In the tenth episode of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, this show has ended me and it’s not even close to being over so it’s just gonna keep ending me. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of death and grief
How am I even supposed to do this? Discovery is one of those rare shows where each new episode is somehow better than the last. Or maybe that’s not quite right; it’s more that each one is so consistently fantastic that I’m left feeling breathless and exhausted by its effect on me. Because holy shit, “The Red Angel” manages to be a fast-paced, nightmare of an episode, and yet it also packs in a truly unbelievable amount of character development within a runtime of less than an hour.
So, I’m gonna go through this as chronologically as I can! LET’S GO.
Airiam may not have gotten a significant amount of time on screen until the episode where she died, but I was still grateful that the episode opened with a dedicated funeral scene for her. As someone who has been to way too many funerals in the past couple of years (both physical and virtual), I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on how death really does force the kind of reflection we see here. Who was this person to the various members of the crew? It is of course tragic that we get a deeper portrait of Airiam after she’s gone, but it was a portrait I enjoyed nonetheless. This script also does a brilliant thing by having Airiam’s death reverberate through the other subplots surrounding the various characters of the show. Like having Detmer admit that Airiam helped her accept her ocular implant, or how Tilly learned to see her own memories as a constellation, rather than a curse. Or Stamets, who utters that crushing line about Airiam’s husband that was also a dagger to his own heart. OR SARU’S SONG. HIS SONG!!!! HELP ME.
I love that the opening scene ends with a HUMONGOUS plot twist, dropped casually before the credits roll, only for the show to actually save the bigger twist for the end of the whole episode. From a structure standpoint, it’s a fantastic choice to make. It set the tone for the episode to come by almost immediately explaining Airiam’s warning, introducing an even more personal context to the mystery of the Red Angel. Plus, we get a story about the grandfather paradox—something that’s rather common in stories of time travel—utilized in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.
I should have known an opening twist was leading to an even bigger one later. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.
There is… so much going on here, oh my god. I love that this script tackles the complicity of Section 31 in this grand sense, while also personalizing the story through Ash Tyler. We finally learn the truth about Project Daedalus’s creation as part of the war against the Klingons. The time war race, so to speak, is an interesting analogue to the cold war and the space race in some respects, but these felt like passing references rather than the whole point. Here, Section 31 was pursuing something that would hopefully either give them the advantage over the Klingons or prevent the Klingons from ever fully developing time travel technology.
But then “The Red Angel” asks a very uncomfortable question, over and over: What has been the cost of that pursuit? Somehow, Control still escaped Section 31’s clutches and achieved sentience, leading to the destruction of all life in the universe. Through Burnham, though, we find out just how personal this sacrifice was. I know Leland tried to explain that he was young, ambitious, and careless, and that’s why he used Burnham’s parents as bait for the Klingons. But I think there’s more than just personal choice at stake here, and indeed, that’s one thing Burnham constantly struggles with. We see that in her multiple confrontations with Ash Tyler. Is his enrollment in Section 31 an ethical and moral statement? He may have his own justifications—one of which he vocalizes in the episode itself—but there’s something genuinely interesting in the show exploring Burnham’s point of view, especially because I think it’s rare for mainstream shows to address this very specific idea of complicity.
Is there an answer provided by this episode? No, not really, and I also am not sure if the writers will take a stance one way or another. Burnham has that scene prior to her “sacrifice” where she apologizes for taking out her anger on Ash, which was a totally fair thing for her to feel deserved an apology. She was directing her anger at Ash, but at the same time, there really is a solid case to be made that helping an organization responsible for such terrible things IS an ethical conflict. And for someone like Burnham, how could it not be? It’s not like Section 31 found a way to help Burnham after her parents were murdered by Klingons! Did they protect her? Provide her with financial assistance? Anything??? They couldn’t even be bothered to tell her the truth, which led to Burnham QUITE LITERALLY BLAMING HERSELF FOR HER PARENTS’ DEATH. She genuinely thought her desire to see a supernova was what led to their deaths!!!
It really is enraging, isn’t it?
So, we’ve got an exploration of the friction between Burnham and Ash Tyler. It’s a complicated subplot, and I absolutely want to see what Ash is going to do in the future. I get why he—as someone who now perpetually lives in a gray area—is attracted to the organization. But he also can’t un-know the less-than-savory aspects of what they do. After he basically watched Burnham die, will that change his mind?
