|O'Brien's family is threatened by an unexpected source.|
O'Brien is waiting with chocolates and a string of excuses for killing the plants when Keiko returns from a trip to the Fire Caves on Bajor. The chocolates are appreciated, the excuses unneeded... because Keiko's body has been taken over by a Pah-wraith, a spirit of Bajoran legend.
After demonstrating its ability to kill or cripple Keiko in a single second, the wraith makes its demands. O'Brien is given thirteen hours to make a series of adjustments to station operations. It's a tight deadline, allowing no room for distractions, deviations, or attempts to warn the command crew. If he finishes the work, he is promised his wife's safe return - but when Dax notices that system specs are "slightly off," O'Brien is trapped with a tight deadline and a search for a saboteur - Himself!
Capt. Sisko: Though his role is decidedly a supporting one, we do see his trust in O'Brien throughout the episode. Even at the end, he doesn't greet O'Brien with an immediate arrest - He just tells O'Brien that he has "a lot of explaining to do," with evident faith that the engineer will be able to explain his actions.
O'Brien: He gives into the wraith's demands, but he never stops trying to find a way to thwart it. Even as he performs the initial adjustments, he asks the computer to calculate how long it would take to render Keiko unconscious in various ways. He knows that for any method to stop the wraith before it can harm his wife, it has to be effective in less than a second - an interval that even a phaser set on "stun" isn't safely within. As the wraith's deadline gets nearer, O'Brien becomes steadily more desperate, finally abandoning his own hopes of covering his tracks in order to do what is needed to save those he loves.
Keiko: The wraith has access to Keiko's knowledge of O'Brien's personality, and recognizes that the only way to keep him from telling Sisko is to reinforce the threat against his family. There are several instances of this throughout the show, but the most memorable has Keiko contacting him in a meeting to show that she is with their daughter, alone in their quarters. Rosalind Chao, who is often pushed into the fairly thankless "main character's wife" role, seems to enjoy sinking her teeeth into some villainy, and the way she shifts from the cheerful wife to the icy enemy - sometimes with as little as a sideways look - is highly entertaining.
Rom: Last season's Bar Association saw Rom leaving his brother's bar for a position in Engineering. That finally sees some follow-up here. Refreshingly, Rom is where you'd expect somebody new to be: At the bottom, working the night shift in Sanitation. When a member of the swing shift is out, Rom is selected to temporarily replace him and, though the other members of the team show little interest in talking to him, he does his work well enough to catch O'Brien's notice and be enlisted as an ally in meeting the pah-wraith's tight deadline. Rom's technical knowledge is such that he quickly puts together the purpose of the adjustments, something that the wraith has hidden even from O'Brien - leading to O'Brien's own final plan to ensure his family's safety.
The Assignment is the annual "put O'Brien through the wringer" episode, something that's been a tradition ever since Season Two's outstanding Whispers. Colm Meaney's ability to be completely relateable and sympathetic in virtually any situation makes him a natural for these episodes and, far from degenerating into tedious formula, these O'Brien episodes are routinely very good-to-great.
On the sliding scale of "O'Brien Must Suffer" episodes, it is closest in quality to Season Three's Visionary. It's a good plot-driven thriller, well-constructed and very entertaining. But it lacks the paranoid edge that made Whispers so memorable even before its ending revelation, nor does it have the emotional punch of Hard Time.
But it is a good episode, nicely anchored by Colm Meaney's Everyman persona. Effective moments include "Keiko's" birthday dinner for O'Brien, in which she invites all of his co-workers and mingles with them effortlessly and charmingly, dashing any hopes that the others will notice anything "off" about her. In fact, they shower her with praise for every aspect of the party, rubbing further salt into the pah-wraith's message that she's in control and no external party is going to rescue O'Brien from completing his assigned sabotage.
The Pah-wraith is defeated a little too easily, with O'Brien concocting a last-minute scheme that works perfectly and with no complications. Still, if the ending isn't great, neither does it fall completely flat. The Assignment remains a satisfying episode, and leaves me looking forward to seeing O'Brien get run through the wringer again next season.
Overall Rating: 7/10.
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