This undercurrent added some intriguing tension to many of the season’s early episodes, as Michael discovers that, on some level, she enjoys living without the institutional guardrails and daily regulations of life as an officer on a starship. Maybe her dream was never to run around the galaxy with Book and his giant cat queen, but it’s clear that Burnham enjoys the freedom of the choice to go where she wants, to act on her own, to not have to answer to regulation.
Though she clearly missed her Discovery family, Michael seems remarkably free and unburdened in her life with Book, in a way she’s never really been allowed to be on the show before. And that’s part of the reason her brief stint as Saru’s Number One is so uncomfortable to watch. For a year, Burnham has been living a life of independence, one in which she has unilateral control over what she does and how she handles problems. Of course, she’s going to have a difficult time transitioning back to a world that was never that fond of her penchant for risk-taking in the first place.
And for a brief moment, it felt as though Season 3 was honestly asking if a life in Starfleet was something Michael even wants anymore, if it is the best way for her to make positive change. Over the course of the season, we watched Michael spend more time trying to figure out ways to flout the system than being a true partner to her captain. Saru has to reprimand her repeatedly, she eventually gets demoted, and even Admiral Vance seems to have serious misgivings about her leadership abilities—all while Michael is making decisions that save lives and that, aside from some interpersonal consequences, she doesn’t regret.
Unfortunately, Discovery seemed so determined to end Season 3 by putting Michael in the captain’s seat that it forgot to truly show us how she got there. How did she make her peace with all the conflicting feelings she had about her place in Starfleet and its role in the 32nd century? Did she talk to Book about what it might mean for their relationship if she’s suddenly commanding a starship?
And, moreover, what changed the minds of other characters like Saru and Vance, who seem to harbor grave misgivings, not about Michael’s ability – she’s clearly proven how capable she is many times over – but about whether such a position is the best fit for her skills. And to be honest, it’s disappointing that Discovery skipped over all that. This is a new future, and none of the old rules have to apply any more. There are different ways to serve, to lead, to help others, and even to hold power than through a position of command. The series posed some difficult, fascinating questions, and then completely dropped the ball on exploring or answering them in any thorough way.