set it free to know whether it’s truly yours. There’s no question that they love each other very deeply, yet no question for either that they must separate so that they can decide who they are apart from their connection. They have always known that there are things they’ll never share. Odo has said repeatedly that if it weren’t for Kira, he’d be with his people, which is a great burden for her to shoulder – she must be not only his lover but his entire world. I like to think that they’ll find their way back together at least to remain in communication if not the communion that Odo shares with the Great Link. As much as I love the pairing, I appreciate that Kira’s most memorable moments in this finale are not as Odo’s lover but as a Cardassian liberation fighter, bringing her full circle from the onetime Bajoran terrorist who learned how to fight tyranny by attacking the very people she now seeks to help.
The Dominion collapses when its center turns on itself, borrowing a metaphor from Star Wars, which is fine because the gigantic fleet battle here is really more space opera than science fiction, with beautifully filmed perspective shots echoed by, of all things, Vic and Quark in overhead visual at the bar. (The interweaving of Vic’s old songs and the show’s major musical motifs is gorgeous too and quite tear-jerking.) There are only a couple of things I’m even a little bit bummed about: it’s a little sad that Bajor hasn’t yet joined the Federation, a little aggravating that Jadzia Dax doesn’t appear even in a photo, a little frustrating that we never see if Bounty Hunter Princess Leia is really under all those Breen helmets, a little disturbing that the new ambassador to Qo’noS is the sworn brother of the new Chancellor, which Klingons who drink blood wine over the bodies of their enemies may not find to be a conflict of interest but I’d think the Federation would. If there’s a missing scene, it’s at the very end, when I always half-expect to see Benny Russell typing the final letters of the story on his typewriter. Smiling. Sisko can never die, for this series has belonged to the fans for over 15 years.