You know the teen Dhanu girl in the corner (the Dhanus' foreheads are kind of big!) will keep writing in her visibook, keep writing contentedly in the series' most prescient prop, a klunky 1967 iPad. She'll keep writing and somehow be the focus of everything, though she's at best a bit character. The first 99 times you saw the episode you didn't notice Spock and Kirk trying to spy on her, didn't notice the redshirt who stood behind her for a moment then never re-appeared, didn't notice Nurse Chapel's sidelong glances like she's the queen burqa bitch and the kid's rocking a mini-skirt at the local mosque.
Now when you watch, you half-expect Kirk to slap the girl, or rage at her, or at least have an intense, sweaty-faced moment with her, such is her implicit power and such are the murky sexual politics of the series--but he only ever looks at her: first a slight glance when Spock breaks the news that they're not getting off the planet any time soon, then a cut of the eyes when word comes that McCoy has gone over the wall into the Garden of Knowing, and, finally, a slow head-turn in her direction as the music rises before the last commercial break.
"Outside the Garden" is where most of the characters stay, at least in the plodding events of the so-named episode. They stay outside the garden, and out of its sight, yet the very un-Trek lack of resolution makes you wonder where they are after the credits roll--are they still there, waiting, pacing, sneaking looks at the Writing Girl? Who else goes over the wall into the Garden? And what in hell is the Garden? It's not death, because the girl herself has come from there, part of a gypsy tribe who are this planet's outcasts. It's not some kind of Eden, because people are going in, not getting kicked out.
You dug all this from between the lines long before you watched that spittle-flecked interview with the aging writer or bookmarked the mushrooming Wikipedia entry on the episode. You easily connected the girl with the old Gandhi-looking guy in the very first scene, the guy who says "The Garden takes root in us all. You see? A verse on every leaf, a world woven of prayer," smiling his moron Garden-smile as the landing party brushes past him. Jim and the boys don't notice the little key around his neck, sign of the gypsies and their secret byword ("The key of joy is disobedience").
Back at the ranch, Kirk and Spock try to call Bones, try to call the ship, but the communicators don't work; Kirk finally gives up and throws his into the gloaming that always, in this episode, hangs just beyond the muzzy bounds of the ill-lit set. He throws his communicator into the dark and tells Spock he's going after McCoy and going alone, much to Spock's dismay. Spock even threatens to neck-pinch Jim but he, too, as soon as he says this-- and Nimoy carries this off masterfully-- as soon as he threatens Kirk, the words die in his mouth and he drops his hand to his side, the side closest to the girl, and he makes the slightest, "involuntary" gesture towards her. She's not in the shot but he's basically pointing right at her. You think, every time, "She's controlling the planet with her mind!" But if she is, what's she making people do other than pace around crankily, uttering existentialisms? ("The Garden's walls imprison those who live outside them.")
You root for Kirk to judo some Dhanus, bull his way out of the whole mess, trip up an elder or the Writing Girl with a punchy paradox that will make smoke come out of their ears and unravel the whole drama-- tiresome a resolution as that would be-- but you want him, want someone to do something. Spock is sweating over a jerry-rigged communicator, Nurse Chapel is tending to a Dhanu with a big bruise on his big forehead, Spock can't make the parts fit, Nurse Chapel is frazzled, she's swapped her torn uniform for native garb, and Kirk, Kirk is cracking. The third or fourth time Spock gets nothing but static from his Tinkertoy talk-box, the Captain leaps up, seizes on something Nurse Chapel has said, follows her out of the room into a little closet-like area and grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her: we've got to fight while there's a ghost of a chance, and she's just too fagged to perk up and the Captain shakes her again because, damn it, they all face utter destruction.
This is when she delivers the famous line: "This is all just made to order for you, isn't it, Jim? You're home, in your paradise, while we're in he--," at which point he slaps her. The whole exchange has inspired schools of interpreters to say: the events of the episode take place in Kirk's mind. Or some of them do, or maybe the Great and Powerful McGuffin binding them to the planet, to the villa, dwells in Kirk's mind-- a monster from the id. Disbelievers in the Kirk's Mind Hypothesis, in fact, call believers "the Krell," while the Krell, for their part, point smugly to the Writing Girl as their proof: Kirk's anima, female to his male, passive whereas Kirk is active, a silent writer whereas Kirk excels at speech, serene whereas Kirk ever strives, and somehow, with lots of Krell footnotes, human whereas Kirk is alien, perpetually "alien" in the sense that he's the invader trying to win over every culture in every star system to the 'Merican Way of Life, despite the Prime Directive-- a 23rd-century cowboy, an intergalactic John Wayne ambling off into a wrong-way sunset.
One thing's for sure: Kirk isn't Kirk any more by the end of the episode. It's like he and the others have lost their identities: Spock has failed at building a communicator, McCoy has succumbed to woo, Chapel has faded into the surrounding arbors in her native garb, done with the Captain and seeking new allies in preparation for a long stay on this planet. Kirk isn't Kirk any more: without his ship, without an audience for his oratory, he has no one to slug or charm on this shrugging, lotus-eating world. There'll be no death match in a sandy ring, there'll be no slap and tickle with a high-born alien chick that will force the hand of the planetary patriarchs. Kirk's only confrontation can be with the Garden, yet of everyone in the episode, he's the one who's insisted that the Garden is a metaphor, there is no Garden, the Garden exists only in these creatures' mythology. What did he do with the key he found on the floor after the Writing Girl's troupe left the villa? Forget about it? Give it to Spock as a keepsake? Throw it into the dark?
Last we see of Kirk he's walking away in the medium distance on the dirt path from the villa. He has his back to us, a small figure getting smaller, a Howard Hawks sheriff with no town to watch. You fear for him, he'll become a marooned Lear raging at the stars, shaking his fist at the immensities of space as the Enterprise drops a probe into orbit and heads off to the nearest starbase to regroup. In the final scene, in the villa, Spock is preparing to follow the gypsies to see what they know while the second landing-party redshirt picks up the cast-off visibook. He reads and he starts to smile and his breaking smile of delight--babyish, abandoned, borderless-- is the nodding junkie smile of someone untethering from all that is human. With a glance, Spock signals that it's time to go. The crewman turns and his obedient body and disobedient, sporulating mind follow Spock out of the villa. The crewman smiles while the Garden shimmers in his eyes, while joy drips from every petal, while the gypsies walk into night and lift their voices high, lift them on song to play in the orange light of Tau Sagittarii.