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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Ferengi Love Songs (Review)

Ferengi Love Songs has one really good joke. In the episode’s defence, it might just be a great joke.

The most striking moment in Ferengi Love Songs comes eight minutes into the episode. In fact, the teaser rushes along so fast that it feels like the production team were pushing for that moment to serve as the sting that would segue into the opening credits. Instead, it arrives during an otherwise short and indistinct first act, providing an effective ad break on syndication. Still, the image is strong enough that it lingers. The image is the sequence in Quark discovers that the Grand Nagus, the most powerful of Ferengi, is hiding in his closet.

Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night, it's only right...

Imagine me and you, I do,
I think about you day and night, it’s only right…

It is a great comedy moment, in both concept and execution. The idea of the leader of a vast interstellar empire hiding in somebody’s bedroom is ridiculous in a way that Star Trek is very rarely ridiculous, at least during the Rick Berman era. It is very much a stock sit-com trope, except it has been dressed up in the trappings of a franchise that has a long record of taking itself incredibly seriously. There is an endearing absurdity to the gag that feels almost like the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine writers are affectionately poking fun at the franchise’s self-seriousness.

Even the execution of the joke works very well. Quark absent-mindedly opens his closet and puts his travel bag inside. The Grand Negus is waiting inside and accepts the bag that is offered. Quark closes the closet, and then does a double-take. He reopens the closet, at which point the Grand Nagus points out that Quark shouldn’t even be here. In a panic, Quark immediately grabs his bag and prepares to leave his house (and the planet) before he properly processes what has happened. “What’s the Nagus doing in my closet?”

He comes with a lot of baggage.

He comes with a lot of baggage.

It is a scene that might have been lifted from some forgotten thirties screwball comedy, which makes sense considering the interests of the Deep Space Nine production team. Rene Auberjonois directs the sequence in which to play into that absurdity, and Armin Shimerman proves quite game at delivering double-takes and exaggerated moments of realisation. It is a great gag, skilfully executed, that is brilliantly silly in the way that Deep Space Nine is not afraid to be.

The biggest problem with Ferengi Love Songs is the challenge of where it needs to go from that brilliant little gag. There is an interesting kernel of a story idea here, the writers’ obvious affection for these Ferengi characters shining through. Unfortunately, none of that fits with the tone of the episode’s central gag, which leads a plot that feels strangely dissonant as it tries to wring drama and conflict from the image of the Grand Nagus crouched over in Quark’s closet.

Strange bedfellows...

Strange bedfellows…

Tone had always been something of an issue with the Ferengi. After all, they were introduced in The Last Outpost as the grand new antagonists of the Rick Berman era. However, the decision to portray them as cartoonist apitalist trolls immediately undercut any credibility as villains. As a result, the Ferengi have always seemed a little out of place in the larger Star Trek universe. Outside of Deep Space Nine, they often feel like an unfunny joke that has been extended well beyond the patience of the audience.

Deep Space Nine devoted considerable effort to rehabilitating the Ferengi. Even if the show did not entirely succeed, what they did achieve was no small accomplishment. However, even within Deep Space Nine, there were issues with the tone of the Ferengi. Watching Deep Space Nine, it is difficult to know how seriously the audience is supposed to treat the Ferengi from one appearance to the next. Are they an exploration of cultural relativism and tolerance within a complex multi-polar universe, or are they cartoon characters played by actors in latex?

Lobes of problems...

Lobes of problems…

The truth is that Deep Space Nine has enjoyed some success with both approaches. Armin Shimerman has argued that his personal preference was for stories on Quark to explore the character’s dramatic possibilities. There are any number of strong dramatic episodes centring around Quark: Family BusinessThe Bar AssociationBody Parts and Business as Usual. These episodes retain a sense of humour about the character, but they treat Ferengi culture as something to be explored and interrogated, in the same that Klingon or Cardassian culture might be.

However, Deep Space Nine has also used the Ferengi for broad comedy. Some of these stories have also worked very well. House of Quark is one of the most underrated episodes of Deep Space Nine ever produced, using Quark to skewer the seriousness afforded to Klingon culture in the Star Trek pantheon. Little Green Men and The Magnificent Ferengi are both delightful “caper” episodes that benefit from never treating their central characters as particularly serious or grounded. They are among the best comedy episodes in the franchise.

