A snow globe full of fireflies seems like a nice gift. It’s a beautiful marvel, unmatched as a unique gesture. For Emperor Philippa Georgiou — who presents one to her adopted daughter while torturing her, in hopes that the lightning bottled within might offer her peace the way it did for her as a traumatized child — it’s a poetic gesture of love and faith.
Until you start to think about it.
First of all, where did these fireflies come from? Did someone have to haul ass back to Earth to pick some up for the emperor? And what’s going to happen to them once their symbolic purpose has been fulfilled? There doesn’t appear to be any sort of food in that globe. Finally, have you seen these little bugs? They’re nowhere near as pretty up close.
(Please don’t point out that they’re probably holograms — my metaphor won’t work that way.)
Such is the nature of this second half of the Redemption Arc of Emperor Philippa Georgiou. It’s built a bit like an inverted “Chain of Command,” the classic “there are four lights” Next Generation episode wherein the Cardassians kidnap and torture Jean-Luc Picard in an attempt to break him and gain Federation intelligence. Georgiou has Killy and the rest of ISS Discovery’s vicious crew put Mirror Michael through countless rounds in the agonizer booth, hoping that it will break her, persuade her to name her co-conspirators, and bring her back into the fold. Over a torture montage, the emperor intones a monologue about how the “rules of engagement are changing,” explaining that she’s doing this because “there’s no other way to reach” her in a world where “strength is power, and terror is love.” “Come back to me, daughter,” she urges. It’s a pretty dramatic spectacle, one meant to make us feel all kinds of things.
But how is that message supposed to get through exactly? How does “breaking” your kid with brutal torture bring them “back to you”? Did Georgiou really believe that weeks of starvation and unimaginable, senseless pain would change her mind about wanting to kill her mother? If strength and terror are the only languages she understands, were strength and terror supposed to make her believe in mercy and growth? In order to “remake” themselves, to be “more,” to “change, as [she has],” Georgiou says that they “must leave behind all of that which destroys us.” Like … torture, for example? Like letting your daughter live, only to have her murder the 20 other people who believed in her to prove her renewed loyalty?
Georgiou has shown marginal growth in the meantime. Instead of bombing the nonhuman rebel alliance — which calls itself the Coalition — into oblivion, she sabotaged its efforts on the low. (“That wasn’t hard. Those silly democratic things are always on the brink.” Har, har.) She has ordered the kitchens to stop serving Kelpien, presumably ending their systematic murder as well. But life in the Prime Universe hasn’t really reformed her beyond specific lessons that benefit her. She still clearly intends on ruling an empire, even if she’s taking the Genghis Khan route and “let[ting] the people … worship their own gods.” Even planting the seeds of insurrection in not-Saru by revealing the truth about vahar’ai, telling him obliquely of his captain counterpart, and encouraging him to spread this knowledge to the other Kelpiens doesn’t absolve her of the fact that she still owns him. (Not-Saru, just as astute as his Prime Universe counterpart, is the only person who finally puts it together that Georgiou has been elsewhere and is thus no longer truly Terran.)
Not eating Kelpiens, “transforming” her mutinous daughter rather than killing her, destabilizing rebellions rather than obliterating them — while technically better than the alternative, these are the moves of a despot who was forced to live among the commoners for a minute, grew exactly three brain cells’ worth of a conscience, and is now trying to figure out how to remain king and still sleep at night. Everyone in this snow globe is doomed, including Georgiou, and I’m not sure whether the spectacle of it yielded its intended effect.
But I suppose the Guardian of Forever is in the business of handing out humanity-participation cookies, because even when her attempts to reform Michael fail and she revolts again, only to force Georgiou into a sword and dagger fight that results in both of their deaths, our buddy “Carl” decides she deserves to be saved. Okay, this is a pretty heavy fan-service reveal — we get the original sound clip layered over actor Paul Guilfoyle’s intonation of his true name, in case you weren’t sure whether this was a canon thing — so let’s rewind a bit. The Guardian of Forever, introduced in the first season of the original Star Trek series in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” is a “space-time portal” that allows one to visit any time, place, or universe with all the fun consequences that come with it. Lots of Trek fans love it, but it is objectively very silly — like, “time crystal” silly. Consider how many vastly more interesting ideas about time- and space-travel technology have cropped up since 1967, when the episode first aired! Alas, “The City on the Edge of Forever” was written by Harlan Ellison, which means the Guardian of Forever will persist … probably forever.
Anyway, the Guardian has been off the grid because, you guessed it, the Temporal Wars made everyone way too thirsty to use the portal for their own ends. Discovery’s computer was able to extrapolate its location because, you guessed it again, it has the Sphere data and current Federation databases. Now Georgiou has proven herself worthy of being sent back to Discovery’s original timeline, where she can live and star in her own Section 31 show. Yet while her good-bye with Michael is as sentimental as anything we’ve seen from this series to date, I think I’ve sobbed enough this season to confidently say this ten-minute-long crew-wide send-off is far more worthy of the ever-spectacular Michelle Yeoh than it is of Emperor Philippa Georgiou.
