This episode showed a bit more plot movement, but the focus is still on the characters, mainly Hugh Culber. As we saw in the last episode, he had a bit of a moment during Book's therapy session, when he almost admitted that he was dealing with...something. Of course, anyone who has watched the show will know what that is: his death and resurrection in the fungal universe. In this episode, however, he admitted it out loud, in a conversation with David Cronenberg's Dr. Kovich, who is a blunt instrument if I ever saw one. But what Kovich lays out is exactly what's happening: Culber doesn't know why he was the one to come back to life when so many other people don't get that chance, and this has given him both a whopping case of survivor's guilt and a savior complex. He has to help enough people to make his resurrection feel worth it, and as a result is pushing himself to his limit. Kovich notes that Culber needs to allow himself time to rest, or he's not going to help anyone, much less his patients. Stamets says the same thing to Culber later, in a sweet scene between the two in their quarters. Now I like the other two couples on Discovery--Michael and Book, and Adira and Gray (although we haven't really had a chance to explore the latter relationship, which no doubt will change in a big way now that Gray has a body again)--but for my money, Stamets and Culber are the most interesting of the bunch. I'm also very glad that Wilson Cruz is getting more to do, as he's showing what a fine actor he is.
The main storyline of this episode, however, is the anomaly's suddenly manifesting the ability of winking out of one section of space and appearing in another 4.5 seconds later, which leads Stamets, Vance, Michael, Burnham and Saru to the conclusion that this is not a natural phenomenon, but rather an artificial one, created by somebody. (In fact, Admiral Vance goes through a whole list, from the Medusans to the Iconians and other godlike races encounted in the Star Trek universe over the decades--although it's odd that the Organians aren't mentioned. The Q are, but Vance states they haven't had contact with them in six hundred years. I suppose now that Admiral Picard is dead, they've lost interest.) This plot twist seems almost inevitable--if the Dark Matter Anomaly was a purely natural phenomenon, there wouldn't be a helluva lot they could do about it, after all, which would defeat the purpose of Michael Burnham having to save the universe every season. (This is sarcastic but also true.) But now that it's been revealed that the DMA is artificial, everybody in the newly reconstituted Federation is panicking, of course. Which is why Admiral Vance insists, over Stamets' objections, that a brilliant scientist named Ruon Tarka come aboard Discovery to work with Stamets, to discover how the DMA operates and trace it back to the species that created it.
Ruon Tarka is, of course, a royal asshole from the moment he beams onboard Discovery. The first words out of his mouth are: "So this is the USS Discovery. It's like walking onto an antique." He also makes snarky remarks about Saru's feet (which, to be fair, look more like hooves--I don't know how Doug Jones can walk around in those oddly-shaped boots like he does). Saru takes him down to the engine room, where he meets with Stamets and (in a very welcome return, though she doesn't have enough lines) Tig Notaro's Jett Reno, to go over the data from Book's excursion into the anomaly. Tarka is generally being an arrogant little snot, talking over Stamets, but he sells a reluctant Saru on the idea of building a working (if much smaller) model of the DMA and its controller aboard Discovery. Saru finally agrees to this, but as it will pull a great deal of power from Discovery, he insists on having a "kill switch." This turns out to be a very good thing, as Tarka and Stamets push their observations of their model right up to the edge of the cliff, as the containment field power shrinks to nearly zero. Saru finally pushes the kill switch and the model flips out of existence, even as Tarka yells at him. Reno notes, as Tig Notaro gets the last word: "That is the closest you've come to killing us all, and that is really saying something."
One wishes Ruon Tarka would get the "last word" as in beaming off the ship, but I'm afraid he's going to be around for a while. This is shown in the very last scene, where he pops in on Book drinking at the bar. He knows Book is the only other spore drive operator (beside Stamets). Book accuses Tarka of knowing who is behind the DMA. Tarka says he doesn't, but notes the power needed to run it is far beyond even Discovery's capabilities--it would require the energy of a "hypergiant star." "Unfathomable power," he calls it. Well, if this isn't a bit of nasty foreshadowing--especially when he rubs the back of his neck and we see a funky-looking tattoo there.
While this is going on, Discovery has to evacuate the population of an asteroid belt the anomaly is bearing down on. This is Radvek V, a former Emerald Chain colony. When they get there, the population is ready to go, but Saru notes from scans that there are six individuals not moving to the transfer point. The Radvek V magistrate says these are the "Examples," prisoners the colony is apparently going to abandon to their fate. Burnham immediately objects to this and she and Book beam to the prison to release them. After dealing with a barrage of creepy "beetle bombs"--a wave of artificial insects outside the prison that are "mobile land mines," Michael succeeds in shutting them down and they make it into the prison. (The banter between Burnham and Book in these scenes showcases the actors' chemistry, and interjects a bit of levity into the tense situation.) Once inside, they have to release the six prisoners and get them away before the distortion from the anomaly's arrival precludes anyone else beaming out. The prisoners are naturally skeptical about this and the man who seems to be their leader, Felix, demands a guarantee that "they will not be returned to this unjust society." (He explains that the people there were confined to the prison for decades for relatively minor offenses, to scare everyone else into obeying.) Michael finds a Starfleet regulation that allows her, as a captain, to grant the prisoners political asylum and a review of their sentences, and they finally agree to come with her. Unfortunately, a backup force field blocks their escape, and Book comes up with the idea of summoning all the "beetle bombs" to rush the prison and break through it. This works, and five of the group are beamed aboard Discovery.
But at the last minute, Felix refuses to go, and explains why: of the six "examples," he is the only one who deserved to be there, as thirty years ago he took a life. Michael and Book try to talk him into going with them, but he says "he resolved to die here a long time ago." Book objects quite strongly--after losing his planet and people, he can't bear to leave anyone behind, but Michael says they can't force Felix to come. She gives him a communicator as they leave, and Felix presses a small ball into her hand--a "lalogi orb," belonging to the family of the person he killed.
Burnham and Book return to Discovery, only to find that the approaching anomaly will indeed destroy the asteroid. Burnham talks to Felix as long as she can, until comms are lost and the asteroid is destroyed. Then, with the computer/combination sphere data Zora's help (the computer has chosen a name and is getting more of a personality, and admits that it has developed emotions), she tracks down the surviving family member and returns the orb to her.
I don't think this was quite as good as the second episode, "Anomaly," but I'm still enjoying the slower pace and greater focus on the characters and relationships. And again, another shoutout to Wilson Cruz, who is doing stellar work this season. (But more of Jett Reno, please?)