The romance between Ash Tyler and Michael Burnham came to an end on last week’s of Star Trek: Discovery, “The War Without, The War Within.” After returning from the Mirror Universe, Burnham avoids seeing the newly wakened and (supposedly Voq-less) Ash Tyler. She adamantly refuses when Saru asks her to meet with him in the hopes her presence will speed along his healing process, and it’s not until Tilly makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the former pilot that Burnham consents to see him. When she does, it’s only to communicate that she is ending their relationship because despite the fact that he’s no longer a sleeper agent, she can’t escape the fact that he lied to her about his mental state and something wearing his face tried to kill her.
Tyler dismisses her fears and demands she admit what’s really going on — the relationship hit a rough patch and she’s running the minute things get hard. Burnham’s shocked that he would minimize the effect his attack had on her, and his attitude only makes her double-down on her assertion that they can’t be together at this time, possibly ever again.
Sonequa Martin-Green and Shazad Latif executed the scene with more of the flawless work we’ve come to expect from them, deftly embodying the complexities of one of Star Trek’s most unique relationships. We can’t deny the depth of feeling between these two, but equally prevalent is Tyler’s desperation and fragility alongside Burnham’s need for stability and safety in a perilous time and the undeniable fact that she will not find either of those with him. Romance on Trek is rarely this multifaceted or trenchant, but the real accomplishment here is the revelation that this entire relationship was actually a low-key metaphor for domestic abuse.
Before you go any further, we’re not saying that Ash Tyler is actually abusive. His attack on Burnham during their time aboard the I.S.S. Shenzou was 100% a result of the mind and body altering practices he underwent at the hands of the Klingons, as established on the show. The only valid excuse for laying hands on your S.O. is that the fanatical Klingon sleeping inside your brain took the wheel. Voq attacked Burnham, not Ash Tyler. But specifics aside, this is an almost textbook progression of an abusive relationship.
Pop culture is home to endless stories of women seduced by charming, charismatic men who expertly cultivate emotional dependence, at which point, physical and emotional abuse can thrive and often does. They do this initially by engaging in a dogged pursuit of their partners, followed by intense declarations of love and attraction, putting the other person on a pedestal early on. But that is, of course, just one side of the coin. After love bombing comes isolation from family and friends, followed by actual abusive behavior committed against a person who is now inextricably tied to the abuser emotionally, socially and often practically.
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