Warning: SPOILERS for Star Trek: Discovery Episode 4: “The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry” ahead.
Four episodes in, Star Trek: Discovery is doing its best to reinvent the dilithium crystal while exploring some of the defining events in the Star Trek saga. One of the most potentially interesting aspects of the latest series is the curious (and wildly divergent) history of the Klingon Empire. So far, the show’s already tapped into the allegorical vein, showing Klingon unifier T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) in search of political power by railing against the symbolic other, their potential assimilators, the Federation.
Although the Klingon's look differs dramatically from Star Trek: The Original Series and the motion picture eras, their ideology and even some of the names on the show (such as Kor) tie into their legacy. Traditionally limited in power and status, later series like Deep Space Nine and Enterprise explored women's struggle for political might in the Empire and their impact on the culture from behind the scenes. As a modern-era show, Discovery will also explore the role of women in the Klingon Empire, as well as their role in shaping it.
In Discovery's fourth episode, poetically titled “The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry”, the show adds yet another curious layer to Klingon lore: the matriarchs of House Mo’Kai. But who are they and what do they want?
Women in Klingon Culture
In the Klingon Empire, women were typically barred from serving on the High Council, although there were a few exceptions – such as Azetbur, who replaced her father, Chancellor Gorkon, after his death. Despite their lack of representation in public life, Klingon women held a great deal of sway within the Great Houses. At the same time, they couldn’t lead them or inherit property – although widowed matriarch Grilka reshaped things in the DS9 episode “The House of Quark.” Until the 24th century, though, it was also rare to see women in combat, and male warriors heavily outweighed their female counterparts on starship crews.
Nevertheless, some women, like Lursa and B'Etor on TNG, not only held power in their house but shaped the Empire with their efforts. Those with ties to humanity, such as Worf’s mate, K’Ehlor, and Lt. B'Elanna Torres on Voyager, escaped prescribed Klingon gender roles outside of the Empire. Of course, the Klingons may have been more egalitarian at one point in time, at least before they returned to the honorific ways most fans are familiar with.
On Discovery, as battle deck commander for T'Kumva's house, L’Rell (Mary Chieffo) is a key member. After his death, she also places herself in a unique position. By rescuing Voq (Javid Iqbal) from certain death, she saved the otherwise short-lived unification movement. In doing so, she also turns her back on a powerful ally, Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) from the House of Kor, in favor of an outcast and their glorious cause.
T’Kuvma's death might have tested her faith, but her actions indicate a continued belief in his mission of Klingon purity, honor, and concordance. Being Voq’s ally and lieutenant also comes with another benefit. She escapes the trappings of the political world, by which she's likely referring to the repression of Klingon women. Of course, as the daughter of two houses, L’Rell comes from a fairly unique position in the Klingon Empire as well. Nevertheless, the House of T'Kuvma, although a minor player, is scattered at present. So, she turns to the Great House of Mo'Kai.
House Mo’Kai and the Matriarchs
Although the full depth of L’Rell’s “matriarchs” remains cloudy, we can surmise several things from her exchange with Voq. First off, the House Mo’Kai (or mo’qay, in subtitles) – which may refer to a house Captain Janeway belonged to during a Hirogen holo-program on the Voyager episode "The Killing Game" – appears to have a strong female core. Since Klingon society is patriarchal, Mo’Kai could be unique in that. Even though represented by a man, Ujilli (played by Damon Runyan), who first appeared in the pilot, he could merely be a figurehead. L'Rell also refers to her mother’s house as a house of "watchers,” “deceivers," and "weavers of lies." Whether this is a derogatory slur aimed at a house ruled by women or an earned reputation for espionage is unclear, though.
While Klingon warriors depicted in the 24th century on DS9 or TNG valued honor above all else, the Klingons of TOS were portrayed as sneaky and underhanded, as well as combative. T’Kuvma’s quest to unify the great houses is clearly a reaction to, in part, a cultural decay he saw within the Empire. However, his efforts don’t seem to have a sweeping effect on their culture until Star Trek’s film era – something also unsurprising given Kol’s duplicitous behavior (stealing Voq's followers). Assuming the treacherous Klingons of Kirk’s era are prevalent a shy ten years before it, the House of Mo’Kai may deserve their reputation as accomplished spies.
Either way, L’Rell’s strength and independence as a Klingon woman likely stems from these mysterious matriarchs. When she tells Voq he’ll need to sacrifice “everything,” she probably means he needs to reimagine himself as a Klingon to gain the acceptance, or at least the fealty, of the great houses. His faith the ways of a warrior might be appropriate for the battlefield, but he's a commander without an army at the moment. To regain his edge might require some re-education, with an emphasis on sabotage, manipulation, surveillance, and guerrilla tactics. Even though those concepts cut against the grain of “honorable” Klingon culture, they may be necessary to align the empire against the Federation.
Also, by submitting to the matriarchy, he’s forced to reject his antiquated notions about a woman’s place in Klingon society, something he clearly isn’t too concerned about – both due to his respect for L’Rell in general and his class status. As an outcast without a house, at least until T’Kuvma's defunct one, "everything" isn’t too great a cost.
Although they haven't been revealed officially, the matriarchs of the House of Mo’Kai seem to allude to the Wayward Sisters (or Three Witches) in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the play, they cook up “double bubble toil and trouble” for the doomed monarch, shaping events with their machinations. Similarly, if the matriarchs truly are a house of spies, they share a shadowy association and could tweak fate from behind the scenes.
Hopefully, Discovery will explore their role in the conflict in greater detail. At present, they appear to be the guiding hand behind Voq’s revenge and may even play a larger role in shaping the Klingon Empire. If so, it would be ironic if the macho, honor-bound culture gained prevalence thanks to the efforts of brilliant female spies. Much like the Sisters' designs for Macbeth, though, are the matriarchs of Mo'Kai able guides for Voq’s holy quest, or will they spell his eventual downfall?