Three weeks have passed since the crew of the USS Discovery made their triumphant homecoming, seating them firmly in the 32nd century. The ship has undergone a massive retrofit, including systems and equipment upgrades across the board. Captain Saru (Doug Jones) reports as such at a meeting with an assembly of captains as Admiral Vance (Oded Fehr) leads the discussion.
During the meeting, we discover (heh) just how fragile and spread thin Starfleet and the Federation have become. Vance rattles off fires to put out, like food shortages and solar shielding. Saru offers to help, but while Vance appreciates the gesture, he insists that DISCO stay put in the event a rapid response is needed. The assembled captains are staggered by the mention of DISCO’s spore drive, and Vance swears them all to silence. He moves on to describe a potential crisis on the planet Argeth, where the alpha quadrant’s branch of the Andorian/Orion syndicate, known as the Emerald Chain, has an established presence. While unclear about the nature of this presence, Vance seems determined not to let them succeed. He orders DISCO to remain on standby, in the event the Federation will need to intervene.
Meanwhile on DISCO, the bridge crew has fun learning the ins and outs of their new updated tech from Lt. Willa (Vanessa Jackson). The lesson features new comm badges that also function as holographic tricorders and personal transporters. Willa goes on to explain that while their station interfaces have been retrofitted to incorporate user-adapting programmable matter, the consoles themselves remain the same to enable a smooth transition. Most of the group is thrilled, but Lt. Detmer (Emily Coutts) is a bit reluctant to get excited about the upgrades. Lt. Owosekun (Oyin Oladejo) is particularly enamored by the feel of their new interfaces, until Linus (David Benjamin Tomlinson) interrupts by accidentally appearing in the captain’s chair instead of the mess hall.
As they’re settling in, Lt. Bryce (Ronnie Row, Jr.) receives a transmission from an incoming ship, baffling Willa as HQ coordinates are supposed to be a secret. Lt. Nilsson (Sara Mitich) orders the message on screen, and we’re graced with an appearance from Her Galactic Majesty, Queen Grudge, first of her name. Lt. Tilly (Mary Wiseman) alone recognizes the cat, earning her bewildered stares from the rest of the bridge crew.
In the ready room, Saru and Cmmdr. Michael Burhnam (Sonequa Martin-Green) review an automated message from Book (David Ajala), stating that he followed a lead for an elusive black box that had survived the Burn. He goes on to note that he’s programmed the ship (and Grudge) to find Burnham if he didn’t return. Burnham explains the significance of the black box and its usefulness in determining the origin of the Burn, insisting that they track down Book. Saru insists that they follow orders and stay put in case they’re needed to jump to Argeth. Burnham acquiesces, but we can tell almost instantly that she has no intention of following those orders.
She enlists Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) to join her in the rescue. Subversive as ever, Georgiou reminds Burnham how much she’s jeopardizing Saru and their newfound acceptance in Starfleet by running off on an unsanctioned mission. Burnham holds her ground because clearly she’s learned nothing from the consequences of her mutiny in season one.
On the bridge of Book’s ship, Burnham and Georgiou develop a plan to recover him and the black box from Hunhau. Georgiou makes sure to give Burnham a hard time about her relationship with Book, especially when Burnham reveals that she’s re-engineered the tracker he uses to find Grudge to locate him instead. Georgiou has abrupt flashbacks of her lamenting over a bloodied body, but quickly collects herself as Burnham confronts her about it.
They arrive at Hunhau amidst orbital debris, leftover from ships destroyed by the Burn. As Burnham tries to locate Book on the surface, they’re hailed by an Orion named Tolor (Ian Lake) who appears on the holo-emitters. Georgiou sends Burnham to grab their gear and promptly gets to work destroying this guy, berating him for making her wait while she has real dilithium to trade for parts. He agrees to allow them to beam down, and Burnham chastises her tone.
On the surface, Georgiou continues to bully Tolor, providing a strong enough distraction for Burnham to scan for Book’s lifesigns. They locate him in a brutal labor camp as he’s commiserating with a disenfranchised and antennae-less Andorian named Ryn (Noah Averbach-Katz). Before they can formulate a rescue plan, a Bajoran worker gets caught stealing a water ration, pulling Tolor’s focus to the commotion. He makes an example out of the Bajoran by sending him running towards the electrified perimeter, demonstrating just how dire the straits actually are.
Meanwhile on DISCO, we find Adira (Blu del Barrio) in engineering, tinkering away in the ship’s innards while the ghost (Soul? Hallucination? Astral-projection?) of her late boyfriend Grey (Ian Alexander) scolds her for working instead of exploring the ship. Lt. Stamets (Anthony Rapp) finds her sitting there, but Linus still hasn’t gotten the hang of his new badge and interrupts them before he can question what she’s doing. Adira abruptly changes the subject, informing him that she’s upgraded his spore drive interface with nanogel for a seamless and considerably less obtrusive connection.
