Michelle Yeoh Delivers Star Trek: Discovery a High It Didn't Quite Earn

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Phillipa Georgiou’s redemption is a path earned in grief.
Image: CBS

Last week’s Star Trek: Discovery laid the groundwork to a question that has lingered in the background since the climax of its first season. This week, it answers: albeit with a response that puts one hell of an onus on Michelle Yeoh more than it does with what Discovery has ever done with her character, the mysterious Mirror Universe Phillipa Georgiou.

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“Terra Firma, Part 2” builds on the dangerous gambit Georgiou played at the end of last week’s episode: the Michael Burnham of the Mirror Universe, her closest confidante and daughter, has betrayed her, and Emperor Georgiou responds with leniency. Well, leniency in the Mirror Universe manner, which means here that as Georgiou begs her daughter to reconsider a better path, she’s also watching her daughter be brutalized by her thuggish guards and undergo the horrifying trauma that is the Agonizer Booth. Small steps!

Michael’s resilience in either universe comes to the fore here, setting the stage for her unstoppable force to meet the immovable object that is Georgiou, a conflict that the rest of the episode then proceeds to gluttonously mine for all its worth. The battle of wills is fascinating—Sonequa Martin-Green’s dogged endurance that has come to define the Michael we’ve been watching for three seasons becomes something petrifying here. Instead of hopeful, as she rails against her mother for what she sees as a weakness, Mirror Michael is adamant that, even as she undergoes excruciating trauma, she cannot be broken.

Illustration for article titled Michelle Yeoh Delivers Star Trek: Discovery a High It Didn't Quite Earn
Image: CBS

But it’s Yeoh that rightfully gets the spotlight here, turning in a performance unlike any she’s delivered in the show so far. A vulnerable emotionality that is unprecedented for the clipped, reserved, stoically badass Mirror Georgiou we’ve seen throughout Discovery—compassion beyond even her brief turn as the original Phillipa Georgiou. Every time Michael lashes out at her this episode, Georgiou tactfully deflects, pleading with her daughter to see the better way her time in the Prime Universe has shown her. She so desperately tries to straddle the line of power in brutality that marks Terran culture with a sense of compassion that reflects an internal debate over who she wants to be given this second chance. She subjects Michael to horrifying cruelty on one hand, and reaches out with a plate of food or a touching memory with the other. She makes the case that she has the power that Michael cannot find with her co-conspirators, but also makes the case that she is still her mother, a bond of love that likewise cannot be broken by Michael’s betrayal.

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It seemingly works. After Michael relents, and re-pledges her fealty to Georgiou, there’s a sense of normality that returns, but even then, Georgiou is not back to her old, cruel self, snacking on Kelpians and promising fire and brimstone to those who cross her. On the Kelpian front, not only has she barred cannibalism from her galley (once again, small steps!), but she’s reaching out to her servants—notably Mirror Saru struggling with the Kelpian biological event of Vahar’ai, offering compassion to him having seen the Prime Saru go through it and come out stronger than before. But with Michael, there is still that warmth there, even as she’s also paradoxically asking her daughter to go about the I.S.S. Discovery murdering every one of her former co-conspirators. That struggle to do good in a world that is abjectly, almost comically evil lingers, even when it seems that she has “won.”

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Image: CBS
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Except, Georgiou hasn’t: it turns out Michael’s return to her side is a double double-cross (oh, those Terrans), leading to a bloody, tragically Shakespearean demise: as mother and daughter do battle, they mortally wound each other. A tearful mother, pained that all the good she tried to do in reconciliation is now bleeding out on the brig floor in front of her. As Georgiou herself, cradled by Mirror Saru after she had comforted him earlier in the episode, succumbs to her wounds, it would seem that the tragic lesson of Discovery’s Mirror Universe is about the struggle of great changes, a dark ponderance perhaps that looking for the good in people is a constant struggle, an enduring war instead of a single, decisive battle.

Or it would be so if Georgiou’s “death”—c’mon, we know she’s got a spinoff show!—didn’t happen with a good 15 minutes of the episode left. It turns out what has been months in the Mirror Universe for Georgiou was a mere minute for the Prime Universe’s Michael and the mysterious “Carl” they encountered as Georgiou’s only hope. Revealed as the Guardian of Forever—self-exiled to parts unknown to avoid being manipulated in the Temporal War, its secret only exposed to Discovery as a ship with knowledge of the Guardian’s old presence in Trek’s past—Carl exposes all of “Terra Firma” to have been the final test before it decided to grant cosmic lenience to a woman of two worlds. It’s a lesson Georgiou almost doesn’t quite grasp until Carl makes it clear to her: it doesn’t matter that Georgiou did not change Mirror Michael’s tragic destiny, or that she herself seemingly met her end for trying to better herself and her daughter. It’s that Georgiou tried. She tried where it mattered most, she tried, almost more crucially, when it mattered least, in relationships big and small, from Michael to her Kelpian servant.

