Star Trek: Discovery Episode 14 Review — The War Without, The War Within

The season's penultimate episode is Discovery's best yet, a reminder of what this show is capable of when it slows down.

This Star Trek: Discovery review contains spoilers.

Star Trek: Discovery Episode 14

As much fun as the Mirrorverse was, it never felt like the story Discovery set out to tell. Now that the show is back in the Prime universe, the show is back to exploring what kind of Federation this alliance of species aims to be. It’s never been better in this second half of the season than in “The War Without, The War Within,” an episode that sees our heroes not shooting at something with the purpose of harming it, but shooting at something with the purpose of giving it life.

The stakes are high upon Discovery’s return to their own universe. With Terran Georgiou whispering in the ears of the Federation’s senior leaders, the soul of the Federation itself is in jeopardy. Of course, it’s not just the soul of the Federation that’s in danger. When Admiral Cornwell and Sarek beam onto Discovery, the crew quickly learns about the dire status of the Federation. The Klingons have killed hundreds of thousands of people under Federation protection in their bid to prove themselves the dominant house. 

While Starfleet may be struggling, Cornwell has proven herself a competent leader. For a season that has seen arguably seen an overrepresentation of narcissistic leaders bent on dominance, it’s nice to see another leader like Saru in Cornwell: a measured, empathetic sort who is affected by loss of life and who leans on her crew rather than manipulates them (well, until that final, controversial twist…)

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Cornwell bursts back onto the scene by blowing Lorca’s bowl of fortune cookies to smithereens and talking to L’Rell like an equal, just as Saru did. “What are you looking for? …  How does this war end?” Cornwell asks the Klingon, attempting to understand her in an attempt to enact some real change in this brutal war. It works. L’Rell tells Cornwell what she needs to know: the Klingons will never stop, unless they are conquered by the Federation.

Emperor Georgiou gives Michael similar advice: attack Qo’noS, the Klingon homeworld. This will force the Klingons to abandon their attacks and flee home. But Star Trek missions are nothing if they don’t involve some kind of elaborate, science-based plan—and oh how I’ve missed that traditional component of the franchise.

“If ever there was a time to go wild,” Stamets says, and he’s not kidding. The Discovery plans to jump not to Qo’noS, but into Qo’noS—or, more accurately, into the subterranean caves that lie just under the surface. From there, the Discovery can map the locations of the Klingon weaponry and defenses: the key to their attack’s success.

To do so, they will first need to create a new colony of spores. Stamets plans to do so by terraforming a moon with his last remaining spore from the mycelial network. In what feels like a course correct for this show, the episode spends a fair amount of time (and visual effects money) reveling in this scene of scientific success. This isn’t a victory in battle, it is the creation of new life and, after a season of torture, cannibalism, and murder, boy did I need this. Judging by the looks of the crew as they watch the roots find a new home in the moon, so did these characters.

The success, along with some heart-to-hearts with Sarek and Tilly, encourage Michael to go talk to Tyler, who has woken up from his experimental surgery to seemingly become Tyler again. Only Tyler. Of course just because Saru has ill-advisedly given Tyler the freedom to walk around the Discovery, doesn’t mean Michael is ready to go back to how things were before Tyler snapped Hugh’s neck and tried to kill Michael herself. Sure, that may have been Voq, but it was Tyler who promised he would confide in Michael if he got in over his head. He decidedly did not, breaking that bond of trust.

Ash begs to be given another chance by Michael, but Michael can’t do it. When she looks at Tyler now, she sees the man who tried to kill her. Her head may know it was Voq, but that doesn’t stop how she feels. That’s not how trauma works.

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Poor, confused, struggling Tyler has his own misconceptions about trauma. Ash tells Michael he can’t work through his trauma without Michael, but Michael knows better. Ash can’t put his mental health on anyone else. He will need support, but he is the one who has to do the work; who has to want to do the work. Michael can’t save him—even if she wanted to. He has to save himself.

In a scene that speaks of trauma and character development in a way this show has not often made time for, Michael speaks of the own work she’s done to work through her experiences at the Battle at Binary Stars, her part in starting the war, and her betrayal of Georgiou. 

“I had to work through it. I had to crawl my way back. I’m still not there, but I’m trying. That kind of work, reclaiming life, it’s punishing. And it’s relentless. And it’s solitary.” She tells Ash how hard it is letting him go, but does give him her empathy and her hope. “We created something beautiful today in a desolate wasteland that had never seen life,” Michael tells Ash. If the Discovery can do that, anything is possible.

