The twists and reveals are coming fast and furious as we reach the home stretch of this first season of Discovery. "Vaulting Ambition" is another entertaining hour of an entertaining — albeit significantly flawed — season, and it dives right into the encounters between Burnham and the mirror version of her mentor, Philippa Georgiou. But it will probably most be most remembered and discussed for the reveal in its final minutes regarding Lorca, who, as many had theorized, is actually from the Mirror Universe and has been an impostor playing the part of his Prime Universe counterpart all along.
This reveal and its implications are likely to overshadow a lot of better material in this episode, including tense dialogue scenes between Burnham and Emperor Georgiou, and intriguing scenes within the mycelium spore network between Stamets and his MU counterpart — as well as some emotionally resonating scenes between Stamets and a spore-network presence (in whatever form) of Hugh Culber, who somehow talks to Stamets from beyond the grave.
But we've got to talk about the Lorca headline, because there's so much to unpack there — both about the storyline itself as well as all the discussion it prompts about the way this season has been constructed and consumed. Something about Lorca has been "off" all season, starting with his ominous and morally ambiguous interests in the tardigrade, and continuing right down the line into his apparent override of the final spore-drive jump that brought the ship to the MU. Now that we learn that he is from the MU and somehow crossed into the PU before or shortly after the series started, all of his anti-Trek behavior makes a lot more sense (including decidedly un-Starfleet actions like leaving Harry Mudd behind on the Klingon prison ship).
On the other hand, the plot's allegation here is that Lorca's plan all along was to figure out a way to bring Burnham into the MU so he could use her to get close to Emperor Georgiou (where his actual endgame and motivations remain to be seen). Logistically, this is problematic. Even though the writers went to pains to lay out the clues (which are shown here with Burnham's aha-moment flashback montage) and pay them off here, this is one of those elaborate plots that is too clever and perfect to be believed in retrospect.
The plot has been reverse-engineered to fit Lorca's now-assumed successful outcome, but not in a way that could possibly work without the writers' heavy hands serving as chess master. When working backwards, to arrive at this destination requires every possible variable would've gone exactly Lorca's way, including things completely out of his control. How, for starters, would he have recruited Burnham into his fold had she not happened to have carried out a mutiny that landed her in prison and stripped her of her rank? And how could he expect to manufacture all the events that led to the success of the spore drive that allowed him to return to the MU? (For that matter, there are a lot of unanswered questions around how he crossed into the PU and replaced the PU Lorca in the first place. They may yet be answered, but I doubt they can make his plan seem less magical.) This also means he's been a crucial strategist in a war that isn't even his. If his mission the whole time was to get back to the MU, what explains his motivation in fighting Klingons?
This also means all of Lorca's up-to-now ambiguous characterization, which has been an intriguing part of this show, could all be a facade that gets thrown aside in favor of the new paradigm. I'm hoping it's not as simple as Lorca Is Actually Evil — and that this will all eventually come back around to his "Context Is for Kings" speech — but we shall see. (Perhaps he's the heroic bad guy fighting worse guys — although stomping his boot in the face of the captor he's just escaped is not exactly the best evidence of that theory.)
One of the risks of playing this sort of long con is that you risk your audience feeling like they're being jerked around by plot machinations that don't play fairly or consistently, thus creating characters who are projections rather than people. I've found this plot to be mostly fun to watch on a purely mechanical level, but unless this series has some solid cards up its sleeve, this could become one of those situations where you scratch the surface to find little substance beneath. Hopefully Star Trek: Discovery does not turn out to be vaporware.
We now learn the MU Georgiou mentored the (now-dead) MU Burnham and considered her a daughter. And the MU Lorca mentored her like a father. But at some point there was a key betrayal of these relationships. PU Burnham now finds herself brought into to the middle of this feud. So the arc of the entire season thus mostly boils down the dynamic of a three-character family power struggle all revolving around Michael.