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Image: CBS

That, for the Guardian, was enough evidence that Georgiou has truly grown from her time in the Prime Universe. It did not cure her of her interdimensional disease, but the Guardian offers recompense: returning not to her own universe, but the Prime past, a time specifically when the Mirror and Prime realities were not quite so divergent. The move means Phillipa can never return to the 32nd century, but she will be saved from her dire fate—and she can continue to strive to improve herself and believe in the wonders she’s seen around her aboard the Discovery, of the power in people coming together with a common, idealized goal. As she tearfully bids farewell to Michael and fades into a past unknown, Star Trek: Discovery concludes a major chapter on an emotional, powerful high. And that’s...kind of a problem, when the show didn’t quite put the work in to earn it.

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Discovery as a Star Trek show, despite having a killer ensemble cast, is mostly about the story of a few select characters. That means we haven’t really spent the time with Georgiou since her cross-universe kidnapping to really get the feeling that her time in the Prime universe has transformed her into a woman willing to show this much change, even as she does so anyway. Look back on the Georgiou moments we’ve seen and, yes, loved—her killer putdowns, her kickass action, her desire to be the blunt object the hands of Starfleet officers around her were too delicate to wield. There have been moments like her decision to stay with the Discovery in its leap to the future, her caring for Michael, and even her farewells to Tilly and Saru last episode, but they’re not enough to have set the stage for this kind of redemption. The Georgiou that tearfully bids farewell to her daughter figure in “Terra Firma, Part 2's” climax is almost a little alien—she goes out to her future adventures with a vulnerability that we’ve never seen from her before, for better or worse.

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Image: CBS

But that’s the thing about this whole episode, really. All this works in the moment, yes, because Sonequa Martin-Green and Michelle Yeoh (Yeoh in particular) spend a good 50 minutes selling the hell out of it in two of the best performances Star Trek: Discovery has witnessed so far. This is far from the first time the show has chased a dramatic conflict that it didn’t really earn the set up for, only to sell it on the strength of its cast anyway. Even when you think about it long enough that it starts to lose some of its dramatic luster, those performances remain, and in the end we’re treated to a fitting, fond, and powerful climax to one of Discovery’s most vital relationships.

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Whether or not you feel as if Discovery laid sufficient groundwork to lead to this character growth perhaps doesn’t matter quite so much in the grand scheme of things. After all, Georgiou is off on her way through that Guardian of Forever tunnel right into her own spinoff show—one made infinitely more fascinating if this rejuvenated Phillipa is going to be a part of the shadowy, morally uncompromising Section 31. There will be time to explore her character there in ways we could not on Discovery, where her arc had to orbit around the dramatic pull of Michael and the rest of the crew. Once again, it cannot be overstated here just how excellent Yeoh’s performance is in selling this resolution to us as an audience anyway, providing further hope that that spinoff will let her stretch herself beyond gleefully high-kicking people in the face.

Maybe, in the moment, just as Georgiou learned, we simply have to believe that in trying to do something good, even if it does not lead to total success, is good enough.

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Image: CBS

Assorted Musings:

  • So much of my enjoyment in this episode is tied up in Yeoh’s incredible performance, but I must call out the scene in which Georgiou tearfully recalls to a battered, exhausted, sleeping Michael the childhood memory of the latter’s trauma-induced sleepwalking leading her out to fields of fireflies, and how Georgiou stood by her until the terrors were over. Just a beautiful, beautiful bit of acting in a way Discovery has never really let her do before. Oh, how I wish it had done more with her like this!
  • Okay, so I was wrong on the Q stuff with Carl, but the Guardian of Forever peacing out from general knowledge after Star Trek: The Original Series episode The City on the Edge of Forever” and then just exiling itself completely to avoid the Temporal War abusing it is such a fun, clever idea, even if it’s here as kind of a Guardian Ex Machina to get Georgiou away and off into her own spinoff show.
  • In non-Georgiou developments this episode, Saru runs awry of Vance when, in a very Michael move, he allows Book to use Emerald Chain technology to help Stamets and Adira track the Federation Vessel emitting the distress call that seemingly kicked off the Burn. Although he gets away with a stern look rather than a proper telling off, I wonder if this moment of Michael’s influence rubbing off on Saru might lead to their proper reconciliation after their bust-up a few episodes ago.
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James is a News Editor at io9, where you can find him delivering your morning spoilers, writing about superheroes, and having many feelings about Star Wars. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

DISCUSSION

apocsol
Apocsol

I truly don’t get why Georgiou is getting any kind of redemption arc. She’s a mass genocider who ate people - how has that just been ignored? Yeoh is the reason I guess - would be a real shame to lose her, but I keep looking at them talking to Space-Hitler as if she’s just a troubled teen and it’s baffling.