Well, they didn't exactly stick the landing, but they were still standing by the end of it. This got the job done. And it was, let it be said, epic.
"Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2" had a tall order before it: to fundamentally change the status quo of the series (implicitly promised by all the build-up and goodbyes in last week's overly schmaltzy episode, which at least in context now feels slightly more valid) while trying to satisfactorily make sense of this season's ongoing plot and character arcs. While they don't completely overcome the dopiness of some of the ideas that have been swirling about for several episodes now, they do close as many loops as possible while bringing massive cinematic showmanship to this finale in a way that helps paper over some of the seams.
This is a season finale so definitive it could actually have been a series finale. But since season three has already been announced, we can only assume this will be a clean-slate rebooting of the show into something significantly different. (Subsequent articles I've read since this aired has confirmed as much.)
As an experience, this is an hour so relentless in its action that by the end we are exhausted. It's essentially a full hour of battle sequences while Burnham tries to figure out how to jump her time-angel suit and the Discovery 900 years into the future. As a piece of mechanical filmmaking, it's kind of masterful. It has to make sense of endless chaos, countless visual effects, and characters moving from A to B to C to 47 — sometimes through time and space — all in a way we can follow. And, yes, as a piece of cinema, we can follow it. That alone is probably a small miracle. Kudos to director Olatunde Osunsanmi and the film editors.
As the last word in a wildly churning season, the end results are ... messy. Like season one before it, this season ends up being less than the sum of its many parts once the whole is revealed. This feels better and more cohesive than season one, but it exhibits many of the same problems. Looking back at the season arc from beginning to end, you see the shortcuts the writers often took and the plot holes apparent in doing so, and few of those are mitigated with what happens in the finale. Discovery's plotting has never been iron-clad, and there's always been a tendency for the series' writers to leave big narrative gaps and expect us to fill in the ellipses with our imaginations. This creates a sense of sloppiness more than anything else, as if the writers couldn't be bothered to put in the time to create narrative clarity and credibility.
Take, for example here, the sudden, simultaneous arrival of both the Klingons and the Kelpiens. They come completely out of left field, purely for the convenience of adding something else to the story (the actual plot, strictly speaking, didn't need them at all). There was nothing previously suggested or earned about it; it just happens. The Kelpiens (including Saru's sister) are conveniently flying the Ba'ul ships, and no explanation is given that speaks to how they went from technologically inferior farmers to bold space travelers in the matter of a few months (or even weeks).
Similarly, the Klingons show up here apparently because L'Rell is the only other available character to come riding to the rescue from within this show's microscopic universe. Tyler somehow is now aboard L'Rell's ship, and I'm going "Huh?" and doing the math and trying to figure out how much time went by between Ash's and Michael's cringe-fest of a farewell in part one to now him being aboard L'Rell's ship here. Maybe an hour? (Once again, the rest of Starfleet is of no help because Control has conveniently "jammed" all communications, making this major fight for the survival of all life come down to the Enterprise and the Discovery. But then how did L'Rell and Saru's sister get the message? And why is L'Rell so suddenly willing to reveal Tyler to the Empire now?)
Of course, to increase the action/VFX quotient, an entire fleet is created when both our ships — along with the Section 31 vessels — deploy dozens if not hundreds of mini-fighters that engage in a Star Wars-esque battle of the masses, so we can take a microscopic universe and somehow create an entire galactic war out of it. This seems awfully convenient.
But what a battle it is. This series never scrimps on the spectacle, and for this finale they've gone beyond the scale of where even this show has gone before. As Epic Action-Movie Trek goes, this outing brings the heat and delivers the goods (a standout sequence where a team of fighters surrounds Burnham in her space suit and guides her to her destination comes to mind) — even though if I stop and think about it for 10 seconds, big pieces of it are pretty dumb.
For example, why does Control insist on remaining personified as Leland? This made sense back in "Perpetual Infinity" when it was using his body as a covert means to manipulate the situation to its own ends. Here, why do it at all? I know the real answer, which is purely for the action storytelling: to give the villain a face and a physical form to fight against, which sets up the major sequence where Georgiou and Nhan fight Leland at great, great, great length. But tactically, this is stupid, as it serves only to undermine Control's own objectives by exposing itself to possible neutralization, since Leland represents the head of the snake.
Part of Star Trek and sci-fi in general is finding the sweet spot between narrative requirements and logical bullet resistance. This episode and season have done just enough to squeak by and cover enough bases not to come off as completely fraudulent (the seven signals are explained here, even if I have some reservations about them; we'll get to that later) while contorting the plot for its must-have ends. But you can often see the gears grinding in the process. Consider how the episode starts, in a frantic rush to complete the time suit and get ready for Control's arrival — making you ask how we had so much time for so many tearful goodbyes and letters to Mom and Dad in the previous episode, which presumably took place just minutes ago. The answer is because these two episodes have different requirements — part one to simmer in the emotions, part two to dash through the action — and the passage of time exists in two different continuums.
So, yes, you could point to lots of things and easily dismantle the plot, because the bottom line is that the writers are forcing a story through that delivers their desired goals on their manufactured terms (we are going to the future because we must, so here's a reverse-engineered way of explaining why it kind of makes sense), while also tying up loose ends regarding the canon that have existed since the beginning of the series (the existence of the spore drive; Burnham's presence in Spock's family history). They've done their best to explain everything, but the explanations can be lacking.
But along with the demerits, this definitely has its upside.
