Star Trek: Picard’s reconnections with the franchise’s past so far have served to paint the picture of a tired future that has, in many ways, left our beloved familiar faces behind. But this week, as Jean-Luc’s hubris threatens to catch up with him, he gets a moment of respite and refocusing courtesy of two very friendly faces.
After last week’s rapid and somewhat messy (by intent) escalation of Star Trek: Picard’s ticking timebomb that was the activation of Soji Asher to her synthetic self, “Nepenthe” is a brief moment for the show and our heroes to catch their collective breaths. Well, it is for Jean-Luc, at least. Everyone around him—whether it’s Soji in the immediate vicinity; Agnes, Raffi, and Rios aboard La Sirena (and in the clutches of the Cube’s tractor beams); or Elnor and Hugh aboard said cube—is, frankly, having a miserable time.
On La Sirena, there’s the whole “so Agnes is secretly a mole sent by Starfleet, complete with tracking devices running through her bloodstream” dealio creating a tension that simmers throughout the episode, as well as the fact that the ship now has to try and rapidly escape a Borg Cube filled with suddenly hostile Romulans aware of its presence. On the Cube itself, things are significantly worse, with Narissa and her Zhat Vash agents now aware of Soji’s escape, and more importantly Hugh’s role in that escape. The vindictive Romulan is carving a bloody path through Hugh’s reformed Borg and research scientists to try and coax Hugh (now protected by Elnor, at least...or, well, we’ll get to that) into forcefully co-operating with her.
But hey! At least Jean-Luc got to get out of dodge and land almost directly on the doorstep of two people who should very much be able to help him sort out the mess he’s finally acknowledged he’s in way over his head with: Deanna Troi and Will Riker (the returning Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes), the Imzadi of many a TNG fan’s hearts. Things would be going better for him if Soji weren’t so utterly horrified by everything she was going through that she’s all but drawn into herself, completely unwilling to take Jean-Luc for his word that he, unlike Narek, is really here to help her process the shocking revelations about her identity. Can’t really blame her!
That it takes being embraced by two of his closest friends for the ex-captain to finally realize—or rather, finally admit—that he’s jumped into this wild venture he’s on with about half a plan (and even less consideration for the damage that half-plan has had on the people he’s drawn into it along the way) speaks to the hubris he’s harbored throughout this season so far. It’s not a full-throated condemnation of his attitude thus far. Riker is too eager to learn about what mess Picard’s in this time, and Deanna is momentarily blindsided by her initial read of his emotional psyche uncovering his lingering health concerns. Their chiding doesn’t go much beyond the couple tutting him for diving into his glory days as the Enterprise’s commander without considering how times have changed, for him and the worlds around him.
But there’s a fascinating contrast running throughout the episode between the scenes on Nepenthe itself, where Jean-Luc and Soji are both given chances to reflect and re-examine the choices that have brought them here in positive ways, re-affirming their convictions, and the scenes aboard La Sirena and the Cube, which are more obliquely concerned with the disaster they left in their wake during the escape. On the Cube, despite Elnor’s best attempts, Hugh tragically pays the price for his insubordination, assassinated by Narissa now that she’s free to openly defy the treaty the Romulan remnant has signed with the Federation.
On La Sirena itself, Jurati begins to grapple with her internal conflicts about being embedded into Picard’s mission at, it turns out, Commodore Oh’s (and through her, the Zhat Vash’s) behest. As the ship finds itself constantly hunted by a tailing Narek, Agnes seemingly chooses to make a terrible sacrifice too. Although at least less terribly at first—through the medium of replicated cake and chocolate milk—and then attempting to purge the tracking devices coursing through her body by injecting herself with a potentially deadly neurotoxin.
But while the subplots of the episode hammer home just how rough a situation most of our team is in in the immediate moment, it reveals that while the past few decades have not been as harsh to Deanna and Will as they have, say, Seven or Hugh, that is not to say that it has been ideal, either. Their entire reasoning for settling on the titular planet—home to a soil with regenerative properties—is one tinged with tragedy: Their son, Thadd, passed due to complications with a rare neurological disease (complicated further by the ban on synthetic research denying him a life-saving treatment). Ever since, the couple have tried to heal their grief and raise their daughter Kestra (The Haunting of Hill House’s Lulu Wilson) out of the eye the galaxy’s hustle and bustle, still technically on reserve from Starfleet duty but essentially retired.
This all gives them reason for turning down Picard when, for a brief moment, he does consider trying to tempt his old friends back into one more adventure; they can’t chase after Bruce Maddox’s legacy when their own is right in front of them in Kestra, the danger of a child who’s already lost a brother losing her parents. Deanna rebuffs him as saying she’s not as brave as she used to be, but as Jean-Luc counters, it’s not really that, but that perhaps she and Will are now much wiser than he is, given the recklessness and hubris that has categorized his mission so far.
And yet, it’s a recklessness that “Nepenthe” mines repeatedly to try and force Soji to Jean-Luc’s side. Not even Riker and Troi themselves are immune to it, supporting their friend by trying to reach out to Soji, telling her what a great guy Jean-Luc is. Why would he be lying to her? But while we know it as the truth—well, a truth, given some of his actions over the course of Picard the jury’s still a little out on just how great Jean-Luc really is—Soji doesn’t, and, really, shouldn’t. She is in a place of extreme vulnerability right now, given everything Narek did to her aboard the Cube. She’s just gone through this whole process of getting close to someone only for them to pull the mask away and strip her apart for their own gain, figuratively and literally. Rightfully, Jean-Luc blustering his way in as the man with all the answers that she should trust because, well, he’s Jean-Luc the hero, doing right by this fallen android compatriot she’s never met, and with little reason otherwise, is not a convincing case for her.
