I think this week’s episode, “The Wolf Inside,” goes up there as one of the best-written episodes of this season of Star Trek: Discovery. There was so much packed into this episode, from the continuation of the Stamets-Culber relationship, to the introduction of some bada$$ Andorians and Tellarites, to Jason Isaacs losing his American accent through parts of his Lorca lines (which was amusing if you caught it, because it was hard to tell if he was legit forgetting to sound American or still trying to use Lorca’s fake Scottish–“Scotty”, if you will–accent from before). Of course, with a title like “The Wolf Inside,” Tyler was the central character. Well, Tyler and Voq. And of course, where Tyler’s concerned, Michael’s not far behind.
So what do I have to say about this episode when it comes to Michael and Tyler’s relationship? Simply that I’m intrigued by everything that’s happened. I feel like it sounds clinical for me to say “intrigued” when Michael was nearly killed by Tyler-turned-Voq and Michael then did turnabout and nearly killed Tyler!Voq by sending him out into space, just so Discovery Prime could beam him aboard for detention (and to acquire the crucial files Michael hid in Tyler’s pocket). But from a writer’s perspective and from a fan of exciting television, I am highly invested to see where this goes. I also feel like regardless of what happens between Michael and Tyler, I won’t be let down.
I’m sure some are reading this trying to figure out how I can say this, when I’m one of the main people saying black women should have prominent love lives on television without the risk of something detrimental happening. If we go by the bare bones of what’s happening–Michael’s relationship is now put in jeopardy, with all signs pointing to a sacrifice of some sort needing to be made–then it looks like we’re getting the same script, different cast. But honestly, I feel like there’s so much more that’s happening here, and the fact that the writers are pushing each character beyond archetypal boundaries makes this story highly fascinating.
Let me break down exactly what I’m talking about:
This romance is less about Michael’s development and more about Tyler’s
It only occurred to me in this episode that the importance of Michael and Tyler’s relationship doesn’t rely on how this romance affects Michael. This romance is all about how it informs Tyler and forces him to mature.
As I wrote in my SlashFilm recap this week, Tyler is a man whose life is informed by those around him, particularly by women.
“…[W]hile Michael is a tether for Tyler, L’Rell is a tether for Voq. As we know, Voq only started waking up after he was in L’Rell’s presence. What’s interesting is that both Tyler and Voq are both the passive parties in their relationships. I’m not saying either one is less “manly,” as it were; in fact, I find it more endearing that they have the capacity to defer to the women in their lives for guidance. But I will say this: whoever Tyler is at the moment, he’ll have to choose who he wants to be in the future. One future has L’Rell and Klingon domination, the other has Michael and a peaceful Federation of Planets. L’Rell and Michael can’t make this decision for him — he’s going to have to choose.”
This is not to say that there’s something wrong with a man who relies on or defers to women as counsel. On the contrary–a man who can recognize the importance of women has more going for him positively than not. As an uncommon point of comparison, look at how Black Panther‘s T’Challa seems both supported and emboldened by the women in his life. Just looking at the trailers, you can see how T’Challa is empowered by the women in his life.
On the flip side, though Tyler seems unhealthily dependent on those he views are stronger than him to define how he should live and what he should do. It just so happens that many of the people he views as being stronger than him are women. Again, seeing a male character recognize the importance of women is cool and very much-needed in these #MeToo times. But Tyler and Voq also manage to subvert their relationships with women; instead of gaining empowerment from them, they wrongly cast them as personal caretakers; L’Rell and Michael don’t just provide Voq and Tyler with love and support; oftentimes they have to do the emotional and tactical heavy lifting.
To be clear, my point of view doesn’t include how Tyler handles his PTSD; Tyler and Voq’s habit of leeching onto stronger counterparts can be seen in earlier episodes. Looking back on Voq’s interactions with L’Rell, L’Rell would always take charge of Voq’s plans, instructing him on how to get his goals achieved. Voq came to rely on L’Rell not just as a right hand and not just even as a significant other, but as a conduit for his own feelings of independence. Without L’Rell, he’s just a Klingon riddled with self-doubt. To some extent, Voq even latched onto T’Kuvma, and in a way, he’s still takes from T’Kuvma in terms of developing an outward, acceptable identity.
