The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery S4E9, “Rubicon” (written by Alan B. McElroy and directed by Andi Armiganian)
In Star Trek: Discovery S4E9, “Rubicon,” things finally start moving forward again. After completely spinning its wheels coming out of the month-long hiatus, S4E9 brings us Captain Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and Cleveland Booker (David Ajala) doing a classic Wrath of Khan style chase and battle across space as they each fight to get to the DMA first. Discovery is at its best when it can combine the character moments with a compelling plot and “Rubicon” is a strong episode in both respects.
There needs to be a tense undercurrent to every scene for these episodes based on maneuvering and close-up shots of the Captain considering her options to work. Thankfully, Andi Armiganian’s direction is entirely up to the task. From the opening moments there is a compulsive quality to everything along with a sense of danger that should have been there last week, but wasn’t. The shots are shorter than usual and the dialogue has a snappier pace. This is the best version of Burnham for Martin-Green to play—she is still hurt and upset by Book’s betrayal but her mind and actions are in the service of the crew.
The Discovery catches up to Book’s ship much faster than I expected, and it quickly becomes clear that the show is making up for lost time with a lot of action. Soon after sneaking up on Book’s ship, Mr. Saru (Doug Jones), Culber (Wilson Cruz), Rhys (Patrick Kwok-Choon), and Bryce (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) are sent on a shuttle mission to infiltrate the ship and bring Book and Tarka back to justice. Much more expectedly, this mission is a complete failure as Tarka (Shawn Doyle) has installed deadly security measures on the ship.
During the ensuing chaos, there are some deep rifts shown between the shuttle crew. Everyone is divided on this entire mission with some people, like Rhys, thinking Book is right. This would be an interesting thing to explore, but the show seems to have made it too easy. Due to the threat of a much greater war, it seems clear that Book is wrong and dangerous and having support for him divide the crew undermines their characters a bit. The day is ultimately saved due to Book’s help (he clearly does not want to hurt any of the Discovery crew, while Tarka definitely is fine with collateral damage, which will come into play later) as he sends a pulse that allows the shuttle to break free long enough for Owosekun to beam them back to the bridge.
While the danger in the scene is undermined by the fact the audience knows that all of those major characters wouldn’t be killed off all at once, the fact that Book and Tarka showed themselves to be so dangerous meant that Culber got to show off his calm and understanding nature, even under extreme circumstances, and that they need to be stopped. And Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) and President Rillak (Chelah Horsdal) know that Burnham is almost pathologically incapable of following orders with which she doesn’t personally agree, so they bring in a security force operative to monitor her on the mission.
That security officer turns out to be an old friend, Commander Nhan (Rachael Ancheril). The return of Nhan made me think that she was going to be killed off or at least severely undermined by Burnham to the point that she left in disgrace. Thankfully this didn’t happen. Instead, we learned that she has had a hard time fitting in to life in this far future, she couldn’t stay with her family, and she feels she failed her crew in her last mission. She is lost and adrift and needs connection, tying in perfectly with the themes of the season. Depending on others is the only way to get through life.
This includes dire situations where you have to depend upon people who are not lined up with your interests. But in those cases, it is really necessary to make sure anyone who is in the midst of the storm with you is on your side, or can at least abide by your decisions. After the shuttle incident, Book jumps his ship inside the DMA and Discovery follows. This leads to an extended, and very fantastic-looking sequence of the two ships maneuvering inside the fields and storms and ultimately jumping back and forth in front of each other in a complete standoff. Book and Burnham are so connected by their shared past that they cannot beat each other in this.
Nhan explains to everyone that Book’s ship can be destroyed if they have to do it, but only wants to do this as a last resort. Burnham eventually accepts this, but her last-ditch gambit to get Book to stand down works because Stamets (Anthony Rapp) is able to work out how long they have until the DMA moves. It seems that everything is resolved and Book agrees to wait a week and allow Starfleet to try to make contact with species 10-C before trying again to destroy the DMA.
But, if you are ever in a situation like this, maybe you should make sure everyone is on your side. Book does not ensure this is the case. Tarka was never actually concerned with saving lives, he just wants the DMA’s control device. So he is unconvinced of Burnham’s argument that they should not destroy the DMA. His actions are all based on his personal desires, and he has shown himself to be completely unreasonable about this subject, so it would have made sense to actually try to stop him from doing something rash. But neither Book nor Burnham is concerned with this at all.
As Burham flies her shuttle back to Discovery and Book just stands on his bridge, Tarka launches the weapon into the DMA. We don’t have to wait long to see if it works as both ships jump away and the DMA is destroyed. Burnham’s gambit has failed and species 10-C will likely see this as an act of war. But things are even worse for Book and Tarka. For Tarka, the failure is complete, as it turns out that the control device is actually on the other side of the galactic barrier, where the species10-C is, so he has gained nothing. And a new DMA instantaneously appears where the old one had been, meaning that the billions of lives that Book is so intent on saving are also still at risk.
There is surprisingly little fallout from this in S4E9. Burnham is not in trouble for her delay and relationship with Book clearly causing this likely devastating war to be on the horizon. Book is regretful but seems ready to be welcomed back into the fold. Though she really didn’t do her job, Nhan has learned she has a place and a family after all. While she goes back to her work on the security team she has shown herself to still be a member of the Discovery crew. By destroying the DMA, the Federation has, however accidentally, crossed the Rubicon.