WARNING: Unless you hold this article up to a mirror, you'll see spoilers below for DS9's "Afterimage". [If you do, you'll just see gibberish; of course, some would argue that's an improvement. :-) ]
In brief: Thin in places, but quiet and enlightening.
Brief summary: As Garak's work for the Federation is threatened by attacks of claustrophobia, Ezri Dax tries to come to terms with herself and her old friends.
While Terry Farrell's abrupt departure from DS9 at the end of last season was nothing to be thankful for, with "Afterimage" I'm coming to the conclusion that it may actually have done more help than harm. Farrell, for all her strengths, only rarely managed to pull off the inherent contradiction of 300 years of experience combined with the uncertainties of a relatively young and new host. Nicole DeBoer, from all indications, has a very good grasp of that, and "Afterimage" used that to good effect.
It helps, of course, that in this case everyone around her shares that uncertainty to some extent or another. In the two weeks since Ezri's face first appeared on DS9, the big question has been how everyone else will react to her: would they accept her as a worthy successor to Jadzia based solely on the symbiont, would they try to force her into exactly the same roles as Jadzia, or would they reject her? Given the variety of people on board DS9, of course, the answer really should be "all of the above, depending on who you're talking about," and that seems to be pretty much what we got. Quark tried to treat her almost as if she were a more naive version of Jadzia; Bashir thought about flirting and then (apparently) thought better of it; Worf initially decided to have nothing to do with her; and Kira doesn't quite seem to know what she thinks. All of these make a lot of sense, and I'm glad there was no forced "station/Dax in jeopardy" plot to bring all of it out. Rene Echevarria and Les Landau were content to let the characters and the issues speak for themselves, and for the most part they did.
In addition, at least one question was answered, and answered to my satisfaction. The Trill taboo against reassociation seems to be aimed at preventing long-term relationships or marriages from continuing on through lifetime after lifetime. As such, Ezri shouldn't even think about picking up where she left off with Worf, but friendship is okay. That explains Sisko, it explains her actions here, and it fits with "Rejoined", where the reassociation taboo was first mentioned. Works for me. (I'm not entirely sure where Bashir might fit into this, though; if you start up a romance with someone you initially considered and then rejected, that strikes me as dancing a little close to the line. Since there probably won't even be a Bashir/Ezri affair, however, this may be needless speculation.)
The Sisko/Dax scenes weren't the showpiece of the episode, but I think in many ways they were its heart. Sisko has one of the biggest adjustments to make to Ezri's presence, given that his old mentor and advisor is now in many ways the one who looks to him for guidance. You'd think that would get him the most uncomfortable of any character this side of Worf -- except that Sisko is also the one who's gotten used to Dax's changing hosts before, considering his friendship with Curzon. As such, the mentor/mentee relationship here seems to be right on track (particularly Sisko's verbal attack on Ezri, "rattling her cage" the same way she always used to rattle his), and there seems to be more genuine warmth between the two of them than Sisko has with any other character except Jake. (I particularly liked Ezri mentioning that Sisko intimidates Worf; Sisko's reaction was both exactly on target and a scream.)
The Ezri/Worf material also proved a bit stronger than I might have initially expected. While it was a given that Ezri would be staying on board for the long term (based on her presence in the opening credits, if nothing else :-) ), it was a little less clear how Worf was going to deal with it after the initial "I do not know you ... nor do I wish to know you." For a while, there seemed a very real possibility that Ezri would essentially say "I'm here, so just accept it," to Worf, or later on that Sisko might end up intervening. Instead, we had O'Brien intervening, in yet another demonstration that Colm Meaney isn't utilized nearly often enough. Worf's "oh no, not again" set the tone nicely for a little O'Brien-induced counseling, but what impressed me the most was O'Brien's flat "Wrong" in the face of Worf's insistence that Ezri dishonored Jadzia's memory. It takes a certain kind of guts to say "Wrong" to an annoyed Klingon, particularly in such a matter-of-fact way -- but given O'Brien's lengthy past with Worf and his own down-to-earth nature, he was the perfect person to make the points he made. As such, Worf's subsequent conversation with Ezri rang true.
I was somewhat less impressed with the Quark-related material and some of the Bashir-related material, but one line in the Ezri/Bashir conversations really stung me: "If Worf hadn't come along, it would have been you." I didn't have much of a position on Bashir/Dax while it was a possibility, but that statement has to be high on the list of Things You Least Want To Hear. The look on Bashir's face said all that ever need be said there, and I felt a lot more of a pang looking at Bashir then than I did when Jadzia actually died.
That leaves our tailor friend Mr. Garak, and his assorted psychological woes. I have somewhat mixed feelings on this particular plot. On the one hand, I very much like the idea of his concealed guilt over helping the Federation defeat the Cardassians, particularly since he may well be right that he's going to cause a nearly uncountable number of Cardassian deaths in the process. I also think it makes sense that his claustrophobia would rise in response to this unconscious guilt, giving him a way out of his espionage work. So far, so good.
I was a good deal less convinced that Ezri would be able to get at the source of Garak's problem so quickly, however. Her initial overture to Garak was every bit as trite and simplistic as Garak later pointed out (along with a beautiful "now get out before I say something unkind"), and given that I doubt that she'd find just the right place to dig for problems later. Now, admittedly, it looks like she more or less stumbled onto it, but that suggests that Garak was near the breaking point already -- and that is something I find more difficult to believe than any of the rest. The claustrophobic attacks are one thing -- the quick breakdown in front of a near-stranger only days after those attacks have begun is something else entirely. I like the effect of Ezri's ministrations on Ezri herself, and Andrew Robinson's performance was its usual strong one; I just didn't buy the combination.
That pretty much covers the big points, I think; this is a substantially shorter review than those of the last two episodes, but a good deal less happened. This show lived or died by the characters, not by intricate plots; as such, there's less to comment on and more to simply take in. So, some shorter notes:
-- The direction during Garak's initial bout of claustrophobia was absolutely stellar. We weren't quite seeing through his eyes, but the effect was about as disconcerting as they come.
-- "Why are you standing on your head, anyway?" While it's my hope that Ezri will tone down the "my previous hosts did X" quirks before they define her character, I did rather like this exchange.
-- "I'm not some quivering neurotic who feels sorry for himself because his daddy wasn't NICE." Ouch.
-- Jake's presence in the episode was minimal, but I still think we may be seeing the way paved for a Jake/Ezri pairing. I'm still intrigued by it.
That should do it. So far, I'm still quite happy with the way we're seeing Ezri -- but with a caveat. So far, we've seen the vulnerability in a way we never did with Jadzia, and that's both sensible and good. Before long, though, it's time we saw some of the old Dax experience come to the fore; now that Ezri has some semblance of a grip upon her life, it's time to show her as an asset to the station. If we don't get that, and get only the quirky, unsure Ezri, then it'll get old; for now, however, I'm optimistic.
Wrapping up, then:
Writing: Some of the Garak work struck me as a bit too speedily resolved and/or coincidental, but most of it was quietly strong in a way we haven't seen much of recently.
Directing: Definitely on-target, particularly during Garak's initial attack.
Acting: No complaints.
OVERALL: 8, I think. Don't expect action, but it's a nice hour.
Sisko's back is to the wall ... of a baseball stadium?
"You have just agreed to take responsibility for the mental health of everyone in this room. You have your work cut out for you."
-- Sisko, to Ezri