Last Time, on this comment: Garak has lots of context, but no agency. He is a very big archetype, but he isn’t relatable. He’s fuckin’ consistent, but his character arc only twitches slightly upward in the last scene of the damned series.
And now, the conclusion:
Garak is efficacious, don’t get me wrong, he gets shit done. But given that his motivation is to GET BACK TO CARDASSIA, he’s fucking god-awful at it. Not in that he refuses to shoot people or slit throats to get what he wants–though he’s inconsistent at that (like when he lets the Cardassians go in “Cardassians”). No, this genius, wheels-within-wheels mastermind doesn’t come up with a single fucking plan to get himself back to Cardassia. He lives at the pivot point of the fucking galaxy and sits there hemming trousers while looking across the Promenade at Quark who’s swimming in the opportunities available. The one time he has a chance in hell of getting back into the good graces are after he panics, blows up his shop, and then stumbles ass-first into boss-daddy’s half-baked return to glory.
He does have internal conflicts that he struggles with Garak has a conscience and he fights it. He’s a smart enough man to see the benefits of Federation society and the flaws of Cardassian society. So much so that after a certain point he doth protest too much when he says the opposite. It’s great stuff.
But he so effortlessly bats down his conscience that we circle back around to my first point. It’s no problem for him to subsume his conscience, especially since it’s burnt him so badly in the past, so why doesn’t he use his contacts and his knowledge and his intelligence to get himself back into grace and back home?
He’s dick-deep in context, and that’s assuming Cardassians keep their dicks at around shoulder-height. His connections with the universe around him go deep and are used effectively at the series. He fits snugly into the DS9 universe, but unless he’s motivated solely by his thirst for Bashir (legit theory), he’s on DS9 just because the story needs him there.
And Garak is an archetype. I’ve called him Star Trek’s Batman and I stand by that. He’s clever, multilingual, versed on communications technology, encryption methods, literature, horticulture, and botany, has a keen insight into humanoid behavior, and is an exceptional liar. He is very good at a number of things, but not so great at anything that you call shenanigans or “Wesley Crusher.”
He’s also a great representative of Cardassian society. His greatest flaw in the eyes of Cardassia was a moment of conscience. And he pays for that and despite the huge injustice of his fall from grace, he wants to go back. He knows the system he came from is wrong, and nonsensical, and dishonest, but he wants to get back to it, not because he wants to be a Cardassian citizen–nonono—but because he wants to be back in the power structure. He wants to sit down and stare at an innocent doctor until that man has a psychotic break because “lol Dr. Parmak.” This isn’t a guy who’s sad he got kicked out of the US Army; it’s a guy who sad that he can’t be a prison guard at Abu Ghraib anymore. The slim reality in there is lost in what it tells us about Cardassian society.
Despite that, I’ve never met a real person that reminds me of Garak. Certainly, his intelligence and conscience put him at odds with his people, but that’s nothing that Spock and Worf and Seven haven’t explored better. I’ve met a few sociopaths and legitimately shitty people who enjoyed getting themselves into positions of institutional shittiness so they could go pro at shittiness, but I’ve never made that connection between Garak’s character and that of any real people I know.
You may find him more relatable—complete objectivity is impossible—but I’d wager that most folks don’t have a Garak in their lives.
Garak’s character is consistent despite all of this. I can only say all of this because Garak himself is wrapped in a mystery that asks the question “what does it mean to know a man” and then answers it by making Elim Garak. I mean…his first name is a literal spoiler; THAT’S mystery! We know who he is though because we are shown so much of his character and told so little. He’s our True Neutral trash-baby. Our cynical quip-master. He is Garak: patriot, cynic, man of conscience and many talents.
But he has no character arc. Zero. He’s a Cardassian nationalist and apologist from Cardassi-A to Cardassi-Z.
In the end, he gets to go home, but not to the position of privilege he always anticipated. Each time one of his parents die, a central element of Garak’s Cardassia dies. The Obsidian Order, Dukat’s coup, and the destruction of the Cardassian civilian population are Garak getting his wish via the monkey’s paw of a cruel (or perhaps a just) universe.
And it’s only then, when he has everything he wanted and nothing left, that he—a man whose only abilities to add to the society around him were cultivated as guises to destroy and control—has to face the bleak prospect that if he REALLY loves his country, he will have to engage in the hard, thankless, uncertain work of building it up from the rubble that that thirst for destruction and control (not Doctor Bashir) reduced it to.
Garak is a great character. He’s one of my favorites, and he’s really great for his ability to show us something about Cardassian society. As an individual character though, he’s very lopsided: written in, artificial, and static. Star Trek has done better and I’m sure it will continue to do better in the future.