It doesn’t take much imagination to find the trappings of the 1942 classic Casablanca in the story of “Profit and Loss.” Oh, sure, some of the roles are switched, and instead of transit papers it’s a cloaking device that everyone’s after, but the pieces are all present. In fact, the writing staff originally wanted to title this episode “Here’s Lookin’ At You…” before threats of legal action forced them to reconsider.
Like any good drama, “Profit and Loss” is driven by the desires of its characters. But like Casablanca, these characters don’t live in an easy world; their lives are complicated, unfair, controlled, and alone. The world they live in is relatable to us, even if we don’t live in a Nazi-controlled border town or a space-Nazi-controlled space-border space station (and even more if we do). They each follow their greatest desire, and at the end nobody’s truly happy.
Of All the Gin Joints on All the Stations in All the Quadrant…
The heart of the diminutive, money-grubbing Ferengi (but I repeat myself) grows two sizes when Quark sees his old flame Natima on board Deep Space Nine again. Having loved and lost, he is thrilled for a second chance with the woman who “got away.” He even gets remarkably close to having her again. It’s clear that he doesn’t care about the political problems of Cardassia, or about the stability of the Alpha Quadrant; his greatest desire is Natima.
Unlike his narrative inspiration for this story, Quark doesn’t get a Rick Blaine character arc where he realizes that his problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans” compared to the suffering in the world around him. He is a character in an ongoing television series, after all; and Deep Space Nine is still a couple of years away from allowing its characters to experience any real growth from episode to episode. But he does realize that his love for Natima means that he has to let her go, to let her fulfill her purpose.
At the end of the episode, he realizes that love is more than having. It’s doing. That’s a heavy realization for a Ferengi to have; and when he finally lets Natima go, it’s because he realizes that love isn’t just about satisfying his own desires.
But even that realization isn’t particularly satisfying.
Garak, I Think This is the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship
Garak’s greatest desire—and deepest character conflict—is established in his opening dialogue with Dr. Bashir.
Garak: It all comes down to a question of loyalty. My dear Doctor, Yiri had to choose between protecting his brother and protecting the state. He chose the state, as would I, every time.
Bashir: I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. But then again, before you can be loyal to another, you must be loyal to yourself.
Garak: And who can we thank for those misguided words of wisdom? Sarek of Vulcan?
Bashir: Actually, it was Bashir of Earth.
Garak: With sentiments like those, you wouldn’t last for five seconds on Cardassia.
Bashir: Would you?
Garak: Fishing again, Doctor?
Bashir: Well, assuming you’re not a spy—
Bashir: —Then maybe you’re an outcast?
Garak: Or maybe I’m an outcast spy.
Bashir: Ah, how could you be both?
Garak: I never said I was either.
Clever banter aside, Garak wants to go home. He wants to end his exile, as confirmed by Gul Toran at the end of the episode. His greatest desire is to be among his people again. He has a more pronounced growth of character in “Profit and Loss” than Quark, though; like Casablanca‘s Louis, he realizes at the end that his friendship is worth more than his job.
Garak could’ve vaporized Toran, then killed Natima, Rekelen, and Hogue himself; taking the glory and the accolades for himself, even fabricating a story that placed him as the hero who overcame some made-up treachery by Toran. He could’ve leveraged this act to get back in the good graces of the Cardassian Empire; we see enough of him over the course of the series to show that he’s certainly capable of doing it.
But Toran’s mockery reminds Garak that Cardassia isn’t necessarily doing what is best for itself; in promoting Toran, it has proven that his beloved home planet still makes questionable decisions. And maybe Natima has the right idea, or maybe not; but either way, he owes it to his home and his people to let them find out.
So he abandons his greatest desire, at least for now; and lets his ticket back to Cardassia get back on her ship.
Here’s lookin’ at you, Quark
Natima is the only person in this episode who doesn’t abandon her own desires by the end; she’s always wanted a free Cardassia, and her ship’s hull has the scorch marks to prove it. Even though the few days she has with Quark almost make her reconsider, she finally decides to follow her students with her own equivalent of a “we’ll always have Paris.”
But she’s lost something, too. She truly did love Quark, and leaving him really did seem to hurt her. She removed the mask that was keeping her from getting hurt, and underneath was the same desire for Cardassian liberty; even stronger than it was on the surface.
As she steps through the airlock, her greatest desire is as it was when she came aboard: for a revolution on Cardassia. For something greater. And she was willing to give up anything to get it.
It Doesn’t Take Much to See that the Problems of Three Cardassians and One Ferengi Don’t Amount to a Hill of Beans in this Crazy World
When our ultimate desire is for God, we will never be left wanting at the end.
That’s what you’re expecting me to say, right? And it’s true: as Natima proves, when our desires are what we were made for, we will not be put to shame. But I think there’s something even more true here. Because the final conversation between Quark and Garak contains a telling truth.
Quark: You have to tell me, why’d you do it? Shoot Toran?
Garak: Why did you let Professor Lang go?
Quark: I had no choice. I love her.
Garak: And I love Cardassia. Which is why I had to do what I did.
The desires of these two aliens aren’t voluntary. Quark and Garak both “had to” do what they did; even though it was painful for them and meant that they would lose their greatest desires, at least in the short term. I think they were inspired by Natima, by her laser-focused desire for something greater. I think she showed them that their desires—to get home, to have her—were not too strong, but too weak.
C.S. Lewis famously gave a sermon called “The Weight of Glory,” in which he addressed this desire:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Our desires aren’t evil. They were programmed into us by our Creator; we can no more choose our desires than we can choose to breathe. It’s in how we pursue them, or what we settle for, that we become sinful.
But, by the Holy Spirit, we can direct those desires.
“Delight yourself in the Lord,” Psalm 37 says, “and he will give you the desires of your heart.” He won’t change them, or eliminate them. He’ll fulfill them. In fact, that’s why they were given to us in the first place: God gave us desires so that we could focus them upon Him.
In “Profit and Loss,” we see two examples of people pursuing what they think is their greatest desire, only to be fooled. And we see an example of one person who is single-minded amid temptation, always pursuing the greatest desire of her heart.
May we follow her the example which gives us the most lasting fulfillment.