The fourth episode of the second season of CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery "An Obol for Charon" is a dense, stressful, emotional, wild ride. In fact, there was so much going on in the episode that after my first viewing, I immediately watched it again before I wrote my review, just to make sure I didn't miss anything important. Caught at the convergence of at least four distinct (yet related) storylines, the Discovery crew found themselves fighting battles on many fronts – both figurative and literal. While no one aboard the Discovery made it through the episode unscathed, two of my favorites – Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) – were forced to the limits of their endurance (and beyond) and both are forever changed. Queue the universal symbol for a spoiler warning…
Just from the episode's title alone – a literary allusion to a fee for transportation to the afterlife – it was clear that "An Obol For Charon" was going to be dramatic and likely dangerous for the Discovery and its crew. However, I was not prepared for just how bad things were going to get, and how quickly it would all happen. The tone seemed to go from "intrigue" to "anxiety" to "oh my god, they're all going to die" in a matter of a few minutes. Considering all of the threats that the Discovery has found itself facing so far this season, I was genuinely surprised when the biggest danger turned out to be something we had never seen before.
To begin the episode, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) meets Number One (Rebecca Romijn) for what appears to be a lunch meeting. We learn that Number One is a super-connected badass who has somehow managed to acquire parts of the classified investigation into Spock (Ethan Peck) through dubious means. Armed with Spock's flight path when he escaped the psychiatric hospital, Pike goes after his wayward science officer. When all hell breaks loose elsewhere, the search for Spock ends up on the back burner.
Before long, the Discovery is caught in the web of a sentient, vibrating, pulsing lava rock bubble that throws all the ship's systems into disarray. I really liked the way that the sphere factored into the storyline and brought out the relationship between Saru and Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green). There were also echos of the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok." In "Darmok," the Federation can't communicate with the Tamarians and therefore tend to interpret their actions as hostile. However, once Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) figures out how to talk to the other species, both the Tamarians and the Federation are better for it.
The storyline with the lava-sphere that traps the Discovery is similar. In the end, Saru figures out that all the sphere wants is to tell the Discovery its history before it dies. Once Discovery stops trying to protect itself from the sphere and just listens, they are blessed with 100,000 years of knowledge and get out of a tight spot in the bargain. It takes a leap of faith on the part of Pike and the Discovery, but it pays off big time (much like it did in "Darmok").
As the Discovery's situation with the sphere becomes more urgent, Saru's condition worsens. Apparently the transmissions from the sphere are being picked up by Saru's ganglia, and his body has started to act like it is dying, a process the Kelpians called "vaharai." On the Kelpian homeworld, vaharai means that it is time to be culled by the Baul, the Kelpians' natural predator. After sharing with Burnham that he has been chronicling his life in Starfleet, Saru asks Michael to take charge of his story after he is gone in order to share it someday. This leads to the realization that the sphere is doing the same thing, attempting to share its life story with the Discovery because it knows it is dying.
Once Saru is too sick to continue, he asks Burnham to cut off his ganglia so he can die in piece (and also makes her promise to mend her relationship with Spock). The moment between Saru and Burnham is incredibly touching, especially considering all they have been through together. Saru trusts Burnham with his future, his legacy, and his life. To the surprise and joy of all, Saru's ganglia then shrivel up and fall out on their own, taking Saru's illness, and his fear, with them. Much like the situation with the sphere, it is only when Saru bravely faces his impending death and surrenders to the outcome does he find the strength to continue.
Saru interpreted what happened to him as evidence that the Kelpians are living a lie, but I'm not sure I agree. Ever since the Star Trek: Short Trek "The Brightest Star" that featured Saru's origin story and depicted one of the Keplian "cullings," I have had the suspicion that instead of dying, the culled Kelpians went through some sort of change and continued life elsewhere. I will be interested to see where Saru goes with his newfound knowledge.
While the rest of Discovery if dealing with the effects of the sphere, Stamets (Anthony Rapp), Tilly, and Jett Reno (Tig Notaro) are trapped in engineering with the fungus that has been possessing Tilly. After a power surge frees the fungus and it attacks Tilly again, both Tilly and the fungus end up in quarantine. While I had eagerly anticipated the meeting of Reno and Tilly, it was actually Reno and Stamets who had a fencing match of a first conversation. Stamets seemed insulted by Reno's irreverence and Reno couldn't stand Stamets's self-righteousness. It was entertaining to watch them have to work together while still trying to get digs in at each other.
Unfortunately, while things were improving elsewhere on the ship, events went from bad to worse in engineering. The possessing fungus got Tilly drunk on hallucinogenic toxins and then Stamets and Reno use a cortical implant to talk to the sentient being inside Tilly's body. Apparently, all the jumping around in the mycelial network that the Discovery was doing actually damaged the habitat of a species called the JohSepp – and they want revenge on Stamets for what happened.
After distracting Reno and Stamets with what looks like a bad acid trip, the fungus attacks and imprisons Tilly. Even after looking inside the fungus cocoon, they were still unable to find the redheaded ensign, who seemingly vanished. From the previews for next week, it appears the angry fungi have taken Tilly through "The Looking Glass" into their home in the mycelial network, and it appears to be a much more dangerous place than one would assume.
In the end, Discovery ends up right where the episode started: an intercept course set for Spock's stolen shuttlecraft – but the crew is now forever changed. Tilly has been kidnapped by a vengeful eukaryote, Saru has lost his fear but also his faith, Burnham has now decided to mend her relationship with Spock despite her fear of causing him additional harm – and while the ship's databanks are packed with 100,000 years worth of knowledge, they have no additional information about the red angel.
We will have to wait until next week to see just what effect the dramatic events of "An Obol for Charon" have had on Discovery's path and its ability to carry out its mission to investigate the red dots. The next episode will be available on CBS All Access on Thursday, February 14, 2019 at 8:30pm EST. In the meantime, I leave you with some additional thoughts about this week's episode:
● Did the sphere is this episode remind anyone else of Ego the Living Planet from Guardians of the Galaxy?
● Notaro is a treasure and should be made a regular cast member immediately.
● Who puts habanero hot sauce on their french fries?
● The scene where Tilly and Stamets sing a song before he takes a drill to her temple is simultaneously heart-breaking and terrifying.
● While Saru's garden of a quarters looks beautiful, his bed looks super uncomfortable.
● "How do I explain to the woman who has fought over and over for the right to take her next breath that I come from a race that submits?" is a perfect Saru line and an beautiful tribute to Burnham's character.
● Where the everloving frack is Spock and when are we going to see him?