The way the creators have chosen to play the serialized plot has been to take a few primary strands and play them out over the course of the season. That's also proven to be a liability because it has imposed limitations on what this series can be about. This may yet pay off and work in the final three episodes. But it also speaks to this series' biggest problem, which is that this universe feels so undercooked and underpopulated outside of these main strands. The scope of the entire season — which is far too small for a Trek universe where a big part of the point is world-building — exists to play out these few central conflicts.
I say all of this having very much enjoyed "Vaulting Ambition" for the way it makes these more intimate connections and pays off certain pieces of the long-term plot, however contrived. The production design and costumes aboard Emperor Georgiou's palatial flagship, the Charon, are impressive. Michelle Yeoh is terrific in her scenes as the cold but intelligent emperor. Her scenes with Burnham drip with tension and dread. The meal where Burnham realizes she's eating the Kelpian she thought she was saving by picking him out of a group (apparently not mirror-Saru, although it sure looked like him) is particularly stomach-turning. Sonequa Martin-Green pushes Michael's looks of terror too hard at times; my wife put it best, saying, "She needs a better poker face." It doesn't take long for Georgiou to discover Burnham is lying, leading Burnham, in an act of desperation when facing execution, to tell Georgiou the actual truth of having crossed over from the other universe. How the secret files about the Defiant will play into all this, as well as Lorca's own plan, remain to be seen. If nothing else, this series has managed to be successful in setting up weekly cliffhangers for subsequent episodes.
Some other plot strands get their due, to varying degrees of success. Best here was Stamets' story of being trapped in the spore network along with the MU Stamets. Together, they work together to figure out how to escape — although MU Stamets of course has his own clandestine agenda (and, conveniently, we learn he's aboard the Charon). Most notably, the Stamets/Culber relationship gets a solid and effective resolution — even though the magical, life-transcending nature of the spore network looks more and more like the Force with each sequence that explores it (though one could attribute Culber's appearance here to simply a part of Stamets' subconscious talking to himself). I'm not sure Culber's sudden and early exit from the series will end up being worth what we're going to get out of it dramatically, but this was at least a decent start, and the actors make the most of it.
As for the Voq/Tyler storyline — it continues to make little sense in terms of an undercover mission that ever could've worked for L'Rell, and the writers, not unexpectedly, backtrack on the "Voq has taken control" angle indicated in "The Wolf Inside." Now the battle between Tyler and Voq is simply driving Voq/Tyler insane. Saru appeals to L'Rell to do something to help them both, which she reluctantly agrees to do. It appears for the moment that she is able to "kill" the Voq personality inside Tyler, which indicates we aren't done with the "Tyler" character but might possibly be done with "Voq." Or neither. Your guess is as good as mine; the writers have given themselves enough room to draw out this identity-crisis storyline for the rest of the season, and possibly beyond. Is the long-term plan a character who must live with a split personality, or merely one who must live with the guilt of what he did as that other person?
These are questions that might be worth exploring, assuming the writers choose to give them some depth. Lately we've been in such a flurry of plot disclosures that there hasn't been a lot of time to explore what they truly mean to the characters. It's one damn thing after the next. Fortunately, there are still three episodes left in the season. Will Discovery manage to pull this together for this to mean something to the limited number of characters the show focuses on? Or will this all end up being an exercise in mechanics?
One of the strange things about watching Discovery this season has been seeing the hive mind of the Internet decode, uncover, and predict the show's bigger plot twists far before those developments arrive, thanks in no small part to the writers' own press statements. I've seen numerous people decry major plot revelations as "predictable." I think that's a harsh interpretation. The Voq/Tyler thing was foreshadowed before it was revealed, so it was meant to be "predictable" to a degree. (Even so, there are people who must be way smarter than I am, or are watching more closely. I read about the Voq/Tyler theory weeks before I would've figured it out on my own.)
That might be a lesson for the writers of Discovery. If you are building your season around a bag of tricks, you'd better be careful not to let people peek behind the curtain. The crowdsourced brain trust will inevitably crack the magicians' code.