Last week, Star Trek: Picard promised that it’d really get going, putting Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) on the bridge of a starship, letting him say the word “Engage,” and heading off at high warp towards the unknown. This week, Picard reminds us that this is, among other things, a show about grief and regret, pumping the brakes temporarily to explore another facet of the captain’s failed mission to evacuate the Romulan people.
So we begin 14 years ago on the planet Vashti, where Picard works with a band of warrior nuns, the Quowat Milat, to resettle refugees. There’s a kid there, Elnor, who Picard entertains with classical literature and fencing lessons. The nuns practice something called Absolute Candor, which means radical honesty without filter, so they have no issue telling Elnor that Picard doesn’t like children, who are generally a burden. But Picard loves this kid and is in the middle of playing with him when he gets the news that synths have attacked Mars.
You can guess where this is going. Picard pulls up stakes, heads to Earth, and ends up tendering his resignation. Everything that’s happened thus far leads him to believe that he’ll need one of those warrior nuns he left in his past to bind her sword to his quest, and this is the first time he’ll be checking in on the planet. His slapdash crew knows more about it than him: In 14 years, the planet has fallen into disarray. It’s one of the planets from which a Romulan for Romulans movement is in full swing, its protectorate is long gone, and there’s a roving warlord in an ancient Romulan Bird of Prey ready to drop in at a moment’s notice.
If there’s something Picard does extremely well, it’s flesh out Romulan culture. Over the course of four episodes, a race whose characterization stopped and started at duplicitous and totalitarian has been given a lot of texture, not just with the addition of groups like the Zhat Vash and the Quowat Milat, but in the sheer number of Romulans we’ve been exposed to, from religious academics to ex-Tal Shiar agents to refugees disabused of the hope that Starfleet’s offer of assistance gave them.
When the show cuts from those Romulans to Narek (Harry Treadaway), it feels like visiting the Romulans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’ve been taken with Picard’s exploration of the Borg Cube as a space, but when those sequences come to rest on his suspicious relationship with Soji (Isa Briones), it feels like half of this show is waiting for its title character to show up and make meaning out of its vague allusions to Soji’s purpose and designation as the Destroyer. Their relationship is topped in its squickishness by the one between Narek and Rizzo (Peyton List), which has a very incestuous vibe. Nothing on the Cube has changed this week, only Rizzo’s given Narek one week to break Soji before returning to her preferred method of android interrogation, pain and violence.
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Thankfully, “Absolute Candor” spends the majority of its time on Vashti, whose rustic charm has turned to dust and misery. There’s a cafe in the town square with a sign that says “Romulans Only,” and half of the nuns have pledged themselves as freeblades to protect normal people from the violence of the planet. The head nun has no issue telling Picard that he’s part of the problem, that he chose to save no one because he couldn’t save everyone.
This isn’t the first time Picard has been confronted with this accusation, but it still works. In revisiting roles like this one and Professor Charles Xavier in Logan, he’s been given an the task of exploring regret through the lens of action-adventure, which is a popular trend in the genre of late. Given the expansiveness of the Star Trek universe, Picard is able to turn its eye towards the promises and failures of democratic bureaucracy. Like Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Picard is a show that grapples with the friction between the ideals of a gigantic, seemingly utopian society and the realities the societies it’s adjacent to, who often value different things or are not post-scarcity. Picard is also a show that attempts to show the effect of that utopian society becoming so complacent in itself that it comes to fear the unknown.
I’m not sure how successful the show is in this exploration just yet, but Stewart is pretty incredible when he’s asked to confront his role in that society and its failure, both interpersonally, like in his relationship with Raffi, and politically, like when he tears the Romulans Only sign off of the cafe patio, steps on it, and sits with the same Romulans who’ve come to despise him. One of them, an ex-Senator, really makes Picard marinate in his failure before trying to force him into a sword fight. That goes poorly, as Elnor (Evan Evagoria) decides to pledge himself to Picard’s cause by chopping off the guy’s head.
Elnor isn’t the only addition to the crew, as a ship appears out of nowhere to save Picard and crew from Chekhov’s Romulan Bird of Prey. Its pilot is Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), who is beamed onto the bridge, declares that Picard owes her a ship, and passes out. Like last week, this is Picard promising to make things happen after taking its time to do so. Unlike “The End Is the Beginning,” “Absolute Candor’s” promise comes after a strong episode that does the series’ best job yet at delving into its themes. Even if that weren’t the case, Picard’s wearing an eye patch and running a casino heist next week, and what could be better than that?