In last week’s mission to investigate Star Trek: Discovery’s latest galaxy-ending Threat of the Season, the exhaustingly extensive high stakes adventure gave us a chance to see the series’ heroes find their friends and family and decompress with each other. This week feels much the same, and the story finds great strength in actually letting its characters sit with each other.
“Choose to Live” is named as such as the plot brings us back to the world of the Qowat Milat, the mysterious Vulcan-slash-Romulan order of mercenary warrior nuns first introduced in Picard and then expanded upon in Discovery’s last season. Last time it was revealed that Michael Burnham’s mother, Gabrielle (Sonja Sohn, returning here), had joined their ranks. The past few times we’ve had a Burnham family reunion on Discovery, including that last Qowat Milat appearance, have been… let’s say… less than ideal for the show. The complicated relationship between the Burnham women has often felt like it warped the episodes around them, creating a sense of chaos that placed Michael above the wider world and stories around her. But “Choose to Live” — distancing itself from the (still-present) big narrative arc of the season in the destructive “Dark Matter Anomaly,” as Stamets names it this week — means that this time around, a mother-daughter team up for Michael and Gabrielle doesn’t have to be about the fate of the world as they know it. It’s for the better thankfully, as it simply lets the Burnhams, and several other key pairings in this episode, get the chance to co-exist and find comfort in each other, instead of making loggerheads about the dire grander plot.
Gabrielle and the Qowat Milat enter the scene when the Federation and Ni’Var — who are practically on the verge of re-negotiating a pact that would see the world formerly known as Vulcan return to the Federation’s embrace — are alerted to a rogue member of the order. J’Vini, guest star Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves, has been stealing shipments of dilithium being sent to worlds by Starfleet for mysterious purposes. After her latest theft leads to the death of a Starfleet officer, Michael is tasked with launching a joint operation with the Qowat Milat, with Gabrielle as their representative, to bring J’Vini to justice while respecting the sanctity of the Qowat Milat’s ancient ways, as a peace offering to Ni’Var.
In the past — especially since joining the Qowat Milat basically gives Gabrielle’s penchant for “Absolute Candor” a religious backing — a pairing like this might have seen the Burnhams at odds, and it seems that way at first. Michael is steadfast in her desire to see J’Vini face charges for murdering a Starfleet officer But Gabrielle remains obtuse and avoidant about just how invested she personally is in seeing J’Vini’s status as a member of the Qowat Milat respected and defended, regardless of what she’s done to warrant being brought in. “Choose to Live” eventually unfurls why J’Vini has been stealing dilithium: the “lost cause” she’s found is defending a life ship full of aliens in cryostasis, powering the ship’s systems with the stolen goods should they need to flee the effects of the DMA.
Michael and her mother find themselves having to put a level of trust and faith in each other that shows how far they’ve grown even since their encounter last season, especially Michael. Frustrated as she is at her mother’s unwillingness to be honest about J’Vini (turns out she was the Qowat Milat who nursed her to health when she was flung into the 31st Century), Michael takes to heart the context added in discovering J’Vini’s reasoning that lets the situation be resolved amicably. Gabrielle, in turn, has to put her faith in Michael when J’Vini confronts the duo at sword point, letting her take the lead and be proud in how much her daughter has grown as the Discovery’s new Captain.
Pairs of characters finding a resolute strength in one another in the trying times they live in runs throughout the episode. We see it in Stamets and Book, who, after their unlikely bonding last week, both venture to the Ni’Var science institute to help test Stamets’ theory about the DMA’s origins. They try to support each other through Stamets finding his theories disproven, and Book navigating (through a mind-meld with Ni’Var’s president T’Rina) his way to find a small moment of peace in his grief over the loss of Kwejian. We also see it in the renewed friendship between Tilly and Saru since the latter’s return to the ship, after she confides in him about her sense of aimlessness, leading to Saru pushing her out of her comfort zone and into the mission with Michael and Gabrielle, giving Tilly a chance to prove herself beyond the confines of her scientific background.
We perhaps see it most literally in the episode’s other subplot with Adira and Doctor Culber going through the process to transfer Grey’s consciousness into a new synth body. When the odds look dire that the process might not have worked, the duo seeks solace in those around them to be a guiding light in a time of despair. It’s something rewarded spiritually when a teary, awakened Grey tells Adira that their presence by his side in sickbay is what helped him recover from the exhaustive transference process.
It’s all very sweet and simple character work, admittedly, but that’s also the kind of thing that Discovery still craves four seasons in. We still feel some level of frustration that the series’ preponderance for the bigger picture has left characters and relationships feeling more like sketches than fully fleshed out pairings. In taking a break from its big plot-of-the-season breathing down its cast of characters’ necks for a little while, “Choose to Live” lets us focus on pairings in the cast both likely and unlikely, and see why those pairings got forged in the first place. Even if it doesn’t particularly advance what we know of the main thrust of the season — outside of Stamets’ theory about the DMA being a “primordial wormhole” being disproven — this character work is still important to that narrative. The store here is about our heroes finding bright lights in the dark uncertainty of the threat they currently face. When the DMA threatens to undo everything they worked so hard for in reuniting the Federation across season three, we know that they’ll find the strength in each other needed to confront its dire threat head-on.