It’s odd to think in terms of a two-part finale in a series that’s been as heavily serialized as Star Trek: Discovery has been, but that’s essentially what we have here. “Such Sweet Sorrow” doesn’t cover a whole lot of new ground in terms of action, but it sets the stage for an epic finale and does it brilliantly, giving us a whole lot of intense character moments along the way. Yes, it is just a set-up for the finale, but taking it on its own merits, it really packed a wallop. It took that thing that we all knew was inevitable from the very beginning—that somehow, Michael Burnham would be the Red Angel—and made it an incredibly emotional ride.
At the end of the previous episode, “Through the Valley of Shadows,” Captain Pike (Anson Mount) orders the evacuation and destruction of the USS Discovery, which is carrying a vast amount of data from an ancient sphere. Attempts to purge or transfer this data proved futile, as the data established means of protecting itself. Control, the central computer of Starfleet’s Section 31, has gone rogue and seeks the data in order to upgrade itself to the point of sentience. If that is achieved, it will eradicate all life in the galaxy.
Destroying the ship is a final attempt to remove the data from Control’s reach. Unfortunately, this fails as well as the data has fused with Discovery and uses the ship’s systems to protect itself. The original plan was to load all the data into the Red Angel—a time-traveling super suit built by Michael Burnham’s (Sonequa Martin-Green) mother—and send the Angel so far into the future that Control can never reach it.
So the crew adapts the plan: Send the abandoned Discovery itself, and the data it contains, into the future. And the only way to accomplish that is to build another Red Angel suit. As the original suit was built precisely to Burnham’s mother’s specifications, the new one will have to be tailored to Burnham herself. She’s faced with the reality that she is indeed the Red Angel that the crew has been tracking all season long. Yes, her mother was revealed a couple of episodes ago as being so, but that didn’t quite seal up all the holes, such as why the Angel suit carried a bio-neural signature that exactly matched Burnham. It was her all along in a second suit. There’s only one hitch in the plan: the jump will burn out the time crystal (acquired from a Klingon monastery by Pike in the previous episode) and Burnham will be stuck in the future forever. Alone.
Four of seven red bursts across the galaxy have appeared to Discovery, each time leading them like breadcrumbs to somewhere they need to be. A fifth one has newly appeared, this time over the planet Xahea, and the Discovery rendezvouses with the Enterprise there (and we finally get our first looks at the brand-new Enterprise bridge!). The queen of Xahea, Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po (or Po for short), played by Yadira Guevara-Prip, was revealed in the Tilly-fronted Short Treks episode “Runaway” to have extraordinary engineering knowledge and the planet to be quite rich in raw dilithium.
Po helps the crew charge their recently acquired time crystal, which will open a sort-of temporal wormhole, using the Red Angel suit. Seeing Po and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) reunite is one of the joys of the episode, and a nice bright moment amid the otherwise mournful tone—all the more so because she challenges Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and doesn’t take any of her snark (in fact, she made it law on Xahea that she’d never have to listen to snark!).
But at its heart, what this episode is about is character. This is the second episode of Star Trek: Discovery written by Michelle Paradise, and judging by what we see in her two offerings thus far, her strength is character relationships and backgrounds. She has the ability to cut to the heart of who these people are and what makes them tick. “Such Sweet Sorrow” is about a group of people facing an impossible challenge, one they might not return from, and how they deal with that probable eventuality. Some fans have griped that nothing really happens in this episode, but I disagree: This episode is all about these characters coping with their fear in the face of a galactic threat and the possible extinction of all life.
There are four scenes that are absolutely indispensable to telling the story of these characters’ journeys. In the first, Sarek (James Frain) and Amanda (Mia Kirshner) pay a visit to Michael when they learn of the mission from which she will not return. This scene really gives us the first sense that these people are actually family. After the death of her parents, Michael was adopted by Sarek and brought to Vulcan. We’ve known this academically since the very first episode, but to me at least, this is the first time there has been any emotional truth to it. In this scene they feel like family. It was so incredibly touching to see these people so invested in each other, with their guard down, being honest and open with each other, expressing their pain, their loss, their love. Even stoic old Sarek.