Back in the labor camp, Georgiou buys Burnham more time to connect with Book. Once alone, they share an embrace before he reveals the difficult nature of an escape. He confirms that he has the black box, telling her where she can find it so she can get out of dodge. When she refuses to abandon him, he tells her about Ryn’s attempt to rally the workers against the Emerald Chain despite the privilege of familial ties. Burnham remains firm, discreetly asking Georgiou for more time. A nearby explosion distracts Tolor and the guards, and he places a droid on Burnham and Georgiou while they plot their next move.
On DISCO, Tilly displays just how much she’s grown as a command ensign as she delegates tasks to a team of engineers. Saru pulls her away, asking if she knows where Burnham has gone. Saru is understandably concerned that Burnham has reverted to her old ways, and Tilly implores him to tell Admiral Vance before he learns about the insubordination from anyone else.
Burnham and Georgiou manage to destroy the drone and assemble a crude weapon just before they are caught and captured by Tolor’s guards. It’s enough time for Ryn to grab the black box and inform the other laborers of the escape. When Ryn confesses his fear of causing more trouble, Book reassures him, pointing out the fact that he’s already demonstrated his ability to do exactly that by standing up to the Emerald Chain.
In Vance’s office, Saru breaks the difficult news that Burnham has disobeyed his orders to stay put. He goes on to assure the admiral that DISCO and her crew are ready to go, despite the absence of their first officer. Vance is visibly annoyed, but seems appreciative of Saru’s honesty, stating that the situation on Argeth is escalating past good old fashioned diplomacy.
Tolor drags the captured Burnham and Georgiou back to Book’s ship, demanding the dilithium they’d promised on arrival. Just as things heat up, Book rallies the laborers for the escape attempt, rushing to the rendezvous point to be rescued. A fight breaks out on the ship, and Burnham and Georgiou nearly handle the guards as the emperor is hit with more flashbacks, this round more debilitating than before. Georgiou gets it together in just enough time to save Burnham from Tolor and disables the perimeter security.
As the laborers make a break for it, Ryn pushes Book out of the way of weapons fire, catching a phaser hit to the chest. Book drags him to safety, and just as things are looking grim, Burnham and Georgiou swoop in and lay down suppressive fire, buying the laborers enough time to make it to their transport. Burnham beams Book and Ryn aboard, and Georgiou takes it upon herself to shoot down the Orion ships before making a break for it, neutralizing what may have been a critical link in the Emerald Chain.
En route back to Federation headquarters, Burnham finally confronts Georgiou about her inconvenient and impromptu bouts of disassociation. Realizing that Georgiou doesn’t know the cause of the problem, Burnham implores her to seek help. Of course, she refuses and deflects, citing her distrust of Burnham’s in the wake of whatever Terran Burnham did to her. Burnham decides to leave it alone, but Georgiou is clearly rattled.
In DISCO’s mess hall, Stamets finds Adira eating alone, seemingly talking to herself. When asked about it, Adira reluctantly admits that she’s actually talking to Gray, despite how impossible it sounds. Stamets reassures her that she’s in a safe place, explaining that he too has held on to someone he’d lost. Grey is thrilled that Adira has finally made a friend, encouraging her to spend time living life. Relaxing considerably, Adira offers to remove the interface stints from his forearms.
Back in uniform, Burnham meets Book in sick bay, worried about Ryn’s condition. After assuring her that his friend will recover, Book accompanies Burnham on her way to debrief Saru and Admiral Vance on her unsanctioned mission. They share a tender moment in the turbo lift that Linus nearly ruins with yet another attempt to master his new personal transporter, but Book doesn’t miss a beat. Their kiss has clearly been a long time coming, and serves to soften the blow that Burnham is about to receive.
Speaking of tender moments, Stamets tells Dr. Culber (Wilson Cruz) about his conversation with Adira, in their quarters as they’re getting ready for bed. Stamets is a bit wary of mentoring a teen genius, but is more taken aback by the idea of finding someone who’s held onto a partner after they’ve died. Culber commends him on bonding with her, encouraging him to continue to develop that connection.
In Vance’s office, however, the tone is considerably more somber. The admiral lays into Saru for not being more forthright about the nature of Burnham’s rogue mission, stating that he might have been okay with it had he known what was at stake. He then turns to Burnham and provides her an opportunity to take responsibility for her actions. She’s understandably rattled, that famous bravada wilting as Vance reads her to filth, stating that the only reason why she wasn’t thrown into the brig was because of the lives she saved in the process. Asking to speak freely, Burnham gently insists that the Federation cannot heal from the Burn without being able to understand how it happened. Mildly satisfied by that, Vance leaves Burnham’s punishment to Saru.
With more pain than anger, Saru reprimands Burnham and her refusal to follow orders yet again. Noting that his trust in her has been tarnished by her actions, Saru demotes her from first officer, assigning her the position of chief science officer instead. Burnham attempts to comfort him, telling him that she agrees with his decision. He leaves her to consider her actions, and as we see her wrestle with the weight of what she’s done, Burnham takes off her badge.
This episode provides a lot of answers, but also poses many important questions: Has Linus figured out his transporter yet? What exactly happened to Georgiou? Will Saru appoint Tilly as first officer? Is Vance hiding something about the Burn? Will Burnham ever follow orders, or is this level of insubordination precisely what Starfleet needs?