The issues of one’s identity in the Mirror Universe, effectively established in last week’s "Despite Yourself," heat up in the crucible that is "The Wolf Inside," which uses the MU through Burnham’s perspective to ask the question of what it means to live a life of lies while here. Can you lose yourself in a brutal world where you have to pretend to be one of the brutes to survive? Will the brutality chip away at your humanity and your soul?
These questions are explored early through a voice-over narration that tells more than it shows. But what this monologue may lack in demonstrated on-screen action is made up for with sheer narrative economy. We know where Burnham stands and we’re able to see the madness through her eyes, and it’s a troubling place. If the MU provides reflections on our characters, no one is seeing the potential for more horrifying potentials than Michael. This is interesting, because self-reflection has been a key point for this character since the fallout from her role in those first two episodes that landed her prison. But now it rears its head under even more dire circumstances.
"Into the Forest I Go" was an hour that brought a lot of pieces together in this uneven first season of Discovery, and it ended with a final twist that we now see serves as a sharp left turn into a new arc set in Trek‘s Mirror Universe. The MU was of course famously established in TOS‘s "Mirror, Mirror," before lying dormant for decades until DS9 picked up the mantle for its annual hijinks. Then in its final season, Enterprise also ventured into the arena with "In a Mirror, Darkly," which featured some time-bending that brought the USS Defiant back from the TOS era into the Enterprise‘s prequel era. The events surrounding the Defiant are specifically referenced in "Despite Yourself," which is a solid outing that sets up this new setting and looks to be just the beginning.
At last, here’s the Discovery episode I’ve been waiting for all fall — something that feels exciting and compelling and goes a long way toward addressing many of my bigger questions about this series. (“Answering” might be too strong a word, as certain aspects remain open-ended and new questions are raised.) This is easily Discovery‘s best episode so far. It moves the plot forward significantly and resolves some notable points, and then presents a twist that hints at all kinds of possibilities (depending on how far they pursue the idea) — even though where we actually go from here remains to be seen.
The biggest problem with Discovery is that too much of the larger narrative feels like a messy, contrived improvisation that suffers from the fact that entire scenes — possibly entire subplots — appear to be missing. Consider this episode, which benefits from some pretty decent character work for Saru — but also features a subplot involving the Klingons that is so fragmented and filled with inexplicable character actions that it sometimes borders on incoherence. Even the title — "Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum," which translates to "If you want peace, prepare for war" — doesn’t really make sense given what’s actually happening in the episode. (The war has already been underway for months, so why are the writers being both pretentious and inaccurate?)
At the center of the very Trekkian time-loop plot of “Magic That Can Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is an intimate character story about pesky human emotions and what they mean to a character who was raised the Vulcan way. Michael Burnham has never been in love, and she has never admitted this fact to anyone — which is particularly notable in that she feels she needs to keep it a secret at all, as if it’s something that brings her embarrassment or shame.
That’s an intriguing personal wrinkle to a character with a Vulcan facade who struggles with inner emotional questions. (Indeed, I have often wondered in general how Vulcans process the feelings of “love” alongside their logical imperatives and their general — although not absolute — claim to eschew emotions. Clearly it falls somewhere on a range, but how does that work?) That these character beats play directly into the plot — where time is repeating Groundhog Day-style and our heroes must figure out a way to escape — is commendable.