Tyler has done the same thing with Michael. Whereas Michael needed him to tell her the truth about his mental situation, he lied. Instead, he continued his pattern of dependence, mining her for her strength and confidence, just like how Voq did with L’Rell. During the times we see the intimate moments between Michael and Tyler, the emotional interplay exists on two different levels. For Michael, she’s viewing the relationship as a mutually supportive one. On the whole, Tyler views their relationship like this, too. But what Tyler isn’t cognizant of is that he’s also running on a different wavelength than Michael. It’s more evident the more Tyler becomes mentally unstable, but it’s becoming clearer that Tyler doesn’t just rely on Michael as, in his words, a “tether.” He also relies on her to do his emotional dirty work for him. He wants her to determine who he should be. Even in regular, real life relationships, that’s too much for one person to handle.
There is a term for someone who sucks up someone else’s emotional energy: psychic vampire. I don’t think Tyler or even Voq latch onto others in their circle maliciously. Yeah, I know Voq is an actual villain, but when it comes to how he engages in relationships, I don’t think he realizes he leeches onto people.
In real life, most psychic vampires don’t realize they do it. More than likely, most of us have been a psychic vampire at some point in time. It’s surprisingly not that hard. But from my own experience, I’ve found that what drives people (including myself at one point) to psychic vampirism is severe self-doubt and low-to-no self-confidence. That lack of confidence can come from a myriad of things, but what can get people out of that vampiric mindset is to 1) become aware of what they do and who they latch onto when they feel self-doubt, anger and/or fear and how they might selfishly twist relationships to meet their ends and 2) develop new habits that foster more self-confidence and less self-doubt.
Both Tyler and Voq are people who have no self-confidence. They’re people who rely on others to fill the holes where their self-confidence and self-reliance should be. Voq was struggling before because of his state as an outcast within Klingon society, but now, after his transformation and his alter-ego’s PTSD and sexual trauma, Voq/Tyler’s mind is more confused than ever before. But somehow, Tyler has to figure out how to come out of this a whole person. This test that Tyler is now under is one that will not only decide the fate of the Federation, but is also one that will call on Tyler to find that confident place within himself to make his own choices. No one else can save Tyler from this but himself–it’s going to come down to him forcing himself to be defiant in the direction he wants his life to go. He has to realize that his life relies solely on what he wants for himself, not what L’Rell or Michael want for him.
Tyler’s arc is tailor-made for today
With all of that said, I want to make it exceptionally clear that I don’t think Tyler is “weak” or somehow less of a man, especially where women are concerned. Tyler subverts the kind of Captain Kirk bravado we’re accustomed to, and his passivity is something we rarely see in male characters on screen. I do think, though, that he inadvertently misuses the women in his life, and his fallacies make Tyler’s arc extremely important in this #MeToo time, in which we’re all rethinking how we view masculinity, femininity, and the interactions between the two. If we take Voq out of this, Tyler is, for me, the kind of leading man we should see more often. It would do us some good to see a leading man who isn’t always guns blazing, but is one who struggles with feelings of inadequacy, vulnerability, and even the very human fear of weakness. At the same time, we also see a man who doesn’t realize that he doesn’t do the greatest job of taking care of he women in his life emotionally. All of this culminates into a layered story of personal growth.
As Shazad Latif told SyFy’s Swapna Krishna:
“Me and Sonequa, we always wanted to push it. Because you meet Tyler and he’s this guy who’s going through this trauma and we’ve seen that story many times. It’s amazing to explore, but we wanted to see him … With him and Michael Burnham, she’s always very strong. She’s the strong one and she’s the one looking after him, and he’s weak around her and he’s vulnerable around her, in the bedroom, in the hallway.
I wanted to make sure that that was clear because, to show a man’s vulnerability and weakness and show that you can still be a man and vice versa, that Sonequa is a very strong female character — it was very important to us in the scenes that we played that and we showed that. It’s nice to play the inner turmoil and suffering and weakness of the man as well, rather than being this classic sort of rogue action hero. There’s more to it than that.
Because when you first see him, he is playing that, we’re playing that sort of archetype. He’s this guy coming from the ship, he’s getting his job and ‘Aha! He’s a classic American hero,’ but really he’s crumbling, and it’s very beautiful to watch.”
