When appraising a piece of fiction, it’s often necessary to consider the context in which it was created. Sometimes a piece of work can stand on its strengths alone to convey meaning and theme — but sometimes context is necessary to allow certain understandings and conveniences. And Star Trek: Discovery’s latest finale is, perhaps more than most, certainly hoping that you’ll allow it some context this season. After all, it is for kings.
“Coming Home,” the 13th and final episode of Star Trek: Discovery season four, is, like basically every Discovery season finale before it, an explosive, emotionally exhaustive endeavour. Spilt into two evenly chaotic halves — a madcap dash by the Discovery to try and stop Tarka from destroying the DMA, wiping out the ship and the mysterious Ten-C, and leaving toxic pollution in its wake to destroy the currently threatened worlds of Ni’Var and Earth; and then an emotional cooldown as Burnham and her staff return to First Contact talks with the Ten-C in a last ditch attempt to salvage relations — it’s an hour that is a complete and utter rollercoaster. With its epic scenes of disaster and destruction, special surprise cameos (Tilly’s back, yay! Tilly looks like she’s almost about to die all the time helping Admiral Vance stop debris from destroying Earth, oh no!), shocking deaths that turn out to be even more shocking not-deaths, and teary-eyed moments of sacrifice and joy, there is a lot going on.
And, to be honest, there’s not actually much to it — and when there is, if you think about it a little too long, it doesn’t entirely make sense. “Coming Home” so cleanly splitting its time between the suddenly incredibly high stakes forged from last week’s mostly quiet and thoughtful episode, and then giving itself a lot of time to deal with the emotional aftermath is both a good thing and a puzzling one, especially when the episode simply has to completely slam the breaks on its momentum halfway through. But it also just means there’s some weird hiccups: Tarka’s plan to destroy the DMA gets almost immediately thrown out the window because Book finally manages to convince him what a terrible idea it is, and that Tarka is blinded by grief over his lost friend (perhaps, as it’s heavily implied even, more than friend). Except, all that emotional catharsis and the complete turnaround on Tarka’s character (from being willing to do whatever it takes to stop the DMA to being incredibly regretful) happens in about five minutes. It’s also cut between the Discovery crew freaking out — and planning their own noble sacrifices, when first Commander Detmer and then United Earth’s General Ndoye offer to smash a shuttle into Book’s ship to stop it from reaching the DMA — and the drama back near Earth, as Vance and Starfleet race to evacuate the planet before debris hits. It’s just… brushed over really, really quickly.
This is further compounded moments later, when Ndoye does smash a shuttle into Book’s ship, stopping it and saving the day. She gets beamed out, which is nice, but kind of undercuts the threat that was laid out just scenes before this, that she was absolving herself of betraying the Discovery to aid Book and Tarka by taking on a suicide mission. But it works, and you don’t have time to think about it as you’re immediately presented with what appears to be the big actual tragedy of the episode: Owoshekun attempts to beam Book out of the exploding ship, after Tarka gives him the sole chance left to teleport from disaster, only to lose his transport pattern as the vessel detonates… making Michael watch her partner seemingly blink out of existence just as she got him back.
It’s all very sad and Sonequa Martin-Green gets a fascinating moment of grief to play with; Michael comes so close to just buckling in front of the bridge crew before calmly composing herself and walking back to her captain’s chair to give orders. But as first contact talks reconvene with the Ten-C and the day is saved, basically about 10 minutes later — and as Michael explains to the aliens the concept of individuality among their species, and that one of the people who tried to destroy the DMA was someone she loved — the Ten-C magically apparate Book back to life, explaining that they’d interrupted the transporter signal and held his pattern in reserve as it seemed… important. Except Michael and the rest of the crew are in the middle of explaining to the Ten-C the difference between their individuality and the Ten-C’s collective mind. How on earth would they recognise the important of Book’s signal? Why would they keep it, if they had been sown into chaos by the damage Tarka did and were in the middle of cutting ties off with the First Contact team? And yet, in spite of all this, it’s a beautiful scene, everything works out great and everyone gets what they wanted, and peace and understanding is achieved. And asking if that victory is worth not thinking about all the little slips and weirdly contrived resolutions for a happy ending is basically all that “Coming Home” is, for better or worse.
It is a hell of a victory, though. The Ten-C stop the DMA just as Vance and Tilly are about to sacrifice Federation HQ to defend the last remaining vessels of evacuees, and even agree to aid in the clean-up process where the anomaly had left toxic waste in its wake elsewhere. The Discovery, having heavily damaged the spore drive trying to stop Tarka, gets wormholed back to base for victory celebrations instead of having to take a Voyager-lengthed warp trip. And yes, perhaps most importantly of all: everyone gets to go take a well earned shore leave break, including Saru, who finally begins romantically courting President T’Rina.
The fact that Discovery takes its time to process all this in the back half of “Coming Home” is wonderful, instead of it just being some endcap montage in the final moments of the episode. It’s a well deserved victory lap, and it’s been so rare to see this series let its heroes pause and acknowledge the good work they’ve done that it’s actually a delight to see. And, it all ties into the themes that Discovery has reveled in all season: this is the power that comes from people coming together and seeking connection and understanding, that unity and co-operation can overcome even the most disastrous of circumstances. That even trying to help others is as noble in failure as it is in success. It’s worth taking the time to celebrate that message, even if it gets saccharine enough to thematically — and lovingly — wallop you over the head with it for a good 30 minutes. There’s no tease here, no big set up for whatever threat’s next, no cliffhanger: it’s just putting a period on this message, with the promise that the good work and process of collaboration has to keep on turning for it to really work.
And that’s where understanding the context of how Discovery’s fourth season was made comes in to play. From the get-go, showrunners and cast alike have spoken about how this season was a reflection of our own reality in the last few years — a show about the pandemic without being about the pandemic. The season was shot under intense covid-19 protocols to keep cast and crew safe, trying to deliver a season of TV under extremely abnormal circumstances. It’s a commendable effort, and deliberately, optimistically blunt about what it’s trying to say. Hell, the last shot of the episode is Earth, as we’re reminded that the future is made by people working together and keeping on working together for the good of all. But one that leads to a certain amount of letting a few things slide. Is “Coming Home” a little too cheesy for its own good? Perhaps. Does it ask you to let a lot of logical coherence slip by so you can be dazzled by its emotionality? Almost certainly. Does it feel more like a victory lap for things Discovery has said a lot of times already, without diving all that much deeply into them, leaving it feeling like a bit of a hollow echo? Definitely.
But are you allowing to let those things pass you by to allow the show this one bit of feel-good saccharine storytelling? Well, that depends. If you are, “Coming Home” provides a loving finale for a season of challenges for Discovery. If not… well, as Michael and a very special guest star — Georgia politician and diehard Star Trek fan Stacey Abrams, playing the President of United Earth — attest to at the end of the episode, the good work must continue. Maybe they’ll sell you on it next time, if you’ll allow them the indulgence.