'Star Trek: Discovery' Review: "Despite Yourself" Is A Shocking, Heartbreaking Return

I don't normally curse in my everyday life, but the first thought that came to my mind after viewing the Star Trek: Discovery's midseason opener was: "Goddamn it!"

I'm usually a human Vulcan, but this time, this Vulcan's about to lose her s***. Here's why. Naturally, major spoilers begin immediately.

despite yourself review 3

Grappling with that shocking death

What in the hell is behind the decision-making to kill off Culber? Look, I realize there's the possibility of me looking back on this recap after the season is over and thinking, "Oh, silly me — it all makes sense now," but unlike the crew of the Discovery, I can't jump to a new reality and unlike Stamets, I can't see the future, so at this point in time, I'm still in the dark, still grabbing at my heart, crying that poor Culber got his neck broken by an unstable Tyler.

The temptation for a lot of us who study representation in TV — and for a lot of fans who are LGBTQ — is to file Culber's death under the "Bury Your Gays" trope. On the surface, that's what this looks like. I recently wrote an article about how fantastic it was that the show hailed their First Couple of Space so proudly. With this episode, it's almost as if we're all being made to look like fools for putting our trust in this show.

However, Wilson Cruz — who plays Culber — wants us to see Culber's death as only a mere bump in the road of Culber and Stamets' relationship. Cruz told Buzzfeed's Adam B. Vary that he cried when he heard his character would die and says that Culber isn't a buried gay character: "I give you my word that this is not what this is. What's being planned is something we haven't really had an opportunity to see LGBT characters experience. I'm really excited about it." Cruz added that his favorite scene he's filmed this season hasn't even aired yet.

As co-showrunner Aaron Harberts — who is also gay — said to Vary: "This is a beginning, rather than an ending. We're more than happy to put our gay couple front and center and let them guide the audience on a story of love and loss and redemption and heroism and grief and life and all of those things." Harberts and fellow showrunner Gretchen J. Berg also ran their storyline by GLAAD, who, through spokesperson Nick Adams, told Buzzfeed that the organization is "mourning...the death of a beloved groundbreaking character [but] death is not always final in the Star Trek universe, and we know the producers plan to continue exploring and telling Stamets and Culber's epic love story."

With all of that said, it's still frustrating and heartbreaking to see Culber killed — and by another likeable character in distress, no less. This is yet another moment when I wish we could just get all of the episodes at once, like other streaming services, so we can quickly understand what this love story will entail. I have my theories, but I'm going to keep them close to the chest right now because as we've learned, this show can be wildly unpredictable.

Now, for the other shocking component to this episode.

despite yourself review 4

We’re in a mirror universe

Our beloved crew is in the Mirror Universe, the same dimension that gave us Goatee Spock and a midriff-bearing Uhura. Thankfully, the women aren't baring midriffs anymore, but they're still just as bloodthirsty. In fact, everyone's bloodthirsty because the Terran Empire is what happens when Trump's presidency runs amok.

It's abundantly clear that the decision to go into the Mirror Universe and play up this alternate world full of xenophobia, racism and hatred is a direct response to Trump's ratcheting up of his horrifying rhetoric. And before anyone decides to write "Why are you injecting politics into this, Monique?" let me answer you with 1) Have you seen Star Trek before? And 2) Did you not hear how thickly Star Trek: Discovery laid on the comparisons and buzzwords? In fact, I'd say they laid it on a little too thickly.

But the show is driving home a point — the Terran Empire (Trump) isn't what the Federation (America) is about. We might be going through a strange, turbulent time and we might not have our direct coordinates yet, but the time we'll spend here is temporary. Just like how the crew of the Discovery has already figured out that another Federation ship has been to this timeline before and somehow made it back, America has weathered other turbulent times and ultimately gets back on course. Throughout all of the insanity this episode had to offer, the buried message was to not lose hope — there's always a way back to peace. Sometimes, you just have to go through some chaos first.

The episode's other message is that sometimes chaos is just what's needed to bring out your true self, for better or worse. I'd say the current American president has definitely revealed folks' true colors, and similarly, the Mirror Universe is showing the crew of the Discovery just who they are when push comes to shove.

On the positive side, Tilly has realized she can be more than just awkward and unsure; she can command a ship and the crew's respect. Despite killing Culber, even Tyler has a bit of a positive revelation in that he'll do whatever he can to protect Michael, the only person he cares about, regardless of what he becomes. Michael has also realized that she can be ruthless and deadly. She's been trying to bury those aspects of herself or, at the very least, use them for good, but in the Mirror Universe, she'll have to confront her shadow self over and over again, and she's not going to come out of this ordeal as the same person. In both the Prime and Mirror Universes, Lorca somehow manages to escape his original ship while the rest of his crew perishes. However, in the Mirror Universe, he's getting mercilessly and repeatedly electrocuted for his crimes. Honor is not afforded Lorca here.

Oh yeah, the other big thing...

despite yourself review 2

Yes, Tyler is Voq – but there’s more to him than that

I'm glad my earlier thoughts about it not really mattering if Voq is Tyler are holding steady. I mean, yes, it does definitely matter that Voq is Tyler, since Tyler now has to fight against himself and is becoming more and more unreliable by the second. But the likelihood Voq is going to make a complete resurgence and tear down the Federation from the inside grows smaller and smaller. Why? Because Tyler will want to obliterate the people who have ruined his life.

The other reason, probably the most important reason, is that Tyler loves Michael and has vowed to protect her regardless of who they become while in the Mirror Universe. More specifically, Tyler has vowed to protect her regardless of who he becomes, since he's not only experiencing mental gaps (he probably doesn't even know he killed Culber), but also coming to grips with the fact that his mind and body aren't even his own.

The use of love as a legitimate force to save the universe has often been looked at as a cheap way to resolve a story. Think of the criticism leveled against Interstellar, which used love as the connective tissue that brought Michael McConaughey back from an alternate dimension and home to his family. Perhaps that movie handled that plotpoint clumsily, but isn't love supposed to be that powerful? Is our dismissal of the power of love in fiction just another byproduct of a broken society? I'm just spitballing here, since it seems like the power of love is what's stopping Tyler from hulking out more than he could.

In any case, Tyler's character doesn't end at him being Voq. He isn't going to happily return to L'Rell's arms. Thankfully, L'Rell finally has a reason to be alarmed, as she's realized something has gone wrong in Tyler's transformation process (you'd think she'd have figured that out by now). But she doesn't even know how scared (and how angry) she's going to be when she realizes Tyler's love for a Federation officer is what will undo the Klingons.