It’s not even that Jean-Luc is too perfect to believe. After all, she did almost crash land right on top of him during her escape on the Cube, a fateful encounter of extreme convenience, promising not just a way out but all the answers to the nightmare she has been thrust into. No, it’s more so that Jean-Luc’s attempts to convince her just ring painfully hollow (the casual, almost blissful ignorance with which he drops Dahj’s death on her doesn’t help, either). To Soji, all Picard has to offer is that she should go with him because he believes he’s right. Because he’s Captain Picard of the grand old Enterprise. Because his friends—people she literally just met—say that he’s a good guy. Because he’s an old man who wants a mission to give him purpose again, and Soji is that mission. None of these are actually reasons to convince Soji, they’re reasons to stoke Jean-Luc’s lingering hubris about his influence, about his legacy.
Ultimately, it’s not really his pitch that gets her to reluctantly find her way to her homeworld before Narek can—her feelings over having her life turned upside down and the Romulan’s manipulations are still far too raw for “let Old Man Picard have his one last adventure” to warm her heart, as much as it might us as an audience. Instead, it’s Kestra that really reaches out to Soji throughout the episode. Unburdened by a past legacy through, well, the fact that she’s a child, just as Soji is really, it’s she that constantly puts herself on the same level as the extra special android. Kestra repeatedly reaches out to her from her position of understanding and trying to find common ground, instead of simply telling her that she can trust her because She Is Someone.
It’s Kestra that draws out the lines between Soji and Data, to slowly but surely let Soji realize that maybe there is a truth to what Jean-Luc has been telling her. Instead of constantly pushing her to join him, Kestra gives Soji a chance to just...exist for a little while, away from it all, playing around in the forest and learning her brother’s fictional languages, to recuperate from the trauma she has gone through. In the end, as Picard, Troi, and Riker sit around the dinner table trying to perform a charm offensive that is more about propping up Jean-Luc as a man of honor than it is actually convincing her to believe he is, it’s Kestra that does the work: She looks up where Soji’s homeworld might be based on her recollected memory. And instead of celebrating finding it as one more huzzah for Jean-Luc, she rejoices for Soji that she, at last, may have found herself a homeworld as Kestra and her brother—children born on starships and moved from place to place—had so longed for themselves.
In the end, as a reluctant but slightly-more-trusting Soji prepares to beam up to the arrived (and now, thanks to Agnes putting herself in a coma, untracked) La Sirena alongside Picard, it is once again Kestra that hammers home a new purpose for Soji, as much as his brief time on Nepenthe has given Jean-Luc a chance to refocus his own. The gift of Kestra’s broken compass isn’t just a cute memory of their brief time together, but for Soji, the most important reminder of all: Right now, she doesn’t have to fully trust who this lauded Jean-Luc Picard really is. She just has to believe the truth—behind her life, behind the Romulans, behind Picard—is out there, and she’ll find her way to it eventually.
- Still not over Troi just going to Soji all “here, have this whole-ass tomato, idk,” frankly. Literally any other fruit you had right there would’ve been less weird, Deanna.
- Speaking of food—because this episode is weirdly fixated by it—Agnes trying to vomit out her tracking device via excessive amounts of red velvet got me thinking about the nutritional value of replicated food. On Starfleet vessels, at least, there were nutritional guidelines built-in: you could order a fudge sundae for example, but it would be a nutritionally-enhanced version that wasn’t the real, unhealthy thing (although Deanna insisted she could tell the difference). So would Agnes trying to make herself sick from an overload of fat and sugar work? Maybe not—Rios’ off-grid replicator may not have similar guidelines as Starfleet-issue ones, who can say. But still, probably trying to eat two slices of cake that looked the size of her head would do that regardless of nutritional value.
- There seems to have been some confusion as to whether or not Commodore Oh was, like Narissa as “Lieutenant Rizzo,” a Zhat Vash operative in disguise or just a flipped asset for the Romulans within Starfleet. Showrunner Michael Chabon added fuel to the fire that Oh was a secret Romulan when addressing her sunglasses in one of his Instagram Q&As. But the flashback to how Agnes was recruited to take out Maddox seems to indicate the opposite because, well...Romulans can’t mind-meld. They’re sibling species to the Vulcans, yes, but their telepathic abilities are far, far less potent—a Romulan in disguise probably wouldn’t be able to replicate a meld as disruptive as the one given to Agnes.
- TNG fans will note, bittersweetly, what it means that Riker and Troi named their daughter Kestra. In the season seven episode “Dark Page,” it’s revealed that Deanna had an older sister named Kestra (played briefly by a young Kirsten Dunst!...and Andreana Weiner), but she tragically drowned in an accident shortly after Deanna’s birth—a loss so tragic that her mother Lwaxana buried the memory of Kestra’s death deep within her psyche, destroying all physical reminders of the young girl in an attempt to wipe her from history altogether. Now, at least, her legacy lives on in the next generation of Trois.
- A Kzinti namedrop! Yes, apparently the Riker family installed a very fancy home security system after a few run-ins with this feline species, who’ve only appeared before in the Star Trek animated series. After it was recently revealed that Bjayzl in “Stardust City Rag” was nearly going to be a Caitian—another feline alien race only seen in the animated show—I kind of love Picard’s latent fascination with this kooky little slice of Trek history.
- While it was very convenient for Elnor to find that Fenris Ranger calling card, man oh man am I excited for a Seven/Elnor tag-team on that cube. Just...please let it be less emotionally devastating as Elnor’s tag-team in this episode. My heart couldn’t take a similar outcome.
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