After an entire season of build up, this is it. Star Trek: Discovery has come crashing into its endgame and the battle against Control is ready to begin. But before that, we have to go through what might be the ultimate realisation of the show’s strengths and weaknesses: getting away with a lot of contrivance through sheer force of heart.
“Such Sweet Sorrow” is perplexing. It’s simultaneously jam-packed and threadbare, both a beautiful piece of storytelling yet incomprehensible the minute you start thinking about what it takes to string it all together. Like a lot of Discovery, it gets away with its structural flaws through some incredible performances. But it is also, rather excruciatingly, not really a story on its own; it’s getting a bunch of emotional climaxes out of the way so the actual final episode of the season next week can focus on...well, we’ll get to that.
Let’s get the small bit of actual plot “Such Sweet Sorrow” deals with out of the way first. With the Enterprise arrived and ready to evacuate the Discovery crew (don’t ask how and when that was set up, because this episode sure didn’t!) after the decision made by Pike and Michael last week to scuttle the ship rather than let Control-Leland’s now-gathered fleet of Section 31 ships murder them all and take the sphere data, the crew realises that...well, they can’t actually do that.
It turns out that the Sphere Data’s desire to absolutely preserve itself has led it to enmesh itself so tightly in Discovery’s systems that it can override Pike and Saru’s self-destruct commands, and even raise shields when the Enterprise tries to torpedo the Discovery from afar.
The ship has, for all intents and purposes, become its own being, with a sense of self-preservation. Which this episode also doesn’t get into, but that’s more of an existential question than of immediate concern to the plot. What is of immediate concern is that, with Control’s armada on the way, the Discovery has seemingly just one dire choice: use the Time Crystal Pike acquired on Boreth— and have Tilly conveniently call on Queen Po from the Short Treks episode “Runaway”to rig said crystal up to the ship’s power system (another thing this episode very clumsily attempts set up for people unfamiliar) — to build their own version of the Daedalus suit. And Michael, the only one who can pilot the suit, will use the power to wrench the ship into the far-flung future her mother is also trapped in. But even with Po’s magical amount of know-how, the team can only power the crystal for a one-way trip—one taking both Discovery and Michael with it.
It’s here that, after rushing through establishing this set up as hurriedly and with as many leaps of narrative faith it can muster, “Such Sweet Sorrow” at last slows down and really takes stock of itself. In what can only be described as the Michael Burnham Farewell Feelings Tour 2K19, Michael goes through all the important people in her life to say her last goodbyes.
Ash Tyler (who decides to stay behind and help rebuild Section 31), Captain Pike (who now knows his future lies elsewhere), Saru and the rest of the bridge crew (up until they also decide that they simply can’t abandon Michael and want to join her in the future), hell, even Sarek and Amanda show up (How did they know to? How did they get past Control-Leland’s massive, minutes-away fleet? Katras! Don’t ask, the episode also didn’t).
Bit by bit, Michael has the time to say her farewells to the characters rooted in this time that cannot be brought forward, and our primary crew — save Culber, it seems, who’s jumping ship to the Enterprise — is ready to follow her.
Honestly? It’s beautiful. The way the premise of everyone’s emotional arcs on the show are addressed here may have had a set up that was far from deft, but Discovery, god bless it, wings it on the sheer will of some smart, heartbreaking conversations that tie up so many little threads built up over this season. Not to mention a true powerhouse of a performance from Sonequa Martin-Green, one so incandescent that you ultimately don’t care about some of the dodgy narrative leaps it took Discovery to set up this sequence—one scene after the other of Green pouring her heart out (special highlight must be drawn to the Sarek/Amanda conversation, which was gutwrenchingly done).
I will readily admit that I am an easy mark when it comes to sentimentality with things like this. But what makes this entire thing work—what makes it feel earned in a way that, say, the griefapalooza over Airiam’s death absolutely did not—is that it paid off things that Discovery has been slowly and quietly building toward over the course of the season.
Perhaps a bit too quietly, but still! Even the small amount of time we have spent with characters like Detmer and Owosekun led to emotional little vignettes of them recording their farewells to friends and family, that worked because we have gotten a little sense of who these characters are throughout the entire season. We didn’t just get nothing and then a dump of info as a setup for heartbreak as we did with Airiam.
As the back half of this season has veered off the path a bit with gotchas for the sake of gotchas and hollow indulgences in nostalgia, to see the show pay off things it worked on building up over the course of everything we’ve had so far, in ways big and small? It worked. Discovery has always been at its strongest emotionally when it pays off the things we care about these characters, rather than necessarily how they weave themselves into the timeline of Star Trek continuity.
