In the fourth episode of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, I think I need a therapy session just devoted to this episode. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of death/grief, consent, and body horror.
GOD, WHAT AN IMMENSE EPISODE. I briefly spoke of this in the video, but this felt like such a quintessential Trek story. And I’m really thinking of how the solution to this NIGHTMARE conflict ultimately came down to: maybe some people just need us to listen to them.
Let’s talk. I HAVE FEELINGS.
The Red Sphere
Okay, so… this isn’t one of the seven red lights, right? Because that was my first thought: one of the mysterious red lights that Spock was tracking has suddenly trapped them! But at least halfway through this, I realized it was just… a different red thing. LMAO. That was a little confusing at first!
But holy shit. Where do I even start with this? My initial take, beyond the awe-struck sense of terror I felt most of the time, is that this was such an entertaining main conflict. I love a good story where the audience/reader is thrown into the deep end and must figure out things along with the protagonists. It was very clear that no one knew what the FUCK that sphere was or why it was holding the Discovery and preventing it from leaving. Add to that the stress of the mission the crew was on: to follow Spock’s shuttle and figure out what he’s up to. This was one of those suspense episode with a clock winding down throughout, except… there were THREE of them: Saru, the sphere, and Spock. (Also a mouthful to say.)
In that context, this episode was a success. COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY. The pacing in “An Obol for Charon” is ridiculous! There’s not a slow moment in this episode, even in some of the more emotional, character-centric scenes. Yet it is those very scenes that make this episode a success in terms of character building and emotional impact. Like… this episode put me through the RINGER, y’all. There’s the very idea of the sphere itself. We ultimately don’t even find out what species the sphere is; all we know is that it has been around about 100,000 years. Like many classic Trek episodes, its motivations seem antagonistic and violent, but the big twist subverts everything so that this is instead about a dying being’s last wish: to be remembered. The sphere did not want to fade away into obscurity, and so it held the Discovery in place, desperate to be seen and heard before it passed away.
Oh, does your heart already hurt just reading that? Cuz I know some of you just read these reviews/recaps without seeing the actual episode, so trust me when I say that the execution of this is a million times more impactful than I could possibly describe. I can’t believe I managed to have emotions about a giant red sphere that looked like nothing I had ever seen before?
Admittedly, though, a different character’s journey affected my perception of this story, so let’s get to the SUPREME heartbreak of this episode.
Not that I ever doubted those who emailed me to let me know that I needed to watch Short Treks, but let “An Obol for Charon” stand as evidence that the anthology-style mini-episodes are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for a complete appreciation of Discovery. I’m so glad that I watched “The Brightest Star,” which added some crucial context for understanding Saru’s story within this episode. Some of the questions I was left with—namely around the Ba-ul—are addressed here, but even if I didn’t know that, I don’t think that would have diluted what a powerful portrayal and story this was.
I do want to start with the actors, because both Sonequa Martin-Green and Doug Jones give show-stopping performances here. It helps that the first season of Discovery did such a wonderful job building up their incredibly complicated relationship! We needed to buy the story that was given here, and that meant that we needed to see them torn apart as friends, then reunited under antagonistic circumstances, only for them to slowly come back together again. Watching them become friends again has been a treat, y’all, and again, I believe it. Both actors have made it real for me!
So when the sphere activates Saru’a vahar’ai, a whole new journey unfolds here. Both characters have come to respect one another greatly, but it’s more than that. They know so much about one another, and that allows the writers to tell a story that felt deeply intimate to me, like one of those things I almost feel like I shouldn’t have seen. I’ll get to THAT scene in a moment, but I wanted start more on Saru’s end. As we saw in “The Brightest Star,” the Kelpiens live an existence of ultimate submission, which is why I’m titling this section of the review as I have. It’s inevitable! It’s exactly what Saru struggled with in that episode of Short Treks: there was no way out of the system he lived in. Inevitably, every Kelpien was called to the culling by the Ba’ul, and they disappeared forever. I now understand more than ever why we didn’t see where the Kelpiens went when they were culled. That mystery is key to Saru’s crisis of faith. Throughout this episode, Saru operates with a heartbreaking sense of certainty. As soon as vahar’ai begins, he never once considers fighting it. As far as he’s known, there is no fighting it. Every Kelpien’s body responds to the call of the Ba’ul, and death follows shortly afterward.