As I mentioned last week, it feels almost insulting to make the bridge crew give such a warm toast to a woman who, best case, didn’t give a shit about them. We have established Discovery as the Nerds with Feelings crew, but that doesn’t mean they all have to have nice things to say about everything and everyone. These characters would have been made all the more real if at least someone had struggled to find mixed praise for her, to find the bright side of her cruelty. I had hoped at least one person would voice the opinion that she was a war criminal who put the crew in danger for her own gain multiple times, and thus they would not miss her. Even a wordless “biting my tongue” look from someone would have served as a fun springboard for conflict with Golden Girl Michael down the line! But, alas, a neat, unanimous ending was chosen for Georgiou’s final curtain instead.
The same seems to be happening with Admiral Vance, Saru, and Book this week as they slowly unravel the mystery of the Kelpien ship. (I want to say it’s the Kia?) Vance is not happy that Saru withheld intelligence, nor that Book has gone ahead and installed Emerald Chain technology, a “range extender” that allows Stamets and Adira to amplify their signals in subspace and properly hack the ship’s systems. Yet instead of serving up a consequence or two, he is simply … bitchy about it, passive-aggressively insulting Saru and Burnham’s management style and weakly suggesting Book needs to follow Federation protocol if he wants to remain aboard the Discovery. Saru was entirely justified in delaying his report until they had actual intelligence to offer, especially considering how much of the admiral’s time Discovery has been dominating lately. But generally he and the rest of his crew have been settled into a forgiveness-not-permission M.O., and Vance’s weak response to this really clashes with Georgiou’s final message to Michael about how this universe is “more Terran than where [they] came from.” Be paternally warm and give them free rein, or remain authoritarian and deliver consequences; you can’t be a cool dad and then turn around and resent them for acting like it. The way he lectures Saru — thankfully in private this time — about Osyraa’s desperation and Discovery’s spore drive is confusing at best, racist at worst. (Show me where Saru’s feelings about the Kia being Kelpien compromised Federation safety even for a second! Write an entire report for one nonessential sliver of intel that serves no one!)
Ultimately, Georgiou’s swan song could have gone a lot worse. We could have been forced to watch Sonequa Martin-Green and Jason Isaacs make out. She could have chosen to die anyway, forcing us into a long death scene, maybe even a heroic one, in which she sacrifices herself by suicide-bombing Osyraa or something. Ten times as many crocodile tears could have been shed over her, all without acknowledging the atrocities she’s committed. “Terra Firma” resolves a critical conflict that once seemed like it might never be acknowledged at all; we all get to move forward now, free from the “????” storm cloud that has been hanging over the series since Michael dragged the emperor back to the Prime Universe with her. I just hope that the characters she leaves behind are allowed to evolve beyond inspirational speeches and into something a little deeper, more critical from here. Feelings are only as good as the complexity and authenticity of the people having them.
Personal Log, Supplemental
• They inverted the color scheme on the opening credits! I hope this is permanent and not a “mirror universe” thing, because I’ve always sort of hated the parchment-and-red look — too close to the weird boat-and-guitar credits of Enterprise for comfort. This new blue-green look suits the show.
• These two episodes have been very oddly structured, dropping the secondary and tertiary plotlines in lopsided spots. This week, we don’t catch up with Stamets and Adira’s efforts to hack the stranded Kelpien ship until 34 minutes into the episode. We do, however, get a brief moment of Reno eating black licorice in defiance of the no-food rule in engineering; even Book, who really did read both the field and technical manuals, as he sarcastically suggested he might last week, now knows the no-food rule. Anyway, Book’s range extender allows them to accomplish their task without diverting power from nonessential systems like Reno’s warp-conduit project.
• While it was certainly ham-fisted, I found the bit of exposition explaining where Reno has been incredibly charming and self-aware. They did need to acknowledge her absence over the past few episodes, but filling that blank so obviously is an acknowledgment of how silly it is that it needs solving at all. It also doubles as a funny Lower Decks–style moment, addressing the fact that the stars of these shows “divert nonessential power” all the time, a routine hijacking that’s bound to have screwed up more than a few junior officers’ projects.
• Maybe I’m old or something now, but is anyone else having an unusually difficult time understanding what the hell people are saying? The line deliveries, especially from Vance, Georgiou, and Burnham, have been very mumbly lately in this way that seems like it must be for effect, but that effect is lost when I have no idea what you just said.
• We get a cute little resurrection for both Airiams in this episode, with original actor Sara Mitich remaining as Terran Nilsson (Mitich returned to play Airiam’s replacement, Nilsson, after the cyborg’s death), while Hannah Cheesman, who had taken over for Mitich as Airiam in season two, returns as Terran (and non-cybernetic) Airiam. Cute and confusing!
• If Michael still had co-conspirators like Nilsson and Rhys to help her re-revolt against Georgiou, were the people she and Detmer killed actually co-conspirators, or were they loyalists she framed to inflate her numbers and thus bolster the charade of her reform?
• I’m just gonna say it: It should be illegal to “go to Risa” (in search of Lorca) without actually going to Risa.
• When Georgiou returns to Dannus V, she has three months’ worth of bio data points in her wristband, which is supposed to indicate that the time she spent in the Terran universe was real. Indeed, one of the main features of the Guardian of Forever, the reason it went into hiding, is that you can use it to change timelines. But the Guardian says that Georgiou had to be “weighed” in order to be deemed worthy of saving. Does that mean that Georgiou’s test involved going back in time in her own universe and effectively killing herself, altering that timeline forever? (And, if so, is that how the universes started drifting away from each other?) If the only result is that this test sparked a real Kelpien rebellion in the Terran universe, I suppose I’m fine with this.