Stacking them up.

Stacking them up.

That said, the Ferengi episodes on Deep Space Nine do not always work. When they don’t work, it tends to come down to issues of tone. Many of the worst Ferengi episodes frequently feel like the writers are trying to have their cake and eat it, slathering broad comedy over a premise that simply is not comedic. Prophet Motive is one such example, in which the brutal mindwiping of an elderly man by god-like entities gives way to a sit-com plot. Prophet and Lace is an even worse example, homophobic and transphobic joke superimposed over a story of women’s lib.

Ferengi Love Songs is not as deeply troubled as either of those two examples, but it still suffers from very severe tonal whiplash. It starts as a goofy screwball comedy that eventually transforms into a story about the fate of an entire financial empire while dipping its toes into issues of gender equality, all without ever allowing itself to get particularly serious. There is something disconcerting about all of this, as if the episode finds in Zek’s predicament; it is unable to ever escape from Quark’s closet.

Closet capitalist.

Closet capitalist.

The mechanics of the plot are taken directly from a mediocre comedy film. Prophet Motive actually began its life as a sit-com script adapted for a forty-five minute science-fiction show, but Ferengi Love Songs hews just as close to the conventions and expectations of the genre. In terms of how the plot works, Ferengi Love Songs is essentially the story of a working guy who cannot catch a break and subsequently discovers that his mother is sleeping with his boss. Our protagonist then tries to break them up, only to ultimately bring them back together.

It is a tried and tested formula that is a staple of films from My Best Friend’s Wedding to Short Cuts to Sherlock Holmes. Rachel Greene had a tendency to do this on Friends, particularly while Ross was dating Julie. It is very much a stock trope, one frequently played for laughs. It provides some nice low-stakes tension while also offering a lesson for the protagonist to learn. As such, it makes sense that Ferengi Love Songs would run with that plot element. It is a logical extension from the gag where Quark finds the Grand Nagus hiding in his room.

Nagus ambition.

Nagus ambition.

Strip back the goofier plot dressing and focus on the story that is told. Ferengi Love Songs is the tale of an unlikely romance between a feminist and the leader of an oppressively patriarchal society. More than that, the male leader of that society is undergoing a gradual mental deterioration that might leave him unfit to govern. It is only through the work of his lover, who is treated as a second-class citizen in his regime, that he is able to hold it all together. In the meantime, his enemies scheme to introduce a repressive and reactionary regime.

That is a fairly hefty story with a powerful dramatic heft to it. After all, Deep Space Nine just told a story about how emotionally and physically exhausting it can be to care for somebody who is in a state of physical and mental deterioration. Ties of Blood and Water is one of the best episodes that Deep Space Nine ever produced, and it is strange to see these themes reverberate through the episode directly following it. Zek is not dying in the same way that Ghemor was dying, but there is something tragic about what is happening to him. A great man past his prime.

Nagging the Nagus.

Nagging the Nagus.

There is also some weight to the idea that the Ferengi Alliance might have a leader whose mental acumen is slipping. This is an interesting question to explore, the question of what happens to figures in positions of great power who find themselves subject to the ravages of time and age. It is striking to see a person who is clearly intended to stand as the representative (and even the ideal) of an entire culture rendered mortal and fallible in a way that we tend to think of “normal” people.

There is nothing particularly new in this idea. Shakespeare played with it repeatedly, in works like Henry IV and even King Lear. Even beyond the realm of literature, there are famous historical cases of leaders who struggled with mental and physical deterioration. King George III is a great example, as is Ludwig II or Otto of Bavaria. In some cases, this sort of story emphasises the danger of monarchies and other non-democratic systems, demonstrating the risks of concentrating such power in a single individual.

His lobes are just not in it.

His lobes are just not in it.

Of course, there relatively recent democratically-elected rulers who have also suffered from these sorts of debilitating physical and mental conditions. Paul Deschanel was elected the President of the French Third Republic in 1920. As Jonathan Fenby outlines in The History of Modern France, Deschanel suffered from severe mental health issues:

The new head of state wanted to continue the active presidential role played by his predecessor, but his mental health deteriorated fast – when schoolgirls presented him with a bouquet, he threw the flowers back at them one by one; he received the British Ambassador wearing only his decorations of his office; he fell through a window of the presidential train after taking sleeping pills and was found wandering the countryside in his nightshirt. After he left a meeting to walk into a lake, he resigned, but was still elected to the Senate.