Which makes his passionate defense of the red sphere all the more tragic! Saru figured that the sphere accidentally activated the process of vahar’ai, and he accepted that. It was a parallel death: Two entities managed to be in the same space while they both knew death was imminent. All of this supports what Burnham later tells Saru, that he’s the most empathic person she’s ever met. He cares so deeply about the world around him, and this episode—combined with “The Brightest Star”—shows us why. There’s a particular thing that interested me a lot, too, since this story is setting up Saru’s journey with the dogma of his people. Once Saru left Kaminar, a crucial component of his life and his beliefs was proven to be false. And yet, even as his own body shut down, Saru still clung to a different core belief. As someone who was raised in a dogmatic culture, I found this so deeply, deeply relatable. It’s not an issue of being too smart or brilliant, nor is it a sign of moral failing to believe something that is not true when you’ve been lied to so systematically for years and years. I think sometimes we think those things about ourselves. We’re too smart to be fooled or have the wool pulled over our eyes; we’re too moral to every be part of a system that harms others.
But that isn’t reality, is it? Saru’s left Kaminar because he challenged what he was raised with, and now, he’s about to do it again. Of course, it took a deeply upsetting moment for him to reach that point, and y’all… I talk about wanting to fight y’all for the story things you put me through. Truly, though, I was freaking out. After the death of Dr. Culber last season (PLEASE COME BACK, I KNOW IT HAS TO BE TEMPORARY), I was not ready to handle another major character death. Actually, to be completely honest with all you lovely people: I find death in general to just be an exhausting thing. There’s been so much of it lately (including the very obvious grief I’m still dealing with nearly a year and a half after losing Baize), that I could feel my body going, “NO NOPE, SARU IS FINE, NOT HAPPENING.”
For what it’s worth, I didn’t expect the twist at the end. I really didn’t. Both Jones and Martin-Green gave such a convincing performance that I did think I was about to watch Saru’s death. GOD THAT WHOLE SEQUENCE IS EXQUISITE. Saru’s quarters!!! The tenderness on display! That’s what I meant earlier by using intimacy to talk about these two. That scene felt so personal that it was almost voyeuristic to watch it.
But now Saru knows. Saru knows his people were lied to. Who is part of that lie? Do the elders know the truth? What happens to Kelpiens after their ganglia falls off? WHERE ARE THEY SENT? Oh god, is Saru’s personality going to change now that fear doesn’t rule his life??? I have a million questions, y’all!!!!
Tilly and May
Everything else in this episode was so fucking good and stressful, and on top of that, we have THIS PLOT!!!! Before I get to the more stressful parts, I want to state that I would watch an entire mini-series that is just Jett Reno, Tilly, and Stamets sitting in Engineering and arguing. The chaotic chemistry of these three is unmatched. It’s so entertaining! But I also love that Discovery is so much more willing to show us that not every crew member is going to get along at first. Here, Reno and Stamets can barely stand one another, and they only become friendlier as they solve the mystery of the jahSepp. (I hope I spelled that right; I only saw it briefly spelled in the captioning of the episode!)
I just… oh my god, the body horror fan in me was just RUINED by this episode, because so many upsetting and gross things happened to Tilly? I love her, SHE BETTER BE OKAY. Granted, I don’t actually understand what happened to her. Initially, I did; she was infected by a eukaryote! This eukaryote/fungus pumped her full of a hallucinogen in order to… kind of manipulate her? See, this is where I start to get fuzzy. I think that there’s confirmation—if “May” is to be believed—that travel on the mycelial network is harming the place where the jahSepp live. That makes May’s motivation—even as they are violating Tilly’s consent—have a completely different meaning. Are the jahSepp retaliating due to Stamets destruction of the network? Also, what if May saw the Terran version of Stamets? WHO KNOWS????
It’s hard to parse everything because clearly, this episode wasn’t going to focus on the jahSepp, so there’s a lot we don’t know. Like… is that fungus their natural form? Is what they’re doing manipulation, or is there a more benevolent aspect that’s lost in translation? (I mean, my guess is no, but we’ll see.) Through this all, however, the show doesn’t lose sight of who these characters are. There are some wonderful interactions between these three characters, but my favorite was actually the stuff between Stamets and Tilly. Like Burnham and Saru, there’s a history between these two. Stamets mostly found Tilly annoying in the first season, but look how much they’ve grown, too! The fact that Stamets can be so supportive of Tilly and tell her that she was probably way kinder than she remembers… GROWTH, Y’ALL. And that moment where they both sing “Space Oddity”? IT HURT ME AND DELIGHTED ME AT THE SAME TIME.
So yeah. I have no idea what’s going on with Tilly, or where “May” took her. Into the network, I’m guessing??? What the fuck is happening? But I am super into this storyline, even though it is causing me actual pain every five seconds. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
The video for “An Obol for Charon” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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