Since so much of this episode takes place in an alternate reality, it explains why last week’s episode felt so much like a season finale, with the death of a major character, the (hopefully temporary) departure of another, and something like a victory against the season’s most dangerous enemy. After all, most of this episode technically doesn’t exist by the end of it, save for the season-ending coda that sees Una getting arrested and (I assume) Pike definitely breaking up with his sometime-girlfriend played by Wynona Earp’s Melanie Scrofano.
Though the arrival of Paul Wesley’s James T. Kirk—or at least, a version of Wesley’s Kirk—will likely drive the bulk of conversation in the wake of this finale, “A Quality of Mercy” is, in my mind anyway, an affirmation of all that makes Christopher Pike what is essentially the Platonic ideal of a starship captain, a big-hearted reminder of the best of what not just the Federation, but humanity in general, is meant to both be and become. Because whether or not Pike’s fate really is carved in stone isn’t actually what matters—it’s that he’s not willing to risk the fate of his friend (or the rest of the galaxy) to save himself.
“A Quality of Mercy” is also an incredibly strong showcase for Pike’s collaborative style of leadership: He seeks input from others, waits to hear everyone out, and listens to what they have to say. He doesn’t get angry when his team disagrees with him and is capable of admitting when he’s wrong or when someone else has a better idea than he does. Admittedly, I was (incredibly) worried that Strange New Worlds would feel the need to put Pike and Kirk at odds, or somehow definitively choose a side between them, insisting that one man’s way of being a captain was somehow better or more right than the other. (And given the foundational myth that is Kirk’s identity within this franchise, I think that we all know the way that likely would have gone.)
Instead, the show allows both Pike and Kirk to shine in ways that are exceptionally specific to them both and plays to each of their strengths as leaders. Despite the fact that Pike’s attempt at diplomacy fails, Strange New Worlds thankfully never implies that he was wrong—to wait, to hope, to try for something better in a world whose default state is often aggression and suffering. Instead, the series hints that such an effort is always worth it, simply because we believe a better world is possible and someday, someone is going to choose it with us. (Heck, Pike comes so close to peace, even in a timeline in which he’s been assured he’s doomed to fail.)
And perhaps we don’t say it enough simply because he makes it look so effortless, but Anson Mount’s performance this season is such a gift to every fan of this franchise. This show honestly wouldn’t work without him, or the essential mix of big-hearted warmth, empathetic kindness, and vaguely Southern steel he brings to this character. His Pike feels groundbreaking for all the ways he is not the captains who came before him onscreen, and if this show does nothing more than successfully model a different kind of way to handle the entire concept of command, then I think it’s more than done its job. (Plus, we forever stan a man that knows his way around a kitchen.)
I’ve said before that figuring out the person he’ll become as a result of the foreknowledge of his own death will be Pike’s life’s work, something that will require him to repeatedly make new choices that affirm and reaffirm the one he made on Boreth back on Star Trek: Discovery. In “A Quality of Mercy,” he’s confronted with a horrible reality, that in saving himself—or in simply trying to save the two cadets that will die in his care—he’ll doom Spock to the life of agony he was originally promised and condemn the galaxy along with him. And what a gut punch that must be: because no matter how good a man you are, the knowledge that your life will be specifically less valuable in the grand scheme of the cosmos than someone else’s has got to be a pretty big dose, as my (also very Southern) grandma would have put it. Yet, Pike isn’t angry—he’s just glad that he can save his friend, that he can protect the futures of those who will follow him, and that he still has time to do the right thing.