There is something very tragic, and it seems like the story of Grand Negus Zek should be treated as a tragedy. This is not the first time that Deep Space Nine has seemed rather careless about Zek’s mental health. His brainwashing at the hands of the wormhole aliens in Prophet Motive was treated as a joke.

Debts of despair.

Debts of despair.

Then again, this portrayal of Grand Negus Zek fits quite comfortably within the larger framework of Deep Space Nine. In many ways, Deep Space Nine is a television series anxious about power structures and authority figures. Over the course of the show’s seven seasons, those in positions of power are repeatedly diminished and undermined. Deep Space Nine has a very strong anarchic streak running through it, a clear and repeated resentment and suspicion of those who rule over others.

Gul Dukat betrays his people to the Dominion in By Inferno’s Light. Legate Damar treated as a weak-willed toady as soon as he assumes power in Statistical Probabilities. Kai Winn was introduced willing to do whatever it took to solidify power in In the Hands of the Prophets. Gowron is shown to be a cynical operator in The Way of the Warrior and dangerously glory-crazed in Tacking Into the Wind. Even Jaresh-Inyo is revealed to be far too weak-willed and compromising to rule effectively in Homefront and Paradise Lost. Grand Nagus Zek fits clearly in that framework.

To Zek with this!

To Zek with this!

However, Ferengi Love Songs never engages with that beat in any meaningful sense. There is some sense that Zek is being diminished or reduced by his illness, but the episode never dwells upon it for fear of spoiling the light and goofy mood. It is telling that Zek’s big climactic character moment takes place entirely off-screen. The plot hinges on Zek’s high-stakes interview with the Ferengi Commerce Authority, but the episode cannot put any weight on it. There is no focus on the preparation, no suspense as it unfolds. The episode simply cuts to the happy aftermath.

Ferengi Love Songs treats its characters and their world as something akin to a live action cartoon, which makes sense in the context of a story where Quark finds the leader of his planet hiding in his bedroom closet because said leader is dating Quark’s mother. However, it feels reductive to the characters involved. The dynamic between Quark and Ishka was one of the most interesting aspects of Family Business, a great example of the family dysfunction so common on Deep Space Nine. Here, it feels as though it has been drawn in crayon.

Opportunity knocking.

Opportunity knocking.

It is hard to fault the production team for going that direction with the story. Indeed, in The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, Armin Shimerman points to the closet scene as the moment that sets the tone for the script:

“It was very much a cartoon,” Armin Shimerman says, recalling the comical double takes that he did when he found Zek hiding in his room. “I mean, the idea that the richest, most powerful man alive is in your bedroom closet boggled my imagination. So my response to it had to be cartoony. How else can you respond to something like that? How could you take that seriously?”

Shimerman is entirely correct, and Auberjonois is very astute in how he chooses to pitch the episode. As weird as the episode’s climax works in a screwball comedy, the introduction could never work in a heavier character drama.

A vole other set of problems.

A vole other set of problems.

To be fair, Ferengi Love Songs is not a terrible episode. The cast are solid. Shimerman might prefer (and work better with) dramatic material, but he handles the comedy beats quite well. Wallace Shawn is generally a pleasure to watch, and Ferengi Love Songs is the rare Ferengi episode to do something interesting with Zek. Jeffrey Combs is still sinking those prosthetic fangs into the scenery. Ferengi Love Songs is a passable forty-odd minutes of television. There are even moments, such as with the episode’s best joke, where it is legitimately good.

After all, this cartoonish approach to storytelling is not inherently bad. In fact, certain characters even benefit from the approach. Brunt has never really been anything more than a ridiculous two-dimensional troll, for example. His evil plot in Ferengi Love Songs is suitably contrived and illogical, ending with the sort of silly “… until next time!” ending that only makes sense in the context of a live-action cartoon. Even the most ineffective ruler would make a point to come down on “Grand Nagus Brunt” like a tonne of bricks after this, but the character somehow endures.

The latinum throne.

The latinum throne.