While that’s unfolding, though, there’s another more subtle change happening. Georgiou is her usual delightfully chaotic self throughout this episode, from her comment about “totalitarian efficiency” to Cornwell to the absolutely ridiculous moment where she talks about Terran Stamets being pansexual while also making an awkward situation between Stamets and Culber even MORE awkward. I also noticed that the way she treats Burnham has evolved, too. I don’t think it’s just me, but she seemed more affectionate toward her? There wre moments where her intentions didn’t appear to be affected by an ulterior motive, like when she confessed that Leland’s story wasn’t hers to tell. Rather, she told Burnham that she could do something else to help her: Push Leland to tell the truth. It’s a remarkably kind thing for Georgiou to do that yes, embarrasses him further, but is it really all that self-serving of Georgiou? No! At least not beyond that aspect. So… is she actually starting to see Burnham as someone she genuinely cares for in a way that hasn’t been the case prior to this? I also believe she took Burnham’s offer of trust very seriously, and on top of that, look at how Georgiou acts during the final “sacrifice.” She really does care about Burnham, doesn’t she???
AND THEN THERE’S SPOCK. OH MY GOD. Oh my god??? I think that scene in the ship’s gym was probably my favorite single moment in all of “The Red Angel.” As Burnham said, it was unexpected, but that surprising nature of the conversation is what made it work so well. For once, Spock has few sarcastic or cutting lines for his sister. Instead, he offers her understanding: Understanding for her anger and her grief, as well as understanding for the chaos. Because who else knows what it’s like when logic and emotion fail you?
There’s so much he says in that scene that just tore at my heart. Even him merely saying that he would accept an apology if it eased her suffering? That was just… fuck, y’all. Incredible. It was so damn moving to see these two have this moment, which felt like a first step, so to speak, in repairing their relationship. Maybe??? Maybe I have hope???
There’s a tender, brilliant moment in “The Red Angel” that I wanted to address because I don’t want it to get lost in all the other brilliance. I’m pleased with the messy, difficult story that Dr. Culber is getting on this show, and in this episode, his story is furthered with a very surprising reveal. I can actually see evidence in past episodes that Cornwell used to be a therapist. The reveal was surprising in the moment, yes, but not out of character. In particular, I’m reflecting back on Cornwell’s time in captivity with L’Rell and how successful Cornwell was in winning over an ally. She was totally using her skills, wasn’t she???
I just loved that Dr. Culber got the space (and screentime!!!) to process what was happening to him with someone who wasn’t directly connected. There was some obvious distance here between Culber and Cornwell because she’s an Admiral. She knows many of the particulars of Culber’s case, but she’s not friends with him or with Stamets, which allows her a degree of objectivity. I liked that she provided Culber with an almost immediate validation by referring to him in the past tense. It’s a small, simple thing, but it also allowed Culber the freedom to move past something that is a hang-up for almost everyone else. (Especially Paul, understandably.) She openly tells him that he’s “new,” rather than try to accept that he’s who he always was.
I commented this during the video, but y’all, I genuinely did not know how this was going to go. One thing that’s been made clear throughout these episodes of Discovery is that the writers are ABSOLUTELY willing to go for broke. These stories have been so ambitious and complicated (which I mean as a compliment!) that going into the scene on Essof IV, I wasn’t sure this was going to succeed. In fact, I could truly imagine a path where this idea failed. I didn’t think Burnham was up for the chopping block, but Discovery is composed in a way where I now can’t expect success with every attempt.
And then this is made even worse when the sacrifice plays out. I don’t know what I was expected, to be honest, but it wasn’t the DEEPLY upsetting act of watching Burnham suffocate to death. Oh, was that exactly what I was told was going to happen? Of course! Did I think it would happen? Somehow no! Sonequa Martin-Green provides a deeply physical, visceral performance, which only grounded this act in its horror. The show itself constantly switches between Burnham and the horrified witnesses to her death, and it was so damn effective, y’all. And then having Spock hold the away team at phaser point to prevent them from saving Burnham?
Then, that final moment hit. I also said this on video, but Sonja Sohn looks so much like Sonequa Martin-Green that I thought I was seeing Burnham at an older age. Yeah. NO. NO!!!! THE RED ANGEL ISN’T BURNHAM. IT’S HER MOTHER!!!!! What the FUCK!!! Oh… oh, this actually makes sense, doesn’t it? Because if this was actually Burnham, why wouldn’t Burnham want to reveal her identity to herself? Why was the Red Angel so secretive? BECAUSE IT WAS HER MOTHER WHO WASN’T DEAD AT ALL.
The video for “The Red Angel” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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