They got the tone and the characterization very VERY right despite some plot holes that could have been filled with better forethought.
For a full breakdown, see the all knowing Wikipedia (here). Here's an executive summary:
- The war is nearly lost during a final assault on Cardassia until the Cardassian military switches sides while the Cardassian civilian population keeps the ground forces occupied with terrorist attacks. With a huge numbers edge, the female Founder intends to go down shooting but is convinced by the power of magic fairy dust to end the war (actually, Odo links with her, but how she changes her mind is never made clear - I do have a theory about this which I will discuss in a bit)
- Sisko returns to the station, only to realize (through magic fairy dust) that he needs to go precisely to the fire caves on Bajor to stop Kai Winn and Dukat from releasing the Pah Wraiths. When he arrives, he is easily dispatched, but Winn provides a convenient distraction and he is able to pounce on Wraith!Dukat and take him (and his book) into the fire. So...um...the hero seems to be Winn...so why did we need Sisko? Nevermind...the Prophets save Sisko from burning in eternity with Dukat and the Pah Wraiths, but he is, for all intents and purposes dead (and now being taught by the Prophets to become a full-fledged God. YYYYYYEP...they've done it...they finally made a Starfleet Captain into a God...they do have large enough egos for the role, traditionally.)
- O'Brien (job at the academy), Odo (mission to save his people from groupthink and disease), and Worf (becoming ambassador to Quo'nos) all leave the station and say their heartfelt goodbyes (except for Odo, who says nothing to anyone except Kira because...he's Odo).
- Jake and Kassidy stay on the station to wait for the return of Jesus...er...Ben Sisko.
- Garak returns home to help his people pick up the pieces of their broken world.
- And perhaps most importantly, O'Brien finds Colonel Travis!! (a joke from an earlier episode)
First, let me air my grievances and give a few potential cop-out style excuses.
- My co-author and I both think the end of the war was highly anticlimactic. The Founder at first insists that she will make us pay for our victory and let the planet runneth over with blood, mwahahahaha!!!...and then Odo links with her and she simply walks over and resigns? Given previous events, this resolution DOES make sense. She did, at one point in the sixth season famously say "I would give up the entire Alpha Quadrant if it meant returning Odo to the Great Link"...which was the bargain she struck here. But...we could perhaps have listened in on that conversation, no? Go into "link-vision" and show us them talking in some ethereal setting or something. As is...this doesn't feel like the big end for Odo's arc...it just feels rushed.
- I've already mentioned before that I don't see what's so special about The Sisko that he had to be the one to stop Dukat. It has also been pointed out that the ritual to free the Pah Wraiths must have taken like three days because that's how much time passes in the other plot. But my excuse here is that the Pah Wraith plot is probably not happening in real time...they're just spacing it out to preserve suspense. That is a common Hollywood maneuver to make a story flow better even if the timeline doesn't support great flow. But my first complaint stands. They needed Sisko to tap into some power that only he possessed to save the day...or to make it clear that only Sisko could distract Dukat enough due to Dukat's towering ego-driven rivalry...or something like that.
- Ezri and Julian are really REEEEEALLY annoying and stupid again in this episode. There was no need to have that plot in here at all. Sorry.
Now...what they did right.
- They really knew what images to show us during the montages and what music to play at certain key moments during the long goodbye. The atmosphere was breathtakingly beautiful and loving and I pretty much cry for thirty straight minutes every frickin' time I watch the finale due to all of those wonderful character-driven goodbye sequences. The writers of this show so adored their creations that they gave them easily the best send-off in Trek history. From Quark's famous "Hard? What are you talking about? That man loves me. Couldn't you see it? It was written all over his back!" to the finding of Travis (which is the moment that begins the tear-fest for me) to Martok's "Finally! An Ambassador who will go Targ hunting with me!" to Julian and Miles hugging at the shuttle entrance to Odo and Kira's gut-wrenchingly gorgeous fairwell complete with tuxedo and lilting romantic music...oh God...the music...it kills me EVERY TIME! And it all finishes smoothly with Jake staring at the wormhole, knowing his father is there looking down on him as Kira stands at his side offering motherly support and we pull back from the window into the great unknown of space. I mean...you can't do it any better than that for character-driven atmosphere.
- The fact that we didn't see Jadzia in the final moments is not the writers' fault, so I don't want to hear your bitching, fans. :) During the montages, we look back at Worf's tenure on the station but never see Jadzia. This is because Farrell refused to authorize the use of her likeness without further compensation and the show had no budget room for it. *sigh*
- The final battle sequence, while forced to use some stock footage clips from earlier big battles, did include some truly spectacular CGI dogfighting in three entire dimensions!! (imagine that!). My favorite is the part where the Defiant does a complete negative Yaeger Loop to get behind Jem'hadar attack ships and blows them away, all while we watch from the top of her bow. That. Fucking. Kicks. ASS!!!!!
- They made great use of gallows humor when about to storm Dominion headquarters. Love that scene. :)
- The female Founder acted her butt off in this one...I love when they find out that the civilians have turned on them and she throttles poor Legate Broca. "Are YOU telling me that the Cardassian PEOPLE have risen up against ME?!?!" Scary stuff.
- Their use of Garak was fabulous...his farewell was heartbreaking...and yet, you can't really cry for Cardassia, can you? He's right about their history of arrogant aggression and their being culpable for their own self-immolation.
All in all...I really REALLY wanted to give this one a feature score due to the perfect sense the writers had for how much we loved the key characters and how much the dedicated fans of the show wanted a tearful goodbye. They nailed the romances (except for Ezri/Julian, which was icky), they nailed the bromances (heh), they nailed the gallows humor and the cost of being a revolutionary, they nailed the pain of being a Cardassian and reaping what you sow, they absolutely DESTROYED (in a good way) the Odo/Quark relationship and the Kira/Quark relationship. They did everything right...except what they did wrong regarding the major plot elements. ARGH...if they'd have maybe two fewer filler episodes and spent more time developing the female Founder's character and letting us see her obsession with Odo and his place in the link...if they'd given us more battle time...had us start the huge death struggle and have it mercifully end just in time...if they'd found some way for Sisko and Dukat's rivalry to be the key to defeating Dukat, thus making Sisko's parentage logical in some more satisfying way...all ifs, sadly.
A 10 for characterization and atmosphere, a 5 for plot pacing and continuity...and split the difference for dialogue. There are moments where some of the language is a bit cheesy and other moments where you hear things you'll remember forever.
Avery Brooks might as well have EATEN the Text of the Kosst Amo'jan since he devoured the scenery during the final showdown with Dukat. Otherwise, I can find no serious flaws with the acting. Maaaybe Al Siddig was a little on the puke-inducing side in the opening scene.
Main message: we care about our fans and we know how much they love the show, because we love it twice as much. So we're going to give the fans a full HOUR to say goodbye in our two-hour finale. Sez me, "thank you kindly!"
The rest is just just gravy, IMHO.
My co-author is going to write a big series-finale post-series next week to give DS9 a proper send-off. It's still my favorite fandom from a purely emotional/sentimental standpoint despite its notable flaws. And we'll talk more about what it did right that no other Trek managed.