But with it all out of the way, now Discovery can confront not just Control in one last grand battle, but also, seemingly, its own convictions. Is it really about to go through what could be one of the most fundamental shifts a Star Trek show has gone through mid-step? If Discovery follows through on this plan—to completely and utterly remove itself from the prequel-era before the original Trek and in turn bring the show’s characters and settings to a future not just beyond, but far beyond anything a Trek show has shown before—the potential is, frankly, intoxicating.
Aside from the fact that it will dodge a lot of the fannish quibbles about canonical accuracy which have dogged the series since it began (albeit rather ungracefully), it represents such a huge breadth of opportunities for Discovery to do something completely and totally new for Star Trek. What does the future of Star Trek look like, so far removed from what even we know of it in time of Voyager and Deep Space Nine?
What kind of impact does going that far ahead have on our 23rd-century heroes? Do they integrate, or go it alone? Try to find whatever form the Federation now takes, or keep themselves secret, a tiny pocket of classic Trek in a far off future? It’s all so new and has the potential to be so exciting.
And yet, I’d be more excited if not for a certain Spock-shaped object still remaining on Discovery’s bridge by the end of the episode (and a Georgiou-shaped one too, considering she’s got her own show to run off to). Spock’s decision to stand by his sister and face leaving his entire life behind—his place on the Enterprise, but also his family, a tragedy left unseen as he does not get the touching goodbye Sarek and Amanda gave Michael—makes sense, of course. It’s the build-up of everything they have gone through together over the back half of this season, another touching bow wrapped up on top of the dozens of other bows this episode neatly ties away.
We know Spock can’t follow Michael down this path, if the Discovery crew ultimately takes it. The show just gave us a reminder of the stark, unflinching immutability of making our awareness of Trek’s past part of Discovery’s narrative last week. So by keeping Spock around, the dramatic tension is undercut a little. Will Discovery seemingly make the wild decision to fling its setting into a future where no Star Trek show has gone before? Or at the very least, its ship? Because it can’t for every second Spock stays roaming those bronzed bulkheads.
We’ll have to wait and see. As I said in the beginning, “Such Sweet Sorrow” is almost impossible to judge as a standalone episode. It is half of a story yet to be told, the clearing of a board before the board could very possibly be blown to itty bitty pieces in next week’s season finale. As a piece of standalone television, it doesn’t really work — but as an emotional climax before Discovery could do the boldest and bravest thing it’s ever done? It works, and leaves the path clear for what could either be an all-time-high of a finale or another crushing disappointment.
We’ll find out next week. The die has been cast, and now we just need to see which side it lands on.
OK, fine, fine, let’s get it out of the way: GOOD LORD, THAT ENTERPRISE BRIDGE. Gorgeous. Shiny. So colourful. I have never really got the argument that Discovery, as a prequel, should attempt to look like a TV series made in 1966 instead of simply evoking the style in a modern presentation (and with a modern budget), but...I find it harder to resist that idea when we could have had both, and gotten something like the Enterprise’s bridge for the Discovery. Guess I’m fine with this being the “upgrade” Starfleet is working toward after ships like the Shenzhou and Discovery.
The weirdness of Lieutenant Nilsson’s place on the bridge crew—as noted before, she’s played by Sara Mitich, the actress who played Airiam in season one before Hannah Cheesman was given the role (and then killed off) this season—comes into hilarious effect here, when Pike’s goodbye acknowledgment to her is basically “oh, you were here too, after Airiam died.” Diplomatic, Captain!
Star Trek needs more people telling someone else information to freak them out or that they can’t respond to just as they’re being transported. Georgiou casually going “oh by the way I’m from a different universe to you” just as Pike was beaming off of the Discovery one last time in an effort to elicit a “wait, what?” reaction had me cackling—but Pike’s wink back was even better.
So at this point, two of the excellent Star Trek: Short Treks shorts—“Runaway” here and “The Brightest Star” earlier in the season—have become very important to the story of season two (it’s almost like, as I’ve been saying from the get-go, these should’ve been vital bits of storytelling included in the main text, but hey...at least we all got them, eventually?). It’s hard to see how the Harry Mudd one could come into play at this point—unless the battle against Control’s drones is waged by a literal army of cyborg Mudds, which would be hilarious. But “Calypso” and the idea of a Discovery flung far, far into the future? That...that is probably gonna be really important next week.