I think Tyler’s current problem of fighting the Klingon within is highly salient to our current discussions about what manhood means and what it should look like. Like Tyler, each man is going to have to figure out what type of man they want to be. They can’t rely on others to convince them to be one way or the other; they’ll have to search within themselves and assess their values and then live by them.
That’s basically all Tyler is doing, but in a much more cosmic way–he’s never had to think about what truly matters to him until now. When he was Klingon, he wanted power to force his kind to bow to him. He wanted to rule the entire universe all so he could be accepted by others. All the while, he’s never accepted himself. Meanwhile, Tyler wants to be human and live by the Federation for Michael–it’s not clear if he, at this point in time, cares about the Federation for any other reason. Seeing Tyler’s journey towards self-acceptance, clarity, and peace is going to be turbulent, for sure, but I also feel it’s going to be highly rewarding.
Michael always rises up above trope
As I’ve written last week, I’ve had some misgivings about where the series is headed after Culber’s death. But after seeing the continuation of the Culber-Stamets storyline, plus Wilson Cruz’s own promise that we haven’t seen the last of their love story, has put me tentatively at ease. Interestingly enough, how the writers are handling Michael’s characterization has also put me at ease with where the series is headed, since I now feel that all of the characters, especially Michael, will get deserving ends to their arcs.
Yes, Michael could be at risk for having a relationship go down the tubes. But at this point, it’s way more fruitful to talk about how the characters are organically evolving rather than keep a tally. As I wrote in my Season 2 finale recap of Into the Badlands for Black Girl Nerds, I discuss how Veil’s death doesn’t preclude that black women can’t die in their shows; what matters is how their characters have organically arrived at such a devastating conclusion. If it isn’t earned, then that’s when the characters fall into trope.
“Let’s take out the racial component for a second because the devil’s advocate rebuttal to Veil’s death would be that Black women characters have just as much of a chance to die as white women characters do. In a democratically-written show, this is very true. However, if we take out the racial component, we’re still left with another woman who had to die for there to be “emotional depth.” Couldn’t there have been emotional depth built with her still living? I understand that the writing team probably wanted this season to be one where Sunny comes face to face with the types of horrors his life of clipping can bring, but there could have been other ways for him to deal with those demons other than Veil dying, right?
…The fridging of Veil reiterates how much of a misstep this is for a show that has been praised for its commitment to telling stories a different way. Throughout two seasons, there hadn’t been an egregious fridging of any woman. If anything, we’ve seen the fridging of a man—Ryder—at the expense of Jade’s emotional growth, a remarkable gender role reversal. But Veil is the first woman to receive this extensive treatment, all to further Sunny’s hero’s journey as well as the building anticipation of reaching Azra. And again, she’s also a woman of color, whereas all of the other women who have been able to survive are white (or, in the case of Baroness Chau, Asian). If we’re going to fridge women, did the only fridged woman have to also be a woman of color? Let’s be equal in our annihilation of female characterization, at the very least.”
The same can be said for black women who end up alone on screen. It all comes down to how they’ve organically arrived to that new chapter in their lives, regardless of any racial or social politics that surround the character. If this were just a case of Voq waking up and saying, “I’m bouncing for L’Rell, bye,” and there was no more exploration of anything, that’d be one thing. But it’s another when 1) Tyler/Voq is in a state of mental and physical duress–he’s a man trapped inside another’s body, and the minds of both Tyler and Voq are at war, with Tyler feeling the effects of PTSD and sexual trauma and 2) both sides of Tyler and Voq love two different people. While Voq relies on L’Rell as his reminder of his Klingon self, Tyler relies on Michael to keep him human. There’s a lot going on here, and the complexities of it save the entire exercise from stereotype.
Overall, I feel like Star Trek: Discovery just might have one of the most explosive episodes ever, and I’m not just talking about space battles. I’ll admit that dramatic changes, such as Culber’s death last week, are scary. They can make viewers and critics like me doubt a show’s direction. Some of that doubt is earned–too often, we’ve seen when big gambles don’t pay off. But it seems like with Discovery, the gambles just might do more than merely “pay off”–they might propel the show towards even greater heights. We’ll have to see how true this prediction is once the season is over.