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'An Obol for Charon' puts Saru front and center on Star Trek: Discovery

By Swapna Krishna

It should go without saying, as this is a recap, but this article contains spoilers for the fourth episode of Star Trek: Discovery's second season.

This episode of Star Trek: Discovery left me reeling, and it’s taken me a while to collect myself enough to recap it. There were two losses this week, but neither was really the one I was steeling myself for during the bulk of the episode. Let’s get right into it.

The episode opened with the introduction of Rebecca Romijn as Number One, and while she’s only in “An Obol for Charon” for a few short minutes, she certainly left an impression.

First of all, she ordered a cheeseburger. I know that shouldn’t feel so novel, and yet. She didn’t order a salad, nor did she speak of her meal as an indulgence that needed an excuse. She just ... wanted a cheeseburger. So she ordered one. It was a small moment, but one I absolutely loved.

I hope we see more of Romijn in the future; for now, she’s off to continue overseeing repairs of the Enterprise, but she left Handsome Dad with a tantalizing clue: the warp trail of Spock’s shuttle. While we haven’t met most of the Enterprise crew members, it’s lovely to see that the sense of family aboard the ship is as fierce as it’s become aboard Discovery. Number One isn’t about to give up on Spock either.

Burnham is clearly not feeling buoyed by her talk with Amanda in the last episode; in fact, Amanda apparently told her that she didn’t need to insert herself into Spock’s life right now — a harsh assessment. The question is, was it a fair one? Amanda is functionally protecting one of her children from the other, but does it matter that one of them is her biological child? Is that influencing her decision? Or is it that Spock is vulnerable right now and needs her protection?

My instinct is the latter. After all, the way we left Amanda in the last episode, she gave Michael a kiss before determining she would find Spock on her own. The implication of that is that she didn’t believe this was Michael’s fight or her concern. Michael apparently agrees with that, but Handsome Dad doesn’t.

Before the Discovery can catch up with Spock’s shuttle, though, they’re caught by a giant space entity sphere that mucks up the universal translator, forcing everyone to rely on Saru (who speaks like a bajillion — or 90 — Earth languages) to fix the situation. But the sphere’s virus continues to wreak havoc on the ship, and that spells disaster for one of the crew.

I was thrilled to see that Jet Reno (played so well by Tig Notaro) is still aboard the ship and got to go toe to toe with our resident misanthrope, Lt. Stamets. But it’s Tilly we have to focus on, as “May” continues to prey on her. I love the mentor/mentee relationship that’s developed between Stamets and Tilly. While Stamets is a bit cynical with every other member of the crew, he reserves his earnestness for Sylvia, knowing how much she needs to see it and know that hers is appreciated. The way he comforted her — and sang with her (I still want my musical episode, Discovery!) — made me a little weepy. (Let’s not talk about him actually drilling into her head, lord, oh no thank you not today sir.)

We discovered that May is actually a life form that lives in the mycelial network, and Stamets’ jumps in and out of it have hurt them. She’s intent on revenge, and she’s going to enact it through Tilly. Stamets pleads with her to let Tilly go, but it’s no use — Tilly is gone, presumably sucked into the mycelial network. And it’s not a huge leap (pun intended) to figure that Stamets is intent on going after her (and hey, maybe he’ll find Hugh along the way).

I’m still not ready to talk about Saru, but here it is: I hope Discovery submits this episode for a supporting actor Emmy for Doug Jones. I’ve been wanting to focus on Saru for a while in these recaps, but there’s always a fancier or more urgent storyline to discuss. But that doesn’t make Saru’s role any less crucial in this show. He’s the calm, focused, capable officer and leader we can fall back on, the man we can trust. In some ways, Doug Jones the actor mirrors the character he plays: He might not be the flashiest actor there is, but he’s so incredibly good at what he does it’s hard to forget him. Even when his role in an episode is small, he leaves a lasting impact.

This episode made me fear that I’d be writing an obituary for Saru; after all, the writers haven’t been merciful when it comes to killing off beloved characters. I kept pausing the final scenes to wipe away tears. I imagined the hole Jones and Saru might leave behind, and I couldn’t fathom it. He is, in many ways, the heart of the show. Saru’s instincts may be to operate based on fear, but he’s learned to be a part of a family and come from a place of love.

“An Obol for Charon” really brought home how vital Saru is to this narrative. When he said “Death is inevitable,” I kept waiting for one of those typical last-minute Star Trek saves and realizing with increasing dread that it wasn’t going to come. The moments between Michael and Saru, as she also realizes what he means to him, were some of the best character moments on the show. Period. I’m so glad the writers gave us time for that.

Especially because, in the end, Saru didn’t die. Instead, he became someone entirely new — still Saru, still a Kelpien, and yet not. This is what I referred to when I discussed two character losses: Tilly and Saru.

Saru might have survived, but he’s wholly changed by the experience. And he’s questioning everything he knows about himself, his people, and the lives they have led for centuries: The central organizing truth of their lives, that this process results in death and they must submit, is a lie. And now Saru must break a promise he made to Captain Georgiou, that he would not interfere in the natural development of his own species, to tell them of this.

What will this new Saru be like, without fear? Or at least, without the oppressive weight of a fear that seeks to control and dominate you? I hope the writers will take us on this journey with Saru and we’ll get to see Jones grapple with what this means for the character. Because there certainly is freedom in that, but there was also comfort in fear. It was the warm blanket of familiarity he could wrap himself up in, wholly recognizable if unpleasant. This is different, and it comes with a brand-new burden on behalf of all Kelpiens. There are all new questions, and perhaps, all new despair.

Saru has so much shame for what his race is, a prey species. “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?” he asked Michael. (Yes, I wept at this.) But in the end, the answer to their predicament comes with submitting — with allowing the sphere to communicate its final knowledge, and then die. And one of the things it sends along? Spock’s shuttle trail. The episode comes a full circle, leaving the course of the ship Discovery the same but its inhabitants shaken and changed. And the audience along with them.