Not surprisingly, the main crew decides that they will finish Michael’s mission with her. They will stay on Discovery while she pilots ahead through the wormhole in the Red Angel suit. This is actually the most predictable thing that could happen, not only because we get this moment in almost all the Star Trek series—and not only because we saw a similar moment earlier in the season when the crew refused to allow Pike to go into a mission alone—but also because one of the big themes this season has been that “we leave no one behind.”
So of course this crew is going to support Michael on this mission, even if it means they’ll be stuck 1,000 years in the future and never get back home. Michael protests: “You have lives. You have people who love you. Families who love you, you’ll never see them again.” But Saru (Doug Jones) sums it up best: “Our families accepted the possibility of this moment when we joined Starfleet. Committing to a life amongst the stars is, in itself, a resolution to leave some things behind.” Yes, it was a predictable moment, but it lost none of its emotional impact because of it.
Having made the decision to join Michael, we’re treated to a montage of the crew composing final goodbye letters to their loved ones—Tilly to her mother, with whom we know from “Runaway” she has a contentious relationship; Stamets to an unspecified sibling who always thought that he was their parents’ favorite, but Stamets assures the sibling that he was just louder and that they love him or her so much (I’m sure the gender was kept unclear in case this is a character they want to introduce at some later point); Saru to his sister Siranna, who we met in the Short Treks episode “The Brightest Star,” and to whom Saru declares his love.
These moments are so small, but they tell us something about each of these people, giving us a tiny glimpse into their private lives, something that the show has not done enough of. But more important, and more surprisingly, we see two of the bridge lieutenants included in this sequence: Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) saying goodbye to her Luddite family, acknowledging how much her making her own path must have frightened them, and how she hopes they will forgive her; and Detmer (Emily Coutts) to a best friend called Tazzy, who helped her through the Academy and who was her rock during her recovery after sustaining injuries in the Klingon War.
These snapshots help to round out just a little bit about these characters who have not been as much in the forefront of the storytelling but who have been a constant presence, especially this season. With Michelle Paradise being elevated to co-showrunner next year, I’m hopeful we’ll be getting more moments like these (including with Lieutenants Rhys and Bryce, who barely get any dialogue at all).
And finally, Christopher Pike takes his leave of the crew that he has captained for this whole past season, as he returns to the Enterprise to defend Discovery from a fleet of Section 31 ships as they prepare to make their way into the wormhole. This is, essentially, Pike’s farewell to the audience as well. Pike has overwhelmingly been a fan favorite this season, with many fans calling (and even starting petitions) for a Mount-led Enterprise spin-off featuring Pike, Spock (Ethan Peck), Number One (Rebecca Romijn) and Lt. Nhan (Rachael Ancheril), and other fans declaring him to be their favorite Trek captain ever. He will most definitely be missed next season by crew and viewers alike.
The detractors are wrong, and they’re missing the point. It’s not that nothing happens in this episode. The whole point of this episode is to convey how great the stakes are in this battle. This is to prepare both the characters and the audience for what will happen next week. The fact that Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) features so heavily in this episode and isn’t a smart-ass or a wisecracker tells you how serious the situation is.
And what of next season? Assuming Discovery makes it into the future with her crew, what then? Will the series continue, 1,000 years in the future, in a time that has been wholly unexplored in a Star Trek series before now (truly where no one has gone before)? If so, what challenges will they face? What if they find themselves in a time in which Starfleet no longer exists? What if there is no Federation, having been conquered by some other empire (Romulan? Klingon? Founders? Someone we’ve not yet met?)?
Star Trek: Discovery can then forge its own path without the need to fit itself into previously established canon. It can do whatever it wants, and that’s a thrilling concept. On the other hand, if the ship, crew, and series do remain in the far future, we will be denied the opportunity of seeing the fallout of Section 31’s role in what happened with Control, and how 31 goes from being out in the open to the underground organization it’s seen to be in later other series (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in particular). Either way it goes, the show strode into its second season with an extraordinary amount of confidence and swagger. Just think what it’ll deliver in its third.
The Star Trek: Discovery finale and the final battle for Control of the galaxy happens Thursday, April 18th at 8:30 p.m. (Eastern) on CBS All Access.