This beautiful scene between Ash and Michael may seem somewhat disconnected from the main plot, but it isn’t. Not really. “There is also grace [in loving someone],” Sarek tells Michael, “because what other source of peace exists than our ability to love our enemy?” Something tells me the work Michael has done since Binary Stars and the empathy she continues to value despite all of the pain she has been through will be vital in next week’s season finale.

While Sarek speaks of the unknowable things we can do in the service of protecting who and what we love, Michael knows how important the work of self-reflection and accountability is. She’s been made to understand, from the compassion and patience of mothers like Georgiou and Amanda, that failure isn’t a weakness; it’s the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. The Emperor tells Michael that her regret is a mistake, but it’s not. It’s a guidepost reminding her of who she used to be and how far she’s come.

This humility is the major difference between Mirrorverse Michael and Prime Michael, one that the Emperor and Sarek don’t think to discuss in their ward-off. “I started this war and I need to finish it,” Michael tells the Emperor, a statement the Emperor (who, as Tilly waxes on theme about elsewhere in the episode, is a product of her environment) might read as ambition or pride or the quest for power. But it’s not that at all. It’s regret—regret that Michael played a part in destroying something beautiful, and hope that she can create that beauty, that peace, again out of the desolate wasteland that is the Federation’s current situation with the Klingon.

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That Herculean task is further complicated by the fact that Sarek and Cornwell have given the keys of the Discovery over to Emperor Georgiou, a woman who eats Sarus and, just five minutes ago, was ruling a brutal, totalitarian empire. It’s a major logic fail that anyone would let the Emperor hang out in quarters more or less unguarded, nevertheless give her command of an entire ship whose crew apparently think she is their kind, beloved mentor, miraculously returned from the dead.

It looks like it will be on Michael and Saru to keep the Emperor in check, a task that will no doubt be more difficult by the fact that Michael has already mutineed a Georgiou before. I’m not sure why Cornwell wouldn’t tell the rest of the crew who Georgiou truly is—lying to your crew about something like this is some Lorca-level bullshit—but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what their master plan is.

From the sounds of the conversation between Sarek and the Emperor, the latter knows something the Federation needs to defeat the Klingons on Qu’noS. She also, no doubt, has her own agenda, something anyone who two eyes can see in the final scene, which sees Michelle Yeoh gloriously playing the Emperor-masquerading-as-Georgiou with a cat-about-to-catch-the-mouse grin.

Buckle up, Disco-ers. With only one episode left and a Klingon homeworld to invade, things are about to get bumpy—but, I have to say, I’m finally starting to enjoy the ride. All it took was for the show to slow down a little, check in with these characters, and give us some themes worthy of this franchise.

Additional thoughts.

After a trip to the Mirrorverse, a secret Klingon reveal, and some light time travel, Michael Burnham is right back where she started: under Georgiou’s command, about to face off against the Klingons. The more things change, amirite?

Sarek doesn’t ask for consent when initiating the mind meld? Rude.

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It’s unclear how a fractured Klingon empire managed to cripple a united Federation so quickly. Nor how, ten years later in TOS, the Federation seems to be doing so well. It seems like the season finale will have to include some kind of timey-wimey reset.

Stamets’ bored/exasperated face during the Starfleet debrief meeting gave me life.

“Yesterday, we dined on the entrails of his brethren…” Icksnay on the annibalismcay, Emperor. 

“The resemblance is remarkable,” said everyone to and about the Emperor. You really need to stop tipping your hand so hard, Discovery.

The Stamets/Tyler scene was tough to watch. Please tell me someone warned Stamets that Tyler was out walking the halls.

“You don’t have to do this. I’m OK.” “How could that possibly be true?” Tilly knows what’s up.

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Discovery seems to be backtracking a bit on the Voq thing, which I am totally OK with.

Tyler is neither/both human and Klingon, says the new doctor. He’s Klingman!

Speaking of the fortune cookies, what happened to Lorca’s Tribble? You’d think that thing could have let out a helpful squawk when Voq/Tyler walked by.

“Come on, kiddos.” Stamets, to his spores.

“Do not regret loving someone, Michael.” Sarek, finally acting like a dad.

What will Tilly name the moon? Stamets said she would get to if the spore mission succeeded.

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“Does that make me naive?” “It makes you optimistic.” Now that’s more like it, Disco.