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.
If you take nothing else away from "Absolute Candor," know that Jean-Luc Picard made a mistake when resigning in protest and taking himself out of the game, and people are now telling him that in no uncertain terms.
This episode provides a reckoning for the title character in a way that was certainly contemplated in the opening three episodes but comes to the forefront here in a way that can’t be ignored. When Starfleet chose not to continue the evacuation and relocation of the Romulans, Picard quit, full stop. His error — if he was truly living by his principles that Starfleet abandoned — was that he headed off into retirement and didn’t look back, instead of continuing to try to make some sort of difference.
“The End Is the Beginning” has a title that would show a striking amount of self-awareness if it were actually “The End of the Beginning,” which is more like what it plays like. Three episodes for Picard to secure a ship and a skeleton crew for whatever mission ensues in tracking down Soji Asha and/or Bruce Maddox has been plenty enough. Let’s make it so already, shall we?
Picard, more so than Discovery, has shown that it’s going to be completely serialized, rather than taking a hybrid approach that uses both serialization and episodic story beats. This is somewhat more difficult for me, because reviewing chapters of a book makes it hard to know if what I’m critiquing is adequately informed by what might be just around the corner. (Case in point: My disbelief in Picard being returned to his home after the episode on the rooftop, which was later explained by the ensuing conspiracy/cover-up.) Am I being entertained and absorbed by the story? Yes, although this is taking longer than perhaps I would like.
"Maps and Legends" is an episode that further sets up the premise of this season and offers some good context, fleshing things out that “Remembrance” had me wondering about and giving them more shape. It does this leisurely and methodically, which feels like a step in the right direction after the many narrative gaps and shortcuts seen in Discovery. That being said, this episode often feels like expositional piece-moving ahead of the story that still awaits us.
The Peak TV cliche "It’s a 10-hour movie" has been applied to this series in Patrick Stewart’s press statements, and by that calculation, the first three episodes would be Act One. We’re still just getting started here, and by the end of "Maps and Legends" we’re still just getting started. While "Remembrance" gave us the nostalgic feels, this seems like an episode that’s easing us into the world of Picard that will be. Gradually.
Picard plays like a just-right balance between fan service and staking out new territory. Opening with a dream sequence on Ten-Forward of the Enterprise-D, Picard plays poker with Data. After some familiar chit-chat, Data observes Picard is stalling, who responds by saying he is doing so because "I don’t want the game to end."
The details of the sequence are interesting because they use the familiar visual cues of TNG (Ten-Forward, a game of poker), but twist them with a certain dream logic (Data is anachronistically wearing the Enterprise-E-era uniform he died in, and Ten-Forward, where poker was never played, is lit in a way that makes it feel askew).
At the core of the episode is Picard being haunted by the dreams and memories of his fallen comrade. When I learned of Brent Spiner’s involvement in this series several months back, I feared some sort of retcon that would resurrect him, perhaps through the B-4 escape hatch the writers built into Star Trek: Nemesis. But "Remembrance" does not cheat — and indeed leans heavily into the fact that, yes, Data very much died at the end of Nemesis, which took a very real emotional toll on Picard and now results in strange, mysterious dreams that have Meaningful Reasons.