I was wary going into this episode. I knew that it was good, but I also knew that the reputation of the episode was such that if it didn't get all 5 stars some people would declare me a heretic and chase me out of the forum. So I'm glad that this really is a 5 star episode, that makes my life simpler. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Even knowing the way the plot will unfold, the episode still manages to be engaging. In the beginning it seems like we're being set up for a lesson about tolerance and objectivity for Kira, and I guess that's what the episode is in a way, but it's also so much more. The episode has political intrigue, an examination of the nature of evil, and the tragedy of Marritza. While most of the episode focuses on Kira and Marritza, it starts out by putting Sisko in the tricky position of trying to stick up for justice while being put under pressure by a government that only wants vengeance. The episode could have been about that alone and it would have been good, but here it's just part of a larger puzzle.
The meat of the story comes in the various scenes between Kira and Marritza. At first, Marritza makes some good points about Kira and he seems like the calm, rational one in the room, and even though he's clearly racist towards Bajorans, Kira is just as racist towards Cardassians. Then we get those powerful scenes where Marritza "admits" to being Darhe'el and goes off on long, insane rants about how the Bajorans are a lesser race, unworthy of any decency or respect. It's raw, it's brutal, and it's horrific, all the more so because at times he makes good points. You can't bring back the dead, you can't undo the things that Darhe'el has done, the justice of seeing him pay for his crimes would be a hollow victory in many ways. Then we come to their closing scenes together where Marritza finally breaks down and admits the truth. Those of you that know me know that I'm cynical and manly, so it takes a lot to bring me to tears. This episode didn't, but it's the closest I've come all, oh, let's just say week.
Everything in this episode works, it is a finely crafted piece of drama. The story, the dialogue, the acting, all that stuff clicks. Pretty much all the scenes are worthwhile, except perhaps for the Quark scene, which felt like they were trying to shoehorn him into the episode, but even that's not too bad. This is easily the best episode of the season, and one of the best of the whole show. Even its stellar reputation doesn't harm it, it meets those expectations and still manages to rise further above them.