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 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.
We're only two episodes into this new arc, and Discovery has managed to make the MU something it hasn't been since perhaps DS9's dark and brooding "Crossover" (after which the DS9 writers mostly retreated into the realm of comic-book adventure yarns) — which is a serious contemplation on what it means to exist for an extended period of time on the other side of the looking glass. (My mention of "Despite Yourself" indicating this take on the MU employing the comic-book approach now seems premature.) Burnham's monologue may be an indulgent and pretentious writer's device, but she's the most appropriate vessel for the message.
Well, maybe aside from one person — although that might be a matter of who that person actually is, or thinks he is. "The Wolf Inside" also provides the culmination to Tyler's own identity crisis and finally peels back the layers to reveal his wolf, to himself and everyone else. It's especially appropriate coming here and now; it's thematically consistent with the idea of shattered identities in the face of strange reflections. It arrives in a scene where Tyler comes face to face with the MU version of Voq and realizes that he is, in fact, the Voq from his own universe. This plays not as a revelation to the audience (because we already know this, even if the other characters — including Ash himself — don't) but as a slow-motion unfolding catastrophe of inevitability. In retrospect, the long-game structure strikes me as smarter than perhaps it initially seemed, because it tipped its hand but only gradually gave the game away completely — allowing the payoff moment to be about the character learning the truth about himself under bizarre circumstances even as the audience is expecting it.
The downside to this is the question of whether the destination was worth such a long con of a journey, and whether it makes any sense from the characters' practical standpoint. It appears now that Voq has been fully awakened, and the "Tyler" persona has been fully suppressed. (Although one never knows; might Tyler resurface?) If that's the case, the writers have burned away chances to take full advantage of the inner conflict of a character who suspects or knows he's a sleeper agent (cf. Boomer on BSG as an excellent mining of angst in this regard). Meanwhile, we're also left with a lot of logical questions surrounding why L'Rell and Voq would undertake this elaborate plan in the first place. What did they hope to gain with such an extreme infiltration plan, and why is Voq so willing to throw it away by outing himself in a rage?)
Don't get me wrong — I thought the reveal, with Tyler taking up combat against mirror-Voq and his subsequent confrontation with Burnham in her quarters, were both visceral and compelling scenes, intercut with the Frankenstein-monster flashback horror of his transformation. (In these shots, Tyler and Voq are shown side by side, suggesting both were real people, and Voq's identity and certain organs were transferred into the real Tyler's body.) But given the extreme nature of this plan, Voq and L'Rell right now seem like pretty dumb villains who took extraordinary steps (body swapping) only to botch the ordinary ones (not blowing the cover you literally dissected yourself to attain).
Although the logical questions are there, this does make for some solid dramatic fireworks and significant tension, as well as pulling the rug out emotionally from beneath Burnham as she learns this man she had started to fall for was actually (kinda sorta) her enemy the entire time.
In terms of plot mechanics, Tyler's revelation comes during a mission that Burnham must complete with dual objectives — make it look like she's carrying out her Terran Empire orders to destroy a rebel base (of Vulcans, Klingons, Andorians, and others) while also gathering data about the unique universe-and-time-crossing Defiant that might help the Discovery crew return to their own universe. One interesting moment comes when Burnham finds herself mind-melded with mirror-Sarek, which gives him glimpses into an alternate universe where a unified Federation flourishes in peaceful coexistence (give or take a Klingon war). There are a lot of pieces and alternate characters floating around here, and "The Wolf Inside" manages to smartly pick encounters that have interesting dramatic impact. This is further evidenced in the final scene where it's revealed the emperor of the evil Terran Empire is none other than Philippa Georgiou — which promises to further challenge Burnham's self-reflection and push her emotional buttons along with her need for redemption.
The scenes back aboard the Discovery — involving Tilly and Saru trying to treat the very-lost-in-Mushroom-Land Paul Stamets with a technobabble procedure — are along the lines of bread-and-butter Star Trek, and help ground the episode in the normal universe, apart from the A-plot's extreme role-playing and MU reflections. This works reasonably for the most part (including Stamets dying and coming back to life) but is nothing riveting — although I was intrigued by a scene where a comatose Stamets meets his doppelganger in the forest of the mycelium spore network. Like all other strands, this is to be continued.
"The Wolf Inside" is a strong effort. It continues to mine the MU in ways that have notable character impact, and it pays off the Voq/Tyler material in a very visceral way (although time will tell if fully unleashing Voq turns out to be a good idea). Meanwhile, the plotting feels both tighter and more nimble here than in many episodes in the first half of the season. Yes, there is the whole head-scratcher of how Discovery was able to beam Tyler out of space (or how Burnham was able to get word to them to do so) in order to deceive the MU Shenzhou crew — but keeping Voq/Tyler alive is definitely a better idea than killing him off here, so hopefully we're just getting started with what all this means.