Isolation, for human beings, is akin to torture. It’s used as a method of punishment in prisons, a place I imagine you’d prefer being alone. In fact, it’s so bad on the psyche that there’s an increasing movement that wants it classified as cruel and unusual. In other words, isolation is too awful a punishment to inflict on people who break the rules in prison. We evolved as social primates, and there’s something about the interaction with others that keeps us sane. There’s no more effective way to break a person’s mind than deny them this connection.
Now apply that to Odo. His race is adapted to a level of communion undreamed of by humanity. In their natural state, the Great Link, Changelings pretty much just want to chill in a state of constant one-ness. A “merging of thought and form, idea and sensation,” to borrow both the Female Changeling’s description (and Odo’s later word-for-word recitation). Changelings crave the Link the way human beings require regular conversation. Odo, though, was part of “the Hundred,” a group of Changelings sent off into the galaxy to learn about it, and therefore deprived of this Link. When Odo discovered his people at the opening of the third season, the Link was a revelation akin to a blind person suddenly being able to see all those cute cat videos on the internet. Then, he took himself away from it, because the Founders are dicks.
Still, it’s a powerful siren song. So powerful that in this week’s episode, we learn that were it not for Kira, Odo would have joined the Founders anyway. He believes the present war is morally reprehensible, but that fades in the face of his need for some of that sweet, sweet Linking. Can you blame him? For Odo, interacting with Solids has to be somewhat the equivalent of you or me walking around in a snowsuit, with giant mittens, a blindfold, and earplugs. We would only get the very basics of what anyone else was trying to say to us. And the only people who live without snowsuits are Nazis or something.
Odo is lonely. Unavoidably, by virtue of his biology, he can never make what to him is a true connection. For the first thirty odd years of his life, he retreated into his work, but now he finally has someone to share his life with. But Kira is in that snowsuit, and Odo begins to think of the Great Link more and more.
When I went into this episode, I thought it was an odd place for it. I remembered it well, as a calm, little moment before the cacophony of the finale. It felt more like a season four episode, following up on the Hundred revelation, put here because the writers never found another space for it. In fact, it sets Odo up perfectly for his destiny in the series finale. Without this hour, it would make a lot less sense.
In this episode, Odo finally runs into another of the Hundred. Through no fault of his own, either. Odo’s just cruising through space when this creature starts following his runabout, then gets onboard and is like, “Hi! I’m your weird, new best friend.” This Changeling, Laas, has never met another of his kind, but has incredible skill, capable of assuming forms like the aforementioned spaceworthy slugmonster, fog, and most impressively, fire. In a nice detail, he’s just as bad at Odo at assuming faces, but it’s clear the face he’s approximating is a different kind of humanoid. He’s been conscious for around two hundred years, long enough to evolve a breezy contempt for what he calls “monoforms,” but when he hears of the Dominion War, he dismisses it as pointless. Monoforms, to Laas, are better avoided entirely than conquered. He’d rather zoom through the cosmos with Odo, find as many of the Hundred as they can, and form a new Link, away from the solids.
It’s a pretty tempting offer. Kira can feel Odo slipping away from the moment Laas arrives on the station. She’s obviously fighting jealousy when she hears Odo Linked with the visitor. I’ve said it before -- it’s not quite sex, it’s at once both more and less, a deeper connection without the thorny emotional baggage.
The comparison between Changeling identity and sexuality appropriately pervades the episode. Both Odo and Laas are portrayed by male actors (Laas is J.G. Hertzler, who normally plays my favorite Klingon, Martok.), and their Linking has the unmistakable aura of intimacy. Laas believes that Changelings should be free to shapeshift wherever they like into whatever they like. Though he acknowledges that the solids don’t like Changelings, he regards it as their problem rather than his. And you know what? He’s kind of right.
While using Changelings as a metaphor for the LGBT experience is imperfect -- after all, humanity is not in an all-or-nothing war of subjugation with an LGBT civilization -- it does bear some fruit here. Odo contends that the solids are, by and large, accepting of differences. Look how many varieties there are. Laas then hangs a lampshade on Trek’s limited makeup budget, pointing out that their differences are cosmetic and minor. Odo will be shunned as different no matter what he does, which echoes “A Man Alone,” the very first Odo episode in the series. In essence, Odo and Laas can’t exist in their natural state without it being regarded as a political statement or act of aggression. In other words, the same struggle that the LGBT community faces every day. For the straight cis readers out there, imagine if kissing the person you loved in public took an act of bravery, or if something as simple as dressing as your gender could provoke violence. Here, it does, when Laas shapeshifts on the Promenade and some Klingons take this as a reason to fight. The very fact that Laas is seen as somehow culpable for their xenophobia is a powerful, if depressing, message on the power of difference.
The thing is, Laas is also wrong. Again, Changelings are an imperfect metaphor for the LGBT experience, because DS9 is more than simple allegory, though Quark does his best with a speech scolding Odo for his attempt at a Changeling Pride demonstration. It is important to remember that Odo is male because he identifies as such. He expresses a gender identity though his species is technically genderless. With that in mind, he and Kira are something of a mixed marriage (to use a thankfully outdated parlance), and this is the angst that Laas exploits. He argues that Odo and Kira can never be truly connected because they can’t Link. Love is imperfect, because there’s no sharing of form, and sensation, and thought, and feeling and all of that. Odo argues for one of humanity’s favorite paradoxes: that the lost cause is the only one worth fighting for. Love is imperfect and difficult, and that is precisely what makes it precious. Kira proves that she is better than Laas believes monoforms can be when she first helps him escape and then gives Odo her permission to leave. She loves him enough to let him go.
And he loves her enough to return. What Odo and Kira have might be impossible. Life’s tough when one of you is a battle-scarred former terrorist and the other is an immortal ball of goo. The important thing is that Kira, perhaps alone among all the solids in the universe, truly accepts Odo for what he is, shown in a magical scene where he essentially covers her in the aurora borealis as a form of the Link. It is likely that this acceptance, unique in the galaxy, is what will one day help the Changelings heal. Odo is an experiment gone so horribly right, he will fundamentally change his protean race.
Next up: Deep Space’s Nine