The breakout character of Ferengi Love Songs is Maihar’du. Then again, given the episode’s clear debt to classic screwball comedies, it is not a surprise that the show is stolen by the Nagus’ gigantic silent manservant. Maihar’du has never been a particularly original character, to the point where he is a retread of Mister Homm even within Star Trek. Still, Tiny Ron is very much in the spirit of the episode. There are lots of lovely touches and performance choices from the basket-ball-player-turned-actor that fit quite well with the broad comedy of the episode.

Maihar’du has felt like a stock character since his first appearance in The Nagus, and Ferengi Love Songs does not exactly add layers to his characterisation. At the same time, the episode’s exaggerated quality invites Ron to pitch his performance as something close to pantomime. His tenderness towards Ishka is delightfully overplayed, even tenderly stroking her lobes at one point. When Quark realises that Zek is suffering from mental deterioration, Maihar’du becomes a weird mime over-communicating embarrassment and concern.

Sometimes, you got to Maihar'du with what you've got.

Sometimes, you got to Maihar’du with what you’ve got.

This is not a subtle performance. In a more restrained episode, it would seem overblown and indulgent. In spite of this, it seems like Maihar’du is the only character pitched at the right level for the episode. Shimerman plays Quark’s reaction to the Nagus in his closet like it came from a forgotten thirties comedy, but he keeps most of the rest of his performance grounded. Tiny Ron never looks like he is in anything but a thirties screwball comedy. Still, this is weaker than any Ferengi-centric episode since Prophet Motive more than two seasons earlier.

More than that, the episode very clearly paves the way for Profit and Lace in the late sixth season. This is an episode that tries to blend a goofy thirties screwball comedy tone with a story that is tied to pretty heavy themes, only to botch the execution somewhat. Ferengi Love Songs work a lot better than Profit and Lace because its screwball comedy is funnier and because its heavy themes are less delicate. However, the episode does lay a blueprint for an approach that will go spectacularly wrong one season down the line.

Tall order.

Tall order.

The episode is notable for the recasting of Ishka. In Family Business, the role had been played by Andrea Martin. However, she declined to reprise her performance in the fifth season. As Armin Shimerman acknowledged in Hidden File 08, the make-up was a large factor in that decision:

Andrea Martin played Ishka originally. And the make-up proved to be overwhelming for Andrea. And though she was asked to come back again, she had a real problem with donning that prosthetics. And it was pretty awful. It was pretty awful. No one who has never worn prosthetics knows. The claustrophia. In my case, lack of hearing, which is ironic, considering you have the large ears. The irony is that all Ferengi are slightly deaf. Because you can’t hear through the rubber. The puddles of sweat that pool up. The hours of meticulous painstaking application. And perhaps what nobody ever thinks about is the hour at the end of the day when it has to be removed, when you’ve had a very long fifteen, sixteen hour day, you now must spend an hour in the make-up chair waiting to have it removed. It was very frustrating, considering that you want to go home. So I understand perfectly why she didn’t want to come back.

Shimerman makes a very good point, and it is entirely understandable that Martin would be reluctant to subject herself to that again. Indeed, it is a testament to the actors in the franchise (especially regulars and recurring players like Dorn, Shimerman, Combs, Aliamo, Hertzler, Grodénchik, etc) who do put up with that level of prosthetic.

Chief O'Brien. They call him the love mechanic.

Chief O’Brien. They call him the love mechanic.

However, Adams is simply not as good as Martin had been in the role. To be fair, it is hard to compare the two. Family Business took a great deal of care to invest Ishka with personality, to provide context for her actions and her decisions. More than that, Family Business sought to provide a sense of background for Quark and Rom. The episode had its share of jokes, but it treated its characters with some small sense of nuance and personality. These were characters who felt like people; people in ridiculous troll make-up, but people nonetheless.

In contrast, Ferengi Love Songs and all subsequent appearances reduce Ishka to two-dimensional caricature. She is more a collection of broadly-drawn attributes than a fully-formed character. She is a feminist on Ferenginar with a keen sense of business acumen. However, those aspects of her personality are never explored. Her views are never really thrown into conflict with the other characters. Her business prowess never threatens Quark. Her feminism never threatens Zek. At the end of Ferengi Love Songs, she seems blasé about the whole misogynist culture thing.

The mother of all problematic relationships.

