While “Nepenthe” is certainly the most enjoyable episode of Picard yet, it also just can’t stop reminding you why this show has been so frustrating on a weekly basis. It’s an episode that displays the kind of warmth we’ve been lacking for the past six hours, while simultaneously subjecting yet another returning character to a grizzly fate. There’s such a stark contrast between, say, the loss of Troi and Riker’s son and poor Hugh bleeding out to establish the villain means business, that you can almost feel two halves of the episode at war with each other.
Reunited and It Feels So Good
So starting with the good, having stepped into the Sikarian transporter last week, Picard and Soji materialize on Nepenthe — home to Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and their daughter Kestra (Lulu Wilson). The warm greeting Jean-Luc receives from his old senior staff is as satisfying as you’d expect, but it’s what the episode does after that really makes this more than mere fan service. This stop off finally allows our characters some room to breathe, grounding Soji’s devastating realization in something relatable and, well, human. We return this week to Data’s quest to be human, and how it manifests itself in Soji’s startlingly lifelike qualities. Her ability to feel, to dream, and yes, to spit, are things her father once aspired to, yet now they only remind her of what she’s lost.
But the episode isn’t content to wallow in her sadness, instead creating a poignant link between her loss and the one that tore through the Riker/Troi household. “Real is so much better”, Soji says after sampling her first piece of non-replicated food, but as Troi informs her that wasn’t the case for her son Thad, whose death was directly linked to the ban on synthetic life (a stretch, but an acceptable one). In a way, Soji represents hope for the family, a hope that her very existence could prevent such senseless deaths in future.
It’s not only the type of empathetic storytelling Star Trek should be striving for, but also just a great use of existing characters, drawing on their shared history to tell a brand new story in the process. Almost makes you wish the show had been like this all along, huh? Anyway, back on La Sirena, there’s a fairly standard little chase section, whereby Narek tracks the ship via a tracker placed on Jurati. It’s entertaining enough, as is the Rios’ misguided distrust over Raffi, which is low-key enough not to feel overly manufactured just yet. Raffi too gets some nice material here, taking Jurati under her wing and trying to get to what’s eating her up inside.
What’s considerably less effective is the reveal of Jurati’s reason for killing Maddox, which takes the form of an awkwardly placed completion of a previous episode’s scene, wherein Commadore Oh shows her a vision of the world ending (??) if artificial life is allowed to spread. Putting aside the flimsy-beyond-all-belief motivation behind this seemingly good-natured person just killing her ex-boyfriend, this is bizarrely fragmented reveal feels like a cheap and lazy way to convey a largely unsatisfying piece of the story.
Over on the Artifact, Elnor pledges to help Hugh liberate fellow former Borg, which at first seems like a great use of both characters—with Hugh up against impossible odds and Elnor bound to lost causes, much like this one. So the fact then, that it’s used as yet another excuse to bump off an old supporting character is just a tiring reminder of how frustrating this show can be, especially after the vast improvement on the Picard side of things. Really, I have to wonder why even Hugh back at all if only to dispose of him in such a gruesome manner, after… briefly reuniting with Picard and doing little else. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have Jonathan Del Arco back in the role, but considering how well Troi and Riker were integrated into this very episode, it’s disappointing how much of a grizzly afterthought his return ends up being.
Elnor is left alone on his mission, but he manages to get a call to the Fenris Rangers out, setting up Seven’s return and hopefully bringing her into the fold a little more where the Borg storyline is concerned. This is good, as it finally seems as though everything’s coming together for the remaining episodes, though I sincerely hope the show that gives us grounded human emotion through the lens of science fiction prevails over the one that sees the Hughs and the Ichebs suffer cruel and miserable fates.
- Riker says he’s on “active reserve”, possibly setting up a last-minute return later in the season?
- Jurati talks about going “off-world” in this episode as though it’s something few get to do, which is… weird, right? It’s the (apparently) poverty-less, post-scarcity 24th century, so why would space travel, especially for a respected scientist, be a bold aspiration instead of a regular part of life? I realize the show in other aspects has brushed up against the utopia that’s previously been depicted in other Trek shows, so perhaps this just par for the course. That line just struck me as odd.
- There’s an odd disconnect in this show between the way people talk about Picard—as a single-minded, headstrong man who’ll stop at nothing to finish what he started, even if it means blindly rushing into situations he’s unprepared for—and the one who was on TV each week—a rational diplomat, who quietly approached every scenario with care and nuance. It’s not even like all this can be blamed on his declining mental faculties (which, by the way, have barely been a factor since episode two, maybe?) either, as even his old crew-members recall this brasher version of the character when talking about their past. Then again, perhaps Chabon is just drawing from the Picard of the movies, who does better fit that description, rather than the one on TNG.
Star Trek: Picard airs on Thursdays on CBS All Access.
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