This episode is the second in a row to take a break from the Anomaly (though it's mentioned, along with the note that "Stamets won't let himself slow down, even for a second. He wants to solve this for all of us") to concentrate on the characters. In this case, Tilly comes to a realization about her future, Book continues to work through his grief, and Saru helps solve a diplomatic crisis and engages in some sly flirtation with Ni'Var President T'Rina. I'm sure we'll get back to slam-bang Anomaly pew-pew eventually, but I am enjoying this breather.
We open with Burnham's Captain's Log:
"It's been a week since my mission with the Qowat Milat. Since then we've stayed in orbit over Ni'Var, working with the Ni'Var Science Institute and the Federation Task Force that's tracking and studying the DMA. No other inhabited worlds have been threatened yet, but of course that can change at any moment. Ni'Var has fast-tracked negotiations to rejoin the Federation. I haven't yet heard how they're going. We're all living with uncertainty. Even for a crew as familiar with the unknown as this one, the stress is taking its toll. I'm following Dr. Culber's advice, mandating downtime to help with their psychological and emotional well-being. But Stamets won't let himself slow down, even for a second. He wants to solve this for all of us, especially Book.
"Book. Even though the mind-meld with T'Rina helped at the time, the peace he felt has been fleeting. I've encouraged him to talk to Dr. Culber, but I feel him pulling into himself. A natural response to grief, crisis, all of this. But he can't do this alone. None of us can."
Book does in fact talk to Dr. Culber, as does Tilly. I'm really liking the additional role of ship's counselor they've given to Wilson Cruz this season, and he's doing some great work with it. In Book's sessions, he talks about what he calls a "standing funeral," a custom in his family when a family member died. He also has Book re-create one of his Kwejian healing rituals with programmable matter, and when Book objects, saying, "How long am I supposed to do it?" Culber replies simply, "A long-ass time." Culber may have more or less browbeaten Book into the ritual, but as it continues we can see it's having a calming effect. Culber also admits he needs to do something similar (well, I suppose dying and being brought back to life in a fungal universe will do that to you).
Tilly's session starts with statements she's made before, talking about "breaking out of her comfort zone" and saying "I feel like I really need to challenge myself." Culber says that Dr. Kovich came to him "looking for a Discovery crew member to lead some cadets in a team-building exercise" and suggests Tilly take this on. He also asks that she take Adira with her. (This leads to a brief scene with Adira and Gray, where we see that Gray's hair has grown awfully damn fast in a week. Maybe synth bodies can do that?)
This, of course, leads to a somewhat cliche Trek trope: the Training Mission Gone Awry scenario. In this case, Tilly's group's shuttle crash-lands on a moon it wasn't supposed to go to, leading to encounters with monsters, stark choices, and a band of young untested cadets learning to overcome their prejudices and work together. (There's also the completely unnecessary death of one of the cadets. Sorry, but the situation itself generated more than enough tension. They didn't need to redshirt this poor guy.) But we see Tilly also learning, standing up and taking charge and teaching the cadets what being at Starfleet Academy means. Finally, when they're all rescued and back at Federation HQ, Kovich approaches Tilly and offers her a teaching position at Starfleet Academy. This segues into a lovely scene between Tilly and Burnham in Tilly's quarters, where the two of them reminisce about when they first met and roomed together, with Tilly saying she was afraid the mutineer would stab her in her sleep and Burnham admitting the first few nights she asked the computer to white-noise the sound of Tilly's snoring. Then Tilly admits what has been bothering her since the season's beginning: when she received her lieutenant's pips, she realized that joining Starfleet and putting herself on the command track was more her mother's plan for her life than her own. But her mother is 900 years in the past and will never see her daughter wear those pips. Tilly asks a rhetorical question: "Was this what I really wanted, or did I really want to be seen?" She thinks her experiences might not be good for the command track, but would be good for a teacher, and tells Michael she's going to take Kovich's offer.
(I saw a Mary Wiseman interview saying she was told by the writers that Tilly will return later in the season, so hopefully we haven't seen the last of her.)
Meanwhile, Saru and Burnham have to tackle rescuing the Federation/Ni'Var negotiations. They're abruptly summoned to watch by President Rillek, and Ni'Var Presidnent T'Rina drops an unexpected bomb: Ni'Var wants an "exit clause" written into the agreement, granting her planet the ability to leave at any time. They're insisting on it because "in the past, the Federation had grown so disconnected from its members that it was unable to consider their individual needs." Rillek says this is unacceptable and the two are quickly at loggerheads. Rillek calls for a recess. Saru goes to talk to T'Rina while Burnham tries to convince Rillek to compromise. She says she can't, and adds with a meaningful look: "Listen to me well. My hands are tied. With no other options, it would seem we are done here."
When Saru comes back, Burnham says: "I think President Rillek wants us to find a solution to this mess."
Saru: "I felt something similar from President T'Rina."
So back Saru goes to T'Rina, who at first asks: "Is trust of another's commitment to a shared goal enough, despite the scars of history?" She finally admits she's being held hostage by a Ni'Varian faction called the Vulcan Purists, whose support she needs and who are insisting on the exit clause. Saru takes this information in, and then they have what can only be described as a bit of subtle, restrained but obvious flirtation, as T'Rina shows him a meditation technique taught to Vulcan children.
Burnham, for her part, calls Rillek and says she knows the Federation President cannot present a compromise for fear of appearing weak, but can listen to a compromise presented by someone else. So that's what Saru and Burnham do: they call everybody back together and "propose a committee, independent of Federation leadership, to conduct regular reviews with all the member worlds, not just Ni'Var." Then, of course, because Sonequa Martin-Green is the star of this show and Burnham doesn't have enough to do being Discovery's captain: "If you would allow me to serve on this committee. I am a citizen of Ni'Var, trained in logic, witness to your history, and I am an officer in Starfleet, captain of a starship and citizen of the Federation. I will be the bridge between you until you no longer require it."
(I suppose this does make some sense story-wise, but I honestly don't know how she's going to find the time for all this. Unless they give Saru back the captain's chair, which I wouldn't mind anyway.)
After the agreement is signed and sealed, Burnham pins Rillek down on her little subterfuge, and the Federation President admits she knew T'Rina's demand was coming: the Ni'Var President had tipped her off the night before. Burnham notes that "transparency isn't always possible in your position. But it is what I need to best serve you and the Federation. So, if you could be more forthcoming in the future, I would appreciate that as well."
This episode showed some nice character work for Adira, Culber and Tilly, and even the poor hapless cadets were given a few moments. I guess the only complaint I have about this is NO BRIDGE CREW DAMMIT, which is a soapbox I'm not going to step down from.