The mother of all problematic relationships.

This is not Cecily Adams’ fault. In interview with Star Trek Magazine, the actor explained that she consciously played (and was directed to play) Ishka as something approaching a cartoon character:

Playing a Ferengi must be one of the deepest ends of the pool that an actor can be thrown into. “So much the deep end,” Cecily agrees, “that if it wasn’t for Rene Auberjonois I would have been lost completely.” Rene directed Cecily’s first show, Ferengi Love Songs. “First of all, he’s a wonderful actor and a really excellent director. And he’s also been an acting teacher, and he’s taught mask work, which is what this is. So it was a dream come true to have him be my first director.

“I remember my first day. It was a Ferengi day: scenes with me and Armin all day. I believe maybe Wally [Wallace Shawn] too, but definitely Armin. Armin really helped me; he said, ‘Be confident that what you’re thinking and feeling will come through your eyes.’

“But Rene was the one who pulled me out and helped me animated the face, because your face can look like it’s not moving at all; you think you’re doing things with it, and it’s doing nothing. My favorite thing was when he said, ‘Cecily, in this scene, be a little more animated; do it bigger!’ I said, ‘OK, Rene, I will, but I’m just afraid of coming off like a cartoon character,’ And he said, ‘Cecily, have you looked in the mirror?!'”

Many of the show’s Ferengi characters are (and always have been) cartoons, like Zek and Brunt. However, it is frustrating to see a member of Quark’s family reduced to a cartoon, given the show’s effort developing Rom and Nog.

Embracing the comedy.

Embracing the comedy.

There are other cartoonish aspect of Ferengi Love Songs that are frustrating, hinting at problems yet to come. Deep Space Nine is a show that has undergone a dramatic transformation in its middle season, a conscious shift in emphasis. One aspect of that shift has been a change to the way that Deep Space Nine (and its crew) relate to the universe around them. In early seasons, Deep Space Nine was treated as a stopover point very much in the background of galactic affairs. In later seasons, it becomes something of a hub for galactic activity.

The show is consciously aware of this shift. With The Way of the Warrior, the show’s opening credits were dramatically reworked to demonstrate that the station was vibrant and dynamic; the station was no longer isolate and alone, but surrounded by ships and workers and freighters. In By Inferno’s Light, Gowron drew attention to the shift. In Ties of Blood and Water, Ghemor argued that merely working on Deep Space Nine was enough to make Kira a celebrity. In In the Pale Moonlight, Vreenak is fascinated by Sisko’s influence on galactic affairs.

She's all ears.

She’s all ears.

As that happens, the series connects its lead characters to major players on the galactic scene. Gul Dukat elevated himself from a prominent Cardassian to the head of the Cardassian Union in By Inferno’s Light. Damar goes from freighter officer in Return to Grace to leader of Cardassia in Statistical Probabilities. By the end of Deep Space Nine, General Martok will be High Chancellor of the Klingon Empire and Rom with be Grand Nagus of the Ferengi Alliance. It seems the cast of Deep Space Nine are wired into these vast galactic power structures.

Some of this makes sense in the context of the show, particularly given the strategic importance of Deep Space Nine. More than that, Grand Nagus Zek is arguably the first major galactic leader to have appeared on Deep Space Nine, having been introduced in The Nagus. However, as the show goes on, it seems like the characters on Deep Space Nine are increasingly interconnected to key figures within the shared universe. Lives seem to overlap to one another to an insane degree.

"No traditional Ferengi male could ever marry a non-Ferengi and be happy. He could never trust her. But lucky you're not a real Ferengi, eh?" Jadzia Dax, relationship counsellor.

“No traditional Ferengi male could ever marry a non-Ferengi and be happy. He could never trust her. But lucky you’re not a real Ferengi, eh?”
Jadzia Dax, relationship counsellor.

The Grand Nagus dating Quark’s mother in Ferengi Love Songs is one example. It also seems to foreshadow Dukat engaging in a long-term relationship with Kira’s mother in Wrongs Darker than Death or Night. It makes it seem like there are a finite number of characters in the universe and that characters cannot throw stones without hitting one another. This is “small universe syndrome”, as defined by Brian McNamara:

Small Universe Syndrome, at its heart, is the idea that instead of populating a book’s background with random, basically characterless, supernumeraries, writers will bring in a guest star/secondary character who fits the bill. The advantage is that it often cuts down the amount of character building a writer has to do for a scene where a main character needs information from a superior or such. Instead of inventing a new character and introducing a relationship between that character and the prime one you’re using, which can often take up time that a writer either doesn’t have or doesn’t want to waste, it’s simpler to just plug in an existing personage.

