It’s hard to render a proper verdict upon "Et in Arcadia Ego, Part 1" when "Part 2" is still waiting in the wings, but based on what I see here, my hopes are fading fast.
The thing about building out a single plot over 10 episodes is that you are really putting your eggs in one basket — all but demanding the audience to expect a well-thought-out, compelling through-line, as opposed to a half-baked movie plot that’s simply longer. (Many frequently cite Lost as the reason why we are where we are today with TV structures like this season of Picard. I disagree. Netflix, with its endless supply of made-to-binge shows, is why we are here. Lost was an episodic character anthology series just as much as it was a serialized arc show, and there were tons of plots on that show, not a single plot being told over 10 — or in its case, up to 24 — installments. I wish more shows had the varied structure of Lost.)
"Broken Pieces" is an effective if imperfect Answers Episode that finally puts pieces together and confirms suspicions that have been building across the previous seven shows, setting us up for the final two installments, which will presumably close out the season arc. This episode features a lot of dialogue and explaining, much of it in the TNG tradition of situational analysis, and I appreciated the way it had characters discussing in detail what they now understand, for their and our benefit.
After "Stardust City Rag" appeared at the time to be a potential season-killing episode, Picard has come back with three winners in a row and now heads into the home stretch with the ability to go out with a successful season, provided they can effectively end this thing.
"Nepenthe" is this series at its most relaxed and natural, and it delivers all the feels for what is perhaps the best Picard outing yet. It’s refreshing to see the writers and producers of this show are capable of using the serialized Trek format to tell self-contained character stories that don’t feel like info-dumps of plot exposition.
In the past I’ve focused a lot on whether or not episodes of this series have moved the plot forward. "Nepenthe" is proof that you don’t need to move the plot forward hardly at all if you instead allow the characters to breathe and be the people they are, and reflect on their situations with thoughtfulness and self-awareness. I suspect TNG fans will find, as I did, that this feels the most like what we probably felt a decades-later TNG sequel should feel like. It does this not just by bringing back Riker and Troi in major guest appearances (although, to be clear, that certainly goes a long way), but by providing dialogue and reflection that considers the past, the present, and the choices that have been made.
What a difference a week makes.
After the dour and trope-ridden experience that was “Stardust City Rag” last week, “The Impossible Box” is nothing short of a series turnaround. Here is a story with purpose; characters with motivation; a script with curiosity and nuance; action with genuine danger and suspense; cinematic sequences of evocative atmosphere; moments of humanity and emotion; and mysteries and puzzles that are actually interesting. Oh, and a thematic point about the salvation of ex-Borg souls that speaks directly to Picard. Welcome back, Star Trek.
Speaking to the overarching tendencies of this series, it’s perhaps not the most reassuring sign that I kept dreading all the goodwill was going to suddenly evaporate in a final scene featuring some dopey twist ending (I was prepared to go on a rampage over, say, Hugh suddenly betraying Picard or stabbing Soji or some nonsense), but I’m happy to report that such a thing never happens. This story plays straight and gimmick-free to the end and is all the better for it.
I am easily bored by the "What is Star Trek?" debate. This question has been asked for decades and it comes up with every new series, and now every new episode. It is a cliche and I avoid it like the plague.
That being said, "Stardust City Rag" is all wrong. This is not Star Trek.
The unrelenting cynicism; the brutal torture/gore; the utter lack of imagination; the Shocking Plot Reveals that seem to be motivated by the running time approaching the end of the episode more than character insight or smart writing; the overly coyly hidden secrets and agendas; the, yes, grimdark (another cliche term I hate) dystopian worldview — it all cumulatively takes its toll in "Stardust City Rag." This is … well, it’s just not very fun.