It allows the central idea of this episode (and season) to reach its logical destination — the idea that Burnham herself must travel back through time and create each the signals that has led Discovery to each of its missions that has ultimately led us here. It's the closing of the logical loop in the most purely Discovery way possible — through its omnipresent main character. On the one hand, this reduces the season's central mystery to the disappointingly smallest of possible universes — with Michael Burnham as the alpha and omega — in a universe that already feels too small because of how limited the POV scope has always been. But on the other hand, this POV proves electrifying here: Burnham's passage through the wormhole in her time-angel suit leads us to some brilliantly conceived, mind-bending sci-fi sights that are audacious and fantastic. When I'm reminded of both 2001 and Interstellar, the creators have done something pretty damn impressive. If the idea that these signals' origins can't even venture beyond the main character is disappointing, the experience of watching her travel through time to create them is exhilarating, and a reminder of what this series does right and does best. No Trek series before this has come up with something this vividly portrayed.
And that's kind of the lesson of the season, if not the series. Disappointing to middling ideas beget some truly impressive visceral experiences. Insofar that Discovery works as a piece of mainstream entertainment, it does so on those sensory terms — whereas the vision of its storytelling is less compelling because it's an exercise in mechanics rather than an engagement of ideas or philosophies. If previous Treks were about ideas, this one is about experiences. And this episode has some good ones.
A lesser example would be the sequence where Georgiou and Nhan fight Leland in a corridor where the gravity has gone berserk, leading them to fight on the ceiling, the walls, the floor, with all hell breaking loose around them. It's lunatic chaos, but with such a you-ain't-seen-nothing-yet verve to it that it almost redeems the fact that the fight is clichéd, interminable, and a really dumb bit of plotting business. The key word there is "almost."
But we also get some decent character closure in the process. While the detonation of the torpedo that claims Cornwell's life is pretty contrived (why can't she be beamed out once the blast door is closed, etc., etc.?), I'll allow it because it makes the larger character point that Pike is willing to sacrifice himself for his ship — but isn't permitted to because an admiral takes the bullet for him.
And while Burnham's and Spock's lengthy goodbye scene — after they realize Spock can't go into the future — piles the emotional feels up to the point of near-collapse (and happens in the middle of a ticking-clock countdown when the characters honestly don't have time for any of this, with the galaxy being on the line and all), it also demonstrates how far these two have come over the course of the season.
After all the sound and fury and closing of the time loop (which is, of course, a paradox, but aren't they all), the episode ends with a coda that closes the books on this phase of the series and promises us a clean reboot. Yes, Discovery goes off into the future to the tune of 900 years — no joke. But I liked the decision to end on the Enterprise. It keeps us in the dark until next season about what awaits the Discovery and its crew on the other side of the wormhole, and it allows us to send Pike and Spock and the Enterprise crew off, with the right amount of fanfare for what serves as the bridge between the Discovery era of Trek and that which is to come.
I'm giving this a qualified endorsement. This is highly flawed, with plenty of logical issues that have piled up through the season — but being logically bulletproof is not the end-all and be-all. Showmanship matters, and this episode has it in spades. This is bold and powerfully executed and makes for quite the ride. And even though individual elements can be easily picked apart, I find that it's still pretty satisfying in the way it ties things together. And the ending, with the last of the seven signals providing closure for Spock — is a really nice emotional note to go out on.
Some closing thoughts:
- The resolution of all the canon inconsistencies basically boils down to, "Everything that happened here is classified. Do not speak of it again." This is kind of lame, but mostly acceptable. The fact that the two biggest out-of-place elements — Burnham's relationship to Spock, and the spore drive — are now permanently gone from this century is enough for me to accept that we haven't heard of them before. Sure they'd show up in a history book, but that doesn't mean they'd be common knowledge. Spock was always tight-lipped about his family, and you could argue that given the difficulties with the experimental spore drive, Starfleet abandoned the project.
- The errors of Control and Section 31 do not go lost on the Starfleet brass, although the claims of additional "transparency" for the organization seem to be the opposite of what will ultimately happen by the 24th century. You could spin this as being a gut reaction that will eventually go completely the other way — or you could posit this is what the planned Section 31 spinoff series will ultimately disprove.
- I was confused at how much of the crew was staying aboard Discovery. It seemed after last episode that it was going to be a skeleton crew made up of the bridge officers who went out of their way to volunteer. Now, as indicated by the very full sickbay, it seems the whole crew stayed aboard. This is, alas, indicative of this series' tendency to simply sail past the details without firming them up for the audience, which unfortunately takes us out of the moment because we're asking questions when we should be simply watching the scene.
- Georgiou's evil cartoon hatred of Leland/Control was just silly. You realize this isn't really Leland, or a person at all, right? Why are you treating him like he killed your mentor? And, yes, Nhan's "yum yum" line was terrible, mostly for being nonsensical.
- As has been pointed out by others, the purpose of the Red Angel and seven signals was very possibly changed mid-season. There are just too many inconsistencies — admittedly not obvious until you really break them down — with how they were presented early on versus how they were treated by the end. The speculation that this was motivated by the mid-season change in showrunners seems plausible. (Hopefully this series can get through next season without a change in showrunners.)
- Looking ahead to next season, my "suggestions to improve this series" list remains largely the same as after season one: Make the universe bigger by not being so constrained to just Discovery's immediate radius. Open up the POV and plotting by not filtering every damn thing through Burnham. Tighten up the writing with less sloppiness and fewer cut corners. Stop using over-the-top Armageddon stakes to drive the main arcs. (Freeing itself from its prequel baggage could be a hugely liberating boon for this show.)
- That's it for me. I managed to get through a full season with full-length reviews and a surprising lack of shortcuts — something I wasn't sure would happen. I'm happy how it turned out. I'm not making any announcements about future plans until such scenarios are much closer and I have an idea what, if anything, I will be doing. Thanks for reading.
Previous episode: Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 1