It is basically the level of contrivance that is required to get to a point where Ferengi Love Songs can get the leader of the Ferengi Alliance to hide in the closet belonging to a failed business man who operates dozens of light-years away but has still coincidentally been involved in a number of significant events within that leader’s life. It relies on any number of strange statistical anomalies.

Try not to think too hard about it, Quark.

Try not to think too hard about it, Quark.

How many women are there on Ferenginar? How many of them are feminists? How many of them are related to Quark? How much suspension of disbelief is involved in getting Zek and Ishka talking to one another? Ishka explains how she got a note to Zek at a Tonga tournament, but how does one (particularly as a second class citizen) drop a note to the most important man on the planet? And then, when Zek discovers that his pen pal is a woman, how much suspension of disbelief is required to believe that he would pursue a relationship?

The relationship between Zek and Ishka feels like it needs a lot more justification and context than the story is willing to provide. The episode seems to treat their meeting and dating as something that just happens organically, when everything that the audience knows (and the episode restates) about Ferengi culture makes it clear that the odds of this happening would be astronomical even if Ishka were not Quark’s mother. There are so many leaps in logic required that Zek’s lover being somebody we already know feels like one leap too many.

The gold standard.

The gold standard.

Coincidences are an essential part of storytelling, because they serve to streamline narrative. If story logic worked in the same way as real-world logic, stories would take infinitely longer to tell. However, the art is in disguising this storytelling logic. As Jane Lindskold explains, these coincidences become distracting in high volumes:

Well, one reason is that overuse or abuse of coincidence makes the story seem contrived, the events within forced. This in turn comes across as sloppy plotting. If the only way the writer can make the plot work is to repeatedly have someone “coincidentally” overhear key conversations, or by chance discover important documents, the reader feels somehow cheated, as if the characters in the story aren’t “real” people, but are instead pawns to be pushed about the story board.

If the hero “coincidentally” finds he has a key that will fit the prison lock, or the heroine discovers her latent magical powers (with no prior hint these existed) just in time to save everyone from disaster, again, the story seems thin and contrived.

Suspension of disbelief is a very arbitrary concept, one that varies from audience member to audience member. There is no objective measure. However, in its final seasons, Deep Space Nine becomes increasingly fond of using these sorts of narrative shortcuts.

Ties of blood and latinum.

Ties of blood and latinum.

To be fair, these shortcuts exist for a reason. These strange overlaps are all in service of the stories that they tell, with these unlikely connections simply a way for Deep Space Nine to segue into narratives that interest it. It would be very difficult for the series to explore the story of the Bajoran Comfort Women in Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night without forging that incredibly unlikely point of intersection between Kira and Dukat. After all, the whole point of having a weekly television show with a set cast is in telling the stories of those characters.

The relationship between Zek and Ishka does not exist in service of such a compelling narrative. In fact, given that the relationship serves to enable Profit and Lace, it is arguably even easier to condemn the contrivance from a utilitarian standpoint. Still, if Deep Space Nine wants to explore Ferengi culture and the lives of its Ferengi characters, using pre-existing characters is the pragmatic way to tell those stories. It might not be entirely satisfying in terms of building an organic universe, but it makes sense in terms of production concerns and narrative efficiency.

Facing the Brunt of the Nagus' wrath.

Facing the Brunt of the Nagus’ wrath.

Ferengi Love Songs is very much a light and disposable episode, one that struggles to balance its tone with the story that it wants to tell. In some ways, the episode hints at problems that will become more severe in terms of the seasons ahead. However, the episode is never overwhelmed by these problems. Ferengi Love Songs is uneven and awkward, but it is far from the worst episode of the series; or even the season. It is not a satisfying piece of television, although it is just about a passable one.

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2 Responses

  1. Given the love Deep Space Nine has for Twentieth Century history I wonder if this story was inspired by Woodrow and Edith Wilson.

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