I'll say this: Discovery is almost never boring. Even when it's batshit-crazy bonkers, it's pretty exciting.
Consider "The Red Angel," which is equal parts respectable and loony, measured and overwrought, exposition-filled and visceral, and either benefits or suffers from numerous WTF moments — I'm not sure which. It advances the season arc by answering questions that raise more questions. It has substantial character work, but nearly all of it surrounds a single character. Guess which one. This is entertaining, but I can't call it good. It's a sci-fi potboiler.
It also expects more of Sonequa Martin-Green than possibly any episode to date, and the results are mixed. The writers really put Michael Burnham through the wringer here, and sometimes it's just too much. Multiple scenes end with tears streaming down her face. Probably too many scenes.
What can you say about an episode that reveals in the teaser that, yes, according to a bio-neural signal and some technobabble I've already wiped from my memory, the Red Angel is indeed confirmed as a version of Burnham from the future traveling back through time to various points to manipulate the timeline to prevent the destruction of all sentient life in the galaxy at the hands of evil future AIs? (I think there was also something explaining the evil AIs could potentially find their way back in time when the Angel opens its time vortex into the past, which I guess would mean the Angel's attempts to stop the AI could possibly lead to their very presence, which seems like a flawed prevention strategy.) There's a great deal of technobabble here that is in the classic TNG-era mold, none of which I care to recap.
But wait, there's more. It turns out the Red Angel's time-suit technology was developed by Leland's Section 31 team 20 years ago in what was known as Project Daedalus (in a "temporal arms race" against the Klingons, no less), meaning Leland has known this whole time way more than he has been letting on, because, well, classified. (Yes, bureaucratic turf-war BS will always ensure sensible information-sharing is thwarted, even if that makes everyone look stupider and everyone's jobs harder in the process.) But the kicker here, which Leland reveals after suddenly deciding to be forthcoming, is that Burnham's parents were stationed at the outpost where they were killed because they were actively working on Project Daedalus. So everything Burnham thought she knew about her parents' deaths was wrong. And she reacts predictably emotionally, in a tearful rage and two punches to Leland's face. (This is viscerally satisfying, but also too dramatically easy.)
Martin-Green pushes too hard at times with a raw and emotional performance that might have gone down a little easier if it was underplayed to help modulate the insanity we get within this eventful hour. In addition to this scene, we also have Burnham taking out her fury on a boxing dummy (which is overly amped up before Spock comes in to chat and we end up with one of the hour's nicer understated moments where they finally reach some understanding). And then she later cries on Tyler's shoulder (proving these two have no chemistry beyond plot requirements) because she's scared about the self-sacrificing tactics of the plan devised to lure in the Red Angel. And then there's her screaming agony of death throes as this plan is carried out on the deadly planet surface. The gauntlet "The Red Angel" puts Michael through would be a lot to ask of any actor; Martin-Green gives it her best, but strains at times.
The plan is based on one of those overly certain logical assumptions that puts all the eggs in one basket, and assumes because the Red Angel must protect itself (i.e. Burnham) in order to ensure the eventual saving of the galaxy, it obviously must travel back to this point to stop Burnham from dying in the past. When it does so, Discovery will capture it/her. (What comes after that is anyone's guess, but we're not thinking that far ahead.)
But for me, the real above-and-beyond WTF moment involves Leland and his dastardly traitorous binoculars. During the frantic attempt to capture the Red Angel with the technobabble plan, Leland tries to command his computer to do something while looking into an eye scanner. He says things to the computer, which repeats things back in his voice, then he is inexplicably stabbed in the eyeball by his own scanner, which knocks him to the floor. In an episode that brings the crazy like a season one outing, this moment stands out. I have no doubt this will have significant meaning next week, but for now it's such a strangely bizarre non sequitur that my reaction was, "Wait, what?"
While regularly flirting with the insane, "The Red Angel" still manages to build its way there gradually. It puts in the time for the technical setup, and manages to weave in moments of character dialogue throughout the hour that are sometimes welcome (Burnham/Spock) and other times tedious (Burnham/Tyler). By the time we get to the daring plan (which Pike reluctantly signs off on, after a half-hearted protest that is defeated with an example of completed staff work that probably wouldn't pass muster in your workplace), it's full speed ahead, until Burnham is writhing in pain in a chair, dying.
And then we of course get one more WTF moment — the Red Angel appears, revives Burnham, and is captured. Inside the suit is ... Burnham's birth mother. This is going to be one strange reunion, but I wouldn't miss it for the world.
Many other firing brain synapses:
- The episode begins with an extended funeral service for Airiam, which is depicted with weight and fanfare. This is well done and I appreciate the sentiment, but it also feels a bit out of scale with the importance of the character overall, who — let's face it — was a background extra until suddenly rising to prominence last week. They've essentially retconned Airiam to be a major character death, which feels like the show writing a full year's case study the night before it's due.
- There's a quick moment where Lt. Nilsson takes over Airiam's post. Nilsson is played by Sara Mitich, who played Airiam in season one before Hanna Cheeseman took over the role in season two. Are the Discovery producers just messing with us now?
- Does Pike know yet (or care) that Georgiou is from the mirror universe? Everyone else — or at least enough of the crew — on Discovery does, so is he still being kept pointlessly in the dark because it's "classified" or whatever? This never made sense, and now strikes me as one of those worst-kept-secret situations.
- Georgiou playfully deconstructing Stamets' and Culber's relationship in a bid to make them uncomfortable — and suggesting that maybe she have a role in there somewhere — is mildly amusing but goofy and strange. Tilly says it best: "What just happened?"
- When it's clear Burnham is going to die, Georgiou, showing an interesting bout of genuine compassion, tries to stop the plan. But Spock overrules her and everyone else, intending to see it through.
- Culber goes to Admiral Cornwell — who we learn here has a background in counseling — to ponder the dilemma around his relationship and self-identity crisis. Cornwell's role in this sense comes completely out of left-field, and yet the scene somehow works and helps provide a little more human detail to Cornwell.
- I wonder how much of this timeline fun was originally planned at the beginning of the season. I thought this season was originally supposed to be an exploration of some sort of intersection of science and faith, but that notion has long since been abandoned. I wonder if the change in direction to a time-traveling suit had anything to do with the change in showrunners earlier in the season.
- Leland gets punched in the face (twice) and eye-stabbed by his own scanner. Talk about a bad day. This is what you get for working for Section 31, I guess. Was Leland attacked by Georgiou being devious and booby-trapping his equipment, or Control, which has somehow infiltrated it? I'm predicting the latter.
- Section 31 is pretty poorly regarded by everyone at this point, including Cornwell. I wonder what, if anything, this means for the organization moving forward after this season's plotlines are resolved.